Let’s play a quick word association game.
I will say one word, and you will say the first thing that comes to your mind when you read that word. Don’t think for long. Just say the first word that occurs to you. OK, here we go.
Chances are, when you read “sky” the first word that came to your mind was “blue” or “high”.
When you read “night” you might think of the words “dark” or “day”.
What about “discipline”? What did you think of when you read that? In my case, I would probably have gone with “punishment” or “set right”.
The idea of discipline being synonymous with punishment is ingrained in our psyche. The first thing we think of when we hear the word “discipline” is usually something negative.
However, did you know that the word discipline originates from the Latin word ‘disciplina’ which means teaching, which in turn comes from ‘discipulus’ which literally translates to pupil?
Yet, I can bet that very few who tried the little exercise above would have thought “teach” when they first read the word “discipline”.
For whatever reason, over the years, discipline has gone from meaning “to teach” to “to punish”!
Today we explore “positive discipline” an idea that focuses on reverting things back to the roots – when children do something wrong, instead of punishing them, parents teach and guide them to set the behavior right.
So, how do we go back from “to punish” to “to teach”? In small baby steps, of course!
Here are a few tips to get started, and by following some of these (pick a subset of the ones that work for you), slowly we can change our perspective about “discipline”.
1. The core of positive discipline: There are no bad kids, just bad behavior.
Think about that for a minute and you will realize how true the statement is. This is the basic premise of the positive discipline concept. Once we as parents recognize that inherently our kids are not bad, they are just behaving badly, the rest of it will slowly fall in place.
For instance, suppose your child hits another child. The first thing you feel is probably embarrassment and shame, followed closely by a fear that your child may have a “mean” streak. If you go with that feeling and call your child a “bad girl” or “naughty boy” you reinforce the negative image of your child both in your own mind and in your child’s.
Your child may just be hungry/sleepy/tired or any of the hundred different stress triggers that may have made her act out. In other words, something in your child’s environment is influencing your child to behave badly. When we accept that it was just a behavior that was bad, and the child herself is fine – teaching instead of punishing becomes easier. For instance, instead of screaming, “Why did you do that? I don’t understand how you can be so mean sometimes” you will be in a much better situation to say “That wasn’t the best behavior – we do not hit our friends”.
At this point, I have to admit, I have a pretty strong-willed child and this will likely just get a “back answer” from her (or the water works, if she is already feeling guilty about it), but in her mind (and my own), I have planted the seed that she is not bad, it was just bad behavior, and it becomes easy for both of us to deal with it positively using one of the other techniques below.
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2. Instead of pointing out what the child did wrong, show the child how to set things right
Building on the example above, let’s consider the best case situation first where you catch your child before she actually hits. However, instead of saying “Don’t hit” or “NO hitting” try saying “Use your words” or “Ask nicely”. When you say “Don’t hit” it does not give the child any information of what she should be doing instead. Without that knowledge, she may just end up going with her original plan to hit or she may choose to go with some other option which is equally bad – like shoving the other kid.
Now, on the other hand, if you catch the child after the incident, convey that what she did was wrong and give her an “out”. For example, you could say “That was not a good choice, we don’t hit our friends. Do you want to say sorry and make Kaylee feel better?” and if your child is not ready to say sorry yet (mine usually needs some time), you can continue with “Until we are ready to say sorry, let’s sit here and read a book” (This is sometimes also referred to as “time in” versus the traditional “time out”).
3. Be kind but firm; show empathy and respect
Now, in her mind, what she did was right and justified. It can be very frustrating when she insists on some wrong behavior as being right (mine is 5, and she can justify her actions until blue in her face with “She started it, she didn’t share the toy”). As parents, instead of arguing back, we just need to stay calm and repeat what we said in a kind manner but very firmly. For instance, repeat “Hitting hurts, we do not hit our friends” and “Yes, sharing is good, but we do not hit someone even if they don’t share” and different variants of it, over and over without losing temper or raising voice.
