Let's Talk About Positive Discipline

Positive and discipline are not two words that you normally see used together. Typically, discipline holds a heavy, negative connotation. However, we can follow three steps to help make discipline both effective and (relatively) painless. 

By Momentous Institute | Jul 16, 2021
Lets Talk About Positive Discipline

Positive and discipline are not two words that you normally see used together. Typically, discipline holds a heavy, negative connotation. However, we can follow three steps to help make discipline both effective and (relatively) painless.

A quick note: when we think of discipline, we should think of opportunity rather than punishment. Often, discipline and punishment are used interchangeably, but it is important to make a distinction between the two. The word discipline comes from the Latin word disciplina, which means ‘to teach’. When disciplining a child, you are taking the time to teach them a lesson. Discipline allows a parent to correct a child’s behavior, explain why the behavior needs to be corrected and teach the child why the behavior should not be repeated.

Punishment, on the other hand, is a repercussion that causes injury, pain or suffering as penance for misbehavior. Punishment can include: spanking, hitting, yelling, complaining, threatening or long sermons. Issuing a punishment when a child misbehaves may have the immediate effect of getting a child to stop the behavior, but it usually doesn’t teach a long-term lesson. Plus, harmful punishments may be teaching a child that it’s okay to act in violent or angry ways when something bad happens.

This is why positive discipline is so important. Let’s take a look at three major components of positive discipline.

1. Maintaining a Safe Relationship

We know from attachment theory that it is important for a child to feel safe and secure with their parents. This is true even (especially!) when a child misbehaves. A key reason why discipline is preferable to punishment is because punishment, by nature, can make a child feel unsafe and afraid, whereas discipline can address behavior while allowing a safe relationship between parent and child to remain intact.

When a child misbehaves, it is very important that they understand that they are still safe. If anyone, a child or adult, feels unsafe, their brain kicks into survival mode and can only focus on getting out of the situation that is making them feel unsafe. So, when disciplining a child, it is important to first remind the child that they are safe. Once a child is reminded that they are safe, they will need a few minutes to self-regulate.

2. Self-Regulation

The self-regulation piece of positive discipline is important for both child and parent. When a child realizes that they have done something wrong, they are going to become dysregulated, and a dysregulated child is not able to think clearly or learn until they have had a chance to regulate. Before disciplining, parents should give the child a few minutes to take some deep, calming breaths or walk around so that they can return to calm. There’s no point in jumping into a lesson immediately after the incident occurs if the child is dysregulated – the lesson simply won’t stick. The child’s brain is not ready. It's okay – in fact, it’s preferable – to wait until the child is regulated before attempting any kind of discipline lesson.

It is equally important for parents to take a moment or two to self-regulate. Imagine that you find your child sitting at your desk, a place they know they are not supposed to be, coloring with markers on some papers. Those papers turn out to be important documents that you need for a meeting at work the next day. You are probably going to be upset. Adults are not immune to strong emotions and dysregulation. Before disciplining your child, it is important that you take the time to return to calm so that you do not lash out at your child in anger. After everyone has had a chance to calm down, it is time for choices and consequences. 

3. Choices & Consequences

The first time a child does something wrong, there does not need to be a consequence. The child cannot face a consequence for something they did not know was wrong. In this case, parents need to explain to the child why their behavior was wrong, set the expectation that they will not repeat the behavior and explain that if they do repeat the behavior, they will face a consequence.

For example, you find your child coloring on the walls. They’ve never colored on the walls before and you’ve never thought to tell them not to color on the walls. You might say, “Crayons are for coloring on paper and in coloring books. We don’t use them to color on the walls. I know that you did not know this, but now that you do, I expect you to not color on the walls again. If you do choose to color on the walls again, you will choose to lose your crayons for the rest of the day.”

This does several things. It allows the parent to explain why the child’s behavior was wrong, set the expectation that they will not repeat the behavior and explain that if they do repeat the behavior, they will face a consequence. It also introduces the concept of choice to the child. This removes the punishment by saying, “I’m not punishing you – you chose to act this way and so you have also chosen the consequence for that action.”

When a child repeats an unacceptable behavior, it is important that their consequence is reasonable and that it matches their action. Think back to the previous example and imagine that your child has colored on the walls again. They now know that they are not supposed to do this. Let’s dissect a few example consequences.

  • Taking away your child’s TV privileges for the day.  This consequence has nothing to do with the misbehavior. Taking away TV privileges does not reinforce the lesson that crayons are not for coloring on the walls.
  • Telling your child that they cannot ever use their crayons again. This consequence is not reasonable. You cannot prevent your child from every using crayons again if for the simple fact that they will need to use them for school at some point.
  • Taking away your child’s crayons for the rest of the day. This consequence is both reasonable and related to their misbehavior. It reinforces that if you color on the walls, you will lose your crayons for a reasonable amount of time. 

Children are constantly learning, and part of learning is learning from our mistakes, and learning that our choices have consequences. This is, overall, what positive discipline is about. Using positive discipline rather than punishment allows parents to teach their children valuable lessons that they can use as they grow up and become adults. So remember: show children that they are safe, allow time for them to self-regulate, and then provide them with reasonable consequences. The more this routine is practiced, the easier it gets for children to anticipate and make appropriate choices.