Embracing Positive Discipline’s Challenges

October 15, 2010 at 5:43 am (Positive Discipline)

Embracing Positive Discipline’s Challenges
By Kelly Bartlett

Positive discipline doesn’t come instinctively for many people.  In fact, that’s why most parents endeavor in positive discipline in the first place; they want to change their current instincts about raising children.  They want to break the cycle of using traditional discipline methods that compromise the parent-child relationship, and they are forging their way in a new direction.  As opposed to parenting with strict control and scare tactics, when children are raised with kindness and respect, parents are instilling a new instinct for discipline.  Children learn how to solve problems, manage difficult emotions, and make intrinsic decisions about what’s right and wrong.  Positive discipline is a parenting approach that is based on connection and trust, rather than on longing and fear.

However, while the theory has remarkable appeal, many parents are skeptical to begin the journey into positive discipline.  It seems doubtful that any deviation from what has, up until now, seemed like the “normal” way to parent children is going to work.  Or more likely, that a different approach will work more effectively.  This reluctance is natural.  After all, it goes back to instincts; parents naturally turn to the same methods with which they were raised.  The thought of doing anything differently can bring on resistance.

“It’s too much work.”
Going from a reactive discipline approach to one that’s primarily proactive can feel very intimidating.  Positive discipline takes the cultural belief about discipline and turns it on its head.  When parents are accustomed to responding to children’s behavior with yelling, threats, and punishments, it is difficult to stop and re-think how to respond using the language of positive discipline.  Indeed, much like learning a new language, learning positive discipline skills also takes time and practice.

Parents can take baby steps in the direction they want to go by substituting one positive discipline tool in place of a corresponding traditional one. For example, to raise kids who are problem solvers, focus on solutions instead of issuing punishments.  To raise kids who are effective communicators, ask questions and listen instead of lecturing.  To raise kids who are internally motivated, say “thank you” instead of “good job”.  For every attribute parents aspire to teach their children, there are baby steps they can take to get there.  Start with one; step by step, you will soon see great strides.

“It takes too long to see results.”
While it’s true that traditional discipline aims to stop unwanted behavior now, positive discipline works toward a bigger goal than the immediate present.  Most of the positive discipline tools are proactive, rather than reactive. This means they won’t elicit the same results as traditional discipline methods.  For many parents, this can be frustrating when trying to manage difficult behavior.

Glenda Montgomery, a CPDA with the Positive Discipline Association, likens positive discipline to a dance.  She tells parents, “Imagine that throughout these years, you’ve been in a dance with your child.  You know all of each other’s moves.  You know each other’s actions and consequent reactions.  Now suddenly, [by using positive discipline] you’re changing the dance routine.  You are moving in a new direction while your child is continuing with the same moves as before.  Their moves might even be more pronounced than usual as your child tries to lead you back into a familiar dance routine.  It’s going to take some time for everyone to get in sync with the new moves.”

Yes, it does take time to see significant results with positive discipline.  Consider the old adage, “If at first you don’t succeed, try try again.”  If your first attempt at using a positive discipline tool doesn’t succeed in changing behavior, try it again.  And again.  Perhaps try a different tool.  And try that one again.  What all of these tries add up to over the course of the growth of the child is a new “dance”; a new relationship between the two of you and a new perspective for seeing disciplinary results.

“Life is not ‘positive’.”
In the “real world”, there are consequences for poor behavior and rewards for good behavior.  If you break a law you are punished with jail time.  If you excel at your job, you are given a bonus.  If you drive too fast, you get a ticket.  If you travel enough, you get status perks.  The world is full of conditions.  This makes many parents want to adopt a punishment & reward system at home with prizes, timeouts, sticker charts, and losses of privileges, so children can grow up experiencing what the “real world” is like.

Jane Nelsen, PhD, author of Raising Self-Reliant Children in a Self-Indulgent World, argues that there are much more effective ways to teach children about developing sound judgment skills to succeed in the real world, without mimicking the punishments and rewards that are intended for adults in an adult system.  She says that moral and ethical development requires not the enforcement of external provisions, but “a mentorship between children and adults.”  The best way to help children develop sound judgment: give them the opportunity to practice.

