Positive parenting is a philosophy rooted in connection. It isn’t just a method of discipline—but an entirely different way of relating to children that allows us to maintain a strong bond with them through the ages and stages of childhood while still raising kind and responsible people.
Conventional parenting methods often pit parent against child, as if we are adversaries in a never-ending struggle for power and position. This naturally leads to disconnection between family members and discontent in the home. Thankfully, it doesn’t have to be that way! By using positive parenting in your home, you can maintain the deep connection you are meant to have as you work with, not against, your child to guide him or her along the journey to adulthood. With strong connection comes more cooperation, and with that, more joy and peace in the family.
Many people question whether this is permissive parenting, and the answer is absolutely not. Permissive parents do not set and enforce limits; positive parents do. While I understand how challenging it can be at first to learn how to enforce limits without resorting to punishment, rest assured that an absence of punishment is not the same as an absence of discipline. In fact, the very reason I do not punish my children is because life’s messes cannot be fixed with a nose in the corner. Children will take responsibility for their actions by making amends, righting wrongs, solving the problems they create, and learning how to make better choices in the future.
A child does learn self-discipline not by sitting but by doing. Once the paradigm shift is made and you understand that all discipline is simply teaching, it becomes easy to guide a child without punishment.
How to use positive discipline with your child:
It’s often tempting to respond to misbehavior with anger, aggression, shaming, and conventional means of punishment (time-outs, spanking, and other techniques). But I believe there’s a better approach—one that doesn’t diminish your child and one that makes the most of the teaching opportunity that misbehavior presents us. Here are my three steps to positive discipline.
Step 1: Assess the need.
All behavior is an indication of the internal state of the child. Misbehavior is a cue that there is an underlying need. When we assess what that need is and address it, often the misbehavior vanishes. This can be tricky with toddlers and preschoolers who cannot yet verbalize their needs or intentions, but just understanding that the behavior is a call for help rather than a calculated act of defiance of your authority can help you be compassionate and responsive.
Sometimes the need is easy to determine, such as hunger or tiredness, which can be cured with a meal or a nap. Other times, the behavior is signaling the need for a new boundary or to learn a skill, or possibly that there is something going on outside the home that your child is having trouble dealing with. For example, a toddler who has discovered the joy of jumping on the couch isn’t trying to misbehave. She’s playing. Even so, you probably don’t want her to jump on the couch, but when you tell her to stop, she doesn’t. This is signaling the need for a new boundary.
Another example is a school-age child who is suddenly showing signs of aggression or displaying a disrespectful attitude after school. Yes, the behavior must be corrected, but this is a clear sign that something is amiss inside the child. Finding out what is motivating the aggression or disrespect and helping her resolve the problem will end the bad behavior.
Step 2: Calm yourself first, then your child.
Undisciplined parents cannot effectively discipline children, so calm yourself down first. Move from emotionally reactive to cognitively responsive before you deal with the problem at hand.
Once calm yourself, help your child become calm. The goal is to engage his upstairs brain so that he is no longer emotionally reactive but able to reason. This could take two minutes or 20 minutes, depending on the child and her stage of development. Time-in—close contact with you and soothing exercises such as reading and drawing—is helpful to calm the brain. Some children may resist a time-in and prefer to be left alone. If this works to calm them, that’s good. We don’t want to force separation, as that can erode our connection, but giving a child the space he’s asking for is respecting his needs.
You are ready to teach the lesson once your child is showing receptiveness toward you again.
Step 3: Teach and problem-solve.
For children under 4, problem solving is too much to expect of them. The cognitive development to work through this process hasn’t happened yet, though certainly the parent can talk through it as he or she solves the problem, for modeling purposes. For young children, holding the limit by removing the child from the situation or removing the object that is being thrown, for example, is enough.
Teaching what the child can do is also appropriate for very young children. “I won’t let you throw in the house, but you can throw this ball in the yard.” “I won’t let you hit. You may stomp and wiggle the angries out.” When your child is between roughly 4 and 6, you can start teaching her how to problem-solve. Ask the following questions to get the ball rolling:
- What caused this to happen?
- How did this make you feel?
- What can you do the next time this happens?
- How are you going to fix this?