Why positive discipline matters

It happens in the blink of an eye. The newborn you cradled in your arms is suddenly a walking, talking toddler intent on testing the limits. As parents, you want to encourage exploration and spark imagination, but not at the expense of others. No parent wants an unruly child. Well-behaved children can still be imaginative and adventuresome. How do you achieve both? This is where the art of parenting comes in. Discipline, often viewed as a form of punishment, can be a learning process wherein parents teach children how to make good choices. In the form of positive parenting, children freely express themselves while learning how to behave appropriately, be considerate of others, and respect rules and regulations.

Why discipline is important 

A recent article by TODAY Moms contributor Jillian Lauren, Why we don’t punish our son. Ever, received no shortage of attention. Author and mom of a 3-year-old boy, Lauren quickly points out that while she and her husband don’t resort to reward systems or time outs to modify their son’s behavior, they still establish limits and structure. Lauren responds to tantrums and misbehaviors with respect and empathy rather than punishment, using these opportunities to connect with her son and determine the needs behind his behavior.

In this manner, Lauren is disciplining her son by setting limits and turning misbehavior moments into teaching opportunities. While many parents might not agree with Lauren’s strategy and believe more defined consequences are necessary, positive parenting proponents insist discipline done in a compassionate, empathetic, and respectful way is far more effective than traditional punitive tactics. While punishment is something parents do to a child, discipline is a series of teaching moments involving an open and cooperative connection between parent and child. Dr. Glenn Latham, author of The Power of Positive Parenting, claims that a punishing approach to managing behavior doesn’t teach, but instead only widens the divide between parent and child. But effective discipline, he argues, teaches right from wrong, and helps children learn to get along with others. According to Latham, children who learn discipline and self-control are generally happier adults—more creative, more productive, more expressive, more secure, and better able to work well with others. 

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) lists the most critical components of discipline as: appropriate behavior, positive social relationships, and self-discipline, which lead to healthy self-esteem. When parents establish reasonable expectations regarding behavior, communicate those expectations to their children, and encourage them to succeed in meeting those expectations, children learn to make good decisions on their own. 

“Discipline means teaching children to control themselves,” says Dr. Sal Severe, school psychologist and author of How to Behave So Your Children Will, Too!. If parents force control, he says, children don’t learn to master the habit and skills of being in control. 

And when parents model self-control and positive coping skills, children are more apt to emulate that behavior. Elizabeth Pantley, author of The No Cry Discipline Solution: Gentle Ways to Encourage Good Behavior Without Whining, Tantrums & Tears, advises parents to anticipate the teenagers they would like their children to become and respond to their behavior accordingly during toddlerhood, preschool, and school-age years. For example, by modeling honesty for a toddler, coaching a preschooler to be honest, and later commending a school-age child for being honest, parents have a better chance of having a teen who tells the truth, even in difficult situations. And if parents help teach a toddler to understand her emotions, a preschooler to talk about her feelings, and a school-age child to appropriately manage her anger, it is likely, according to Pantley, their adolescent will better learn to deal with frustration, disappointment, and anger in healthy ways. 

What works: try these discipline tactics 

Discipline can improve your child’s behavior, but only, according to the AAP, if it includes a supportive environment, positive reinforcement strategies, and reactive strategies (meaning, appropriate consequences for the problematic behavior). 

Each child is unique, so there is no one-size-fits-all discipline method. However, experts share the following strategies (and possible pitfalls to be aware of): 

Positive reinforcement. “Without a doubt, the key to developing high-quality human behavior is through the selective, positive reinforcement of appropriate behavior,” says Latham. He suggests when parents compliment children on good behavior (instead of focusing their attention on behaviors they disapprove of) they will see a decrease in undesirable behavior. Children crave attention—good or bad—from their parents. Latham believes “behavior which receives parental attention is behavior that is strengthened.” If a parent only pays attention to a child when that child is misbehaving, that bad behavior will likely continue. On the other hand, if a hug, words of encouragement, or a star on a behavior chart is extended to the child for good behavior, the good behavior should persist. 

