The word discipline comes from the Latin word disciplina, which means instruction or teaching. This tells us that discipline involves everything that we do to teach our children, rather than just how we deal with difficult behaviours. Gentle discipline, by which I mean disciplina that is both loving and effective in the short, medium and long terms, helps us to teach to our children the skills and attitudes that will enhance their self-esteem and relationships life-long.
In part one, ‘The foundations of gentle discipline’, I emphasised that gentle discipline is most easy when we have built a foundation of loving family relationships. I also discussed the wisdom of inconsistency and the benefits of being an imperfect parent, and gave some outlines for active listening, a very valuable parenting skill. I also recommended that we care for ourselves and be essentially self-centred, if we want to be effective parents.
In this, Part 2, I will discuss practical applications based on this foundation, including negotiation, parenting without rewards or punishments, difficult behaviours and emotional expression.
As with all that you read and hear as a parent, please have an open mind and filter this through your own parenting wisdom, remembering that you are the expert in your own child/ren.
Emma (14) is setting the table and she wants to sit next to her father. Jacob (9), who actually doesn’t have the right to decide who sits where (which goes with the job of setting the table), complains that he wants to sit next to Dad. He comes to me, saying, “It’s not fair…”
I ask “Can you work it out?” and they argue heatedly and eventually they agree, with a little input from me, that Jacob can sit next to Dad if he finishes Emma’s job for her, which also includes helping with dinner.
In our family, we call this ‘working it out’ or ‘doing a deal’: other people might call it ‘win-win’. It means that two people (or more) can come to an agreement whereby all are happy and none consider that they have been disadvantaged.
This approach may take some practice, and a lot of faith, especially at the start, but it is another aspect of discipline that is fundamental, at least in our household! As with active listening, discussed in part 1, we need to trust that our children have the resources to devise their own solutions, although they may need help, especially in the beginning, to negotiate with each other.
As with active listening, the role of the parent in ‘working it out’ is to listen and reflect back what the children are saying, and to support those who are less articulate. For example, this might be our conversation in the above example:
Jacob: “I want to sit next to Daddy…”
Emma (interrupts): “But it’s not his night, he can’t decide!”
Me: “No, you are right, it’s your night to decide.”
Emma: “Yes, it’s my night – See Jacob!”
Me: “Is there a way you can work it out?”
Me: “Maybe Jacob could help you.”
Me: “Is there any deal you could do?”
Emma : “No” (then thinks) “Maybe Jacob could finish my job and I could go back on MSN?”
Me :”Do you have (computer) time left?”
Emma “Yes, 10 minutes. How about that Jacob?”
Jacob: “Yeah, maybe.”
Me: “Jacob would you agree to help Emma if she lets you sit next to Dad?”
Jacob: “I guess so.”
Emma: “And I want him to help with the salad too.”
Me: “What do you think about that, Jacob?”
Jacob: “Yeah, OK.”
The role of the parent may include; suggesting some win-win alternatives, if necessary; holding to our family’s commitment to working it out; and having faith in the process, even when it seems impossible! As I mentioned in Part 1 in relation to active listening, sometimes no solution is reached, but the process can still be very helpful: a solution may come later, or else the tension may be diffused and the issue may just evaporate. In other situations, I will repeatedly ask “How can we work it out?” which helps remind us all of our commitment to negotiation.
When things are difficult, or issues are complex, we might refer things to the family meeting, which is our weekly (or so) time to organise and discuss issues pertaining to family life. At family meetings, we can decide rules and consequences such as the one above – whoever sets the table gets to choose where everyone sits.
Win-win also applies to us as parents. For example, if Zoe wants me to sew something for her, I can ask her to help with another of my jobs, or to do me another favour. We can trade assistance (as above); favours (for example she gave me a massage in return for helping her with a job); and/or material things (which sometimes has included money changing hands!), as long as both parties are happy. This is also a very useful skill when teenagers ask to be driven places! For me, such a win-win deal is very different to bribes or rewards, which imply an imbalance in power and outcome, and/or an element of control and manipulation by those on one side, usually the parents.
If the deal that the children have worked out seems unfair to me, I might point out the disadvantages, as I perceive them, to the person involved. I can even ask the other person to be open about their motivation, and whether they have another hidden agenda. However in this process, I need to trust the children’s own judgment about what is right for them; and if, after a while, someone is unhappy about what they agreed to, they have learned more about what they want for next time!
