Positive Discipline for Realistic Parents

Prompted by a call from a disgruntled friend who had a nightmare weekend out of town with an unruly young child (whose parents did not one thing to discipline her antagonistic and abusive behavior), I recently wrote an article about parents who don’t say “no” to their kids. I quickly realized what a contentious subject I hit on. It’s no surprise that people who read and comment on parenting articles have strong opinions; raising children is such a personal and all-encompassing experience. If one dares to suggest that what you’re doing is “wrong,” it is only natural to get defensive. It can feel as if someone is directly criticizing your child, whom you love more than anything. No parent wants that.

I felt that it would only be responsible of me as a parenting writer (and as a parent, more importantly) to look into the other side of the “no” debate. I started reading about positive discipline (which is directly opposed to any form of punishment in a child’s early years) to understand what it is, and if and how it can actually be helpful or useful, even to someone who isn’t averse to using the word “no” with my toddler.

Some of the most polarizing comments I have ever seen followed one article on the topic of positive parenting. They ranged from belligerent comments on the need to discipline (and even hit) kids, to comments suggesting that positive parenting takes consistency and a necessity to completely understand the approach in order for it to be effective, to others just looking for advice on how to handle their difficult children. The one clear through line among the hostile and well-meaning comments alike was that everyone is just trying to do their best, just looking for answers, just trying to raise decent kids. I can’t fault any parent for trying.

Dr. Jane Nelsen wrote a book called Positive Discipline for Preschoolers (3rd Edition) that is often touted as the handbook for the positive discipline methods.

Positive Discipline for Preschoolers: Raising Children Who are Responsible, Respectful and Resourceful

There are some basics to her approach that are worth mentioning in order to get a handle on this particular parenting style. First and foremost, Nelsen explains that “before you can help your child choose different behavior, you must understand why your child is behaving this way, and what he is trying to accomplish with his behavior.”

She feels that a small child’s behavior is actually a coded message, or a response to something happening in his or her surroundings. Perhaps even a cry for help, disguised as unruly or otherwise unwanted behavior. She feels that the behavior indicates that the child feels discouraged or that he doesn’t belong, and that we just need to listen to begin to understand. She writes:

When a child believes he doesn’t belong, he feels discouraged. Out of that discouragement he chooses what Rudolf Dreikurs, author of Children: The Challenge (New York, 1991), called a “mistaken goal of misbehavior.” They are considered “mistaken” goals because the child mistakenly believes the behavior will help him regain a sense of belonging. You may view misbehavior differently when you recognize that a misbehaving child is simply a discouraged child who wants to belong and has a mistaken idea about how to achieve this goal.

Nelsen explains that in order to get to the root of what the child is trying to say, a parent must first look at:

  • how you feel in response to your child’s poor behavior
  • what your usual response to the behavior would be (as our responses tend to be predictable), and finally,
  • what the child does in response to the typical parental response

Sounds like a lot to handle, doesn’t it? That’s not to say that parents shouldn’t put forth as much effort as is needed to get to the root of a child’s problems. But the basic tenets of this philosophy can seem a bit heady at first glance. Luckily, some others have simplified the positive discipline approach. Here are a couple more tangible ways to improve behavior with this method in mind:

Bridget Bentz Sizer writes in “Seven Tips for Practicing Positive Discipline” to focus on controlling yourself, not your child.

Remember, yelling begets yelling, hitting begets hitting. “We should not do anything in front of [our children] that we don’t want them to do…” She also suggests giving “attention to the behavior you like – not the behavior you don’t [because] children often act up because they want your attention, so sometimes it pays to ignore those actions you don’t want to see more of.” Kersey calls this the “Rain on the grass, not on the weeds” principle. Tantrums and whining? Play deaf or walk away, and your child will quickly learn that there’s a better way to communicate.

This recommendation is something I can get behind. I’ve seen it in play over and over again with my own toddler. It can be difficult to ignore him when he’s trying to climb the bookshelves or open the oven door, so I suppose there are more ideal things to ignore. But when he is throwing himself on the floor because he isn’t getting what he wants, ignoring the situation is usually great at solving the problem pretty quickly (and good behavior generally follows shortly).

Vicki Glembocki in “Saying No to “No” recommends using the “Art of Distraction.” She writes:

Toddlers have a short attention span and can easily be moved on to the next thing. So focus on redirecting her (“Here are your bubbles — let’s go blow them together”). If that doesn’t work, give your child the independence she craves by putting her in charge of choosing an acceptable activity to replace a forbidden one.”

She also suggests a simple tactic of thinking before you speak. “Before you forbid your child from doing something, pause to be sure it’s important enough to enforce.” In other words, don’t waste your breath telling your kid not to pull out all the Tupperware from the drawer if it really won’t matter much in the end.

It seems there are some solid takeaways from the positive parenting movement. No one has to adopt any approach in its entirety. Every family has to do what works for them. We should take a little of this advice and a little of that philosophy so that in the end, we have tools to handle our children when their behavior is difficult to bear.