Gentle Discipline: So what DO you do?

I have been thinking about discipline a lot the past several days (as have, apparently, many of you) I realized that what was bothering me the most about the negative comments I was receiving about the spilled milk post – aside from the people who felt led to name call – was the pervasive assumption that not punishing equaled not disciplining. That because I do not take a punitive approach, that I do not PARENT. The opposite is true.I got comment after comment after comment that said, “If you just let your kids do whatever they want…” which usually led into a diatribe about them never learning right from wrong, never having any respect for themselves or others, and ultimately turning into loud, dirty, trouble-making teenagers.

Parents who ignore their children’s behavior, parents who are not involved, parents who really do let their kids “run wild” (for lack of a better phrase) are being neglectful. Those who parent mindfully and who discipline gently are consciously present with their children. They are VERY much involved in showing, leading, modeling, and guiding their children.

It’s easy and immediate to offer up a “Go to your room!” or a “Look what you did!” It’s dis serving and neglectful to turn your back.  It’s deliberate and thoughtful to respond in a calm, and caring way. 

If you get nothing else from this post, please hear this:  Ignoring what your children are doing, and interacting with them respectfully are two completely and diametrically opposed things. 

One common thread I saw emerging in my comments, even when it was not expressly said, was “Well if you don’t punish, what DO you do?  How do you teach them right from wrong?  How will they learn?”  I’m going to take that for the honest question that it is.  Some people, for any number of reasons, do not know about alternatives.  They don’t know that there’s another way.  Some people want to do things differently, and want to break their cycle, but they honestly do not know where to start.  It’s for those people that I started to think about the following… a (partial) list of what I do do with my children in terms of discipline.

1. Listen

My friend Vickie, of Demand Euphoria (which is a blog you should immediately head on over to check out when you’re finished here) recently said it best when she said, “If you have a question about parenting your child, try asking your child first!”  We all act the way we act for a reason.   When I’m unclear about what’s going on with one of my children, I first try to stop and just listen.   I let them tell me why they’re thinking/acting/feeling a certain way.  Even young, non-verbal children can communicate what the problem is as long as we’re paying attention.  Are they tired?  Hungry?  Frustrated?  Sad?  Angry? Regardless of the situation, we can’t even begin to effectively deal with it unless we understand why it’s happening.  And we can only do that if we’re really in tune with our children.  We can only do that if we’re really listening.

2. Talk

While I think the listening has to come before the talking, we of course have to have an ongoing, respectful communication as we help our kids navigate the world.  I think that sometimes as parents we have a tendency to talk way too much (which is why I place listening first)  When Tegan threw the shoes in the water, a very brief and simple, “We don’t want those to get ruined,” was much more appropriate for the situation  – and her age – than a long-winded narrative about responsibility, respect, and ownership.  With the boys, who are older, I might use more words… but my experience tells me that less is still more, and that the listening has to come first.

3. Empathize

This to me is at times one of the hardest – but most necessary – facets of peaceful parenting.  Sometimes it’s hard to remember what it’s like to be three (or 7 or 10 or 14)  Sometimes it’s hard to see past the frustration of a moment and truly put ourselves in someone else’s shoes.   But I can think of few other acts that diffuse a situation as quickly as when I really take a deep breath and let myself feel what my child feels.   I can listen more effectively, talk more authentically, and respond more compassionately when I’ve let go of me, and allow it to be about them.  This isn’t just about kids either, but is an important aspect of dealing with anyone, in any situation. 

4. Model

One thing that I think a lot of people are confused about is how children can learn things like manners, respect, and the like without it being somehow drilled into them.  My answer is this:  I model the behavior that’s important to me.   I say please and thank you.  I say excuse me.  I’m polite to waiters and bank tellers and cashiers.  I’m true to myself.  I respect other people’s things.  I respect other people’s feelings.  I don’t lash out at strangers on the internet because they do things differently than me.  I say I’m sorry when I make a mistake.  I treat my kids – and other people – the way I’d like to be treated.  My children have learned it because they have lived it.

5. Provide alternatives 

This point is much more applicable to small children than older children.  One thing I hear a LOT is moms of toddlers who say things like, “But how do I stop the hitting?  The pinching?  The biting?  The throwing?”  If it helps for commiseration sake, Paxton (10) was a huge thrower as a toddler, and these days the only thing he throws is a baseball…. without ever having been punished for it. 🙂  All those things I mentioned are normal for growing, learning toddlers.  At three, Tegan is on her way out of most such behaviors, but when something arises, I 1) Protect the person who’s taking the brunt of it, in whatever way I need to do it… whether that means moving to another room, going outside (or in), or gently holding her hands in mine.  2) Move on to step one – listening.  Is she tired?  Needing attention?  Just trying something fun?  3) Talking: I’m sorry, I can’t let you throw that remote at his head because he might get hurt, and 4) Provide alternatives.  Does she want to throw?  There are lots of safe, fun things she can throw.  Does she want to hit something?  How about high-fives, or punching an exercise ball, or boxing on the Wii?  Does she want to experiment with water?  Lots of safe, fun ways to experiment with water.   Does she just need more personal attention from me?   I’ll suggest a game, or a puzzle, or a coloring book, and sit down and do it with her.   Sometimes it takes a healthy dose of creativity, but there’s always an alternative. 

