We usually define discipline as ‘submission to superiors’. What if discipline comes from within us and not from outside? If our internal focus of evaluation pushes us to set goals and achieve them? To obey values ​​and respect others? According to the principles of positive parenting, true discipline is about guiding, training, and encouraging children. Its ultimate goal is self-discipline: the creation of an internal locus of control, the strengthening of internal motivation and emotional self-regulation.

Punishment versus Discipline

Discipline focuses on the future by teaching, guiding, and encouraging the child toward desired behaviors, while punishment focuses on the past, on unwanted behaviors, and on suppressing them. Positive discipline aims at prevention by environment modification (addition, removal or change in space), uses the example of parents as a model (children who are yelled at, they also yell at others when they are angry) and the reinforcing message (e.g., “The trip was very pleasant and safe today when you chatted and played calmly in the car”).

Even when the child’s behavior is not desirable, consistency and correction are sought but not punishment. If, for example, the child spills his juice, cleaning up the damage alone or with us, depending on the age, is a repair and not a punishment. Not going to the park because he didn’t do his homework on time and there isn’t time left until the evening routine, is a consequence, not a punishment. Not eating ice cream because he spilled the juice, or because he didn’t do his homework on time, is punishment – the consequence is unrelated to the behavior.

With the application of positive discipline, child and parent come closer, the relationship and connection is strengthened, the power struggle is limited. And this is because with active listening the parent searches for the needs and feelings that caused the behavior. He works with the child to fix it, they become allies against the unwanted behavior. The child is not treated as a problem.

Rewards, however, are not considered a tool of positive discipline, since they transfer the focus of evaluation from the child to the adult. Do we want children to study for our own thumbs up and grades or because they are genuinely interested in the lessons? To the counter-argument that this is how they are trained in responsibility, we can argue that responsibility can be taught by doing housework or taking care of a pet.

And of course, it is very important that the parent has the right expectations from the baby, toddler or school-age child, depending on the developmental stage they are going through and their temperament. It is unfair to punish a hyperactive child who is locked in an apartment because his little brother of the same age was much quieter, just as it is unreasonable to expect a four-year-old to always be consistent with our agreement.


Positive discipline tools for toddlers and school-aged children

Prevention is always important, whether it’s preemptive messages (“Once you do two more laps of the slide, we’re going home”), or environment modification. When it comes to activities, early planning is needed, especially if we know our child gets upset when he has to stop an activity or when he has to leave somewhere. When it comes to daily life, it is important to maintain fixed times for meals, sleep and activities. One idea is to make pictures or drawings together with the child that describe the routines.

The rules need to be few, simple, non-negotiable and apply to everyone.

The cornerstone of positive discipline is positive parent behavior and expression. The atmosphere in the family changes, just by using alternatives to “no”. How different does “No, we can’t play now” sound than “Once the clock hits six, I promise we’ll play together”? How different does it sound to children to suggest that they jump on the floor than to scream to get off the couch? Also, when was the last time you sent a family member a message that made them feel loved and successful? Do we take love and appreciation for granted and end up expressing only criticism?

With toddlers, selectively ignoring certain negative behaviors can also work as a positive discipline tool. The same negative behavior can hide a different need of the child each time: to pay attention to them, to have fun with them, to help them, to protect them, to comfort them or to help them control their emotions. Sometimes, instead of focusing on the negative behavior, we can simply apply the rule of ‘10 minutes of positive attention a day’, that is, meet the child’s need with our undivided attention and presence and with shared activities.

For toddlers, redirection is often a useful discipline tool. The basic condition is that rapport has preceded: we get down to the height of the child, look them in the eyes, touch them if they allows us gently on the back and suggest an alternative use of an object or action that makes the behavior acceptable.

To establish rapport, we need to acknowledge the child’s feelings: “You don’t like that you have to stop your game in the middle so we can leave” or “You’re angry that you can’t do this difficult puzzle” – without saying that we will not leave or that he is allowed to throw the puzzle pieces everywhere. When the parent practices active listening, firstly, the young child understands that they empathize with him and secondly, he is trained to recognize, express and regulate his emotions.