This means parents must refrain from making all of their children’s decisions for them and must provide them with opportunities to think through their own choices; to make mistakes.  When parents do this, and allow their children to fully experience the consequences of their mistakes without being rescued, children learn much more efficiently the effects of their actions.  Dr. Nelsen says, “When young people discover that their choices affect their outcomes, they feel potent and significant and become increasingly confident that they hold the reins in their lives.  With practice, they become more adept in holding these reins-and better human beings.”

Because children are not on the same developmental level as adults, emotionally or cognitively, they do not need “practice” in experiencing punishments intended on an adult level in an adult world.  What they need from parents are discipline strategies that focus instead on problem solving and communication.  They need to be able to make a mistake and experience its full range of effects.  They need to cultivate problem solving skills and internal motivation for doing what’s right.  In short, they need to develop sound judgment now (through experiencing mistakes and solving problems) so they will inherently avoid the legal system later when they’re in the “real world”.

“It rewards poor behavior.”
Because positive discipline involves no punishments and lots of connection, it is often first seen as permissive.  It makes more sense to parents to threaten a consequence to stop a tantrum than to scoop a screaming child up for a hug.  Isn’t doling out hugs instead of consequences just rewarding bad behavior?  It’s easy to see how positive discipline challenges mainstream thought about behavior.  It moves from a behaviorist approach-offering superficial solutions to control innate human behavior-to a connected, communicative one.  It aims to first understand-to get at the root of human needs-then to guide.  Positive discipline is connection before correction.

It is possible to reconsider the idea that human behavior must be manipulated and controlled by a set of external stimuli (punishments and
rewards).  Parents can remember that, unlike animals, children’s behavior is a direct reaction to their feelings, and those feelings stem from genuine needs. Because difficult behavior in a child is a result of an unmet need, parents can first pause to assess what that child might be feeling, and therefore needing, before being too hasty to chastise the behavior.  As human brains are more complex than those of any other animal, positive discipline methods, as opposed to behaviorist strategies, are aimed at changing behavior by specifically addressing those complexities.  So although for many parents it may seem like positive discipline methods reward undesirable behavior, they, in fact, do not.  It’s not a “carrot and stick” approach to manipulating behavior; rather it regards behavior at its source on a uniquely emotional level.  Positive discipline addresses behavior at its core, without merely treating its symptoms.

“I’m alone in this.”
More often than not, parents meet other parents who are unfamiliar with the concept of positive discipline, than those who use it regularly in their families.  Sometimes, it’s even within the same family that parents disagree on how to discipline.  Spousal differences or grandparent disparities may convey many of the resistances described above, and make it seem difficult for a family to succeed in their positive discipline efforts.

There is support available for helping parents succeed with positive discipline!  No matter where you are on your journey, there are various forms of education, inspiration, and encouragement.  In-person positive discipline classes are available in states across the country, and they offer inspiring evenings of learning, activities, and connection with like-minded families.  It is immensely helpful for parents to be able to connect with other moms and dads who are also on a positive discipline journey.  Online or in person, parents come together to create a network of support for each other.  They’re there to encourage, commiserate with, and bounce ideas off of each other.  Parents should surround themselves with positive discipline enthusiasts; create networks of support to help themselves succeed.

Find more information on local positive discipline workshops, as well as online support at www.positivediscipline.com.  Also available is a downloadable iPhone app in which parents can conveniently have the 52 Positive Discipline Tool Cards always at their fingertips.

Learning positive discipline takes a lot of thought, effort, and most importantly, a huge shift in paradigm.  Discipline approaches change from reactive to proactive.  Discipline tools change from “what can I do to my child” to “what can I do for my child”.  And discipline strategies change from quick-fix to long-term.  Despite the initial effort involved, the payoff is life-long for family unity, parent-child relationships, children’s well-being, and even children’s future families.  It is absolutely possible and undoubtedly worth the investment to work on creating new instincts for raising secure, confident children.

Kelly Bartlett is an assistant editor and contributing writer for The Attached Family magazine, an API leader, and a Certified Positive Discipline Educator.  She lives and works in Portland, Oregon with her husband and two children.


