From there on, I shared the information with my husband and we made a conscious decision to avoid their use when raising our son.
The problem then became, what DO we do instead? And so began the journey into learning about positive parenting and positive discipline.
In today’s post, I’d like to share some of the best strategies that I have found that can be used instead of punishment and rewards to teach children positive behaviours.
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Why DON’T We Want to Control Our Kids?
(Just in case you’re new to this whole positive parenting thing – it’s helpful to know why controlling kids is not the most effective parenting strategy. You might want to read Why Time-Outs Don’t Work before you continue reading.)
Here are 3 main reasons to avoid trying to control our kids:
- It creates resentment.
- It doesn’t work in the long run.
- There are better (and more respectful) ways to teach our kids how to be positive people!
Alfie Kohn describes them as being like 2 sides of the same coin. Both are methods used to control kids.
I know that sounds harsh, but if you think back to your Psych 101 course in college, you’ll probably remember that these methods were developed in the laboratory to control the behaviour of rats by B.F. Skinner.
Are our kids rats? Of course not!
They have the ability to think and problem solve intelligently, empathize, and judge whether things are right or wrong. We can’t afford to treat them as if they are rats in a maze trying to get to a piece of cheese.
That’s too easy! And we’re smarter than that.
So Why Do Kids NEED Discipline?
The difference between kids and adults, and the reason they need discipline, is that they have not fully cognitively developed to use those problem solving skills, empathy and moral centers.
In The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind, Dr. Dan Siegel talks about how kids’ brains are not finished developing until the mid twenties!
Explains some things doesn’t it?
The part of the brain that handles things like problem solving, decision making, empathy, emotional control and morality is literally under construction throughout childhood – dramatically so in the first few years of life, and again in the teen years.
So – how do we help our kids develop those desirable characteristics listed above? And learn to monitor their own choices responsibly and become socially adept?
We TEACH them.
That’s what the word Discipline means after all.
But we also need to realize at the same time, that it may just take time, lots of feedback, and practise for them to learn these skills and positive behaviours.
Patience is a virtue – and positive parents need a LOT of it!
Positive discipline is not always “easy” – it takes skills, knowledge, and time.
However, the benefits far outweigh more controlling parenting approaches and once learned, life with kids becomes far easier, enjoyable, and even peaceful.
“Once you decide to do right, life is easy, there are no distractions.” ~ William Edgar Stafford
When we take the time to really respect our kids and to teach them how to BE – we are doing the best we can to ensure their lifelong emotional health, happiness and security with themselves.
“… it is the greatest of all mistakes to begin life with the expectation that it is going to be easy, or with the wish to have it so.” ~ Lucy Larcom, A New England Girlhood
What are the 10 Positive Discipline Strategies?
Here are 10 ways that we can TEACH or discipline without controlling our kids.
These ideas are gathered from a number of sources, including highly-respected positive parenting books, as well as parenting workshops.
1. D is for Distracting
With younger children, this is one of the simplest strategies to use.
For example, when your toddler is walking towards a forgotten open electrical socket with that gleam in his/her eye – call out to them and say something like, “That’s not safe honey! Electricity can hurt you.”
Then show them a fun toy, or enthusiastically say,”Wow – let’s look at this instead!” and guaranteed they’ll turn away from that socket to see what you are looking at. (Then later get that empty socket plug back in!)
When they don’t want to go upstairs to bed, suggest you both “fly up like dragons to the secret lair” and start flapping your wings and breathing fire! (I use different versions of this one successfully all the time with my son).
When they are getting cranky and whiny from waiting in the doctor’s office for too long, suggest playing Rock, Paper, Scissors, or ask them if they’d like you to tell them an adventure story starring them (I never said it had to be good – but I bet it’ll work to distract them from feeling bored and you from feeling irritated that they can’t sit still!)
You get the idea – there’s nothing more conducive to mischief than a bored child!
2. I is for Investigating Underlying Needs & Feelings
According to the social psychologist Maslow, when kids are “misbehaving,” they are usually expressing some kind of need that has been unmet or they’re experiencing a negative feeling that they don’t know how to process.
A great way of looking for needs is to picture Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and work your way from bottom to top to see if you think your child needs one of these things.
The idea with the hierarchy is that kids need all of these things, but the needs at the bottom of the pyramid need to be met before the child begins to focus on needing things higher up.
For example, if a child is hungry (bottom level), listening to them and acknowledging their feelings (a higher level) will not make them feel completely better (although it’s nice and often helps!) – they still need that food. (So true of my son when he gets “hangry!”)
It should also be noted that attention is a part of that need for connection and belonging.
How can you find the underlying needs?
