Friday, 12 November 2010

The Hows of Discipline

It has been a long time since I posted my thoughts on punishment and praise. I have been meaning, for at least as long, to also post an entry on the more practical aspect - the hows.

It is a question I often receive in response to the idea of not using behaviour modification: "All of those whys are great, and I agree with them, but what about the practicalities, the specifics, the hows??" I get that. I really do. It's all well and good to delve into the myriad of reasons for avoiding punishment and praise...but then what? What can be done instead?

There is no easy answer to that. Each child, each parent, each family, each situation - they're all different. There is no formula, no prescription, no step-by-step manual, no guarantees. That is where so many of the big parenting "experts" fail - "if you just follow our method, and only our method, we guarantee you'll end up with well-behaved children."

Now, that assumes that "well-behaved" is the be all and end all of successful parenting...but I'll try to stay on track. We're dealing with the "hows" today.

I can only share tools that we have found useful in our family. They may not work for you. You may have tools that you have found particularly effective - please share them in the comments! The more tools we have, the better we can parent in a positive, proactive, and connective manner. The less we have, the more we find ourselves merely reacting to the situations our children inevitably throw our way.

First, the whole mindset for many of us needs to be completely shifted. Many, many times I hear parents looking for alternatives to punishment. "Well, if I can't punish, what can I do to deter her from doing that again?" "If the natural or logical consequence isn't unpleasant enough, how is it going to discourage that behaviour from recurring?"

We're not looking for punishment "replacements". We're not looking for consequences to teach them not to do that again. We're turning the whole thing around. We are teaching, guiding, discipling. It's hard to step out of that behaviour modification mindset. It is so ingrained in our society. Punish wrongdoing, praise good deeds, and behaviours will be appropriately modified as a result - that sort of external focus is what we want to leave behind. Instead, we want to teach our children. Not "teach them a lesson" - but actually teach them what to do.

Second, this way isn't easier. It doesn't provide any easy answers, either. It is easy to use external motivation to direct a child's external actions. We're looking deeper here. We're looking for heart-level connection, for internal motivation, for true obedience above outward compliance. It will involve patience, active parenting, and proactive measures. And it will require as its source a strong parent-child relationship based on mutual love, trust, and respect.

With those two things in mind, let's move on to the hows. These are some tools that have been working for us - not an exhaustive list by any means, but a reasonably good covering of the main ones.

Connect with your Child

None of this can be accomplished without the foundation of a strong, mutually-trusting relationship between parent and child. This relationship begins to develop from birth, as the mother responds to her child's cries and nurtures the bond between them.

Some of the things we do to strengthen that connection right from birth include gentle birth choices, nursing on demand, babywearing, and co-sleeping. As they get older, we connect through one-on-one times, special "just the two of us" outings, lots of reading, a constant flow of conversation, and physical touch (snuggles, hugs, wrestling, and games of chase). Physical touch remains important throughout the years - even a simple hand on a teen's shoulder can reinforce the parent-child connection. Talking, too, remains a priority, and listening even more so. Finally, we also work to avoid those things which would undermine our connection and relationship with our children - things like physical or punitive discipline, power struggles, and shaming. I'd love for you to share some of your methods of connection, too.

With that relationship securely in place, the child will look to the parent for cues on appropriate behaviour. The parent can model this behaviour from the beginning. Model "please", "thank you", and other such manners. Model non-violent conflict resolution. Model healthy boundaries. Model good decision making in all areas of life (time resolution, nutrition, etc), and narrate that process out loud for the child to overhear.

Be Engaged and Consistent

You can't parent from the couch (or the computer chair). Responding appropriately to a situation will often require that I get up and actively intervene. This is particularly important with young children. They need to know that my words mean something. What I say is not optional.

To make this happen, there are three things to keep in mind:
  • Stay calm. You are the adult. You are in control of your feelings and reactions. Do not give that power to your children by allowing their behaviour to influence your own feelings.
  • Speak at a normal volume. Yelling suggests to children that they don't need to pay attention to your words unless and until you yell.
  • Give the instruction once, repeat it with an offer of help, and then get up to help the child follow through if they haven't already. A long string of warnings, threats, badgerings, and pleadings tells a child that they don't need to listen to you the first time. Don't say something if you are unable or unprepared to back it up with action.
Consistency is key. Words must be consistently followed up with action.

Now, that isn't to say that I expect my children to jump the second I say so. Sometimes a child is in the middle of something and will request a few moments to finish up before putting it away. It is not permissive to respect that request when possible. This is where I find five minute warnings to be useful in helping a child prepare for an upcoming transition. If it is time to leave a fun activity, the opportunity to say good-bye provides a feeling of closure.

But the overall idea is one of consistently ensuring that my words are taken seriously. One calm instruction followed by one repeat with an offer of help followed by getting up to assist the child in carrying the instruction out. This is particularly important with very young children, as it will prevent the need for such "hands on" parenting when they are older. Once they know I mean what I say, they know.

(You can read more about this concept at Get Off Your Butt Parenting.)

Be Proactive

After consistency, prevention is the biggest thing I can do to ensure my child is able to function at his best. Adequate nutrition and sleep help to set a child up for success throughout the day. The extremes of boredom on one end and over-stimulation on the other are avoided whenever possible. Our ideal is to provide access to a wide variety of activities coupled with as much outdoor time as possible, while avoiding the trap of cramming too many structured activities, events, or errands into one day.

Along those lines, it is important to look to the root of the problem when difficulties arise. Is he hungry? Tired? Lonely? I will solve those issues first (snack, rest, focused attention), and discuss the behaviour itself at a later time when we're both feeling calm. Those calm times are ideal moments to equip our children with the tools they need to handle those feelings in more tumultuous times.

