When some parents think of the word discipline, one might recall an archaic image of a stony, austere teacher placing a child in a corner of the classroom for a time-out as the child hearkens to the sounds of whispers coming from his shaming classmates. At least, this is the memory I instinctively conjured of my elementary school’s science class as our teacher, Mr. Carpenter, sternly reprimanded a classmate for passing notes during one of his somniferous, didactic lessons on the anatomy of toads.
Thankfully, approaches to learning and parenting have evolved since our own formative experiences, and we are privy to a breadth of new data-driven approaches to shaping and inspiring children’s behavior. So, before you decide to throwout the word discipline altogether, I invite you to redefine the word in a more modern context for parenting and teaching and to consider it a word used interchangeably with the terms leadership, boundaries, and prosocial skills.
At SLCC, we believe a child needs our leadership in order to guide and develop their social and emotional resilience, kindness, confidence, and sense of self. We set compassionate and consistent boundaries and model prosocial skills as a means towards these intrinsic values.
Before we discuss what a more compassionate form of discipline can look like, we need to unpack the reason why it matters and why we do it. In older, punitive models of discipline one employed time-outs, spanking, punishments, arbitrary consequences, shame, blame, and/or guilt when attempting to discipline a child. Yet, this was usually never because one wanted a child to develop a strong sense of self, confidence, or emotional resilience. Usually, parents were primarily spanking their kids because they were exasperated, angry, annoyed, exhausted after a long day of work, and/or just wanted the child to stop what they were doing. Here’s why time-outs don’t work: there’s no logical reasoning behind them. When a child is placed in a time-out they aren’t given the opportunity to actively participate in the repair of a conflict so there is no opportunity for a child’s logical reasoning to strengthen. For toddlers and preschoolers, it is developmentally inappropriate since their attention spans are still limited. Thus, for some toddlers, time-outs can even be entertaining! They get to have some time to themselves and often their imagination will wander and you’ll hear them talking to themselves, lost in in their thoughts.
If we approach any choice with a clear and conscious goal, we can articulate and design the best methods for achieving that goal. Luckily, the data is showing us that if our goal is to raise resilient, kind, confident, and prosocial children, we need to stop putting our kids in time-outs and start disciplining with what we call compassionate leadership.
I like the term leadership because it implies that as the child’s leaders, we are actively steering them in a direction which requires our own decision-making, not the child’s. A child without direction or leadership is bound to strengthen the most instinctive tools they have to employ when problem-solving as toddlers and preschoolers: tantrums and physical impulses. If we are disciplining our children to brush their teeth, eat healthy food, and dress themselves, why wouldn’t we do the same for their developing prosocial skills?
So now that we know why we need discipline, let’s discuss how we do it:
Agreements vs. Rules
Early education research shows us that children learn best when they are a part of the decision-making process. Although you are ultimately the one making the decisions in the house, you can offer the child a limited set of choices, or allow for your child’s own decisions in appropriate contexts. This incentivizes the child to follow through because they feel heard, respected, and a part of your family’s unit. At SLCC, we begin each new school year with a period of establishing class agreements beside the children during our morning meetings (circle times). These discussions invite the children to consider previous experiences when conflicts were resolved and the methods they employed to constructively solve those problems. Using the children’s own words, drawings, and mark-makings, we design a handful of agreements for the children to follow and hold themselves accountable to throughout the year. These agreements are typically placed somewhere within the classroom in the child’s eye view for continual reference. After nearly two decades of employing class agreements in our classrooms, we have observed agreements to be more fruitful than choosing our own arbitrary rules as teachers.
Similarly, parents can establish Family Agreements with their children and discuss ways each family member can pitch in to make the house a more loving and kind place to live. Here are some examples of what family agreements can look like in your home:
We will keep our home clean by putting things away after we play so we can move on.
We will take care of nature by watering our plants.
We will read a story before bedtime so we can all fall asleep and get a good night’s rest.
We will eat dinner together as a family so we can learn about each other’s day.
We will only watch t.v. once a week so we can grow our imagination and create new ideas for having fun.
Family agreements can create an opportunity for integrating logic and values into the decisions you make as a family. Your child will begin to understand why you collectively make the choices you make as a family. They are also a wonderful source for beginning to shape your child’s sense of self, confidence, and personal values. What you emphasize and care about as a family will inevitably influence what your child ends up valuing later on.
