How to Practice Positive Discipline at Home

Positive discipline is a parenting technique focused on kindness, trust, and connection. Here’s why some experts say it’s the ideal way to teach children right from wrong. 

Do you respond to bad behavior with yelling, lecturing, or revoking privileges? You may want to rethink your disciplinary method. "Kids don't learn when they're feeling threatened," says Jane Nelsen, Ed.D., author of the Positive Discipline series and a licensed marriage, family, and child counselor. Your child may comply with your demands because they’re afraid of what will happen if they don’t, rather than because they’ve grasped anything about right and wrong.

worried mom and daughter hugging

These days, some experts recommend “positive discipline,” a parenting technique focused on kindness and trust. According to Ari Brown, M.D., pediatrician and author of Baby 411 and Toddler 411, “Positive discipline means that you show respect, you listen, you reward good behavior, and you remind your child that you love her while you teach her right from wrong.” These affirmative actions make your child feel respected and loved, which in turn, should encourage positive behavior in the future.

Are you looking to incorporate positive discipline into your own life? Keep reading to learn more about the disciplinary technique.

What is Positive Discipline? Key Methods and Techniques

Dr. Nelsen created the positive discipline model to instill social and life skills in a respectful, encouraging way. She lays out five key criteria for positive discipline:

  1. Positive discipline is equally kind and firm.
  2. It helps children develop a feeling of connection (belonging and significance).
  3. The effects last long-term.
  4. It builds good character in children by teaching social and life skills.
  5. It shows children that they’re capable and can use their personal powers in constructive ways.

Advocates of this positive parenting technique don’t want to eliminate discipline altogether. Rather, they want to create a “loving hierarchy” that helps a child feel safe and protected, says says Shauna Shapiro, PhD, professor, speaker, and co-author of Mindful Discipline: A Loving Approach to Setting Limits and Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child.

Positive discipline aims to lead children in the right direction, and it lets parents view discipline as an instructive tool that teaches right and wrong. “If you let your toddler call the shots, it will haunt you as your child gets older and the stakes are higher. This week, it’s demanding candy at the grocery store checkout line. Later it’s going to a party with underage drinking or drug use,” says Dr. Brown, adding that the key to effective discipline is having a plan, setting limits, and following through.

The Benefits of Positive Discipline

While “negative discipline” doesn’t really exist, advocates for positive discipline don’t believe in verbal and physical punishments for kids. These strategies often trigger fear, distrust, and low self-esteem. “When we shame ourselves or other people, the parts of the brain that have to do with learning new behaviors are shut down,” says Dr. Shapiro. “Shame and self-judgement rob the brain of the energy it needs for changing, so the behaviors we want kids to change get stuck.” When you respond to bad behavior with negativity, a child will be more likely to act out again. In the long run, this may lead to issues with self-esteem and confidence.

On the other hand, positive discipline helps children feel motivated, encouraged, connected, and empowered. Experts also say it leads to emotional stability, confidence, and kindness in the long run. Also, according to the official Positive Discipline website, teens who perceive their parents as “both kind and firm” have increased academic success and lower risk of substance abuse.

How to Master Positive Discipline

Are you looking to incorporate the positive discipline method into your life? Check out Dr. Brown’s eight key points to mastering the technique.

Be a good role model. According to Shapiro, positive discipline always begins with the parent. “You need to make a change in your own life—start to integrate mindfulness and compassion” she says. Your children will learn from this behavior, and they’ll start acting with kindness in return.

Be consistent. Stick to your guidelines without backing down. Otherwise, children will think they can bend the rules whenever they’d like.

Be calm and brief. There’s no need to drag the punishment on with lectures; short and sweet comments work just as effectively.

Be quick. Discipline your child as soon as possible, even if you’re in public, so the reason for punishment is clear, suggests Dr. Brown.

Pick your battles. Not every bad behavior is worth the effort of disciplining; sometimes kids will simply act like kids. For example, you may discipline your child for slapping their sibling, but ignore a snappy comment made right before naptime.

Be realistic. Do you really expect a 4-year-old to sit quietly during an hour-long trip to the grocery store? Dr. Brown says parents need to have reasonable expectations of their kids.

Catch your child being good. “Your child craves your attention. Kids prefer positive attention like hugs or praise, but they’ll also accept negative attention like you screaming and yelling. So if you praise your child for cleaning up his toys, you’ll see more of that behavior, and he won’t have to resort to naughty behaviors to get you to notice him,” says Dr. Brown.

Remind your child that you love them. Remember that even though your child may behave badly, the child himself isn’t bad. Follow your discipline with hugs and sweet words, then move on afterwards.

It’s also important to note that your child won’t immediately change behaviors. “You are planting the seeds of discipline; don’t expect a tree to grow overnight,” says Dr. Brown.

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