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A Positive Approach to Discipline

November, 2008
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Adults often think that discipline equates to punishment, but in reality discipline comes from an ability to teach.

  Children like to test out rules, and all children will do this to some degree as part of the process of growing up. When children test adults, it is often their way of expressing feelings that they don’t understand, and from our responses they gradually learn how to handle their emotions appropriately. By testing the limits they learn about the rules that we really care about within our interactions. In acting out, they are taking their first tentative steps toward independence and showing us that we do not have complete control over them.

  Family ground rulesIMG_0865

  Ground rules are important and should be written down and displayed where both parents (and any adult who takes care of your children) can refer to them. Teach your child how to do the right thing rather than focusing on his/her mistakes. In a Montessori-inspired home there are normally just a few basic rules:

  • Treat everyone with respect.
  • If you use something, put it back in the proper place and proper condition when you are finished with it.
  • If you break or spill something, clean it up.
  • Tell the truth and don’t be afraid to admit when you make a mistake.

  You should be absolutely clear in your mind about the ground rules for the family. Instead of saying, “Don’t do that!” the rules should tell your child what s(he) should do. Model the same behaviors that you are trying to encourage in your child. Consciously try to catch your child doing something right – reinforce and acknowledge even small steps in the right direction. Rather than waiting until they have mastered every new skill, encourage them along the way.

  So, what if your child breaks a ground rule? Well, there are several things you can do other than scold, threaten or punish. Instead, you can redirect them by suggesting a more appropriate choice of action. You can remind them of the ground rule and politely but firmly tell them to stop. If the situation is not emotionally charged (that is if you are not personally aggravated) you can re-teach the basic lesson about how to handle such situations.

  Be consistent. If you can’t bring yourself to reinforce a ground rule again and again, it shouldn’t be a ground rule at your house. A few good rules are much better than dozens of rules that are ignored on a regular basis.

  Cut down on the word “no”

  Sooner or later, every child will stubbornly say, “No, I don’t want to!” This is the classic power struggle that starts in the child’s toddler years and often continues through adolescence. Many people call the toddler stage, “the terrible twos!” But they don’t have to be – not with two year olds or older children.

  Power struggles occur in situations where parents and children are both determined to get their own way, and neither party is willing to back down. Underneath, each feels frustrated and threatened. Parents feel their children are directly challenging their authority. The children in these situations feel powerless, and so they are attempting to change this by asserting independence and some sort of authority..

  There are ways of reducing these power struggles however – known as ‘No Strategies’. These avoid your child having to say no to your rules and requests.

  “No” strategies:

  • Give your children choices – Whenever you can, look for ways to let your children make a choice between two equally acceptable alternatives. “Would you like water or juice with dinner?”
  • Teach your child to say “no” politely. “Mom, I really do not feel like doing that now.”
  • Remember Robert Heinlein’s golden rule of family life - “Kindness and courtesy are even more important between husbands and wives, and parents and children, than between total strangers.
  • Don’t simply give in – look for ways that might allow you to back down gracefully. Often, through compromise, both you and your children can get most of what you are after.
  • Power struggles can be minimized – Give your child meaningful levels of independence and responsibility. This makes them feel powerful and grown up.
  • Reserve “no” – for the really important issues such as an activity that might harm your child or others.

  Don’t punish, teach

  Threats, punishments and rewards are not productive tools to get children to behave in the long-term. When children are angry, or are asserting their independence, they often act out and don’t care if they are punished. On the other hand, children who respond to threats and are shaken by punishments are anxious to please us and win back our love. Arguably, these children will respond just as well to other forms of discipline. While punishments and rewards tend to produce immediate results, they are rarely long lasting and do not help children become self-disciplined.

  Instead you can teach, rather than punish, your child.

  Teach your child to do things correctly and emphasize the positives rather than using insults and anger. It’s not always easy, but it will work if you persevere. Above all else, try to avoid asking your child unanswerable questions such as, “How many times do I have to tell you…?” to which the appropriate response would be, “I don’t know, Dad! How many times do you have to tell me?” If you ask a silly question, you’re likely to get a silly answer.


By Laurie Robinson

Source: How to Raise an Amazing Child The Montessori Way; Tim Seldin; DK Publishing; NY; 2006

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