Be Silly

Playful parenting is a great way to coax a resistant child into cooperation. It often breaks the tension and allows the parent to reconnect with the child. It keeps the environment fun, light-hearted and silly. Play can be used to help a child work through their feelings. It can also be a great stress reliever and a reminder not to take things too seriously.

I recall a time, for example, when my frustrated toddler huffed at me. I could have lectured him about manners. I could have sent him to his room to rest until he was feeling more cheerful. If I believed in using violence in parenting, I could have spanked his bottom. Or...I could have huffed back at him. So I did. And he huffed back at me. And I huffed back at him. Soon we were huffing back and forth through a fit of giggles, and both of us were able to cheerfully carry on with our day.

A three week visit to Grandma and Grandpa's house resulted in another perfect example of playful parenting. As was to be expected, the boy was getting a bit grumpy by the end of the visit - a different environment, a different routine, different food, lots of people, and so on. I was sitting at the table with him one evening trying to hold on to my last shred of patience as I dealt with him heading towards a meltdown. Noticing this, his grandpa stepped in to help.

"Do I have to bring out my grumpy monster? This is my grumpy monster (holds up his hand) and he eats grumpies! Yum yum yum yum yum!"

The boy dissolved into a fit of giggles as his grandpa used his "grumpy monster" to eat/tickle him. It was a wonderful example of my dad using playful (grand)parenting to circumvent what would almost surely have been a complete meltdown in another minute or two.

Avoid Power Struggles

There are situations that warrant explanation and situations where brevity is in everyone's best interest. As always, it is important to know your child. Typically, I will give my child a brief reason for my requests. This allows a child to develop an understanding of why he should make that decision, rather than an unhelpful "because I said so". My goal is to teach my child how to think, not merely what to think.

However, there are many times when engaging with a child will unnecessarily escalate the situation, times when he is simply tired, grumpy, and not at all in a place to accept any explanation. At those times, my responses will be very brief and matter-of-fact. There's no need to dwell on the situation or attempt to convince the child through long explanations. I will not engage in a back and forth yes!-no!-yes!-no! power struggle with a child, nor will I enforce my instructions with yelling or hitting. Doing so will only undermine my authority as a parent. Remaining calm and to-the-point, I will simply answer and move on. "No, you may not keep your light on. Here is your nightlight. Which CD do you want to listen to?"

Redirection comes into play here as well, particularly with older babies and toddlers. "You may not play with that. Here is this for you to play with." I do not dwell or engage, I simply state my instruction and move on, redirecting the child to an appropriate activity.

When the situation warrants it, I will reflect my child's feelings back to him and, if needed, offer help in expressing those feelings in a healthy, appropriate, and acceptable manner.

Seek Solutions

Sometimes wrongdoings will be done. When that happens, we look for solutions, not punishments. Children grow in maturity and responsibility when they are given the opportunity to fix their mistakes. Punishment actually takes this opportunity away from them.

How this plays out in our home varies depending on the situation. It typically involves making restitution to the wronged party. I will assist him in brainstorming what this restitution may look like, but the bulk of the responsibility (and, of course, increasingly so as he gets older) rests on his shoulders. "You hurt the baby. What can you do to help him feel better?"

There must also be an acceptance of the fact that children are by their very nature not yet mature. They will require repetition in order to form healthy habits. "Try again" is a very common phrase in our home, as a reminder that what they just said was unacceptable and an opportunity for them to restate things in a more appropriate manner.


Because dangerous situations are often singled out as the situation in which punitive measures are justified or warranted, I wanted to touch on this area separately.

I do not want to spank my child for running into traffic, only to later have him run in the opposite direction from my call, fearing another spank. It is my responsibility to keep my child safe, not his.

I have found that a sharp surprised tone conveys enough "this is absolutely serious" that my child will at least hesitate, allowing me to intervene. I reserve that tone only for situations in which safety is a concern - ovens, fire, traffic, and the like. I do not believe that violence towards children is ever warranted or acceptable.

Final Thoughts

Discipline is the continuous process of coming alongside the child to teach and guide them into maturity. The idea always is to teach, not punish. This cannot happen in the absence of a healthy, attached relationship between parent and child. With that relationship in place and moments of reconnection continually sought out, we must then be engaged, consistent, and proactive in our parenting. When an issue arises, discipline will show the child what they have done wrong, give them ownership of the problem, give them options for solving the problem, and make use of natural or logical consequences rather than punishment.

Some days we may allow life to get the better of us, snapping at our children or scolding them unnecessarily. This is where it is important that they see humility modeled for them as we come to them and admit we were wrong, sincerely apologize, and ask their forgiveness.

Above all, we must recognise and honour the unique nature of each child, guiding them towards maturity with love and grace.

Additional Resources:
Gentle Discipline for Babies
Gentle Discipline for Toddlers
Attachment Parenting Series

What has been working for you? What situations are you struggling with at the moment? Let's brainstorm positive solutions together!


  1. Lots of really good advice here Cynthia. My question is what if after applying all these techniques your child still does not obey or upon hearing your request throws herself into a tantrum? What is your approach then?

  2. Good questions, Hollie. Again, it's going to be very child- and situation-specific, but I'll do my best to answer.

    With younger children in most situations, there is no option for not obeying. I will make my request, I will offer help, and then I will get up to enforce it.

    If, for example, I asked the child to put on his shoes and he either ignored me or refused, I would ask again with an offer of help: "Put on your shoes. Can you do it yourself or do you need my help?" If they continued to ignore/refuse, I would get up and put the shoes on them. The shoes will be put on either way; it is not an option.