Natural Consequences & Positive Reinforcement
Consequences are another trigger-term for some parents that stirs and rattles our nerves as we often liken them to unjust or cruel punishment. However, natural consequences provide a rich and meaningful opportunity for your child to develop a logical understanding of cause and effect and the impact their actions make on the people and world around them. This breeds strong empathic skills and a desire to help. Natural consequences are consequences which reflect the natural outcome of a child’s behavior. For example, if a child intentionally chooses to dump his milk off the table, it will naturally spill on the floor. Thus, the natural consequence of this behavior will be to wipe the milk off the floor. You can model helpfulness and care by offering to help your child wipe the milk off the floor. If a child decides to play rough with a material by intentionally hitting another child with the object, the natural consequence might be to discontinue use of that material until the following day or, if they are a bit older, when the child is ready to try again. Remember to avoid any shame, blame, or guilt and to approach the resolution as naturally and as calmly as possible. Your child in turn will learn that this is just the way conflict resolution works and your boundaries are clear and compassionate.
When we employ natural consequences at SLCC, it’s very important that we always communicate what the natural consequence might be before that action takes place. Thus, we are constantly anticipating and looking out for conflicts and/or revisiting events after they have taken place to prepare for the possibility that it may happen again. This again, creates an environment where the child feels respected and trusted to make their own decisions and choices by being given a set of boundaries in advance rather than receiving an unexpected or arbitrary consequence.
Simultaneously, while setting natural consequences, we want to observe and immediately praise a child when they have actively recalled and employed a prosocial solution. For example, if the child who previously spilled the milk does not spill the milk the following day, we praise and acknowledge the child by casually stating “I noticed you made a different choice with your milk today and kept it on the table. You must feel proud. Your brain is learning new things.”
Positive reinforcement helps build a child’s sense of self, confidence, and emotional resilience, while also removing any opportunity for shame, blame, or guilt to arise. Children then feel respected and capable of continuing to employ their prosocial skills. They begin to observe the reactions of others to their prosocial choices and begin to integrate what is helpful, kind, and the power these traits play in building relationships.
Say Yes as Much as Possible & Say No With Good Reason
Another contentious term I often see parents struggle with is the word “no”. Knowing when to say no and when to say yes can be challenging for many reasons. We want to spoil our children because we love them dearly, we want them to have only good memories later on, and sometimes, we’re afraid to say no because we want to avoid a meltdown in the grocery store or a theatrical tantrum at a schoolmate’s birthday party. So we give in. What happens when we say yes to everything? Our child learns they can and will have anything they desire at any given time and they become the leaders in the parent/child relationship. A child can still have joyful memories of childhood and remain a happy kid if we learn to say no at certain times. First, you need to decide what is reasonable as a family and which values you want to embody in the actions that you take. For instance, decide if it is reasonable to take your child to ice-cream after school every day and if you want to engender this expectation in your child. If you think that’s a little excessive, then it is appropriate as the parent leader to compassionately say no to your child. What you’ll need to offer to them in return is a logical explanation of why. We want to help build the child’s intrinsic reasoning skills in this process. We want them to cultivate their own barometer of balance and health. So, if your child is used to asking for a special treat after school every day, you can initiate a conversation with them by saying “We can’t have treats every day because they are only for special occasions and our bodies need healthy foods to keep growing.” Keep it short and simple. Allow for a grace period of adjustment where you can expect your child to be disappointed and upset. Acknowledge them, “I see you’re upset. I know that feeling. I wonder what you will choose to play when we get home to feel better.” Offer and model for them the prosocial solutions you want and expect to see while giving them room to adjust.
Bottom line, if you say yes all the time, your child will not learn boundaries. If you say no all the time without reason, your child will build defiance. If you say yes and no within good reason, your child will feel in control, develop their own logical reasoning, and understand your compassionate boundaries.
There is nothing more empowering to a child than the moment they realize they can continue to react and behave a certain way without consequence. Children learn by doing, and there is often an inherent bias towards choosing to do things that will create a reaction, whether positive or negative. Thus, the more we can consistently acknowledge prosocial behavior, the more we can shape and inspire a child’s desire to be prosocial. Reversely, the more we can consistently employ our natural consequences, the more the child will integrate that those choices are not an option, there’s no winning situation here, and there’s no feeling of power to be felt by making this choice. If, however, there are days when you don’t set a natural consequence to, say, your older sibling hitting your younger sibling, then your older child is going to continue to employ this very powerful tactic because they realize they can sometimes get away with it.
Instead, make an intentional, concrete, and consistent plan as a family to offer limited choices and natural consequences to certain behaviors while celebrating those prosocial moments every time and you will begin to affect behavior while simultaneously developing your child’s self-confidence and sense of self and belonging.
All of these parenting/educational tools I’ve shared will work, but they are not fool-proof. Your child and you are both humans and growth is never linear. You may have days where being consistent seems like just too much effort at the end of a long day. Your child may push back upon first initiating any natural consequences. Give your child and yourself some grace. Any new growth takes practice and time, but the incremental changes you see along the way will add up and they will make for a more confident, prosocial, and resilient child, while simultaneously creating a more integrated and balanced family unit.