Negotiation is possible even with young children. Just today Maia, aged 4, asked if she could help me (with packing up to go camping) in return for going to the toilet with her (which she can do by herself). Working it out equips children with excellent negotiation skills and, perhaps more importantly, they develop the creativity and confidence to reach a happy solution, without exploitation or hardship for anyone involved.
Praise, rewards and punishments
In our culture there has been a welcome shift away from parenting using physical punishments, and it is no longer acceptable – and in some places actually illegal – to use brute force to discipline children. However, we have not lost the mind-set attached to this behaviour and it is still widely believed that discipline is only possible using punishments and/or rewards.
My beliefs and experiences contradict this rather pessimistic view of parenting. I believe that it is possible, and in fact much more effective, to parent without punishment or rewards. Like Thomas Gordon, whose book Parent Effectiveness Training I recommended in Part 1, I believe that using punishments (and even rewards) produces an exaggerated and unnecessary power imbalance between parent and child; in effect, the parent becomes the police, with the child at risk of becoming resentful, defiant, rebellious, retaliating, deceitful, overly submissive and /or withdrawn, just as many adults are in the face of overblown authority figures.
Gordon also points out that, eventually, the parents will run out of authority and will lose the ability, for example, to send a child who is bigger than themselves to their room for ‘time out’. Like Gordon, I wonder if some of the difficulties that we encounter with our children in the teenage years may reflect a rebellion against our over-use of authoritarian techniques and punishments earlier in childhood.
Parenting without punishments may be easy to understand, but what about rewards? ‘Surely’, many people ask, ‘rewards will help my child to behave well and help me to avoid the need for punishment.’ This is a more complex and topical issue, but my own feeling is that, when we offer children rewards, we are presuming that they need external forms of motivation to do ‘the right thing’. This is, in my experience, not only untrue but rather disrespectful to children, who are intrinsically self-motivated and will always have good reasons for their behaviour, if we look deeply enough (see also difficult behaviours below).
Another problem with using rewards is that they can actually create a dependence on such motivation. Even praise, if used as a reward rather than as a genuine expression of a feeling, can, I believe, create a need in the child for ongoing praise, and instil a need to please others. Alfie Kohn, author of Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes quotes research that has found that children who are praised in one task will stumble over the next, which they do less well than children who were not praised.
Another way to look at it is to consider how it would be to receive rewards and/or praise from our partner or friend when we did what they considered to be ‘the right thing’. After a while, it might wear thin and we might start to doubt the genuineness of their words. In fact, we might even begin to suspect that our partner actually wanted to control our behaviour in an underhand sort of way, which is, in fact, what we do to our children with rewards. It is far better, I believe, to be open and honest about what we want from our children and why, and to negotiate from that position, with faith that we will be able to work it out between us.
Putting it into practice
Parenting without punishment or rewards sounds good, but how do we do it, especially in the heat of the moment and/or when conflict arises, and we really want our child to change their behaviour NOW?
Let’s look at an example that will probably be familiar, at least in terms of the feelings that arise and our urge to do something.
Your older child has a new bike, and the younger child now wants to ride it, or maybe just to push it around. A physical fight has ensued and both are crying and still angry.
Firstly, if the situation is very heated and the children are beyond reason, I recommend that any negotiation, discussion etc be delayed until everyone has cooled down. For this to happen, you may need to allow the child/ren emotional expression, as below, and in fact this may be all that is needed if the child’s real need was for emotional release.
Whenever discussion becomes possible, I recommend that the parent involved makes an effort to keep a neutral position. This means not making a premature judgment about a situation and, in our example, not taking sides, even if it seems that one child has hurt the other. This doesn’t mean not comforting a hurt child, and in fact these issues may be best resolved with the children physically close to us. At this stage we can use active listening and ask the child (or children) to tell their side of the story, without interruption. Using feedback will help the child to clarify their feelings, e.g. “So you felt angry because he wouldn’t give you the bike back?”
Along with this, we can encourage our child to share their feelings, whether by word or action. This may involve some active emotional release, as below, especially in young children, and/or there may be words that will help a child to express their emotions. Again, active listening – ‘the language of acceptance’, as Thomas Gordon calls it – is a great tool for helping our children to express themselves, and our loving intent to help is often all that is needed to reach a resolution through telling the story.
