If true discipline is about teaching, not punishing, then what practical tips and tools should we reach for instead when it comes to discipline in parenting? Ms. Bridgette, Lead Guide at Guidepost Montessori at Ogden, is a certified trainer in Positive Discipline. Below, she offers concrete solutions for how parents can navigate challenging behaviors and emotions.
The idea that discipline means punishment persists in mainstream culture today, but reactive punishments fail to address the root cause. Any immediate perceived discipline gained from punishment is extrinsic, surface-level compliance, rather than the more effective intrinsic discipline. Why is “inner discipline” important? Inner discipline is a child’s own moral compass, meaning they begin to make good choices because they know within themselves what is right or wrong. External discipline means they are merely complying because someone else told them to do so.
Learning what is right or wrong happens over time, and it is best internalized when we step into the role of model and teacher – not punisher. As Ms. Bridgette asks, “Why do we expect kids to do better by making them feel worse?”
Punishment, she added, creates different personalities or traits in children and adults. Either they tend to shy away and become approval junkies, or they rebel and create more power struggles.
So what can we do instead? Let’s take a humble look at some common scenarios:
Why Avoid It: It is offensive, and it makes your heart hurt. Especially between adult and child with the height difference, it cuts off a connection. That said, we all yell. As humans we have both a “reactive brain” and a “thinking brain.” When we yell, it is because we need to switch out of being reactive and into our thinking brain. It can be hard to stop and switch, so focus on humility rather than perfection here.
What to do instead: Pause and breathe. Say out loud to model for your child, “Before I react, I’m going to take five deep breaths.” Next, think about how you are going to act instead of react. If your child is the one yelling, it is good to remember that your role is to relate to them.
- Validate their feelings. “You’re really mad right now.”
- De-escalate by countering with connection and comfort. “I could use a hug. Would you like a hug?”
- However, if you feel like you need to take a break, don’t hesitate to do so. It sets a good example for your child by honoring that space can be a healthy coping skill, too. “I’m going to take some space to calm down before we can problem solve.”
When you do yell, go back and reconnect. Talk about what happened with your child and apologize. No one is perfect, and everyone is worth respecting. How you re-connect with your children is a valuable teaching moment that will help them in the long run.
Why Avoid It: Threats tend to come out as, “I don’t know what to say next, so I’m going to try to force you to listen.” Except, you can’t force another human being to do something. It will either create a disconnect or it will trigger more power struggles.
What to do instead: Identify the areas where you need your children to engage, and make a proactive plan that doesn’t rely on threats.
- Visual routine charts are great because the routine is now boss, rather than you. “What’s next on your chart?”
- Evaluate what choices you can offer – freedom within limits – to ensure you are giving them some agency and not dictating too much of their days. “It’s time to clean up next. Would you like to pick up the cars or the legos?”
- Choose and state what you as the adult are going to do next rather than making it about them. “It is hard for me to drive when you and your sibling are fighting. I am going to pull over until you guys are done.”
- Pose curiosity questions. “What do we need to do before we go to bed?”
Why Avoid It: It is extrinsic, not intrinsic. It is forcing your child to sit somewhere alone for a certain number of minutes. This is not a natural or logical consequence to big emotions or behaviors that they are trying to communicate, and so it doesn’t teach them anything. Thus, it misses an opportunity for you to connect, address the root cause, and problem solve.
What to do instead: “Time ins.” We can model space in a healthier context by teaching concrete methods of finding calm and ensuring we follow-up to problem solve. With younger children, this may mean going to a calm down spot together so you can show them how it works. It is never too late to start this approach, and in fact older elementary children will often understand “time ins” quicker.
- Define a safe space in your home that they can go to with the intention of finding calm. If they do not want to use their safe space, honor that choice.
- Try a “wheel of choice,” where they can have a few different options for learning to calm down. One option could be the “time in,” one could be “play with quiet work,” etc.
Why avoid it: It leads to the same paths where children will either shy away and disconnect from you, or they will rebel more. Physical punishment also puts the thought into their heads that they do not matter or belong. Children who get spanked are the children who will then react that way and hit others because you are modeling that if you are mad, hitting is okay. It teaches aggression, and then aggression will become how they deal with emotion.
What to do instead: Try physical touch in the opposite context.
- Hugging or other physical touch rooted in connection is one of the most powerful ways to de-escalate.
- Talk through it and admit how you are feeling. “I am very upset right now. This is a time when I would spank, so I will step away and think of a different option.” Then come back together to problem solve. “Next time, how can we do things differently? It hurts my ears when you yell. What can we do instead?”
More Advice from Ms. Bridgette:
- We all make mistakes because that is how we learn. Teaching kids that mistakes are good – not bad – is an important perspective to keep in mind with discipline.
- Being consistent in your approach is truly the biggest key to success. The more consistent you are, the less they will test, and the sooner you can work through the power struggles.
- Connection is your most proactive tool. Having family meetings and quality time on a regular basis will heal or de-escalate things before they flare up. If there is a disconnect, that’s when the biggest issues happen.
- Understand that this is an active practice, not something that can be perfected. Don’t get mad at yourself if you make a mistake because you will make a mistake. After you make a mistake, reconnect. Keep going.