  1. Stephanie B. Cornais said,

    Thank you for this post! I really appreciate all the time and effort you put into your posts. They are always of such high quality.

    My daughter is now 11 month’s old and is starting to get into the dog bowl while he is eating. Its about the only time we tell her no, because I am concerned for her safety. Usually its just a quick no and a redirection to something else. I also say no when she bites while nursing. I unlatch her real quick and set her down next to me and say “no, nuh-nuh until you are gentle” and then usually I start singing the itsy bitsy spider to calm her down and help her forget that she was biting me in the first place and then try nursing again after the song.

    Are there better ways to handle those situations?

    Also, if I were to read one book right now to help me on my positive discipline journey, given my daughters age, which one should I read?

    Thanks again!
    Stephanie 😉

    • Kelly said,

      Thanks, Stephanie! I love how you are able to stay calm, even after being bitten while nursing! Singing a song to distract her and “change the subject”, is so great…distraction is one of the best tools of positive discipline at that age. Prevention and redirection are the other two, which it sounds like you’re already doing. With the dog bowl, can you try prevention before “no”? Put food and water up until feeding time (or when your daughter is asleep)? The other thing you could do is move the bowls to an area where it’s OK to get the floor messy, and just let her play & “explore” when she decides to head over to them every day. Sometimes it’s hard to see a mess on the floor and soggy dog food go to waste, but the sensory experience is wonderful and so engaging. Both of my kids went through a dog-food-bowl-infatuation phase, both also at 11 months! Sometimes I let them play in it, sometimes I put the bowls up…but the inconvenience didn’t last too long. Both kids’ phases came and went! 🙂

      For books, there are so many great ones! I highly recommend “Unconditional Parenting” by Alfie Kohn. I started with that one, and it totally changed my outlook on parenting and disciplining kids. It’s a great foundational book. But something a little more practical would be “Positive Discipline The First Three Years” by Jane Nelsen. Might help with some of the “what to do” specifics a lot of parents look for.

      • Kelly said,

        Oh, I just noticed you said she gets into the food bowl “while he is eating”. In which case, I wouldn’t even say no, but again do the prevention thing…just physically prevent her from getting there until the dog is done eating. At her age, she does not understand “no” and is solely driven by impulse & instinct…even if she hears your word, “no”, she’s just too young to respond logically to it.

  2. Stephanie B. Cornais said,

    Thanks so much for the advice! I am off to Amazon now to order the books!

  3. Jane Nelsen said,

    Kelly, What an excellent essay on understanding Positive Discipline. I will post a link to the Positive Discipline Facebook page. 🙂

    • Kelly said,

      Thank you, Jane! This article will be published in The Attached Family magazine in a few months.

  4. Stephanie said,

    Thank you for the excellent article. My 6-year old attends a public school with a positive discipline philosophy so I am fortunate to have lots of mentors and support. I believe in the positive discipline approach but lately have been having the challenge that my daughter does not seem to hear me or respond unless I get angry at her. A sample scenario: I am trying to get her to leave her friend’s house at the end of a playdate. I give her a 5-minute warning, then when the time is up, state that it is time to go. She protests. I stay calm for a brief discussion between us, but she continues to protest, starts crying, kicking and screaming. I raise my voice to explain in a firm way that we need to leave. Later, after we are home and have had time to cool off and eat dinner, I try to follow through with a discussion of what happened and what we can do differently in future situations. My daughter states that I was ONLY talking in a mean voice to her. It occurs to me that she truly didn’t hear all of my attempts to talk to her in a reasonable and attentive way. She only notices once I get angry. I’ve seen the same with my younger children. I would love your feedback, if this makes any sense. Thank you!

    • Kelly said,

      Hi Stephanie, it sound like you guys are engaged in a power struggle. It could be that she doesn’t feel she has enough say in what happens to her; that she needs to prove no one can boss her. You might try to get more input from her about things that have to happen. So you could ask her, “What ideas do you have about how we can leave a friends’ house peacefully? Is there anything that would help you better?” You can offer her some choices, and ask her help in finding a solution.