After we have heard the story, or stories (which may not be consistent!), it is still important not to make judgments about the behaviour/s, unless it is extreme. If it is extreme, sharing our own emotional reaction – eg. “I felt scared that you would hurt your sister, because you are so much bigger”- will be more effective than blaming or punishing. Remember also that, in heated situations, anger may arise (our own or our children’s) but it may actually be a cover for other ‘primary’ feelings such as fear, jealousy, embarrassment, disappointment or any other strong feeling. Identifying the primary emotion can point us in the right direction towards resolution.
By this time, hopefully the issue will be much cooler, and negotiation, if appropriate, will be possible. As above, my favourite phrase here would be “How can we work it out?” If you feel that further action is necessary to avert a repeat of the situation, I again recommend explanation of your feelings and fear, open discussion and negotiation. For example, you could say “I am worried that you might hit your sister again over her bike – how can we work it out?” Maybe the child/ren can negotiate with each other to share at particular times, or ‘do a deal’ with each other, as above. As I mentioned in the first article, even young children are very inventive and flexible, and very capable of reaching win-win agreements. It is also possible that, as parents, we need to add other options; in this scenario, the younger child may actually be tired and need to be put to sleep, or at least kept close by.
When the problem is a more straightforward ‘misdemeanour’- in other words, our child has done something that they wanted to do, but we didn’t want them to do – I recommend a similarly neutral attitude (or at least as neutral as we can manage at the time!) As above, jumping in with blame, anger, judgment and punishment will make it harder to understand the child’s motivation, and will not help to build trust. In this, we can simply state the problem, and share what we didn’t like about it. (For example, if my child has taken a book from my bedroom and left it lying on the floor, I could say, “I didn’t like you taking my book, as it is precious to me and I don’t want it to get lost or damaged.” Similarly, we can ask (or try to figure out, if the child is pre-verbal) what was ‘good about it’ for the child, who obviously had some reason to act in this way. If the behaviour is very puzzling, or repeated, we can look more deeply, as below.
Consequences and feedback
This is another rather controversial area in parenting today. There is a move towards using consequences as a means of discipline, and some writers differentiate between ‘logical’ and ‘natural’ consequences. Personally I find this distinction rather hard to follow, and I suspect that ‘logical consequences’ may be used as another means of punishment. However I do believe that it is important that children experience the consequences of their behaviour. For me, a better way to look at it is to say that we can help our children with their choices by helping them to get feedback, either while decision-making or after the event.
For example, today Maia and I bought a shower cap and she wanted to wear it into a shop. I told her, “Yes, that’s fine, but people might look at you as though you look funny.” She decided to take the risk and the woman who served us told her she looked cute! Similarly, if my teenage daughter decides to go out dressed in a very short skirt, I can tell her the reaction she might get, giving her more information to base her decisions on. If I feel strongly about it, I might advise her not to do it and she will often (but not always) take my advice. (By the way, I was aghast when she brought this very short skirt home from the shops, and am pleased to report that it is uncomfortable and she seldom wears it!)
With younger children, we may need to provide very tangible feedback, rather than just words. For example, when we want our child to understand the concept (and the word) ‘hot’, we can touch their finger against something that feels hot (but obviously won’t hurt them). Personally I found this very useful when my toddler began struggling against being ‘clicked up’ in a vehicle child restraint. I decided to let her feel why we use the restraint, and to understand what it means to ‘go bang’. I drove slowly in our driveway, with her protesting and unrestrained and stopped suddenly so that she was propelled a few inches out of her seat and fell back with a small bang. After this, she could understand that if she wasn’t clicked up, she might ‘go bang’, and she was usually happy to comply.
(I believe that exposing her to the reality of the situation was helpful, but, as with all aspects of parenting, parents will choose their own level of comfort. I also allow my children to take risks that many parents would be uncomfortable with, provided that the child is fully informed and I feel that I can trust their judgment. This philosophy has been successful so far, with no broken bones and few significant mishaps. I also feel that my children are more responsible because I have allowed them to take more responsibility).
Feedback, as above, can be a useful learning tool afterwards. I encourage my children to reflect on their decisions and learn from both their successes and mistakes. For example, after Jacob spent his pocket money on a cheap plastic toy at the discount centre, which broke fairly quickly, I might ask him “Was it a good choice, Jacob?” Here again, I make an effort to keep my language neutral, so that I’m not imposing my own opinion or judgment, and giving him the space to share freely.