It also helps to show some empathy – for instance, “You really want the doll that she is playing with, but hitting is not the right choice.” Just by empathizing with your child that she really wants the doll, you can win half the battle.
4. Whenever possible, offer choices
After offering empathy, you can take it to the next level by offering her some choices. Choices give your child a sense of control. Not only is she not “bad”, instead of being “punished” she is given control… sometimes, that’s more than enough to snap a child out of a funk. This is one of the most common positive discipline techniques recommended by experts.
Simple choices like, “That was not nice, do you want to make Kaylee feel better by giving her a hug or by saying you are sorry?” or “Do you want to say sorry and continue playing with Kaylee or do you want to read a book with me until you calm down?” go a long way.
Remember to pick your choices carefully though, because once a choice is offered, and your child picks one, you need to honor it.
5. Treat mistakes as opportunities to learn
A child will often act out because she perceives it as the means to get to an end. When you use bad behavior as an opportunity to teach them not only that what they did is wrong but also empower them with alternatives, it will help them in the future from using it as a tool even when you are not around.
Try not to launch into a lecture though. If possible use examples and recollections from past behavior. “Do you remember last time when Tim hit you and how much it hurt? It made you mad/sad, right?” or “Remember when you fell off the chair and bumped your head? When you hit someone, it hurts the same way.”
6. Change the scene – prevent the misbehavior from being repeated
Prevention is better than cure. That phrase is cliched, for a reason. If you are dealing with recurrent misbehavior, look at what you can do to prevent it in the first place.
Brushing my daughter’s teeth in the morning was a big hassle. She must have been around 3 years old then. She would whine, scream, cry, lash out by physically hitting or kicking us and do anything she could to get out of it. We yelled, screamed, bribed, rewarded and did everything we could in the name of dental hygiene. (Just for the record, this was all before I started on this whole fine parenting journey…) Nothing seemed to work though. It was sad to watch her start her day this way, and it was draining for us to deal with all the drama early in the morning as well.
Then I read somewhere that some children do not handle transitions well. Coincidentally, my husband happened to just pick her out of bed one day and walk her around the house while she continued to snooze on his shoulders. When they went to the backyard, she snapped out of it and was excited to see the birdies and squirrels. And that day it was really easy to brush her teeth. It was completely unexpected, and suddenly it clicked in my mind – she was not really resisting the brushing of her teeth, but was “acting” out because the transition from sleep to a busy day was too overwhelming for her.
These days, we spend a few minutes every morning to help her make the transition, but the time is well spent, since it makes the rest of the morning go much smoother. It’s easy to call your child stubborn, headstrong, disobedient, ill-mannered etc, and try to discipline her for it, but if you get to the root cause of why she sometimes behaves the way she does, you will see that there is a really sweet little child hidden in there, who may not need any “disciplining” in the traditional sense of the word at all.
7. Set clear expectations and boundaries, and be consistent
Kids have a way with finding loopholes and pushing boundaries. Our first attempt to help our daughter make the transition from sleep to waking easier by relaxing the rule that you go straight from bed to the bathroom almost backfired. Once she got out of her sleepy grouchiness, she interpreted the relaxation of rules as an invitation to sneak in a little bit of play time before she had to go potty and brush her teeth.
We had to put our foot down and say (gently, but firmly) that at the start of the day you first freshen up, eat your breakfast and only then start playing. You could stop by to say good morning to the birdies before brushing your teeth as a special privilege, but any arguments about that, and you will just have to forego that privilege.
It was hard to come up with a story that would allow us to relax the “old” rules without leaving the “new” rules wide open for negotiation, and something we could be consistent with, but the effort has paid off in leaps and bounds.
8. Use single word reminders or questions or state facts, instead of ordering or demanding compliance
I was amazed the first time I noticed how well this works. As usual, my daughter walked out of the bathroom with the lights still on. Normally I would bark “Switch off the light”. She would sometimes follow the instruction, and sometimes she would counter with “You switch off the lights” or a defiant “No!” or worse, just plain ignore me (Yes, even 5 year olds do that – my heart goes out to you parents of tweens and teens!)