    In other situations, and increasingly as they get older, I would make use of natural and logical consequences. If they refuse to put on their coat, alright. They'll be cold. Natural consequence. If they aren't taking care of a possession properly, I will ask them if they can care for it properly or if they need me to help them by putting it up until they're feeling ready to use it properly again. Me putting it up would be a logical consequence of not taking care of it properly. It breaking would be a natural consequence of not taking care of it properly.

    [Too long, will finish in a second comment.]

  3. As for tantrums, depending on the child/situation, there are two options I typically go with.

    If the child is sad or angry, I will reflect those feelings and offer them tools to express those feelings in an acceptable manner. I will offer comfort as well. The original request will still need to be carried out, but teaching them to deal with their feelings in a healthy manner is so important as well.

    Other times, however, they have no interest in discussing their feelings and any attempt to do so will only escalate the situation further. That I where I will ignore the tantrum and deal with the situation.

    If, for example, a tantrum is thrown in a store, I will ignore the tantrum and leave the store with the child. This is for everyone's sake - to protect the dignity of the child, to avoid disrupting other customers, and to get to a private place where I can calm the child and deal with the root of the problem (is the child hungry? too tired to be shopping? overwhelmed?). The original request can then be dealt with.

    I will not engage in a power struggle. This was a recent exchange that occurred with my son, who was at that "too grumpy and tired to be reasoned with" stage:

    "You need a rest time today. It will help you to feel better."
    "NO! I'm NOT going to have a rest time!"
    "I will get your books down and you may choose to read them or to lay down and sleep."
    "I'm NOT going to stay in my room, I will just RUN OUT of my room!"
    "Up you go. I'll carry you to your room."
    "I will SLAM my door! I will be ANGRY!"
    "Would you like to listen to music during your rest time?"
    "Yes. But I'm NOT going to stay in my room!"
    "What CD would you like?"
    "...The elephant one."
    "Alright, I'll put it on while you choose your books."
    "I want the up high ones." (We keep some books up high, out of reach of the baby.)
    "Alright, I'll get them down for you. Here they are."
    "Thank you."
    "I've put the music on. You may come out when the CD is finished. Your rest time will be over then. I'm going to close your door. Have a good rest time, sweetheart."

    There was no need to respond to his protests with "oh yes you WILL stay in your room!" I ignored the protests and carried on with enforcing my original instruction. Rest time was not an option, as he very much needed it.

    If he had continued to resist, I would have sat with him in his room while he carried on. I would not engage, simply sit there to enforce the fact that he would be staying in his room, while also being available for comfort when he calmed down enough to want it. That sort of complete meltdown very rarely happens here, though.

    So, in short, reflect feelings without engaging in power struggles, and make use of natural or logical consequences if enforcing the instruction is not necessary or possible.

  4. great post. I try to keep the "avoid a power struggle" thing in my head a lot dealing with teenagers.

    all of our training on conflict resolution highlights the need for the connection between adult and child as well. So so important.

  5. Thanks so much for your response Cynthia. That makes a lot of sense, especially not engaging in a power struggle. I'm going to have to try and remember that with my girls and see how it works. Again, thanks for sharing all your helpful parenting insights :)

  6. I book marked this for my future use. Just thinking about these types of things is so overwhelming!

  7. What a wonderful post full of gentle wisdom! Boy do I wish you were still living in my city and I could give you a quick ring to chat.. especially after the kind of day I had today.. definitely a REACTIVE sort of day.. not one of my finer days...

    Okay, so what sorts of tactics would you use for a boy who does more than just 'huff' at me?! LOL!!
    I'm talking major attitude and name calling...
    I did mention I was in fine-reactive mode today?! LOL!!!

    Oh these monkeys of ours.... :)

  8. This blog post really caught my interest. Especially the part about safety. I currently don't parent this way, but I would certainly like to implement some of these things.

    Question: how would attachment style parenting (and also this style of discipline) work for say 3,4, 5 youngsters. I feel like you would run out of arm space and time.

  9. @Trace: I'm sorry you had such a tough day! *hugs* You are such a good mom to that little boy, truly.

    Major attitude and name calling...again, I have to preface by saying it really would depend on the situation, but I can try to answer with some generalities.

    If the attitude is in response to a request, I would more likely than not ignore the attitude and address the obedience. Repeat the request with an offer to help, then get up to enforce it. Later, at a less intense moment, I would discuss the attitude and rude words, scripting appropriate responses and healthy ways of expressing feelings.

    If the attitude was spontaneous, I would give him the "raised eyebrow" look and ask him, "would you like to try that again, politely this time?" If that was enough, great. If it persisted, I would consider when the last time he ate was. Does he need some food in him NOW? If that was not a factor, I would let him know, calmly, that if he cannot treat people kindly, then he will need to go somewhere else until he feels able to do so again. It is not a time out in the punitive sense - he is free to come back out when he is ready, and he is free to request my presence if he's in need of some quiet snuggling time. What he is not allowed to do is continue to treat others unkindly. This is a chance to quietly reset himself.

    Always, always, the calmer I stay, the sooner the situation is diffused. It's so hard sometimes and I definitely have bad days where I'm short-tempered and spend too much time yelling or barking out commands. Those are the days where, when I've calmed myself down, I must go and reconnect with my child, apologizing for being unkind and often asking both him and, out loud in prayer, Jesus, to forgive my unkindness. I can't expect out of my child what I can't even offer him. I will have bad days and I know he will too. It's on the good days and the calm, connected moments that I can give him the tools and scripts he needs to help him through those more difficult moments.

    I don't know if any of that was a help to you at all, Trace. I'd be happy to offer my thoughts on a specific scenario if that would help, as I know generalities aren't always terribly useful. You are a good mom though, and God had a plan in mind when he brought you and Luke together. Such a lucky little boy you have, Trace, even at his most difficult. Look at your Nov 11th entry one more time - this is a kid who knows knows knows what is truly important in life. That is a gift of immeasurable worth that you have given to him.

