Behave Yourself! Seven Tools for Positive Discipline
Written by Tera Schreiber
Should you pay your kids for good grades? Should a toddler get a “time-out” when she hits her sister? Should you ground a child for not coming home by curfew? If you’re a parent, chances are you’ve grappled with these questions and evolved your own code of discipline. But a growing number of parents say they’ve found a new way to discipline their kids — one that doesn’t include rewards or punishments — and they insist that it’s incredibly effective.
Ballard stay-at-home dad Scott Steinhorst flatly rejects the idea of using rewards and punishments with his kids. “I deeply feel that rewards and punishments don’t take me where I want to go,” he says. “I want to feel close to my kids and have a joyful, playful, collaborative, nurturing experience. The notion of bribing or punishing them doesn’t take me in that direction.” Steinhorst’s results so far? “My kids are thriving in every way,” he says.
What’s wrong with rewards?
“The use of punishments and rewards exemplifies doing things to kids to make them obey,” says parenting educator and author Alfie Kohn. Kohn refers to rewards and punishments as “bribes and threats” and says that these “warp our relationship with our children.” Instead, he encourages parents to try other methods, including explaining, guiding, listening and solving problems together. Kohn says these methods emphasize the child’s own internal motivations, which he says are more powerful than external motivations. “Punishments and rewards get in the way of moral development,” says Kohn. “Kids learn to make good decisions by making decisions — not by following directions.”
Becky Bailey, Ph.D., author and national expert on childhood education and developmental psychology, says punishments and rewards are not as useful as some may think. “To succeed in life,” says Bailey, “we need a set of life skills such as empathy, impulse control, time management, organization and problem solving. Each of these skills is learned during conflict moments and by how we handle them. If we attempt to stop conflict through punishment and reward, we lose our teaching moments.”
A ‘good job’ gone bad?
Queen Anne mom Jenni Pertuset tries never to tell her daughter that she did a “good job.” “There’s no information in it,” she says. “I think it’s a verbal tic — a lazy replacement for actually noticing, encouraging and connecting with children.” What does Pertuset do instead? “If my daughter brings her plate from the table to the kitchen, I’m grateful and I let her know. If when rock climbing, she climbs to the top of a wall, I’ll say, ‘Wow, you’re up high’ or ‘You did it!’”
Elizabeth Crary, author and international parenting educator for 25 years, teaches at North Seattle Community College. She says she has noticed a trend of parents who avoid using rewards of any kind — even praise — with their children. But she believes rewards can be useful. “We reward children all the time with our positive interactions,” says Crary. “Any tool that you can use well can also be used poorly.”
Rather than avoiding rewards, Crary encourages parents to use rewards effectively. She thinks there is a place for praise in appropriately small doses, with the exception of exaggerated praise, such as, “You’re brilliant!” or “That’s the best drawing I have ever seen!” “Exaggerated praise poses a problem,” says Crary. “It reduces the child’s motivation because he feels he has already achieved greatness. It may even give him a fear of messing up that status. It also decreases the parent’s credibility because eventually kids learn that they are not perfect by more objective standards.” Despite criticisms of the proverbial “good job,” Crary argues it has some value. “It educates kids on standards,” she explains. “It’s helpful to know what a ‘good job’ is.”
Olympia’s Candyce Lund Bollinger, a parent educator at South Puget Sound Community College for the past 26 years, encourages parents to look at rewards in context of the bigger picture by asking them to consider who they hope their children will become as adults. “I ask parents to look at a map to get there,” says Bollinger, “and ask them if they will get the outcome they want if they use rewards.” Use of rewards, explains Bollinger, can cause children to define themselves based on what others think of them.
Crary encourages parents to consider their values and what behaviors they desire in their children. “Be careful what you praise,” she says. “If you praise grades, children will go to any length to get good grades, including things like lying and cheating. If you praise effort, children will put forth the effort.”
The case for consequences
Bollinger, Crary, Kohn and Bailey all agree that punishments have no place in parenting. “Punishments are intended to hurt a child,” says Crary, who says they are essentially teaching children to solve problems by hurting someone. Instead, Crary suggests that parents create rules and allow children to live with consequences (which she admits can be painful at times) rather than succumbing to the impulse to act punitively when it comes to discipline.
