Most parents respond to a temper tantrum with stern shouts or exasperated reprimands. In turn, the child usually walks away feeling shameful, hurt, and humiliated. But what if bad behavior was met with compassion instead of punishment?
Positive discipline is a parenting technique focused on kindness and trust. It lets parents use discipline as an instructive tool to teach kids how to behave in the world. 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 good behavior in the future.
In contract, negative discipline (which involves verbal and physical punishments) triggers fear, distrust, and low self esteem in children. “When we shame ourselves or other people, the parts of the brain that have to do with learning new behaviors are shut down,” says Shauna Shapiro, PhD, professor, speaker, and co-author of Mindful Discipline: A Loving Approach to Setting Limits and Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child. “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.
Of course, advocates of this positive parenting technique don’t want to eliminate discipline altogether. Shapiro says a “loving hierarchy” helps a child feel safe and protected. It can also lead him in the right direction. “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.
Are you looking to incorporate positive discipline into your own life? Check out Dr. Brown’s eight key points to mastering the parenting 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 is clear, suggests Dr. Brown.
Pick your battles. Not every bad behavior is worth the effort of disciplining, and sometimes kids will act like kids. For example, you may discipline your child for slapping his sibling, but ignore a snappy comment made right before nap time.
Be realistic. Do you really expect a four-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 likes 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 her. 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 after incorporating positive discipline. “You are planting the seeds of discipline; don’t expect a tree to grow overnight,” says Dr. Brown.