  10. @Brittney: That's an interesting question. I don't have practical experience with a larger family size, although we do have three here for half the week, two babies and a preschooler, all cared for in an attachment parenting manner. I do, however, know many many wonderful mothers of large families (4+ children) who parent this way and say that it can be done. Many of them say that they find it actually easier on them, as they are not stuck to an arbitrary schedule but instead are able to respond to their infants' and children's needs on an as-needed basis.

    I wonder (and I ask this sincerely!), what part of attachment parenting do you feel would be a challenge for a larger group of children? Where specifically do you see the problems arising?

    In my experience with my own, I have found that the attachment parenting we practiced when the oldest was an infant has led to an independent and capable preschooler who knows that we will meet his needs and assist him in learning how to handle his feelings in a healthy manner. It has made it so that I find I can easily parent our second child in the same way. I can, for example, lay down with my baby at his nap time and stay with him as he falls asleep, rather than prematurely forcing him to learn to self-soothe. My preschooler is able to entertain himself as I do this. It is, I feel, an important time for all of us, as I get a small rest, the baby gets a few minutes of my undivided attention without the presence of his much bigger and louder older brother, and the older boy has an opportunity for independent play. If I had parented the older boy differently and left him feeling insecure, it may not now be so easy for him to let me have that time alone with the baby.

    I also find that, in a very practical sense, attachment parenting methods make it easier with additional children. On days when I have three of them, I can easily put one in a sling, leaving me with two hands free to deal with the others. I can respond to their needs as they arise rather than enforcing an arbitrary "eat and sleep when I say so" schedule, such as trying to force one to go to sleep because it is "naptime" rather than because he is actually tired. I do not find that chaos results from this lack of imposed schedule, but rather that a pattern soon emerges and we are able to work that into our lives.

    Attachment parenting is, at its core, a method of parenting that promotes a strong relationship between parent and child. It is not a list of things that must be done, but rather a flexible and fluid method that adapts to the individual family. Some families are unable to or uninterested in co-sleeping, for example, and that's fine. Attachment parenting would suggest that they find another way to meet their child's nighttime needs.

    I think, too, there are a lot of misconceptions about attachment parenting. It is not permissive parenting and it should not be child-centric, as that leads to an unhealthy dynamic in the family. There is balance in a healthy AP family, coupled with an awareness that children's needs should be met rather than ignored in an effort to force premature independence. Rather, a strong attachment promotes security which then naturally leads to confidence and age-appropriate independence as the child grows.

    I hope that answered your question, but if I completely missed the mark please do clarify and I'll try again. :)

  11. Thank you Cynthia!! Greatly appreciated! I really needed the reminder AND the vote of confidence...

    I particularly needed the reminder that when the back-talk is happening in response to a request, then I need to ignore the secondary issue (the backtalk) for the time being in order to follow through first on my request...

    Thanks again - I really needed to hear this.


  12. Wow... I'm sorry it's taken so long to get back to you. I was actually a bit overwhelmed by how much information was in your response and was unsure if I could explain myself fully. I'm going to make an attempt, ha.

    I was a missionary dorm mother at a deaf boarding school for 2 years. At this particular school there were strict consequences to every rule that was not followed. It was a bit extreme, but I felt (at least at the time) like it was necessary to the success of the school. There were instances of kids sneaking out of the dorms at night to meet and make out and what not... which if found out by the social services would have ended in all the missionaries being deported and the school being shut down (which happened a few miles away in an orphanage).

    I feel like many of these kids would benefit from attachment styled parenting because of their common dysfunctional family lives. There are a few problems I see with it though.
    1) in this instance we were not their parents so I'm not sure it would be a good idea to be so hands on with the kids that they would be inclined to trust everybody (especially men) as these kids are especially susceptible to abuse.
    2) with this large of a group how would attachment parenting look? obviously there would be no family bed, but bed times and meal times unscheduled? And conflict resolution (I should mention that I was the only dorm parent to 17 girls ages 5-18)... how would you go about that?
    3) how would you put a stop to things that absolutely CAN NOT happen?

    Obviously this is a totally different situation than normal, but it still has peaked my curiosity. I wonder if it can/should be done in these types of group settings.

  13. On a separate note. I always assumed, incorrectly I guess, that attachment parenting is child centered parenting. And because I don't think that is Biblical, I didn't study it much. I've always felt that babies adapt to their parents lives and activities and that together as a family we grow into a way of life. We didn't "give up" our lives in order to have and raise our children. Does that make sense?

    Both of our girls are very secure, independent thinkers. They both play well on their own and with others... their attachment to us doesn't come from proximity, but from a family bond (which I'm sure you have with your boys as well). They are so very different than each other and I find myself parenting them very differently according to their needs.

    one last question: My niece is not a toucher. She's 4 and has never (even as a very young baby) been one for being held, cuddled or even patted on the back. She's always been supper independent and has a strong need for a very structured life (her brother is the exact opposite). I've known others like this as well. What would attachment parenting be like for this kind of child?

  14. @Brittney: You raise some very interesting questions!

    Regarding the dorm mom situation, I think attachment parenting would be very difficult in that sort of setting. I wouldn't be one to recommend unscheduled mealtimes or bedtimes for that age range or that setting in general. AP really only suggests cue-feeding and sleeping in infants; only some recommend that children retain complete control over those things as they grow. I am not one of those. My toddlers and up have a bedtime and have mealtimes. I like in theory the idea of allowing them to listen to their bodies and eat/sleep when they feel the need to; however, I don't see that happening in reality, when a child is likely to get distracted and ignore their eat/sleep body cues, resulting in an irrational overtired or hungry child.

