The Positive Discipline approach to parenting – My Experience
The Positive Discipline approach to parenting – My Experience
by Renai Gallagher
Last year, I heard about a class offered at a local Montessori school in a parenting technique called Positive Discipline. My son was 2½ at the time and I was finding myself frequently frustrated with behaviors that I knew were typical of children his age, but were leading to daily power struggles where we both ended up feeling stressed and upset.
The class came at a perfect time and I signed up. We met in the evenings for 2 hour sessions, once a week for 6 weeks. The class had about 10 participants, all parents, several who were also preschool teachers. It gave me concrete ideas about how to handle the ups and downs of toddlerhood. I’d like to share some of those ideas.
Jane Nelson is the author of Positive Discipline, a book that was first published in 1981 and has since been revised and updated. The most recent edition, published in 2006, was our “textbook”. The philosophy of Positive Discipline is based on the work of Alfred Adler and Rudolf Dreikers. Nelson took their work, and continued to develop their principles in her many books on the subject.
The book begins by explaining some of the key differences between the basic parenting styles. Authorarian parenting refers to strict parenting (how many of us were raised), where parents are the boss and words like “because I said so” are thrown around an awful lot. Authorarian parenting offers “order without freedom” and no choices (“You do it because I said so”). In contrast, permissive parenting is where kids rule the roost. There is “freedom without order”, unlimited choices, and kids can basically do whatever they want. With Positive Discipline, the idea is to promote cooperation by giving children respect, limited choices, and kind but firm guidance, or “freedom with order”. The teacher/facilitator of this class explained that with authoritarian parenting, kids are left feeling humiliated. With permissive parenting, the parents are often humiliated, and with positive discipline, the idea is that no one is humiliated.
Positive discipline suggests that instead of the traditional “time-out” punishment approach, that we consider what is called a “positive time-out” where everyone (including you) takes a little time to cool-off. This can be accomplished by requesting that your child go into her room and listen to stories, read books or play with her toys, instead of the punitive time-out approach that essentially makes children feel badly for their behavior in hopes that this will improve their behavior the next time around. A basic premise of Positive Discipline is that we must let go of the idea that “in order for children to behave better, they must feel worse”. It is similar to when adults are chastised by a boss, partner, or parent, for example, in hopes that this will cause them to do a better job, be a better partner, or be a better parent. It just doesn’t work. When we feel badly, it doesn’t make us want to perform better. It makes us mad, resentful, and possibly even sneaky. Nelson also warns us to “beware of what works”. Punishment works in the short term, but doesn’t produce the long-term outcomes that we want: honest, self-reliant, responsible, independent and courteous kids.
Many parents recoil when they think of a non-punishment approach. It is certainly a paradigm shift from how most of us were raised. Avoiding punishment does not mean we should let the kids be in charge, or walk all over us. This is “permissive parenting”. What it changes is the power dynamic we have with our children. When children are given choices, for example, “Would you like to get in your car seat by yourself or should I help you” or “Would you like to read one book or two books before bed?” or “Would you like carrots or broccoli tonight”, it give kids the sense that their opinion matters. It is amazing to me personally to watch how differently my son responds when I offer him two choices instead of telling him what he is going to do, wear, eat, or whatever. Toddlers are struggling with learning how to help themselves, knowing that we will do things for them, and wanting to do many things without our help. If you think about it, they have very little control over their own lives, they are basically at the mercy of our whims, busy schedules and time lines.
Another concept I learned from this class is the distinction between “praise” versus “encouragement”. When we praise children for everything they do (ie “good job” for eating breakfast, getting in the car quickly, holding our hand in the parking lot, etc), we run the risk of creating “praise-junkies”. Praise-junkies are kids who have a difficult time completing a task without the promise of a reward. If every time our kids act nicely and we reward them for doing so, we set up a system where if they don’t get the reward, or the promise of one, their behavior suffers, or they lack the initiative to try new things unless they know there is a prize to be gained.
Nelson advocates “encouragement” instead of “praise”. Encouragement is specific. Here are a few examples of encouragement vs. praise: “I appreciate your help” instead of “You are such a good boy”; or “You must be so proud of yourself” instead of “I’m so proud of you”; or “You really drew a colorful picture” instead of everyone’s all-time favorite “Good job!”. In these examples, the first statement gives the child a sense of accomplishment that comes from within his/herself, and the second gives a sense of accomplishment based on what you as a parent deem valuable.
Here are some other examples of putting positive discipline into practice.
Set clear expectations:
“When (not if) your toys are picked up, you may go outside.”
“You may change your shirt as soon as you’re finished with your breakfast.”
“Let’s figure out what needs to happen before we are ready to leave this morning.”
“I need your help. Can you figure out what would be the most helpful thing you could do right now?”
“You may change your shirt now or after breakfast.”
“Do you want to paint or play with your blocks?:
Negotiate an agreement:
“Would you like to change your shirt before or after you clean your room?” Next, restate the agreement: “After you change your shirt, you agreed to go in and clean up your toys.” We make a lot of deals like these in our house and we then “Shake on it.”
(the above examples were adapted from the Positive Discipline for Preschoolers Facilitator’s Guide)
This just touches the surface of the Positive Discipline approach. Nelson’s book covers many other topics including: the significance of birth order, how to have a family meeting (another key concept to this approach), and how your personality affects your children. The two books most pertinent for the parents of young children are: Positive Discipline, and Positive Discipline for Preschoolers. The approach has worked nicely in our family and has the potential to be effective for many years to come (when you’ll probably catch me reading Positive Discipline for Teenagers).
The ideas are basic and make sense: Children who act out are “discouraged”, therefore, they need “encouragement”; a child’s point of view matters, just as much as a parents point of view matters; children want to know what we expect of them, and they want to please us. Kind, but firm guidance accomplishes this end. And finally, Positive Discipline asks us to respect our children, and to model respectful communication with our children, and in our other relationships.