Adopting Positive Discipline: Important Principles to Keep in Mind

Let’s begin with a little quiz.

1) You keep struggling to get your daughter to do her homework because she “has to watch her show” every evening. You

a) Ask her to help you come up with a solution to get her homework done
b) Ban TV before homework
c) Allow her to watch her show and do her homework at the same time.

2) Your children constantly fight about whose turn it is to set the table and you’re getting tired of having to ask repeatedly before they act. You:

a) Have a family meeting and come up with a plan on how family members will share chores
b) Ignore them
c) Give up trying and resign yourself to setting the table yourself

3) You believe that to raise disciplined children:

a) You need to teach and model mutual respect
b) Children must learn to obey authority
c) You must punish disobedient behaviour as soon as it is manifested

4) Your son, who has always loved apples, throws a tantrum because he didn’t want apples in his fruit salad. You

a) Talk to him to come up with a solution
b) Scold him and threaten to take away his salad if he doesn’t want it
c) Tell him he doesn’t have to eat the salad if he doesn’t want to

If you answered A to the questions above, you use the positive discipline approach.

The positive discipline approach is against all “do-as-I-say” parenting approaches and favours dialogue and encouragement.

You keep struggling to get your daughter to do her homework because she ‘has to watch her show’ every evening”? You ask her to help you come up with a solution.

One of the guiding principles of this approach is that letting children take ownership of their decisions helps their personal growth and makes it more likely for them to respect the decisions reached. There is evidence to support these views.

Autonomy granting, i.e., the transfer of decision-making from parents to children, has been found to be a win-win situation, even with younger children.

Teaching children to discuss and negotiate prepares them for adult life.

Making decisions, however, can be difficult with younger children. Indeed, available evidence suggests that children can make sound decisions only from age 8/9, and they gain decision autonomy between ages 12 and 17.

When dealing with younger kids, structured decision-making can come in handy. This involves allowing your child to participate in decision-making but limiting his/her choices: “do you want to brush your teeth now or in 5 minutes”?

We long struggled with the homework Vs. TV issue until we asked our son to come up with a solution and decide on how he would organise the things that needed to be done after school – snack, homework, shower, TV. We let him choose the order in which he carried out the things he had to do, on condition that TV came last. We also told him that he could not watch TV after 7 p.m.

Providing a structure within which decisions can be made reduces power struggles.

If you’re struggling with the TV issue, you could also try time limits – for instance, let your child decide when the homework gets done, so long as it’s finished by 6p.m.

Further reading: Curbing procrastination by helping your child practise decision-making: 5 tips to keep in mind

Your children constantly fight about whose turn it is to set the table and you’re getting tired of having to ask repeatedly before they act”? You have a family meeting and come up with a plan on how family members will share chores.

The positive discipline style is about avoiding battles and promoting cooperation and mutual respect.

It is about focusing on related, respectful, reasonable and helpful solutions rather than on consequences.

A key principle of this discipline approach is that creating an environment where respect thrives helps children develop self-discipline and problem-solving and cooperation skills.

However, the approach asserts that parents should not do things for their children if those children are able to do those things by themselves. Research agrees: while one study found that regular chores have lasting benefits on children’s academic, social and emotional development, another study came to the conclusion that the earlier children are assigned chores (from age 3), the more responsible and self-reliant they become.

The positive discipline approach has its roots in Diana Baumrind’s authoritative parenting style. It is a style that focuses on long-term objectives and advocates a kind but firm approach.

Initially introduced by Adler and Dreikur, positive discipline was largely developed by Jane Nelsen and her famous book Positive Discipline.

This approach views parenting as a democratic affair in which mutual respect reigns.

It is against punitive discipline that it believes might work in the short-term, but may have negative effects such are resentment, rebellion, aggressiveness, revenge or retreat in the long-term. Much evidence suggests that children raised in punitive environments (i.e. those in which corporal punishment and harsh verbal punishment are common) are more unhappy, have lower self-confidence, lower social and academic competence and are more likely to turn to substance abuse.

So how can you develop a positive discipline strategy?