I love Lawrence J. Cohen’s (author of Playful Parenting) suggestion for discovering the underlying need or feeling.
He recommends viewing a child’s behaviour as a code to decipher and to “break the code” – all you need to do is “translate what they are doing into a sentence that starts with “I need ______” or “I feel _______.”
Then you just respond to that need or feeling, instead of the behaviour!
I find that viewing things this way changes my whole perspective and tends to make me respond more empathetically to (instead of being irritated with) my son’s challenging behaviours.
3. S is for Structuring the Environment for Success
If our goal is not to control our kids, what can we control?
Their environment and the situation.
This can look like:
- Putting things away that we don’t want kids to use or play with
- Providing rich, open-ended activities to stimulate and engage kids
- Establishing safe and predictable routines for playtime, mealtime, bedtime etc. so kids know what to expect
- Removing kids from an environment if it is overstimulating
- Giving kids as much choice as possible – of foods to eat, clothes to wear, toys or activities to play with, etc. (See the posts B is for Behaved or Teaching Kids Independence to read more about choices.)
- Setting limits and having rules and/or clearly communicated (but realistic) expectations around mealtime behaviour, playtime, clean up, bedtime, behaviour in the car
4. C is for Consistency
It probably doesn’t need to be said here, but it’s a good reminder to try to be consistent with any of the things we do above to structure the environment, and in the rules and expectations we communicate.
If we constantly change the limits depending on our mood or the day, it starts to send a confusing message to kids. They no longer know what to expect or how to behave and this is when limit-testing can begin.
Of course it’s also important to pick your battles, but once you’ve decided that you have an expectation that is important to you – stick with it – and keep consistent in your message.
Have patience. All things are difficult before they become easy. ~ Saadi
5. I is for Instructing
I learned this strategy from Judy Arnall’s book Discipline Without Distress: 135 tools for raising caring, responsible children without time-out, spanking, punishment or bribery.
The idea is to tell your kids exactly what you want them to do instead of telling them to stop doing something.
- For example, instead of saying, “No hitting!” to your kids, try a firm, “I expect you to use your words when you’re upset with your brother.”
- Instead of saying, “Stop picking your nose,” say, “Please get a tissue.”
- Instead of saying, “Don’t run!” say, “Walking feet please.”
Sometimes, when you tell kids what not to do, they do that exact thing.
It’s like if I told you NOT to think about a purple elephant. You just thought of one right?
6. P is for Playing & Connecting
Lawrence J. Cohen, author of Playful Parenting, believes that almost every “misbehaviour” that we see in kids is a result of that child feeling disconnected.
One of the main premises of positive parenting and attachment theory is that kids do best (and “behave” the best) when they feel deeply connected to their caregivers.
The more time we take to connect with our kids (and that often means playing with them!), the more cooperative and happy our kids will be.
Remember that connection is also a need on Maslow’s hierarchy!
For ideas on connecting with your kids in ways they will love – see these posts: 5 Ways to Connect So Your Kids FEEL Loved, 30 Ways to Joyfully Connect in 10 Minutes, or print off some of these FREE Parent-Child Connection Coupons for some fun inspiration.
7. L is for Limits
Make them and follow through.
Sounds simple right? But I know – it’s not easy.
I found some advice from Judy Arnall, author of Discipline Without Distress, really helpful with this.
Judy talks about how when our kids are little, following through might mean that we have to physically pick up our child and remove them from a situation, or physically stop them from doing something.
- For example, if our child is hitting his/her sibling – you may need to jump in and physically stop them from further hitting. Read more here about Helping Aggressive Kids.
- If you have asked a child to come inside from playtime, and they are refusing, you may have to take their hand and guide them.
- Sometimes, following through means picking up your child and carrying them away from a situation. I know…NOT fun…I’ve been there. But sometimes necessary.
As kids get older, it becomes less desirable to physically guide them and more desirable to discuss the natural consequences of their choices, as well as how they can make amends and solve any problems that they may have created.
Barbara Coloroso, author of Kids Are Worth It! : Giving Your Child The Gift Of Inner Discipline suggests that good consequences should do the 4 things listed below.
When my son came up to me last week and cheerfully announced that he ate almost an entire bag of brownies by himself (minus 1!) that was dropped off for our family for Valentine’s Day last week (thanks Verena!), I think I followed these 4. What do you think?
4 Characteristics of Good Consequences
1. Show kids what they have done.
Me: “I see you’ve eaten almost all the brownies after I asked you to wait until after lunch. Those brownies were to be shared with the whole family.” (I was plain astonished that he basically ate the ENTIRE bag and was tempted to laugh – but was really irritated too!)
