Discipline, consequences, and boundaries can all sound like bad words. You might immediately think that these parenting tools mean spanking, yelling, and time-outs. In the past, discipline often meant revoking privileges, physical punishment, or sending kids away from you.
Hit your sister? No TV for a week.
Don’t sit nicely at the table? Put your nose in the corner.
Disobey your mother’s request? Go upstairs for a spanking.
Although this approach to discipline may feel like it’s effective in the short term (because the child stops the behaviour in the moment), research shows us that it does not create the long-term change you are looking for.
There are a few reasons why these traditional methods don’t work well.
1. Consequences that are NOT related to the behaviour are easy to forget
For example, Sally doesn’t get TV time for a week because she hit her sister. She will likely remember being angry about not having TV time and how unfair this felt to her. She is unlikely to remember why TV time was taken away in the first place – as this consequence is in no way related to her behaviour.
2. Not getting to the root cause of the behaviour
For example, Sally hit her sister because her sister didn’t want to share her toy. Sally was MAD! Taking away TV time for a week does NOT teach Sally new ways to cope with her anger. Next time she is mad, she still will not have the tools to cope with this feeling. Even though she may not hit her sister, she calls her mean names and throws a toy at her this time. Her parents feel stuck and take away another privilege… the cycle continues. Getting to the root cause of challenging behaviour is key.
3. Punishments can teach your child the wrong skills
For example, Sally continues name-calling, hitting, and kicking her sister. Her parents have tried yelling at her, spanking her and taking away her favourite things.
The thing is, Sally learns how to act from her parents.
The spanking taught her that she could hit others when she doesn’t like how they act. The yelling taught her to yell at her sister when mad at her. The threats taught her to threaten her sister when her sister doesn’t listen to her.
Though the parents are trying to stop Sally’s behaviour, they’ve just reinforced everything they don’t want Sally to be doing.
You may be asking yourself, so now what? Do we forgo all punishments? Is there no consequence for my kids if they hit their sister?
This is where many people get gentle parenting mixed up with permissive parenting.
The definition of discipline means to teach and guide our children. We want to show our children what they CAN do, instead of focusing only on the behaviour we DON’T want to see.
So… you’re probably thinking: “This sounds great, but where do I begin?”
Related Post: How to Stop Your Child From Hitting: A Sensory Approach
Consequences are an important parenting tool
The next time you want to enforce a consequence with your child, keep the 3 Rs of gentle discipline in mind (these were created by Jane Nelson, 1985).
Remember standing in front of you is a human being who is struggling and needs your help. Take a moment to breathe and calm your own reaction before disciplining your child. Your child likely already knows they did something wrong. Adding shame or yelling just lessens the likelihood that they will actually hear what you are saying because they will be more focused on disappointing you than understanding the impact of their actions.
A consequence should be a task that is developmentally appropriate for your child. For example, my two-year-old hit my arm making me spill coffee all over myself during one of her tantrums. A reasonable consequence was to sit with her until she calmed down from her tantrum and then clean up the spilled coffee from the floor together. It would NOT be reasonable to expect her to clean the entire mess while having a tantrum or putting her in timeout.
An effective consequence should relate to the behaviour.
In the example above, taking away Sally’s TV time for a week was NOT related to her behaviour. Sally quickly forgets why she had the TV time taken away and focuses only on how mad she is about no TV. A better consequence would have been taking space from her sister. Once she is calm, brainstorm with her about how she can repair the relationship with her sister (write a letter, apologize, do something kind for her, etc.)
Consequences are just a tiny piece of gentle parenting. Respectful, reasonable, and related consequences are a great place to start if you want to make a simple switch that will connect you deeper with your child, and they will actually work in the long term.
I want you to know that it’s possible to discipline without punishment. You can see real change, that brings you closer in relationship with your child, and brings more peace to your home!
If you want to know more, I highly suggest our Parenting Little Kids course. You’ll get unlimited access to scripts, tools, and the deeper understanding to help you discipline effectively.