Let’s start with the DO NOT’s

  • DO NOT be aggressive or hostile.
  • DO NOT humiliate your child (name-calling, verbal abuse, instill shame). “Get rid of the crazy idea that in order to make children, do better, first you have to make them feel worse. Do you feel like doing better when you feel humiliated”? (Jane Nielsen)
  • DO NOT discipline your child in the midst of conflict. Proper timing dictates the effectiveness of your discipline approach. Cool off, then respond.
  • DO NOT focus on your child, focus on the misbehaviour. Instead of saying “why are you so naughty” you could say “that wasn’t a nice thing you did”, “hitting your sister is not nice and it hurts”, “friends don’t hurt each other”.
  • DO NOT use strategies that lead to a loss of trust. If you build a relationship of trust now, it will last well beyond the childhood years.
The Key Principles of Positive Discipline

1) To discipline effectively, you must first understand the reasons and beliefs underlying misbehaviour. A child may refuse to cooperate because he/she is hungry, tired, trying to get attention or even angry at you or someone else.

Understanding these reasons by asking questions such as “I can see you’re upset, what’s wrong?” “What’s holding you back?” shows him/her you care and makes it easier to work out an appropriate solution.

At the start of the school year, our son’s teacher told us that all homework could be done in 20 minutes. Yet we had occasions when the homework just seemed to drag on and on and would often result in power struggles. Sometimes it was because of distractions (had to catch the end of his TV show!) but when we got talking, we found out that he was more reluctant to do his homework when he didn’t understand what was expected of him.

Understanding this made us change our approach to homework. First, we let him know he can watch TV after school BUT only when his homework was done. And now before he begins, we always ask “do you understand what you’re expected to do?”

2) Spend quality time. The positive discipline approach asserts that spending special time with each child every day helps children feel encouraged and can lead to a dramatic change in “problem children”.

Nielsen proposes that when tucking children into bed, ask them to tell you about their “saddest” and “happiest” moment during the day, then share the same information about your day.

3) Negotiation is a conflict-management tool. A few studies have found that children raised in families in which negotiation is used as a conflict-management tool are more likely to adopt positive behaviour and enjoy closer parent-child relationships. You can read about some of those studies here and here).

So let’s say your have a hard time getting your children to participate in chores. You can tell them “I know you guys have a hard time doing chores but you need to help around the house. How do you suggest we organise the chores that need to be done?”

According to the positive discipline theory, misbehaviour presents an opportunity for learning as it encourages children to actively participate in coming up with a solution. This view is based on the assumption that children behave well when they feel encouraged and have a sense of belonging.

Modelling the appropriate behaviour after you have made a mistake also teaches your child how he/she should behave:

a) Recognize your mistake
b) Be willing to apologise “I shouldn’t have yelled, I’m sorry”
c) Focus on solutions

Further reading: The art of negotiation: a powerful tool for resolving family conflict

4) Positive time-outs. The positive discipline approach does not advocate time-outs because it considers that time-outs humiliate children.

However, it advocates positive time-outs or what others have referred to as “time-ins”.

Positive time-outs are about helping your child feel better so he/she can open up. They are about offering an agreeable space where your child can go to “cool off.”

If your daughter is acting out, telling her “go to your space and read a book until you feel better” can be a more effective manner to handle the situation than getting into immediate conflict.

Most of the times our son is pretty laid back and easy going but sometimes, he can be a real pain. In these moments, we’ve found that asking him to “go to his space and come back when he’s chilled out” helps. He can sit on his bed, watch his Goldfish, read – anything he feels like except play video games or watch telly. Once calm, we talk.

If you need more information on the positive discipline approach, the Positive Discipline book and Positive Discipline Workbook are great resources.

So where do you go from here?

• Spend at least 5 minutes with each of your children at the end of the day. Ask them about their “happiest moment” and their “unhappiest moment” of the day.

• Honestly assess how you convey instructions. Do you communicate clearly? Is your child always aware of what is expected of him/her?

• Before you discipline, find out the reasons behind your child’s misbehaviour at least twice this week.

• Ask your child to help you come up with a solution to ONE of the discipline problems you’re struggling with.

I’d love to hear about your experiences. What tips do you think would work for you?

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