Bollinger also encourages parents to avoid punishments through the use of consequences — though she admits it’s a fine line. “Logical consequences are sometimes considered punishments,” says Bollinger, but it’s the delivery that makes the difference. “If you present [consequences] in a punitive way, it’s punishment. If you present it in a gentle way, it’s a learning opportunity.”
Sara Cole, a Columbia City mother of two kids ages 5 and 8, says she’s mastered the use of nonpunitive consequences — with humor. “When toys generate a lot of conflict,” says Cole, “we put them away for a while. But it’s never really sold as a punishment. We don’t say that the kids are bad or the toys are bad. Instead, we explain to the kids that this is not a toy that’s working out for our family at the moment.” At the Cole house, when toys are the subject of conflict, they take a “toy vacation.”
Seven tools for positive discipline
Bollinger says parents need a variety of discipline tools in their parenting “tool box.” “I try to help parents develop enough of a repertoire so that they don’t overuse any single tool.” Here are seven that Bollinger and other experts suggest:
1. Talk it out. When kids are arguing (for the fifty-thousandth time!) about who gets to play with the doll or who goes first in the game, you can solve the problem for them by dictating the outcome. Or you can do what Cole’s family does.
“Chairs!” Cole will call out to her bickering children. The kids then march (or stomp) to their designated spots in the family room. Each takes a seat and stays there to talk about the conflict until there is a resolution.
At first, admits Cole, the kids needed a lot of coaching to talk about the problem, their feelings and possible solutions. These days, most of the time, she is just a bystander. Her kids work out a solution — often something that she never would have dreamed up. The resulting peace, says Cole, lasts much longer than it would have had she intervened. “If I get in the middle of everything,” says Cole, “I get more and more frustrated. This puts the control back in their hands.” And another big plus: Cole says her kids are learning skills they need to solve their own conflicts.
2. Ice your anger. “Even though anger at our children is normal and common, it clearly stands in the way of effective discipline,” says Elizabeth Pantley, national parent educator and author of several parenting books, including The No-Cry Discipline Solution. “It prevents us from making the right decisions, and it doesn’t help us to teach the lessons we want our children to learn.” If we want to teach our children how to control their anger, Pantley says, we need to do the same. No doubt this is much easier said than done. Crary hopes that parents can look at anger objectively. “Anger is not good or bad,” she says. “Anger is energy, and it can be used in healthy or unhealthy ways. The challenge is to figure out why you are angry and what to do about it.”
When anger becomes an issue, Pantley encourages parents to check their state of mind. If you are tired, hungry or anxious, try to address that underlying problem. Figure out what sets you off and when you are most likely to flare up, according to Pantley, and you’ll be better able to manage your anger.
To help handle anger in her family, Stacy Lewis, a Leschi mom of two boys, uses a “mindfulness bell,” based on Buddhist teachings. When someone is angry, he rings the bell. “When anyone in our family hears the bell ringing, we can acknowledge that someone is feeling pain right then, and we can empathize with them and also be ready to talk about what is going on afterward,” says Lewis.
Ballard mom Lesley Ahmed strives to maintain her composure, but admits that she — like ‘most everyone else — loses her cool sometimes. “I’ve learned to apologize for my outbursts,” says Ahmed. She also finds that apologizing for her own actions provides a chance to teach her son. “Just acknowledging that my outburst was inappropriate opens the door to discussing solutions to our frustrations, and what we can do next time.”
3. Get a reality check. Sometimes, a parent is frustrated when his expectations exceed his child’s capacity to behave. “A reality check is fundamental to parenting,” says Crary. “Not only do parents need to make expectations clear to their children, they need to set their expectations consistent with the child’s age, temperament and experience.” Experts like Crary say children tend to exhibit frustrating behaviors as a natural part of development. Knowing what is developmentally appropriate can help parents treat the behavior as normal, if annoying.
A child’s temperament also affects what a parent can expect, says Crary. “You might have a child whose temperament is very active and a parent who gets mad because the child won’t sit still at the table. In such a case, it’s not that the child is disobedient, but that she just is not capable of sitting still like that.” Rather than expecting a child to change, Crary recommends that parents work to teach her skills based on her own tendencies and abilities.