    I do think, though, that a form of gentle discipline would be plausible in that situation. I'm not sure exactly what it would look like, though it's interesting to think about. I know there are preschools, at the very least, that use gentle discipline and do so successfully. Conflict resolution, for example - could the students be given more control over that? Made to rectify the situation in a way of their (reasonable) choosing? Giving them ownership of the problem and the means to solve it on their own would provide them with tools that would benefit them throughout their lives. As for things that cannot happen, I don't think strict consequences are unreasonable in that setting at all (I mean, I don't know what they entailed, so perhaps I would retract that statement if I knew the details). Strict consequences aren't necessarily incongruous with gentle discipline. The consistency is the most important part (here is the rule, this WILL be the consequence for breaking it, period). Ideally the consequence should be reasonable (natural/logical), simple, valuable (teach rather than punish), and practical, as described by Barbara Coloroso in her book "Kids are Worth it".

  15. @Brittney: Regarding your last comment, I particularly agreed with this part: "together as a family we grow into a way of life". Absolutely. I think the idea that AP is child-centered is the biggest misconception, helped along by other big parenting "experts" who portray AP in that unfavourable light.

    However, I would say on the other hand that it is not parent-centered, either. I don't feel that I have "given up" my life in attachment parenting my children, but I do believe that some sacrifices are required in parenting. I think there's a middle ground between a completely child-centered approach (such as the "taking children seriously (TCS)" theory, which I do not personally agree with) and a wholly parent-centered approach where the child is made to fit into the parents' lives and schedules right from day one.

    I understand what you mean about attachment coming from the parent/child bond. That bond is strong and takes a significant amount of trauma to break. In that sense, I believe the term "attachment parenting" is a bit of a misnomer. It was a term, however, that rose in response to an increasingly common form of parenting which encouraged "independence" in very young, and even newborn, infants. A baby being left to cry for hours in order to "teach" him or her to "self-soothe" is not a method of promoting attachment between mother and child. Nor is spanking infants who are not yet cognitively developed enough to understand cause and effect. And so on and so forth. As the ideas of "independence" and "scheduled training" became of such importance to even babies, parent/child attachment was affected (and I don't think we've yet even understood the full extent of those effects), and so the idea of "attachment parenting" arose in response.

    All that to say, I believe that in the absence of significant detachment (or, obviously, outright abuse), children will naturally have a strong bond with their parents, even if their parents do not use common "attachment parenting" tools. However, I also believe that attachment parenting gives parents and children the best chance at a strong bond and the best tools to achieve that.

    My boys are, like your girls, so different from each other. I absolutely parent them differently, according to their own unique needs and personalities. In that way, as I mentioned before, the practicalities of AP are very fluid, unique to the individual family and their needs.

    For your niece, for example, AP would still involve respecting her needs as real and valid, and responding to those needs in a way that is consistence with her personality, based on a strong parent/child relationship and with a solid understanding of who she is as a person. Structure is definitely not incompatible with AP, especially for the preschool age, which often thrives on structure. The on-cue/unscheduled portion of AP really only applies to babies, and again arose in response to very strict scheduling of infants feeding and sleeping, which frequently resulted in failure to thrive (because the baby wasn't being fed as often or as much as needed), early weaning (because the mother wasn't nursing enough to build up a good supply), and physical and psychological harm to infants (from being left to cry themselves to sleep for hours in the name of self-soothing and scheduling).

    I'm probably rambling again - I'm sorry! Being concise is definitely not a strength of mine. I hope I've said something that makes sense!

  16. Excellent! I loved this post and your follow up comments. Full of grace and truth. I'm linking it on my blog today.

    This is my old post on our discipline toolbox. :)

  17. Always good to be reminded of the alternatives to just "doing what my parents did" in raising me. The "hows" of gentle graceful parenting so often get overlooked... and we mothers of littles need reminders... Thanks Cynthia!!

  18. Enjoyed it, keep it up.

  19. I absolutely loved this post! Thank you for sharing

  20. Good reminders. I am going to bookmark this.

    I have a hard time avoiding power struggles. In the example you gave about the quiet time? I have been there. My spirited son is not that easy to redirect or distract. I have spent many nights sitting in his doorway, putting him back in bed.

    I have had to just work on not loosing my cool so I can appropropriately handle all the melt-downs. It is hard, but I believe that doing the right thing often is. :)

  21. I love how you said you are trying to teach your children HOW to thing not merely what to think! That is a very powerful statement! My daughter is only 21 months old & I explain(simply) the things I tell her & she understands. People don't give children enough credit, they are VERY smart and have the ability to comprehend if you invest the time of teaching them. I fully believe that this practice is one of the biggest reasons that my DD has such a LARGE vocabulary also! It's a win, win!

  22. Do you have any thoughts/suggestions on what to do if partner does not use same methods?

  23. Good question, Dena. It's going to depend on the personality of the partner - are they persuaded by written research or studies? verbal explanations? a relevant book? discussions? It will also depend on where they are at right now and what they are basing their current methods on.

    In general, however, I think one of the most valuable things to do is to lead by example. I often hear my words coming out of my husband's mouth (which is great when I'm parenting the way I should be, and not so great when I've had a bad few days!), and I find that he picks up on my cues and attitudes towards our children, often responding in kind.

    Rather than trying to persuade a partner to accept an entirely new perspective, I found it more effective to take a case-by-case logical approach. For example, when our firstborn started hitting as a toddler (because he thought it was silly), my husband asked if we should slap his hand to get him to stop. I suggested that maybe it didn't make sense to hit him in order to teach him not to hit. My husband considered this, saw the logic, and agreed. We came up with a positive alternative (teaching him what TO do - touching gently) and the hitting quickly went away. That has worked for us because I find gentle discipline to be a very logical way of raising children, which makes these sorts of discussions short and sweet around here.

