Positive Discipline: Setting Your Child Up for Success
Can you count how many times a day your kid gets told “no?” As a parent, it’s hard to keep track. Dinner needs to be done, there’s that thing on your list you forgot to do, and “Josh, stop pulling the cat’s tail!”
Words like “don’t do that” and “stop doing this” slip out of your mouth almost effortlessly and in the daily grind of things, telling your kid “no” doesn’t seem terrible. Kids need discipline, right? Of course they do, but the way you decide to discipline your children can have a lasting impact.
What Is Positive Discipline?
Let’s go back to the scenario where you are busy cooking dinner and Josh is pulling on the cat’s tail. While saying “don’t do that” might be the easiest response, it fails to tell Josh what he could or should be doing instead. This is important. Every time your child does something that he or she shouldn’t, they are actually opening up an opportunity for you to teach them what they should be doing instead.
“Josh, instead of pulling the cat’s tail, pet her softly on the head.”
To be even more direct, the parent could also show Josh how to pet the cat. By instructing Josh on how to pet the cat, you remove the “don’t do this” lingo. As a parent, you are also assuming the best of your child (maybe Josh doesn’t know how to interact with the cat?).
“Positive” Means Assuming the Best
The challenge with disciplining children is that we, as adults, forget how much about life we already know, and sometimes overestimate how much knowledge our children actually have. This is where you might say, “But wait, isn’t all of this just a little bit passive?” Defending why you should assume the best, Doug Lemov, a former teacher, principle, and charter school founder, and author of “Teach Like a Champion,” argues in his book that “assuming the worst makes you appear weak.” Instead, he advises that it is best to give orders, “as if you couldn’t imagine a world in which he (or she) wouldn’t do it.”
The purpose of positive discipline is to eliminate misunderstanding and avoid consequence. One of the key elements to this is giving specific direction. The more clear your directions are (“pet” the cat “softly”) the less room you leave for error. In an ideal world, Josh would receive the direction and restructure his behavior (great!), but we know parenting is anything but “ideal.” The focus of positive discipline however, is to modify behavior first, set clear expectations and models for success, and issue consequences only after you are certain that your child has been intentionally defiant. Consequences should also create teachable moments; remember, not all defiant behavior can be addressed with a consequence. There could be a deeper issue at hand causing your child to misbehave, taking time to communicate and understand their perspective is essential.
Setting Expectations and Defining Model Behavior
Developing a plan for success with measured expectations makes it easier to motivate children in a positive way. Numerous studies show that people are more inclined to respond to positive motivations. Defining what successful behavior looks like and establishing role models who exhibit that behavior can help. If your son is a fan of “Star Wars” for example, have a talk with your child about the qualities that make a successful Jedi and establish expectations or “goals” to maintain Jedi status. When your child behaves well you might say, “That is definitely what a successful Jedi would do!” When he does not, instead of reprimanding him, question him and encourage him to self-reflect on whether his behavior meets the goals the two of you have set together.
Working together to set expectations can also help to ensure that the goals set are achievable for your child. Parents who set expectations outside of their child’s reach are likely to create more distance in the relationship. “Ironically, it can be a parent’s well-intended expectations that actually create unneeded conflict and stress and can become the direct cause of a child’s underachievement, lack of motivation, and underwhelm,” says Heather Forbes in her book, “Beyond Consequences, Logic, and Control.” Parents who do not positively inspire their kids will likely find that their kids are far less motivated to listen to parent rules.
Shannon Bouse, Adoption Director for Covenant Kids, Inc. – a nonprofit dedicated to improving the living circumstances of children who come from difficult places- agrees that a strong relationship is a key element to discipline.
“Relationships build when you take time to pay attention, talk, and listen to one another,” says Bouse. She has years of experience working with kids who often have troubled behavior due to circumstances outside of their control.
Positive Discipline Benefits the Relationship
Practicing positive discipline helps to build mutual respect between you and your child. This will not only improve your relationship, but also better prepare your child to handle conflict in the future. Positive discipline gives your child the opportunity to make their own logical conclusions and correct their behavior independently. The ability to reason through a conflict is an important lifelong skill for your child to learn.
“The process of learning self-control and self-discipline is linked very closely with how a child feels about themselves and their relationship to the world. It’s important that we help build and strengthen children’s ability to determine for themselves what’s right and wrong, and how to control their own behavior,” an excerpt from PBS’s “Whole Child” states.
Taking time to reason with your child not only teaches your child an important skill, it also gives your child the attention they sometimes crave.
“When you take time to explain something they’ve got your full attention,” Bouse says. “It’s more work on the parent because it takes more time but more beneficial on the children because it teaches them meaning and reasoning.”