      Also remember that connection goes a long way. Make sure to reconnect emotionally after an outburst like that…no judging, no forced apologies, no rehashing what went wrong; just acknowledge her feelings (and yours) without judgment, and reconfirm how much you love her. That will reestablish a connection and set a positive tone before asking her input on solutions. If your conversation starts getting “charged”, take a break and calm down; don’t engage in a power struggle over this.

      Staying calm and asking for her help diffuses the idea that only you are in charge and you have to be “right”. It shows that she is important in the family and that her thoughts matter, and it establishes a mutual respect.

      That’s wonderful that your school adopts a positive discipline approach! How great to get that consistency between home and school!

  5. Stephanie said,

    thanks for the specific suggestions. You are right that I quickly fall into power struggles with all my kids. It’s hard not to throw in a final word and thereby take away the benefit of active listening. I’ll keep trying

  6. Stephanie B. Cornais said,

    Hi Kelly!

    I am about half way through Unconditional Parenting and it is BLOWING MY MIND!
    Thank you so much for the recommendation.

    I skipped ahead to the chapter that explains what to do instead of praise like “good job!” but I am still at a loss and confused. A lot of the examples he gave as alternatives were for older children (like asking them how they felt, etc). I know you recommended the other book for things like this, but I am in a near panic about all the “yays!” and “good job!” I had been giving my 11 month old all. day. long. can you give me some advice to get me through till i finish the books?

    Most of the time I say yay! and good job! because I am genuinely proud of her because she just figured something out for the first time. It seems like she is learning at warp speed and there is always something new she just figured out. I also say yay! when she eats or sits on the potty or does a yoga pose or signs back to me (behavior I want to encourage). Since I started reading the book I have been saying yay! and good job less and just “you are doing down dog! with enthusiasm and a smile, but it just doesn’t feel right. i have been saying thank you a lot more too, but that also doesn’t feel right for when she just accomplished something for the first time.

    Also, I teach a tot yoga class for babies crawling to 24 months and pretty much all I do all class is say yay! good job! when they do a pose. my intention is to show my excitement for them for accomplishing it but also to get them to continue doing the pose. I feel like the rug has been pulled out from underneath me and I don’t even know how to teach anymore!

    sorry if I sound like a crazy person, but I don’t want to do any more damage than I already have!

    • Kelly said,

      Hi Stephanie, yes it does cause you to think, doesn’t it? Although it kind of comes up short on what TO do, instead of what NOT to do. And I agree that when toddlers are conquering new challenges for the first time, it is so exciting and we definitely want to communicate that and encourage them.

      When I first started shifting my responses to my children’s accomplishments to UP, I also thought it felt like “not enough.” I was so used to “Good job” being THE response for acknowledging behavior. I never realized that it is really just providing external motivation for things that should be internalized. That desire to do it again, to do a “good job”, to want to do the best we can should come from within.

      But it is possible to show excitement and genuine happiness for them in your voice and nonverbal reactions. Keep up your “wow”s and “yay”s, and add hugs and kisses and let her see the happiness on your face during those exciting moments. Just to make it clear to her (and to help yourself start thinking differently) that you’re happy FOR her (as opposed to you’re happy BECAUSE of her), you can say things like,

      That’s so exciting!
      You must feel so happy!
      You must feel so proud of yourself!

      It helps her internalize her own sense of accomplishment. For other things like your yoga, you can say things like,

      Wow, look at that!
      Your body is so strong!
      That is so hard do to, and you’re doing it!
      Look at your straight legs and strong arms!
      I can tell you are working so hard!
      Look at you, doesn’t that feel great?
      You must feel so proud of what you can do!
      I can tell you’ve been practicing a lot!
      You’re really getting the hang of this!
      Look at you doing yoga by yourself!

      It’s a difference of acknowledgement of their skills and encouragement versus just blanket praise.

  7. Stephanie B. Cornais said,

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! Those are all great alternatives!
    So just to be clear, saying yay! is OK. I guess I had it in my head that saying that was along the line of Good Job!

  8. Sunday Surf 10.17.10 said,

    […] lastly, an amazing article about Positive Discipline. I am very new to this and am very excited to learn […]

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