    In short, I have found that leading by example combined with case-by-case discussions of the best way to handle a situation has been far more effective than a more general attempt to change the partner's entire approach to parenting. I recognize, however, that this will not work for all personalities. While it would be ideal for both parents to be on the same page, I think that children will still benefit greatly if only one parent uses this more holistic and gentle approach to discipline, and hopefully the other parent will see the fruit of that and come around in time.

  24. Hi there, this is really a great article, but I have some remarks,
    you repeatedly talk about discipline and teaching your child something, now even though that is indeed way better than punishment, it's just one step away and doesn't lead to a connected relationship, but still a top down approach to parenting. The 'teaching them something' idea places you as the all knowing being ABOVE your child, and discipline, albeit gentle, is always directed at getting the child to do what YOU want him to do, to conform to YOUR whishes. If you are seeking a connected and guiding style of parenting, you should step away from this idea.

    I know that the term gentle discipline gets used around the crunchy community (I did it myself) and from what I read in your article, most of the tools you are handing over here are peaceful parenting tools, not gentle discipline.

  25. Thank you for that perspective, mamapoekie. I understand what you are saying, as I see from your website that you subscribe to the idea of Taking Children Seriously, a concept I had previously explored. Ultimately, I have come to the conclusion that that style of raising children does not line up with what I believe to be the role of a parent, whether speaking from a biblical or biological perspective. I do believe, as you said, that children must be taught. I respect your desire for collaboration with your child/ren, and certainly I seek that as well when appropriate, but ultimately I do see it as my role to teach them that which they may not pick up naturally.

    If I am understanding you correctly, you are saying that most of the tools I have listed here are actually what you call "peaceful parenting" tools, and it is the remainder of the more "coercive" discipline tools that I should be stepping away from. I agree that what I hope to achieve is always connection with my children and an inward rather than external motivation for them to choose to do right; I disagree that discipline/teaching is intended to force or trick the child into conforming to my wishes. I see the goal of discipline/teaching as being one of guiding the child towards maturity and developing in them an understanding of both how and why they should choose to act in a particular manner. I think the fundamental difference in our viewpoint is that you feel children inherently have a correct understanding of what they should do in any particular situation, while I believe that children require guidance into order to develop this understanding.

  26. I love this post, it really gives me some actual ways of how to do things! and i've been looking a long time. the one thing i'm still missing is how to with multiple children. You mentioned that you know other families with 4+ kids, but didn't really say how they deal with, I'll give particular example: I have 3 kids, 4.5, 3, 10 months. Trying to get ready to go out, the 4.5 yr old is very much capable fo getting her own shoes and coat on, she's refusing cause she likes to have help, but she can also be very strong willed and indepandant, how do you honestly offer to help her when you have 2 others to get ready by yourself and still do your own shoes etc too! I do find that giving her 4 min to put her shoes on or i'm gonna do it for her helps, but i still feel like i'm being very forceful, i'd love to get past that and have her happy to do her own. Even at school the 2 days she goes, she's always the last one to have her clothes on to go out and play in the snow. Thanks for your help

  27. That's an interesting question, Christina. I didn't get into it precisely because I don't have that experience with multiple kids, only the assurance from other parents that a gentle approach to discipline does work with their larger families. A few thoughts though:

    At 4.5, do you feel she is old enough to understand the natural consequence of not being ready on time ("it's time to go, shoes and coat on or not")? Take her shoes and coat with you if she'll need them and leave the house when you need to. If she's the last one ready at school, it means she gets less time in the snow. That's her prerogative.

    If you find her to be particularly strong-willed, I highly recommend Raising Your Spirited Child: A Guide for Parents Whose Child Is More Intense, Sensitive, Perceptive, Persistent, Energetic by Mary Kurcinka.

    She is reaching the age where she may need an increased level of responsibility. Does she have chores? Can she be given the charge of helping her 3 year old sibling get ready? Activity that makes her feel important and useful will help her to move past the stage of wanting help for things that she is capable of doing herself. She may also benefit from assisting you in the creation of a morning routine for her that will make getting out the door go more smoothly. If she plays a role in its creation, she will feel ownership over it and be more willing to follow through.

    Finally, I do want to encourage you. What you described sounds like a normal stage for 4.5 and she will grow out of it soon. It may feel forceful now to have to give her that four minute span of time to choose to do it herself before you do it for her, but it will be a short-lived stage as she moves past the typical half-year disequilibrium.

  28. THank you so much for your input, i'll look into those books, and i think what you said is very true, she kinda needs a little more responsibility, but it's hard trying to get her to clean up, i constantly get the excuse that it'll make her too tired, so i try to tell her then maybe it's time for a nap (this is at like 9:30-10am) not quiet sure how to get around that excuse of hers, we usually get it done, but i find it exhausting trying to reason with her. but she might like to make a morning routine with me, she loves crafty things, so if i make an actual schedule on bristol board or something with pictures she can cut out of magazines, that would be fun for her. and i have been thinking of starting chores with her, just not sure what she can do that I won't just have to re-do lol
    Thanks so much for your input def gives me something to think about. And i love the sounds of that book, sounds just like her hehe

  29. I just found this today, and it's actually incredibly helpful for me. My daughter just turned two, and I am struggling with how to use these kinds of concepts in parenting and disciplining, but honestly find it very difficult because it is completely different from what I have always been taught. This post gives me (and DH) some great tools!

  30. I love this post! Great concrete ideas.

    How about when you are a broken record and things still take too long to improve? I have a spirited and curious 3 1/2 year old and there are some things I remind him of daily. One is being gentle to his 9 month old sister. We model, discuss, and praise appropriate interactions but often becole a brOken record. We currently use time out for continual issues like this but want something better. Ideas?