Feedback might also include sharing how I feel and the effect that their behaviour has on my willingness to help them. Perhaps this is close to the idea of ‘logical consequences’ and to threatening, but my view is that I do lots of things for them, and I expect them to reciprocate and to help me to the best of their abilities. For example, I need them to help by ‘clicking up’ in the car even when they are tired and hungry after school. If they help me, then I am more willing to take them places/have friends over/ arrange activities etc later. Conversely, if they refuse to do this, I might also refuse to help them with their activities. For me, this is part of being respected by my children for my role and appreciated for the things I do, which I believe is important for all families.
More on difficult behaviours
At times, all children behave in ways that we find difficult or even strange. As well as doing our best to react in a loving and non-judgmental way, as above, we can also use these times to find out more about our children, and how they see their world.
One approach that I have found very helpful, in response to such behaviour, is based on the work of Melbourne child psychotherapist Ruth Schmidt Neven, who suggests that we ask ourselves these questions when we want to understand our child (and their behaviour) more deeply
- Why now?
- What is the child trying to tell me?
- What was happening when I was this age?
I also add another question
-What is happening in the rest of the family or environment?
Using these questions helps us to see the situation more widely. Firstly, when we ask ‘Why now?’ we can begin to see the world from our child’s perspective, at their age and stage, and to realise, for example, that they may be having a major adjustment to the arrival of a sibling. In my first example, my children may be arguing because they are hungry, or perhaps because they haven’t seen much of their dad for a few days.
The second question, ‘What is the child trying to tell me?’ helps us to see the behaviour as a means of communication (rather than as a plot to annoy us) and to understand more of our child’s world. It helps us to appreciate that behaviour may be the only ‘language’ that a small child has, or may be expressing something that is otherwise difficult to tell us.
Thirdly, we can realise, through asking the question ‘What was happening when I was this age?’ that there are often uncanny parallels between our own childhoods and those of our children. For example I have found myself having more conflict when my children reached age 4. Looking back, I can see that this was a difficult time in my childhood as well. I have also known friends who went through major relationship problems when their child/ren were the same age as they were when their parents separated.
This phenomenon, which I have observed many times, does not have a logical explanation. My own belief is that the universe is kind to us and gives us the opportunity to re-experience and resolve issues from our own childhood as we go through those years with our own children. The key for us, as parents, is to be aware, and to give ourselves some space to feel the feelings that arise from our child’s behaviour.
Lastly, we can ask ‘What is happening in the rest of the family or environment?’ This helps us to realise that our children are very sensitive creatures, and very attuned to their emotional environment. Stresses that are not conscious and/or not discussed are, in my experience, particularly liable to be picked up and acted out by our children.
An example using this approach is the recent behaviour of my son Jacob. I noticed that he was very irritable towards the end of the holidays, and was specializing in irritating his younger sister and making her squeal. I pondered the above, and came to realise (after he returned to school and everyone told him how much he had grown) that he was having a growth spurt. I asked if he was hungry and he said, “Yes, all the time.” Together we found foods that would be good to fill him up.
I also considered that he might be reflecting our family’s shock at coming home, after a holiday filled with friends and freedom, to the confines of our nuclear family. I also wondered if, as discussed in part one, his ‘love tanks’ may not be full, and that he might need some dedicated gift-giving to let him know how much we value him, and went out of my way to buy him a small gift. Whether I was right or not, he has been much happier since I took those actions. If I had branded his behaviour as difficult and moved towards punishing him, I would have missed the opportunity to get to know him better, and our relationship may have lost some trust.
This is another tricky (one of my favourite parenting words) aspect of parenting, because our culture is not very comfortable with open expression of emotions, especially anger. Whether the emotion/anger is experienced by our partner, our child or even ourselves, our reaction is usually to prevent its expression by one means or another.
However emotional expression is a healthy and necessary part of life. The skill, which we have sadly lost in our culture, is to encourage healthy emotional expression so that it can be an act of release, rather than something that is suppressed or judged and that can cause on-going reactions (including anger) in others. Dealing with our children’s emotional release can be very challenging but strong emotions, like violent weather, will always pass, and when they do, we will be rewarded with a clear and bright child- and perhaps even a rainbow.
