After I first heard parenting expert Alfie Kohn speak about the downsides of using punishments and rewards with children to encourage positive behaviour – I was converted.
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.)
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!
Both punishment and rewards are used to manipulate behaviour.
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.
D is for Distracting
With younger children, distraction 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 eye, you can call out to him and say something like, “That’s not safe honey! Electricity can hurt you.”
Then show him a fun toy, or enthusiastically say,”Wow – let’s look at this instead!” and guaranteed he’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. Some days we are super heroes flying to rescue his favourite stuffy, some days we are running a race and the finish line is his bedroom…you get the idea.
Ideas for Helping Kids Wait
Another time distraction comes in handy is when your child is getting cranky and whiny from having to wait.
Been in the doctor’s office for too long? Play Rock, Paper, Scissors.
Stuck in an endless grocery line? Play I-Spy.
Waiting in the car? Ask them if they’d like you to tell them an adventure story starring them.
And by the way, the story doesn’t have to be good for them to love it. Even if it’s a terrible one, it’ll still 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 and whininess than a bored child!
I is for Investigating Underlying Needs and Feelings
According to the social psychologist Maslow, when kids are “misbehaving,” they are either expressing some kind of unmet need 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 mentally 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 have to be met before the child begins to focus on needing things higher up.
For example, if a child is hungry (a basic need), listening to them and acknowledging their feelings (a higher up need) will not make them feel completely better (although it’s nice and often helps!).
They still need that food need to be met.
By the way, I know you’re picturing your “hangry” child right now!
Once the basic need for food is met, the cranky child should behave better. And if they don’t, then they may also have other higher unmet needs.
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 more challenging behaviours.
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.
If you’re a bit of a perfectionist like me, this should be easy for you!
Ways to Structure a Child’s Environment for Success
- Put things away that you don’t want your kids to use or play with
- Provide rich, open-ended activities to stimulate and engage kids
- Establish safe and predictable routines for playtime, mealtime, and bedtime so kids know what to expect
- Remove your kids from an environment if it is overstimulating
- Give your 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.)
- Set limits and clearly communicate your expectations around mealtime behaviour, playtime, clean up, bedtime, behaviour in the car
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
I is for Instructing
I learned this strategy from author Judy Arnall’s book Discipline Without Distress.
The idea is to tell your kids exactly what you want them to do instead of telling them to stop doing something.
- Instead of saying, “No hitting!” 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 your 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?
P is for Playing & Connecting
Lawrence J. Cohen, author of Playful Parenting, believes that almost every “misbehaviour” that we see in children 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.
And 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
FREE Parent-Child Connection Coupons
L is for Limits
Make limits and follow through on them.
Sounds so 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 your child is hitting her sibling – you may need to jump in and physically stop her from further hitting. Read more here about Helping Aggressive Kids.
- If you have asked your child to come inside from playtime, and he refuses, you may have to take his hand and guide him.
- Sometimes, following through means picking up your child and carrying him 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 really 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 and 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!
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 negative 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…
N is for Noticing Positive Behaviour
One of the best ways to increase positive behaviours without using praise or rewards (which have serious downsides) is to notice and then encourage, appreciate, and label those desirable behaviours.
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.
Recognize What’s Right
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.”
“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.
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.
The Parent Time-Out
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.
A Child Time-In
The 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.
Great reminders! I should read this daily 🙂 Thanks!
Sue Lively says
I hear you maggiemaysgifts! Even when you know what you’re supposed to be doing – it takes practice and self-reminders sometimes. Right there with you! Thanks for dropping by!
Deb Maxwell says
What a wonderful post! This is so thorough and well-researched. I’m a new follower, and I’ll be sharing this on social media. Thanks!
Thank!Sometimes i forget…unfortunately
Sue Lively says
I complete understand that! I think I partly write this blog to keep reminding myself of all these strategies! Thanks for dropping by Iulia!