- Positive discipline is a style where parents and caregivers can reinforce good behaviors and extinguish undesirable behaviors without hurting the child physically or verbally.
- Experts say positive discipline is more effective than traditional discipline in the long term and teaches kids a greater lesson than mere obedience.
- Research has found that more traditional, or negative, forms of punishment fail to lead to long-term learning — and can actually contribute to more unwanted behavior, not less.
Picture this scene: Your child comes running into your room in tears. They’ve done something they know they shouldn’t have, and now they fear they’ll be in trouble.
They’re clearly already wracked with guilt, and they’re admitting their misstep to you.
How do you respond? What do you do?
North Carolina mom Rosie Lamphere recently had to answer that very question when her three daughters put a large hole in the wall while playing roughly.
And her response — choosing to remain calm and refrain from offering up punishments — sparked a lot of debate online.
But experts think she might be onto something.
Instead of yelling or screaming and doling out groundings and consequences, Lamphere decided her girls were already feeling guilty enough and didn’t need her piling more on them.
She talked to her daughters about the consequences of their actions (the hole in the wall that now needed to be repaired) and reminded them instead of a lesson she’s long been trying to teach: No one is perfect, and we all make mistakes.
Lamphere’s approach to this situation is what’s known as positive discipline.
“Positive discipline is a style of discipline made popular by Dr. Jane Nelsen, based on the idea that parents and caregivers can reinforce good behaviors and extinguish undesirable behaviors without hurting the child physically or verbally,” said Dr. Scott Grant, MPH, FAAP, a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital of Michigan.
He explains that children are always looking to their caregivers for connection.
“Children who feel this connectedness are less likely to misbehave and are more likely to learn important social and life skills,” he said.
Positive discipline isn’t just about removing yelling and punishments from the parenting equation, though.
Ann DeWitt of DeWitt Counseling in Oswego, Oregon, is a licensed marriage and family therapist and a certified positive discipline parenting educator. She’s been teaching parenting for more than 20 years.
She says positive discipline often involves removing the extrinsic rewards system found in traditional parenting as well.
She gives the example of a child who’s continually getting up from the dinner table during a meal.
“Traditional discipline might use rewards and punishments to make the child behave (in the short term). For example, if you remain seated at the dinner table, you can have a half-hour of iPad afterward. Or, if you get up from your seat during dinner, you can’t have dessert.”
Positive discipline, on the other hand, doesn’t resort to either of those tactics.
Instead, DeWitt says a positive discipline approach would start with trying to figure out why the child has such a hard time remaining seated at the table, and then brainstorming solutions that meet everyone’s needs.
“Maybe the family goes for a walk before dinner to get the wiggles out, or the child stands at the table or sits on a yoga ball instead of a chair,” she said.
DeWitt says the difference between this path and a traditional discipline path is that “the parent is not seeking to control the child’s behavior, but to respect both the child’s needs and the parent’s needs.”
“The solutions are effective in the long term and teach a greater lesson than mere obedience,” she added.
For parents who were raised with a very different style of discipline, or who have come to believe that children need to be controlled and put in their place in order to develop into respectful adults, this style of discipline may seem too permissive and lax.
But Grant says a more negative style of discipline “usually includes raising of the voice, popping or spanking, which can be done from anger, and does not do much to help children learn why they should make a different choice next time.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) backs up this statement, citing research that found more traditional, or negative, forms of punishment fail to lead to long-term learning — and can actually contribute to
“The most important thing that parents can do is try not to discipline their children while they are angry,” Grant said. “They will be more likely to hurt their child physically or emotionally and will not be able to connect with their child or take on the spirit of someone trying to teach the child the best approach to making a better decision.”
Perhaps the idea of positive discipline makes a lot of sense to you and is something you’d like to try, but you aren’t sure where to begin or how to stick to it in moments of true frustration.
After all, parenting is tough, and kids often work our last nerves. Don’t all parents lose their temper from time to time?
“Parents must first manage their own frustrations, especially when children inevitably do something they were specifically asked not to do or break something that has a lot of value to the caregiver,” Grant said.
In these situations, he says it’s important for parents to step back and find a way to manage their own emotions before trying to teach the child what the consequences of their actions should be.
But another big component of positive discipline, he explains, is trying to catch your child doing good as well: Praise them for their efforts and encourage their choices.
Parents can also play a role in creating an environment that reduces a child’s opportunities to make bad choices.
Grant says this may include removing screens from the play area “so that kids are not tempted to throw tantrums to watch videos and focus on other forms of play that teach children different skills.”
Basically, set them up for success instead of failure.
“Positive discipline works by setting clear expectations that are based on values and then lovingly nurturing those values through our everyday experience,” DeWitt said.
The result, she says, is kids “who are self-motivated and self-disciplined, not looking outside themselves for motivation.”
But while Grant says the AAP strongly opposes the use of spanking and shouting as disciplinary techniques, “There are countless ways to discipline your children without these. Positive discipline, as made popular by Dr. Jane Nelson, is only one example of this that takes its notes from what we know about the way that children grow and learn.”
If it doesn’t feel like the right way for you, he says that’s OK.
“There are many other resources that build on some of this same knowledge to help parents raise happy, healthy children who have learned important social and life skills to be successful once they have to go out on their own,” Grant said.