Let’s play a quick word association game.
I will say one word, and you will say the first thing that comes to your mind when you read that word. Don’t think for long. Just say the first word that occurs to you. OK, here we go.
Chances are, when you read “sky” the first word that came to your mind was “blue” or “high”.
When you read “night” you might think of the words “dark” or “day”.
What about “discipline”? What did you think of when you read that? In my case, I would probably have gone with “punishment” or “set right”.
The idea of discipline being synonymous with punishment is ingrained in our psyche. The first thing we think of when we hear the word “discipline” is usually something negative.
However, did you know that the word discipline originates from the Latin word ‘disciplina’ which means teaching, which in turn comes from ‘discipulus’ which literally translates to pupil?
Yet, I can bet that very few who tried the little exercise above would have thought “teach” when they first read the word “discipline”.
For whatever reason, over the years, discipline has gone from meaning “to teach” to “to punish”!
Today we explore “positive discipline” an idea that focuses on reverting things back to the roots – when children do something wrong, instead of punishing them, parents teach and guide them to set the behavior right.
So, how do we go back from “to punish” to “to teach”? In small baby steps, of course!
Here are a few tips to get started, and by following some of these (pick a subset of the ones that work for you), slowly we can change our perspective about “discipline”
1. The core of positive discipline: There are no bad kids, just bad behavior.
Think about that for a minute and you will realize how true the statement is. This is the basic premise of the positive discipline concept. Once we as parents recognize that inherently our kids are not bad, they are just behaving badly, the rest of it will slowly fall in place.
For instance, suppose your child hits another child. The first thing you feel is probably embarrassment and shame, followed closely by a fear that your child may have a “mean” streak. If you go with that feeling and call your child a “bad girl” or “naughty boy” you reinforce the negative image of your child both in your own mind and in your child’s.
Your child may just be hungry/sleepy/tired or any of the hundred different stress triggers that may have made her act out. In other words, something in your child’s environment is influencing your child to behave badly. When we accept that it was just a behavior that was bad, and the child herself is fine. For instance, instead of screaming, “Why did you do that? I don’t understand how you can be so mean sometimes” you will be in a much better situation to say “That wasn’t the best behavior – we do not hit our friends”.
At this point, I have to admit, I have a pretty strong-willed child and this will likely just get a “back answer” from her (or the water works, if she is already feeling guilty about it), but in her mind (and my own), I have planted the seed that she is not bad, it was just bad behavior, and it becomes easy for both of us to deal with it positively using one of the other techniques below.
2. Instead of pointing out what the child did wrong, show the child how to set things right
Building on the example above, let’s consider the best case situation first where you catch your child before she actually hits. However, instead of saying “Don’t hit” or “NO hitting” try saying “Use your words” or “Ask nicely”. When you say “Don’t hit” it does not give the child any information of what she should be doing instead. Without that knowledge, she may just end up going with her original plan to hit or she may choose to go with some other option which is equally bad – like shoving the other kid.
Now, on the other hand, if you catch the child after the incident, convey that what she did was wrong and give her an “out”. For example, you could say “That was not a good choice, we don’t hit our friends. Do you want to say sorry and make Kaylee feel better?” and if your child is not ready to say sorry yet (mine usually needs some time), you can continue with “Until we are ready to say sorry, let’s sit here and read a book” (This is sometimes also referred to as).
3. Be kind but firm; show empathy and respect
Now, in her mind, what she did was right and justified. It can be very frustrating when she insists on some wrong behavior as being right (mine is 5, and she can justify her actions until blue in her face with “She started it, she didn’t share the toy”). As parents, instead of arguing back, we just need to stay calm and repeat what we said in a kind manner but very firmly. For instance, repeat “Hitting hurts, we do not hit our friends” and “Yes, sharing is good, but we do not hit someone even if they don’t share” and different variants of it, over and over without losing temper or raising voice.
It also helps to show some empathy – for instance, “You really want the doll that she is playing with, but hitting is not the right choice.” Just by empathizing with your child that she really wants the doll, you can win half the battle.
4. Whenever possible, offer choices
After offering empathy, you can take it to the next level by offering her some choices. Choices give your child a sense of control. Not only is she not “bad”, instead of being “punished” she is given control… sometimes, that’s more than enough to snap a child out of a funk. This is one of the most common recommended by experts.
Simple choices like, “That was not nice, do you want to make Kaylee feel better by giving her a hug or by saying you are sorry?” or “Do you want to say sorry and continue playing with Kaylee or do you want to read a book with me until you calm down?” go a long way.
Remember to pick your choices carefully though, because once a choice is offered, and your child picks one, you need to honor it.
5. Treat mistakes as opportunities to learn
A child will often act out because she perceives it as the means to get to an end. When teach them not only that what they did is wrong but also empower them with alternatives, it will help them in the future from using it as a tool even when you are not around.
Try not to launch into a lecture though. If possible use examples and recollections from past behaviour. “Do you remember last time when Tim hit you and how much it hurt? It made you mad/sad, right?” or “Remember when you fell off the chair and bumped your head? When you hit someone, it hurts the same way.”