6. Take a time out

No, not in the more well-known, punishment kind of way, but a time out together.  A time away from the situation.  A chance to re-connect and re-group.  A chance to calm down.  Sometimes listening, talking, empathizing, and providing alternatives just doesn’t do it.  Sometimes you need to call a time out… whether it means a change in scenery, a good book, time alone, a bowl of ice cream, or a good old fashioned round of “what kind of shapes and animals can we find in the clouds.”

7.  Be gentle.  Be forgiving.

Just I was finishing up this post, I received another comment.  It said in part that I came across as if I think I’m perfect.  It makes me sad because that is just about the complete opposite of my intent, and it is just about the complete opposite of the truth.  I will take it to heart, and measure the tone of future posts, but can I just hereby officially state for the record that

I am 100% categorically IMPERFECT in oh so many ways!!  

SO many ways.  If you’re not convinced, I have friends and family members who would gladly give you a list of my flaws if you would like it.

I’m not perfect.  My kids aren’t perfect.  They screw up.  I screw up.  We’re human.  The best we can do is try to do better, be gentle with ourselves and others, and apologize honestly and forgive freely.

I’m not a perfect parent, and I don’t have all the answers.  I do know though that my kids are HAPPY.  My kids are confident.  My kids are thriving.   And I can’t ask for much more than that.


Welcome to the 2nd Annual Carnival of Gentle Discipline!

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Filed under discipline, gentle discipline, parenting

31 Responses to Gentle Discipline: So what DO you do?

  1. This is one aspect of natural parenting that I always thought was flighty to be honest….but this post makes me realize something!!! If I am willing to go to the end of the earth to find the underlying cause of my daughters skin and allergy issues why am I not doing the same with acting out??? THANK YOU!!!

  2. I think your amazing. Your so honest and just want the best for you’re children. I hope to think I am like you and not let the world tell me how to look after and nurture my children. I know I need to sort out a few issues when looking after my children. My 3 year old keeps saying, “Mummy I don’t love you when you shout”. I was so heart broken and I am trying every day to promise him and he must promise me not to shout. It is very hard when your on your own with three children under three. But I will get there. I do not want my children brought up in a physically abusive environment like I was. I want my children to love me and not be scared. It is however easier said than done. So I truly Admire you for your blog and am very interesting in learning from you. Thank you x

  3. Sarah

    Thank you so much for writing this. I hate the way I deal with my kids but like you said, I just didn’t know how else to discipline. I have been looking for different ways to deal with them, trying to be more AP but everytime I’ve ever asked AP type people how to deal with it I felt I just got shot down for not already having figured it out! No help to just critise what I was doing! So THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU!!!

  4. Leah

    So when (if?) you have encountered gleam in your kid’s eye and a repeated offense after having been told no, (and a gleam and a gleam and a gleam – they’re sinners after all, right?) what does a response look like from you…?

    • jen

      When I have made the same mistake or poor choice more than once (both as a child and as an adult) the people who have helped me the most are those who responded with kindness and empathy. I extend my kids the same courtesy.

      • Debi

        Hi. I think that’s a great question she asked. I agreed with much of what you said in the post and I’m sure most parents could improve in some or all of those areas. What I’m struggling with is how your children will learn that there are real right and wrongs in life… and negative consequences if, when they are adults, they do wrong. Simple example, if they are caught speeding, they may have a conversation with a police officer and out of kindness, he just gives them a warning. But if they continue to speed and are caught, they will face increasingly severe consequences, ranging from fines to losing their license to possible jail time. Wouldn’t an accurate modeling of life for your children include that?
        Could it be that there’s a point where all listening, talking and seeking alternatives has been exhausted and the kindest thing for them would be to impose consequences for their actions?

    • Perecft shot! Thanks for your post!

  5. This is exactly what I needed to read today! My husband and I have been trying to be gentle parents since our first was born. Lately we feel like we’ve lost control though. It is true. We have lost control of our own emotions and the kids are modelling that. We were just talking about how we need to approach things in a more calm and understanding manner. Our kids will get upset, but we don’t need to get ourselves worked up over it. Thank you for some very practical things I can work on. It isn’t easy but it is so worth it!

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  8. Geeta

    I absolutely agree with everything you say and try to practice as much as possible. I just have one question about time out(in). What do I do with my other children when I am spending time with the one that has behaved poorly? They feel ignored because I am spending so much time with my middle child.

    • pathlesstaken

      Oh how I wish I had a great answer for you!  I think that’s one of the most frustrating parts about having multiple children to me…. trying to meet everyone’s needs at the same time.  Because sometimes, you just physically *can’t*.  The best I can tell you is to love them all as much as you can, and to trust that even when you go through difficult patches, eventually you’ll find your groove again.

  9. I love this post. It makes me think of God. When we ‘screw up’ is when we need His grace the most. Same goes for our children.