How does this work? Put simply, we agree to be present for our child’s emotional storm, either holding the child or staying close by, until it has passed. For a small baby, this might involve holding them while they cry, without trying to stop the crying (presuming that there isn’t a physical problem that needs attention). With a toddler, we can hold them securely, ensuring that they don’t hurt themselves, or anyone or anything else, and allow them to physically express their rage. This might involve kicking and screaming, so we need to also ensure that we are not hurt in the process. With an older child, we may simply be sitting close by, at their level, holding the space and giving the message that we love them and care about them, even when they are angry. This is a very powerful message, and one that will be internalised and so help the child to be compassionate with themselves and others when they are angry.
I have found this invaluable with my fourth child, and wish I had known more about it when my fiery first was a toddler. Even my more placid children have benefited from this approach: as Aletha Solter- whose work is dedicated to this form of release and healing – reminds us, we all have frustrations and difficulties that need healthy release. If we do not allow our children, and ourselves, some form of release, we will build up stress and tensions, which can affect our physical and mental well-being. These techniques are especially useful when there have been major changes, traumas or stresses in the child’s or family’s life.
Other forms of release that children, and many adults, naturally use include imaginative play, laughing, and rough-and-tumble play. If you suspect that your child has some pent-up feelings, you can safely and easily encourage them into a game that includes these elements. You might even have fun, and lose some tensions, yourself!
I highly recommend that you read some of the books and articles in the resources before you decide either way about these techniques, which are radical in our culture but have the capacity to create powerful and loving reconnections between parents and children.
As I imply above, it is not only our children who will get emotionally heated in the course of family life. All parents, at some times, will also become angry, frustrated, overwhelmed, indignant and generally cranky, as my children sometimes describe me. If we accept that this is a normal part of parenting, our responsibility shifts to the ways that we manage our heated emotions.
Although all of this can be an immensely challenging aspect, I also believe that this is part of what makes parenting such a profound spiritual practice. Our children will always push us to our limits, and our goal is to be constantly moving beyond this; as my friend and mentor, Jeannine Parvati Baker says, “Our children make us a whole lot better than we ever wanted to be.”
One tool that I have found very useful is Heartmath. Heartmath offers some simple, well-researched tools for cooling down, which centre upon reconnecting with our hearts in the heat of the moment. You can read more in the books and resources mentioned below. Other tools that I have found useful include ‘time out’ for myself in my bedroom and/or a walk up our long driveway. All of these tools help me to reconnect with myself and see the bigger picture. I notice also that the wider the perspective I am able to have on the situation, and the more I can connect with my heart, the less my anger impacts on my children. In fact, they laugh at me sometimes, and I do too!
We are all trying to be the best parents we can: however, as every parent knows, this is easier some days than others! As I discussed in Part 1, being an imperfect parent is normal and perhaps even necessary: when we stuff up, lose the plot, and/or act in ways that we later regret, we get the opportunity to apologise to our child and to learn from our mistakes. This keeps us both humble and human to our children.
Gentle discipline, according to my definition, has the aim of being both loving and effective in the short, medium and long terms, and this applies to us as well as our children. Through our own self-love, and acceptance of our imperfections, we teach tolerance, acceptance and honesty. By doing the best that we can, and aiming towards gentle discipline, we can contribute towards gentle, loving and honest approaches in family life, and in our society as a whole.
Gentle discipline resources
Articles by Patty Wipfler http://www.parentleaders.org/articles.html
Also Cry for Connection at http://www.mothering.com/articles/growing_child/toddlers/tantrums.html
Articles by Aletha Solter (including my favourite-ever discipline article, The disadvantages of time out’.) http://www.awareparenting.com/articles.htm
Articles by Thomas Gordon http://www.gordontraining.com/familyresources.asp
The Aware Baby by Aletha Solter, Shining Star Press, Goletha Ca, US, 1998
Tears and Tantrums by Aletha Solter, Shining Star Press, Goletha Ca, US, 2001
Helping Young Children to Flourish by Aletha Solter, Shining Star Press, Goletha Ca, US, 2001
Parent Effectiveness Training by Thomas Gordon, New York,Penguin 1970 (or more recent editions)
The HeartMath Solution by Doc Childre and Howard Martin Harper; SanFrancisco 1999