Extinction. When a behavior is not rewarded, it will eventually become extinct, according to Severe. Extinction is the ignoring of a behavior with the intent of discouraging it from continuing. When bad behavior is not rewarded with attention, children are less likely to keep doing it. But Severe warns parents that extinction can work to weaken positive behaviors, too. When good behavior is ignored or goes unnoticed, children may think behaving well is not worth it. 

Natural and logical consequences. Every behavior needs a consequence. Natural consequences (such as a toy breaking when it is thrown to the ground in a fit of anger) occur as a direct result from behavior with no direct involvement from parents. Logical consequences (such as losing the use of the toy for the rest of the day if a child fights with a sibling over it) are implemented by parents. Experts argue that natural and logical consequences are often more impactful than any arbitrary punishment because they not only change behavior but provide memorable learning experiences. 

Dr. Robert Brooks, psychologist and co-author of Raising Resilient Children: Fostering Strength, Hope, and Optimism in Your Child, insists parents should not allow a natural consequence to occur if it places a child in danger. But when parents allow a safe, natural consequence to occur, the result is usually a real-life lesson. Logical consequences, according to Brooks “should not be harsh, arbitrary, or inconsistent” and the punishment should fit the crime. If logical consequences are too severe, he argues, children are more likely to become resentful rather than learn from the experience. For the learning lesson to be most effective, children should be warned prior to both natural and logical consequences that are likely to occur as the result of a behavior. Explaining to a child that a bike left in the front yard could get stolen (natural consequence) and, if so, a replacement would need to be purchased with his own money (logical consequence) allows the child to think through potential consequences beforehand. 

Take away privileges. Taking away a privilege differs from a logical consequence in that the unacceptable behavior and the consequence aren’t necessarily directly related. For instance, whining may result in lost television time or talking back may result in a cancelled playdate. Dr. William Sears, Associate Clinical Professor of Pediatrics at the University of California’s Irvine School of Medicine, author, and founder of the popular AskDrSears.com website, insists that the privileges to be taken away for the undesirable behavior need to be decided as a family as part of a pre-agreed-upon behavior management strategy. When parents clearly communicate the behavioral expectation and the resulting consequence to children, it leaves no room for confusion about what will result from misbehaving. 

Redirection and distraction. For parents of toddlers, creatively preventing unacceptable behavior before it starts is often worth the effort. Many toddler meltdowns begin over an object being taken away or an activity coming to an end and when parents have a proactive approach to these situations, a lot of emotion, energy, and frustration can be spared. Redirecting a child toward a toy instead of the electronic cords or distracting her with a game of skipping toward the car when it’s time to leave the park is often all it takes to thwart a tantrum.

Rewards. Rewards or incentives are often powerful motivators, and by working with what a child values, parents can encourage the continuation of good behavior and eliminate unacceptable behavior. A good example is the use of a sticker chart to reward a child for picking up his toys. Each day that he picks up the toys without argument, he gets a star, and at the end of the week, if all the stars have been received, he gets to pick out a new toy at the store. The rewards don’t have to be extravagant or tangible, however. Often children are motivated by a special activity like a trip to the park or the chance to watch a movie they love. But avoid using food as a reward as it can lead to unhealthy eating habits and food associations. As Dr. Becky Bailey notes in her book, Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline: The 7 Basic Skills for Turning Conflict into Cooperation, by promising ice cream as a reward for finishing broccoli, a child sees the vegetable as foe and the sweet treat as friend.

The rewards system does have its critics. Alfie Kohn, author of Punished by Rewards, argues that an extrinsic reward overshadows a child’s intrinsic motivation as the focus becomes more about the prize than the learning process. He insists rewards do little to encourage the long-term development of desired behavior even if they temporarily motivate. When used sparingly, reward systems can help children develop a specific habit (remembering to turn off the lights when leaving the room) but Bailey notes that it’s easy for children to get into the “what do I get?” mindset when rewards are used as opposed to the more desirable “look what I’ve done” way of thinking.

