Putting Positive Discipline into Practice

Laura Markham's picture

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  1. Positive Discipline starts by having a good relationship with your child, so that he responds to gentle guidance as opposed to threats and punishment. The most effective discipline strategy is to make sure your child wants to please you.

  2. Evaluate all discipline based on whether it strengthens or weakens your relationship with your child. Positive discipline is about Loving Guidance, not punishment. Punishment is destructive to your relationship with your child and ultimately creates more misbehavior. Loving guidance is setting limits and reinforcing expectations as necessary, but in an empathic way that helps the child focus on improving her behavior rather than on being angry at you.

  3. Start all discipline by reaffirming the connection. Stoop down to her level and look her in the eye before you tell her she can't take another child's toy. Suggesting that she practice piano will work a lot better if you can first tell her sincerely how much you loved the way she played the piece yesterday. Before you talk with him about that fender bender, first make sure he knows how relieved you are that he wasn't hurt.

  4. Don't hesitate to set limits as necessary. Limits are a critical part of guiding your child. But always set limits with empathy, which will make them more effective.

  5. In any situation posing physical danger, intervene immediately to set limits, but simultaneously connect by empathizing. "The rule is no hitting, even though she made you really mad by teasing like that. Let's sit down and talk about this."

  6. If your discipline doesn't work, it's a relationship problem. If your child does not accept your direction ("I don't care what you say, you can't make me!"), it's always an indication that the relationship is not strong enough to support the teaching. This happens to all of us from time to time. At that point, stop and think about how to strengthen the relationship, not how to make the child "mind." Turning the situation into a power struggle will just deepen the rift between you.

  7. Wean yourself off punishment altogether because it undermines your relationship with your child and sets up power struggles.

  8. Avoid Timeouts. They create more misbehavior. Timeouts, while infinitely better than hitting, are just another version of punishment by banishment and humiliation. They erode, rather than strengthening, your relationship with your child. They set up a power struggle. And they only work while you're bigger. They're a more humane form of bullying than physical discipline.

  9. Consequences teach the wrong lesson if you're involved in creating them. On the face of it, Consequences make sense: The child does (or doesn't do) something, and learns from the consequences. Which, when it happens naturally, can be a terrific learning experience. But most of the time, parents engineer the consequences, and enforce the time out, so that any child can explain to you that consequences are actually punishment.

    If the parent is not involved in the consequences (for instance, if they don't study and flunk their test, or they don't brush and get a cavity) -- and if you can handle the bad result -- kids can learn a lot from suffering the consequences of their actions. Of course, you don't want it to happen more than once, or their self image becomes that of a person who flunks test and gets cavities, and they have learned an unintended lesson. My own view is that it works better, if possible, for them to skip such lessons, but as a last ditch strategy, we all certainly learn from letting things go wrong.

    Unfortunately, most kids whose parents use "consequences" as punishment don't think of them as the natural result of their own actions ("I forgot my lunch today so I was hungry"), but as the threats they hear through their parents' clenched teeth: "If I have to stop this car and come back there, there will be CONSEQUENCES!" If parents are in charge of consequences, then the consequences aren't the natural result of the child's actions, but simply punishment.

    To the degree that Consequences are seen as punishment by kids -- and they almost always are -- they are not as effective as positive discipline to encourage good behavior. Using them on your kids should be considered a last result and a signal that you need to come up with another strategy.

  10. How you treat your child is how she will learn to treat herself. If you're harsh with her, she'll be harsh with herself. If you're loving with her while firm about setting appropriate limits, she'll develop the ability to set firm but loving limits on her own behavior.

    Harsh discipline and punishment, ironically, interfere with the child's ability to develop self discipline. The problem with internalizing harshness isn't just that it makes for unhappy kids and, eventually, unhappy adults, it's that it doesn't work. Kids who are given discipline that is not loving never learn to manage themselves constructively.

    To the degree that we're harsh with ourselves because of the way we were parented, we respond to it by rebelling (how many times do we cheat on our diets?) or martyring ourselves (trying hard to be good girls and boys but building up resentment and lashing out at those we love, or not giving ourselves a break and ultimately breaking down.)

    To the degree that we can accept our own loving guidance because we've learned from our parents to treat ourselves that way, we are able to set goals and use our self-discipline to attain them. Ultimately, loving guidance and positive discipline result in the child's developing the holy grail toward which all child-raising is aimed: the child's own self-discipline.

Dr. Laura Markham
Aha! Parenting.com