Result: Onetime runs away and tries to hide in our storage ottoman – obviously feeling guilty. Oh oh – maybe I came on too strong….
2. Give them as much ownership of the problem as they are able to handle.
Me: “I know it was hard to wait to have them when they looked so yummy. I am disappointed that we don’t all get to enjoy this treat together now. Can you think of something you can do to make this better?”
My son: “I’m sorry Mommy!” (with a very sincere face)
3. Give them options for solving the problem. (the part I forgot to do!)
Next time I might say something like: “Perhaps you could help bake some brownies for the rest of the family tonight – or we could use some of your piggy bank money to buy some more. What do you think?”
4. Leave their dignity intact.
Me: “We all make mistakes honey. Thank you for your apology. I can see that you are truly sorry.”
Lots of hugs and Onetime finally came out of his hiding place! He really felt bad. I guess only time will tell if this lesson was effective without him having done the problem-solving/restitution part.
Throughout the entire brownie fiasco, I had to remind myself that my intention is to teach my son what is acceptable, not to punish or shame him.
Allowing a child a chance for reparation and change – makes them an active partner in problem solving. It’s something that I am continuing to work on, as you can see!
8. I is for Ignoring (and letting go of control!)
We don’t always have to DO something for every negative or annoying behaviour that our kids show.
Barbara Coloroso advises that if a behaviour is not dangerous, unkind, or hurtful to others – we can sometimes ignore it.
- For example, behaviours like whining, sulking, showing off, or even swearing can certainly be annoying. That doesn’t mean we have to respond to them.
Sometimes, ignoring these behaviours does more to help them disappear than if we pay them attention and make a big deal out of them – which can actually reinforce them and make them more likely to happen again.
Some great advice that parenting expert Alyson Schaefer gave at a recent talk, was to “Ignore the behaviour, NOT the child.”
This strategy is really useful when kids are engaging in behaviours to try to get our attention. To learn a really easy way to see if your child is trying to get your attention – read this: 2 Reasons Why Kids Misbehave.
It’s a tricky one – I know. Just something to think about…
9. N is for Noticing Positive Behaviour
I wrote an entire post on ways to effectively encourage kids which you can read here, but for now – here are a few examples of what I mean.
- Instead of berating a child for leaving their coat on the floor, notice what they did right.
“You remembered to stand up your boots on the mat. I really appreciate it when you put your clothes away by yourself.” (see if they pick up their coat now!)
- Instead of lamenting that your child will never clean their room effectively, notice and comment on the parts they did.
“You picked up all your clothes and lined up your toys on the shelf! (and you could stop there, or add…) All that’s left now is to put the books away.”
Your child shares with a friend, or helps you out with something, or is kind or empathetic, or displays any of those other wonderful character traits and you are thrilled!
- Instead of saying, “Good sharing,” or “Good boy!” – try saying, “I noticed you _______. That’s what I call __________”
Example: “I noticed you shared your favourite toy with your friend today. That’s what I call being friendly,” or
“I noticed you helped your Dad with emptying the garbages today. That’s what I call being helpful and responsible.”
Your child will beam, and you have given your child feedback that tells them that they have done something well.
10. E is for Excusing the Child or Yourself
I saved this one for the end because it’s a biggie. Sometimes, your child’s behaviour is so upsetting, or rude, or challenging that you feel the need to stop it immediately or you are going to explode.
At that point, there really are only two possible positive reactions that will help the situation.
- You take a Time-Out for yourself, or
- You do a Time-In with your child – and away from the original scene if possible.
A perfect time to take a time-out for yourself is when you feel that you are so angry that you can’t talk to your child without yelling, or punishing.
When I feel this way – I usually say something like, “I’m really unhappy with your choices right now and I need to take a break for a minute honey,” and I lock myself in the bathroom to do some deep breathing until sanity returns and I feel like I can deal with my son again in a positive and constructive way.
When I was teaching in the classroom, I would ask my students to put their heads down on their desks for a minute while I regrouped.
Option 2 – a Time-In – can be used if you haven’t blown your top, but your child needs some serious guidance.
The idea is that instead of sending your child away from you to a Time-Out, you each remove together to a place where you can calm down, talk and problem solve.
Time-Ins are also a great place to help kids take ownership of problems, as well as think about restitution, resolutions, and reconciliation.
There is lots of expert advice on ways to do this effectively, and I’ve written an entire post on it which you can read here.
If you’re interested in this approach and want to learn more, I would strongly recommend reading Judy Arnall’s book, Discipline Without Distress or watching Alfie Kohn’s video Unconditional Parenting.
You can also find all of my favourite positive parenting books in our Book List, many of which address this topic.
Thanks for joining me! You can find all our series posts on the Positive Parenting Page.