Time-Out (or Time-In). “Time-out” is often successful in stopping an unacceptable behavior, according to Pantley, because it interrupts a child’s negative behavior, separates him from a situation, and allows children (and parents) some time to calm down. Time-out is especially effective when used as a consequence for select behaviors (such as for talking back or hitting) and when children are warned ahead of time which behaviors will result in a time-out. A benefit of time-out is that it is an immediate response. Time-outs can be implemented instantaneously after the misbehavior, which often sends a clearer message to a child than delaying a consequence until a later time.

Opponents of time-out argue that separating a child from a parent doesn’t provide a learning experience, just an isolating one. Karen Mile, author of Psychology Today: Power of Loving Discipline suggests a child who is sent to time-out can feel abandoned during a time of emotional need. She recommends a positive version (sometimes referred to as a “time-in”) where parents sit with their children and help them regain their composure and problem-solve. By saying, “Let’s take a little time together to calm down,” parents can be supportive and help their children work through their emotions. Mile insists that learning a positive way to calm oneself at an early age is a beneficial skill that can be used throughout all stages of life.

What doesn’t work: avoid these discipline traps

Many parents mistake discipline for punishment, either because this is the way they were raised, or because they haven’t been taught about the powers of positive parenting. There are two well-known discipline tactics that experts argue should be avoided when teaching children right from wrong:

Criticizing. Criticism, when delivered in a non-constructive way and especially when directed at the child and not the child’s specific behavior, often falls into the category of verbal abuse. According to a University of Calgary study, “verbal abuse may have a greater impact for a longer period of time” than other types of abuse. Criticism does little to motivate a child and instead only weakens self-esteem, often perpetuating the child’s misbehavior. After all, a child who is continually told he is “bad” is bound to eventually believe it and behave accordingly. Severe warns that “many parents believe that being critical of mistakes is one way to instill more effort” when, in fact, the opposite is true. Focusing on what a child does well builds success, he continues, and success motivates children to work harder.

Spanking. Not only does spanking sabotage efforts to teach children to control their own angry impulses, but Sears warns that spanking a child can devalue the role of a parent by replacing a child’s trust with fear. Additionally, spanking creates an emotional distance between a parent and a child and teaches children that hitting (especially a smaller, weaker subject) is acceptable. Sears further explains that spanking is ineffective in helping a child develop internal controls because after a spanking, the child’s focus is usually on the perceived injustice of the physical punishment and not the behavior for which he was spanked. Baby gooroo explores the subject of physical discipline, citing a study published in Pediatrics that concluded even “minor forms of corporal punishment, such as spanking, increase risk for increased child aggressive behavior.” Children who experience corporal punishment are at risk for poorer mental health, decreased moral internalization, and increased delinquency. And Latham warns that even if spanking seems to work in the short-term by stopping the behavior, a child is likely stopping only to avoid being hurt, not because he’s motivated to behave.

Is discipline right for you?

Too often discipline is associated with correcting bad behavior, although it’s actually the reinforcement of good behavior that’s proven more effective. Parents often begin establishing limits for their children during their baby’s first year as they respond to the exploratory nature of their curious crawlers. Soon they are communicating what is acceptable and what isn’t by encouraging little fingers to “touch Mommy’s cheek gently” instead of poking at her eye or to “pet the cat softly” instead of tugging at her tail. Eliminating temptations and dangers at your baby’s level can help alleviate the need for excessively saying “No” while safely allowing you baby to explore her world. And when a child’s environment can’t be rid of dangers or breakables, helping her learn self-control starts by redirecting or distracting her.

The discipline technique or combination of techniques chosen by parents depends on their ideologies and their children’s temperaments. For a discipline strategy to work, it must feel appropriate to parents, prove effective at decreasing undesirable behavior and strengthening good behavior, and ultimately work as a teaching tool so that children learn from each experience. Not all children in the family will necessarily respond to the same discipline techniques. And as children grow and change, so does the way they test their limits, therefore it’s important that discipline (or should we say positive parenting) strategies grow and change right along with them.

Unsolicited advice and unsuitable suggestions may be offered in abundance (often by well-meaning family members and friends). It’s important for parents to feel confident about their decisions and consistent in their methods. Children will always think of something parents are unprepared to handle. But calmness, consistency, and confidence can take the dread out of discipline.

Last updated July 1, 2017

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