Anyway, that day I just said “lights” in a normal, casual tone. And surprise, surprise she said “Oopsie Daisy!”, went back to the bathroom, switched off the lights and returned to playing. I have adopted this with all my heart now – anytime I remember, I just use a single word said in the tone of a friendly reminder, and most of the times, it works. “Door” gets the door shut, “Car” gets her to stop dawdling and get walking towards the car, “Sink” gets her to put her used dishes in the sink and so on.
I have also used the question technique, which has worked pretty well so far. Instead of shouting “Go, put your shoes back on the shoe shelf”, a simple question like “Hey, where do we put our shoes?” gets the job done with a lot less resistance.
Similarly, stating facts helps too. When washing hands, if she is fooling around, I just state “water is wasting” and she is likely to wash her hands faster than criticism like “you are wasting water” or ordering her “wash your hands fast”.
9. Work together to come up with a mutually-agreeable solution (problem solving)
This is what I will be personally focusing on this week. I have tried this a couple of times and I am convinced about how effective this technique can be. That said, it is not something I do very often, and it does not come naturally to me when I’m around my daughter, maybe because I still see her as my little baby 🙂 Perfect candidate to try and turn into a habit this week!
In the book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk, (A book that has had a huge impact on my perspective as a parent, highly recommended!), the authors suggest following these steps for problem solving
Step I: Talk about the child’s feelings and needs
Step II: Talk about your feelings and needs
Step III: Brainstorm together to find a mutually agreeable solution
Step IV: Write down all ideas — without evaluating
Step V: Decide which suggestions you like, which you don’t like, and which you plan to follow through on
As the authors themselves say, you do not need to go through all the steps to reach a resolution. A lot of our discipline related discussion these days happen in the car during commutes, and so I will try a tweaked, travel-friendly version of this for any issues that pop up during the week. It will be an interesting week to see how this pans out.
10. Let the child face the consequences (natural consequences and not made-up consequences to suit your needs!)
If you are like me, you are all too familiar with imposing a ton of made-up “consequences” that suit your convenience to get your child to do what you wish. For instance, if my daughter does not finish her dinner on time, she does not get to watch TV. When you look into it deeply though, it is not a “natural consequence”… it is just something I made up to get her to comply. Most experts say, it is better not to use these made-up consequences (which are actually punishments in disguise) and to let natural consequences take over, which in this case would be to let her go to bed hungry.
Frankly though, I am not there yet. The over-protective control freak part of me steps in way before my daughter gets to face any natural consequences. This is something I need to work on in the future, but if some of you are ready to take it on, go for it! I would love to hear your stories about how it worked out.
So there you have it – 10 ways you can handle tough situations using positive discipline. Seriously, after reading this, would you ever want to try a traditional, punitive, discipline technique?
The 2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents
For our quick-action today, quickly walk through some of these simple questions –
- What is your idea of “discipline”?
- Is it really working?
- Which of your current techniques do you need to keep?
- Which are the things you need to let go?
- What new tricks can you try?
I would suggest picking up at least one new positive discipline technique to try and/or one old habit to let go of, and focus on that for the rest of the week. It may work for you, it may not. But unless you try, you’ll never know!
And as usual, put it in writing to add a level of accountability. You can scribble it on a piece of paper, a journal, on your blog, your facebook update or in the comments section below – the actual medium does not matter.
The Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents
For the rest of the week, catch yourself when you start to dole out punishment and question if that will really help in the long run. Ask yourself, if you are not around to keep an eye on them, and they are sure that you will never find out, will the punishment still keep them from wanting to repeat the incriminating act? And then, focus on at least one tip and try it out as your new discipline technique.
Important Note of Caution: Expect some setbacks. Both you are your kids are used to a certain style of discipline – when you change that and adopt positive discipline instead, your kids will push you, and you may not be well equipped to handle the new situation with your new skills. It is fine to regress for a while, as long as you acknowledge it as a regression and commit to finding a way to get back on the positive path!