  31. Ah, three and a half. Unfortunately, it is an age of repetition - they need to hear the same rules over and over and over, having them continually and consistently reinforced.

    As they approach four years old, added responsibilities can do wonders for their behaviour. It gives them a sense of doing something grown up and important, an outlet for all of their energy, and something to keep them busy.

    Whenever our preschooler fails to be gentle with his younger brother, he is required to make amends for it (make his brother feel better). If he continues to be too rough or unkind, he needs to sit down with me or in his room until he regains control of himself.

    It is also helpful to phrase things in terms of what they should be doing rather than what they shouldn't be doing (which you may be doing already). Acknowledge the underlying desire (for example, "it looks like you want to play with your sister") and then coach them on how to do that appropriately ("she really likes it when you sing songs to her"). Becky Bailey's "Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline" is really excellent as far as giving concrete scripts that you can use.

    If it's any encouragement, four is often a big turning point, so you may find that many of his challenges take care of themselves over the next few months.

  32. I would love to have a good alternative to time-outs! My 4 yr old has been strong willed since age 1. He's intense- emotionally and physically. He love snuggling, but he also has a very difficult time controlling himself physically. He will be totally fine and walk into a room and scream at the top of his lungs (we use the "try again" a lot for this). But the biggest problem is his desire to hurt. This can either happen when he is perfectly happy and excited about something (and as a result we can't get too over- excited or even silly about things or it pushes him over the edge even if we're being positive). Many times he'll just push his brother into the wall (or stove, or floor). When he's angry he'll continually hit us or spit at us (a habit since he learned to spit when brushing his teeth). Just tonight he hit and spit his daddy out of the blue (it was close to bedtime, so he was tired). Then after talking with him about it (and saying he was sorry and asking for forgiveness) he laughed and said it is fun to hit (he's been very haughty about his misbehavior lately). We're fairly consistent with him and time-outs have worked some in the past (we view it as a way for him to regain control and show us he's in control), but we love to know a better way. Any suggestions? I've wanted to follow a more gentle way of training my child, but have not found anything to work with him yet, and keep resorting back to time-outs. Any help is appreciated! (And BTW, he's a wonderful, helpful, extremely bright boy most of the time!)

  33. Teresa, so sorry to not respond to you sooner. You might find some helpful solutions on my post Ten Alternatives to Time-Outs.

    He sounds like an energetic little boy! I wonder if you might find helpful the book Raising Your Spirited Child: A Guide for Parents Whose Child Is More Intense, Sensitive, Perceptive, Persistent, Energetic by Mary Kurcinka.

    Have you considered organic causes to his intensity (diet, etc)? Dairy and food dye are both common triggers for the sort of behaviour you are describing. It may be something to look into.

    It is also an intense age. Many parents report a complete change in their children when they turn 5 - far greater maturity, self-control, and so on. In the meantime, consistency and repetition are so important. Repeatedly have him make amends for hurting others, repeatedly direct him to the bathroom or outside for spitting ("You may not spit. If you want to spit, you may do so outside or in the bathroom sink."), and repeatedly state that hitting is unacceptable. The post I referenced above (alternatives to time-outs) goes into more detail about how to handle hitting and how to assist your child in learning the skills necessary to calm down and regroup when needed.

    I hope that something I have said is of help and encouragement to you!

  34. Hi there,

    Thanks for this post - it's really helpful. I have a 2 1/4 year old girl and am struggling to make the shift from punitive methods to true discipline. I find it hard because at that age her communications and reasonings skills, though good, are still developing and a lot of the things I've read are more appropriate for slighly older kids.

    Are there any books you could recommend that are really practical and deal specifically with toddlers?

    Thanks :)

  35. I'm glad you found it helpful, Bron.

    The best book I've read for toddlers is Harvey Karp's The Happiest Toddler on the Block. He includes a page or two that I don't entirely agree with (such as advocating traditional time-outs), but for the most part it's a great book and was a big help when my older boy was a toddler.

    Dr. Sears' The Discipline Book is aimed at children from birth through age ten; you may find it helpful.

    You can also find practical tips for the toddler age in my post Gentle Discipline for Toddlers.

    Hope that helps!

  36. I have recently come across your this blog. I am finding it increasingly difficult to deal with my very spirited 2.5 year old. More and more frequently she is getting the best of me.

    There a few instances that happen repeatedly. Dinner time is one that is making me want to beat my head against the wall. When I call my daughter to the table she says she doesn't want dinner. I tell her she can have dinner or wait on the step until she's ready. We tend to go back and forth for a while sometimes with tears sometimes without. This ends in one of three ways - 1) she decides to eat and is fine 2) she comes to the table, eats with with much coaxing and often the promise of a treat 3) she grudgingly eats tiny bites, often gagging, three times now she has made herself sick.

    I feel that there is some underlying issue, a need she has that's not being met but I'm not sure what it is. How you approach this situation?

  37. Falz, mealtimes are such a tricky and controversial subject. One of the most helpful ideas I've come across on the matter is the division of responsibility in feeding. This division of responsibility suggests the following:
    *The parent is responsible for what, when, and where to eat.
    *The child is responsible for how much and whether to eat.

    The link provides further information on the subject. I hope it proves to be helpful to you.

  38. Love this post. Really made me rethink my approach (or lack there of these days) with my 2yo. Here's a situation I'd LOVE for you to help me through. I've been AP since my DD was borne and come from a semi-AP family, so I figured I'd have all the tools... nope!