  10. Your posts have never come off to me as if you think you’re perfect. People reading your posts apply their own guilt/perspective/preconceived notions/whatever to what they read. There are already a plethora of posts on a mother’s shortcomings and failures-we all have them.  I want to be inspired to be better, do better, and as I read your writing, I am exclaiming inside, “YES! She has hit the nail on the head!” Anyone with common sense knows nobody is perfect, it confounds me that people even bother to write you with their criticisms- if they don’t like your writing they can unsubscribe for-goodness-sake. Meanwhile, people like me open up their email in the morning and walk away inspired to be more than they thought possible. As I deal with issues with my children, I recall stories you’ve told. YOU ARE MAKING A DIFFERENCE!!

  11. MndaGomez

    I really enjoyed reading this post. As mom of a boy rapidly approaching toddler-hood, my heart aches at the idea of him ever feeling about me or his dad the way I felt about my parents. I just always felt like such a disappointment. I’m sure that I wasn’t, but I desperately don’t ever wish to make my son feel that way. I know that it will be tough, but my son is do worth it. That’s the goal, to give, do, and be better for our children. <3

  12. Sabine

    Beautiful! I am the same with my 2 year old. Makes me feel warm in my heart to see other parents choose this path! My boy just turned 2 and a stranger just yesterday commented to me how impressed she was how my little boy reasoned with me and listened. I never really thought about it until then. But he was never punished but always listened to and talked to since his birth. I also embrace all your points how you deal with your children. It definitely works!!! Glad I read your post and do keep spreading the word! xx

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  14. Lyra

    I feel like it’s been a fight to get my daughter to behave using other discipline methods such as sticker charts, or time outs, or taking things away. The whole thing leaves my daughter and I upset, angry, and unconnected. Since I’ve stumbled across gentle discipline and started talking to her about why we’re doing something and what the results will be, we feel connected and respected. I only wish I had found this “to do” list sooner! Thank you so much for this list!

  15. kate

    As an RN, I do not work with children, but I do care for patients with various forms of Dementia. Your approaches are pretty much the same approaches we use in caring for our treasures. Respect, dignity, empathy, patience, safety for all, and refocusing are successful approaches for all.

  16. Mari

    Do your best to not take the attacking comments personally. You are doing a wonderful service for humanity and it is so appreciated by so many. Wishing you all the very best on your continued journey as a way-shower out of fear-based parenting into love-based parenting. It’s not easy being a leader but you can be very proud of yourself. Blessings upon Blessings.

  17. Kelly

    Thank you for your post , for spreading the word about gentle discipline and for helping others become the parents that their hearts long to be :)I would like to respond to Debi, who basically asked, how do kids learn there are consequences in life if we do not impose them. Debi, the answer is simple, in my opinion. Natural consequences occur in our lives and in the lives of our children. We do not need to manufacture consequences in order for our children to experience them. We simply need to walk with them and guide them through the scenarios in which consequences arrive. For example, if my 4 year old son ignores/refuses my request to put on his coat before we leave, the consequence is that he will be cold. Since illnesses are caused by viruses and bacteria, not cold temperatures, I will allow him to experience this consequence on his own if he chooses to disregard my urging to wear or carry his coat. If temperatures happen to be so cold that his health is actually in danger if he doesn’t have his coat, I will bring it along, but he will still experience being uncomfortable and will need to ask for the coat. Another example, If my 13 year old daughter fails to put her prized belongings, let’s just say new earrings for example, away in her room where they belong, there is a good possibility that my 1 year old will get her hands in them and they could be lost for good. These are natural consequences, they will forever exist in our lives and the lives of out children. There may be fewer natural consequences for our very little ones to experience, but I am certain they will have plenty of time to experience them before they are tossed into the world alone.

  18. kelly warnos

    Very nice article. This really helped me.

  19. Deb

    I think this post does the best job I’ve seen yet of summarizing what can be done with this approach to parenting. Thanks!

  20. Amnity

    I think I’m wondering where the limits are. The best positive parenting works because of good parental limits and boundaries. I don’t at all mean punishments as they are never necessary, but limits are. I’m talking “I won’t let you X” stuff.

    You probably do this–but maybe it should be one of the numbers. It’s so integral to making this kind of parenting work (speaking as someone who has lived it for 11 years now with my own kiddos).

    Another tool I personally find really useful is finding out what my children see to be solutions to whatever problem we are facing. Instead of telling them how things are going to go, I almost always ask them for ideas–because if they have a say in problem solving, then we can come to mutually agreeable solutions. This also helps them develop some awesome social problem solving skills.

  21. Sarah D

    So first of all… thank you!

    I am a mom of a 19 month old boy, and I am pregnant with my second.
    I find myself always subconsciously doing things my mother and my grandmother did with me as I was growing up. And while I learned amazing things from them… the yelling, easily frustrated, anxious about everything part, I want to leave behind.

    This blog is so helpful to me! It’s my goal to be a successful gentle parent.

    OH! also, if you have any advice or other blog posts I haven’t seen about support. Please let me know. Part of the reason I find it hard sometimes is because no one I know does it. I’m judged a lot by people around me, and it makes it more difficult.

    Thank you again!