Kathy Wickward, a Central District mom of a 10-year-old with Asperger’s syndrome and a spirited 8-year-old, tries to avoid problems with her kids by keeping in mind their developmental levels and temperaments. “Before we go to a restaurant,” says Wickward, “we review the list of manners they are expected to use in the restaurant.” Wickward also tries to practice new situations with her kids before they have to experience them firsthand, often through role playing or taking a “trial run.”
4. Take the long view. Discipline doesn’t always mean coming down on your kid for misbehavior. Sometimes discipline is simply modeling positive behavior, or offering a hug or a way to relax when a kid is out of control. Elizabeth Davies, a Laurelhurst mom of 9- and 12-year-old girls, finds it useful to offer choices, such as, “You can do it now with my help or you may keep playing for another 30 minutes and then do it yourself.” The kids are more willing to do what needs to be done if they can choose when or how to do it, says Bollinger, who advises keeping choices simple. “Kids don’t have the life experience to manage too many options.”
Discipline might mean simply changing the environment to manage behavioral issues. University District mom Laura Gilliam did this in her family. “We have a low windowsill in our house above a 20-foot drop,” explains Gilliam, “which was extremely tempting for my 7-year-old daughter to stand on. I was concerned for her safety and repeatedly reminded her to step off, explained why it wasn’t safe, took her outside to see how high the drop was — all to no avail. One day I asked her if she would like to take her collection of shiny and painted rocks and display them on the windowsill. She was very happy to do so and has not stood on the windowsill since then.” Much like putting dangerous things out of reach of a crawling baby, these small changes can reduce parental frustration.
5. Think physical. Behavior issues can have physical causes. Children are often not aware enough of their bodies and feelings to know what is “normal.” Gilliam has seen this firsthand in her own kids. “For both of my children, there have been several occasions where they just haven’t been acting like themselves and we found an injury or illness was the cause.” Many parents can relate to that feeling of relief when a fever is discovered after a day of mystifying belligerence. Before you react to a child’s behavior, take a moment to assess his physical well-being.
6. Become a coach. Emotion coaching is a technique parents can use to help their children manage their own behaviors by understanding the feelings behind them. Carolyn Pirak, L.C.S.W., director of the Bringing Baby Home program at Seattle’s Relationship Research Institute (and Parentmap contributor), says the first step is recognizing and naming the child’s emotions. For example, when a child is uncooperative for a family photo, the parent might say to the child, “You appear to be feeling shy or uncomfortable.”
If a parent gets upset with a child who is acting out because of a strong emotion, little progress will be made. “More often than not,” says Pirak, “the behavior is a result of an emotion that a child is having. You can’t discipline an emotion.” The next step is to give the child a choice. In the photograph scenario, a parent might ask, “What can you think of that will help you cooperate for this picture?” “Most of the time,” says Pirak, “kids are reasonable and will come up with an answer that works for the parents. A lot of parents try to come up with an adult solution to a kid problem,” says Pirak. “What a kid needs is a kid solution to a kid problem.”
Finally, the emotion-coaching parent sets limits. The parent in the photograph scenario might say, “You are going to be in this picture, but you can decide where to stand.” Emotion coaching can be a lot more work than time-outs, but Pirak says it’s worth it: “If you emotion coach well, you discipline less.”
7. Build connections. “It doesn’t matter how many good techniques you have, you will not have effective discipline absent a good rapport with your child,” says Bollinger. She says parents should choose a discipline approach that builds closeness between parents and kids. Most agree that discipline is not one of the joys of parenthood, but having kids who know how to behave — and what to expect when they don’t — is a beautiful reason to make the effort.
Tera Schreiber is a Seattle freelance writer and mother of three children. She and her husband get plenty of practice with discipline tools in their sometimes feeble efforts to maintain peace and harmony while helping their children to grow and learn.
Positive discipline online resources for parents
Washington State Department of Social and Health Services child development guide
Alfie Kohn, education and parenting author
Elizabeth Crary, parent educator, speaker and author
Candyce Lund Bollinger, L.C., parent educator and counselor
Barabara Coloroso, parenting author and speaker
Elizabeth Pantley, parent educator and author