Punishment or positive discipline?

No parent is proud to be a 'shouter', but in the heat of the moment it's hard to do otherwise. Getting your child to do as they're told - in the right way - just needs a little preparation, and they'll learn important negotiation and compromising skills, too.

Harsh discipline or punishment is about imposing control through authority and power. It tends to be reactive, often in the heat of the moment. There is no discussion, reasoning or negotiation; the phrase “because I say so” is often decreed! When overly punitive consequences are imposed for bad behaviour, it can often be counterproductive: children may become resentful, angry and vengeful. Think about how you would feel if a boss or friend started shouting orders, lecturing you or threatening you. Would it make you keen to oblige - or keen to get even?

Not only does overly harsh discipline cause resistance and retaliation, it can easily encourage lying. A child will focus on covering up misdemeanours to avoid punishment, rather than changing their actual behaviour. Finally, remember that punitive consequences fail to teach your child self-control. A child who is always reprimanded without discussion fails to develop problem-solving skills or an ‘inner voice’ that helps them think through behaviour before acting.

What is positive discipline?

Positive discipline is about helping your child to learn positive values and develop social skills for life. It may help to think: what am I aiming for as a parent? Getting your child to do what they’re told right now may seem critical in the heat of the moment, but unquestioning obedience is probably not on your list of top adult qualities you aspire to. Instead, most parents aim to raise a young person who is responsible, but also adaptable; adept at compromising and negotiating, skilled at communicating and able to flexibly think their way out of problems. These are exactly the kind of traits positive discipline encourages.

But a word of warning - don’t confuse positive discipline with letting your child do whatever he or she wants! Children whose parents are overly relaxed or “permissive” often struggle with poor self-control and have difficulty committing to decisions.

Positive discipline involves parenting in a warm, kind and respectful way with fair, firm boundaries and relevant, reasonable consequences.

How do I use positive discipline?

Positive discipline must be given in the context of a warm, positive and loving environment. The more positive attention and encouraging comments you give your child, the more they will respond to disapproval. Look out for all examples of desirable behaviour and comment approvingly, such as “wow, Daisy, you waited so quietly when I was on the phone, that was so patient of you!”

Choose your battles Constant nagging and criticism makes children tune out. Decrease the number of commands given to those that are most important. Ignore minor misbehaviour and focus on the things that really matter and read more about helping your kids to listen.

When you make requests, use a polite, respectful and positive tone. Ask yourself “if someone spoke to me in this way, would I feel like obliging?” Avoid sarcasm, threats, criticism, labelling, teasing and shouting.

After making a request, allow time for your little one to respond. If you keep nagging them, they will learn to ignore you the first few times you ask for anything.

When making requests, state what you want to happen, not what you want to stop.

Every time your child complies with a request, praise them. You can use star charts, reward charts and special treats to further reinforce specific pre-agreed behaviours.

If your child doesn’t do as you ask, ask again more firmly. This gives your child a chance to change their response. If they still don’t respond, you may choose to impose a relevant consequence. So if your little one carries on throwing a toy at their sister after being asked to stop, take the toy off her for half an hour.

If your child gets upset and loses control of their feelings, don’t dismiss their concerns – this will probably make them more frustrated and more likely to act up. Instead, show concern and empathy, for example: “hey David, you were really looking forward to going swimming, so no wonder you’re so disappointed it was cancelled”.

Show them an appropriate way of expressing feelings.

Use the “when, then” technique to teach your child the impact of their behaviour on other people, for example: “when you call people names, then they get sad and feel hurt." "When you say sorry, I feel ready to have fun again.”

With older children a problem solving approach can be really effective.

Listen to your child’s ideas, respect their feelings and praise practical solutions Agree on a mutually acceptable, feasible solution, such as: “you don’t like brushing your teeth because you find the toothpaste tastes horrible, so we agreed that I’ll buy a different make and see if that helps”. “You don’t like me coming into your room in the morning because you're tired & don’t feel like talking, so instead, you’re going to set an alarm clock and I’m going to leave you to get up without nagging you”.

At times, every parent feels overwhelmed and frustrated and on the edge of imposing a reactive, harsh discipline. When you feel like this, it can be helpful to take time out yourself (making sure your child is safe). This is also a great way to model appropriate behaviour to your child. For example “Mummy’s feeling really stressed! I’m going to sit in the garden for five minutes”. Learn more about how to stop losing your temper with your child or read this piece on why Mummys need Time Out!

Make sure you’re not too hard on yourself It’s easy to be self-critical and dwell on the situations in which you weren’t happy with how you disciplined your child. Instead, take time at the end of each day to remind yourself of times you handled things well and think about what positive things that says about your parenting skills.

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