    My DD is a dawdler/runner. I say, "lets get dressed and go outside!" and she says "YES!" then runs for it when the clothes come out or shoes are placed before her. Infuriating but-- I usually stay calm and eventually, get her good to go. Any tips on handling it better? She loves being chased down and loves to take her sweet time. I am great about accounting for this dawdling time but sometimes... I bribe her with a lollipop when we really need to rush. Bad for her teeth but BOY does it WORK! Great in the grocery store too!

    My DD loves to eat something, then spit it out. Not matter how I approach it. I do let her eat in other places than her high chair (which she stands in mostly, and that's not safe!). Sometimes, it seems like she wants to take a bite of food JUST to chew and spit out!?!?!??! What gives? It's a horrible mess and the carpet is so sad! She also likes to pour water/juice/liquid out just to see it spit.

    I feel like I give her lots of water play time, lots of messy activities where she goes wild. I've even let her play extensively in the fridge with the condiments. My approach is to immediately take it away and explain why. And yeah, I've been known to react a bit overdramtically. ;) I was almost thinking of a time-out. I've never used them, and don't like to-- just don't think they *work* and it's just a way to frustrate a kid, if you ask me.

    Any ideas?!?!?! Thanks!

    1. Tillymonstar, please forgive my delay in replying. It's just that you're handling everything so well! Really, this is a challenging stage as she begins to explore in earnest her independence and surrounding environment. Many of these behaviours will be outgrown over the next few months.

      Dawdling: As you said, account for the time when possible. The only thing I personally chose to do differently with my boys is with the chasing. I tried never to chase them when it was time to get ready (except, of course, when their personal safety was at risk!) because it has a habit of becoming The Game to Play when it's time to go. I saved chasing for other times (a game on its own) and instead waited for them to come to me, or went and retrieved them in a non-chasing manner.

      Spitting: Again, as you said, lots and lots of sensory play. She sounds like a child who really needs that, and it's so great that you've been providing her with those opportunities. Chewing and spitting out is normal for that age, but to redirect it appropriately, try the following:
      * Redirect the spitting to acceptable places ("spit it out on the plate" rather than the carpet).
      * Immediately and consistently remove cups that are being spilled ("water is for the sink").
      * Be proactive in limiting messes (no-spill sippy cups, a towel under her chair, food/drinks at the table only, etc).
      * Have her assist in cleaning up spit food and spilled drinks. Keep it lighthearted and matter-of-fact ("oops, you spilled some juice on the floor! Let's get a towel so you can wipe it up.")

      I feel like I haven't said very much, but again, it sounds as though you're already handling this challenging stage very well! If you haven't read it, my post on Gentle Discipline for Toddlers may prove to be of further use. Best of luck!

  39. Hi! Thank you for your blog and for your shared wisdom. I have few questions - I have a wonderful and strong willed 22 months old girl. How can I help her to learn how to handle her feelings? Example: when I lay on the floor and we play, she gets overly excited and starts to bite me and pinch me which really hurts. I explain her that she needs to caress and kiss me instead and she immediately does it, but then again as soon as we start playing she bites and pinches again. And eventually I just loose it and feel guilty OR I have to stop playing. What should I do to fix this situation? Another issue I have that she doesn't seem to listen to me when it counts - like when we need to cross the road she just wants to play and runs away from me so I have to grab her arm and to pick her up to carry across the road safely, while she treats it as a game. How can I help her to learn to distinguish between game and serious situation? And the last question - I tell her "no" (like "we are painting on the paper, not on the table")and naturally she looks me into eyes with a little smirk on her face and does opposite. I'll repeat few times, then I just take away paint and paper for the time being. What other better way can I react/do in such situation? THANK YOU!!!!

    1. So sorry I didn't reply sooner, Anon! For that age, you might find Gentle Discipline for Toddlers useful. It touches on most of those questions, particularly the idea of teaching children how to express their feelings in ways that are both healthy and socially appropriate. Good luck!

  40. Hi, I only have one child and he is 5 months old. Obviously I haven't had to discipline him yet :) But I do wonder, how early do you start?? When do they "know better" or do things purposely? I still feel like he is too young to do anything on purpose-- he only reacts to his needs. But I want to start out on the right foot when it comes to discipline. For example, a lot of babies start doing things (biting, hitting, spitting food) repeatedly because they find them funny. Or maybe it's the parent's reaction that they find funny. How would you remedy that? Also, do they know the meaning of the word "no"? I've heard that you shouldn't use that word, but should instead redirect them... What are your thoughts on that?
    My mom was a yeller and used phrases like "because I said so", also used spanking when necessary. I want to avoid those things and discipline like you have described in this post (GREAT post by the way!!). I hope that makes sense. Sorry for all the questions. Thanks so much!!

    1. Such a great question, and one I get asked so often that I wrote a separate post about it! I hope you find it helpful: Gentle Discipline for Babies

  41. Hi Hippie housewife, I love your blog! Thank you so much for clarifying what gentle parenting looks like. Spanking gives an immediate obedience, but as I witnessed in my own children, it can produce deceitfulness. My children were afraid of punishment and developed secret lives. They were very respectful to all adults, and looked the part of all american boys, but they lived on eggshells in our home, and relationship between father and son was non existent. Living with anxiety and shame is not God's plan, and we did not display to them a loving God who is gentle, kind, tenderhearted, and patient. We really thought we were doing the right thing by providing strict discipline, but hindsight is a wonderful and painful thing. I am now a nanny, and I have put into practice the methods of training that do not include physical punishment, and my charges follow my instruction and guidance. We have a peaceful existence with one another, and have mutual respect. Do they scream? yes. Do they throw tantrums? yes. But every "how to" you mentioned works, and I have seen it in action. I now promote the non violent method, and attempt to encourage this form of discipline with young moms, but you can't imagine how controversial it is in the church. How did this happen?