Our Positive Discipline Tools

Providing choices is a useful positive discipline tool that we often forget. E.g., “Would you like an apple or a banana?” (when he resents eating fruit), “Would you like to wear the red or the pink shirt?” (to make the outfit more interesting)Choices give the child a sense of control, so they become much more cooperative. After all, over time, providing choices builds children with an internal focus of evaluation: they are trained to make decisions and face the consequences. For toddlers, two or three options are enough so they don’t get confused. Clearly there are red lines where there are no options, such as matters relating to the child’s health and safety, sleep and attending school in the morning.

As an adult, the parent needs to guide the child in problem solving. The adult defines the problem and suggests alternative solutions. When the child is very young, the solution is simple and suggested by the parent. As the child grows, he chooses between 2 or 3 alternatives, while when he reaches preschool age, the parent may ask him to suggest solutions as well.

Repairing the damage done by the child accidentally is also part of positive discipline. It is better for the child to correct the mistake, understand that their actions have consequences (e.g., tape the torn page, pick up the spilled juice) in order to build a healthy sense of self, than to be forced to mechanically apologize.

In the context of positive parenting, we refer to natural consequences as the natural result of the child’s actions without the intervention of the parent. Parents who are not overprotective allow them when the child’s safety is not at stake (e.g., the child does not prepare enough for a test and gets a low grade). 

By logical consequences we define the logical result of the child’s act, but they are imposed by the parent. For example, we spent a lot of time picking up the scattered toys and we don’t have time to read him a bedtime story. It is important that they are related to the behavior that preceded it and that there is always respect to the child. Logical consequences are only used when the child can understand a cause-and-effect connection (ages 3+).


The parent as a role model

One of the most basic tools of positive discipline is the parent as a role model. Children are more likely to imitate their parents’ behaviors than follow their advice. So, let’s avoid behaviors that we don’t want to see in our children. Also describing our behavior serves to make the connection more conscious to the child. E.g., “I’m done with this book. I put it back in its place” or “I got really angry. Let’s take deep breaths.” 

Scientists claim that for the amygdala to calm down, that is, to get out of a crisis situation (fight, flight, freeze) we need at least twenty minutes. In contrast to the well-known time out, positive discipline suggests time in. When the child is overwhelmed by strong emotions and cannot communicate but hits, breaks things, etc., instead of taking the child to isolation in a punitive style so that he can think about the mistake he made (time out), we suggest taking the child from situation that causes tension and to wait next to him until he calms down (time in). Alternatively, we can take the child to a special spot that we have pre-agreed on and create together, his own corner of tranquility: a place in his room with pillows, music, painting, or whatever else calms them down. The child returns when he has calmed down and is ready to talk.

When the emotional flood has subsided, the parent helps the process by acknowledging the child’s feelings (“I understand that you were angry with your brother”). Describes the behavior that led to the time in and its consequences for others, without accusations or criticism (“I was horrified when I saw you hit him”) and describes or asks the child (depending on age) what he could have done differently (“Next time you can describe to him how angry you are with him. But in this house it is forbidden to hit”.)

Key goals of positive discipline are to develop the child into an adult with social skills such as responsibility, empathy, problem solving and self-control. The parent who practices positive discipline does not hurt his relationship with the child but strengthens it. The result? Children are disciplined even when parents or other authority figures are not present.

Gabriella is a licensed educational psychologist and a mental wellness advocate. She specializes in conducting psychological, cognitive, educational, social-emotional, and functional behavioral assessments for children K-12. These assessments are used to identify and diagnose educational and mental health issues, such as ADHD, learning disabilities, autism spectrum disorders, developmental delays, and emotional disabilities. She also provides individual and group counseling, crises counseling services, and parent consultation and training. She lives and works in New York.


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