When people hear gentle parenting, they often assume that means no discipline. But that’s not true at all. Gentle parenting isn’t about avoiding punishment, it’s about avoiding harsh punishment.
Gentle discipline shuns more authoritarian measures like spanking or time in corners or belittlement. It’s a way to achieve results – behavioral change – while preserving the caregiver-child relationship.
However, this doesn’t mean children will be unchecked! Discipline is a necessary part of parenting. But it doesn’t have to be a battle.
Gentle parenting is not to be confused with permissive parenting; gentle discipline is in no way permissiveness.
Does Gentle Discipline Work?
Gentle discipline is more effective than punitive discipline. Loads of studies back this up. Punitive discipline, especially corporal punishment, simply doesn’t work in the long term.
(And, uh, that’s the most important part, folks. The. Long. Term.)
This is a difficult thing to talk about. People who hit kids are really attached to the idea of hitting kids. It’s a weird hill to die on.
I don’t know if it’s survivor bias, an unwillingness to admit that parenting mistakes were made, or they just really like hitting, but I don’t have the energy to talk the pro-hit-kids crowd out of their entrenched positions.
Maybe these experts can:
- The case against spanking
- Physical punishment of children: lessons from 20 years of research
- Corporal Punishment and Elevated Neural Response to Threat in Children
What Is Gentle Discipline?
Gentle discipline recognizes that children are individuals with their own needs and feelings. And that mistakes are an important part of learning.
This approach models appropriate behavior and provides encouragement and support, instead of shame and punishment.
How To Discipline As A Gentle Parent
There are many ways to gently discipline: constructive (and kind) confrontation, setting limits, providing natural consequences, and more. Consistency and patience are key.
Confrontation, in and of itself, isn’t a bad thing. In fact, in many cases, confrontation can be constructive. It can help clear the air, resolve conflict, and even strengthen relationships.
Yelling is bad. Hitting is bad. Calling names is bad. But, (say it with me) confrontation isn’t bad. And it’s completely possible to manage confrontation without escalation.
The key is to know when to confront (not when anyone is exhausted, hungry, etc) and how to do it in a respectful and constructive way (yes, even with small, irrational children). Focus on the behavior, not the child.
More “I don’t like it when you throw the cat food,” less “why did you do that, I just told you, ugh, you’re making a mess again, etc, etc.”
Always consider unmet needs
Gentle discipline strives to rise above individual, challenging situations and consider any unmet needs first. Is your child tired? Hungry? Overstimulated? These are all common needs that can go unmet, leading to undesirable behaviors.
Gentle discipline means being attuned to children’s needs and trying to meet them. Sometimes, this can be difficult – especially with other children, work, or life responsibilities that need balancing.
By being attuned to children’s unmet needs, you can help them feel seen and understood. That can go a long way towards preventing tantrums and promoting good behavior.
Tell, Don’t Ask
This is one of the most common parenting mistakes I see out in the wild. Time for a quick grammar lesson.
There are four types of sentences: declarative (making a statement/relaying information), exclamatory (expressing a strong emotion), interrogative (asking a question), and imperative (making a command or direct instruction).
Instructions must be given using the imperative or declarative, rather than an interrogative case.
It’s “we’ll take a bath after dinner, ok?” vs. “you’ll love playing in the bath after dinner.”
Often the interrogative case sneaks into instructions with the best of intentions. No one wants to be a dictator. Stop confusing assertion (imperative/declarative case) with aggression (exclamatory case).
“I won’t let you”
This is a great confrontational statement, matter-of-fact and brief. It doesn’t invite back-and-forth in the same way that “stop, your brother doesn’t like that,” does.
Now the sibling could argue, “well, sure, he does, we do it all the time, etc, etc.”
Or whatever it is. Kids seize on any subjectivity as a way to delay consequences, and parents fall into the traps of engagement and over-explanation all. the. time.
It’s much harder to argue with a flatly delivered, “I won’t let you.”
Empathize and Acknowledge
When unwanted behavior occurs, two statements are needed: the empathizing and the acknowledging. And “I won’t let you” is a great, unemotional acknowledgment of possible consequences.
But that’s the second part. In gentle discipline, parents empathize first. This involves acknowledging the frustration that the child is feeling.
This looks like: “I know how frustrating it is when your little brother knocks over your paints. I won’t let you hit him, though.”
Empathizing and acknowledging is a great way to teach children that more than one thing can be true at the same time.
Surprising playfulness has stopped many a meltdown in its tracks. Toddler about to lose it? Make faces instead of scolding. It’ll surprise you. I know it did me when another mom friend suggested this.
I’ve found this works as my kids get older, as well. True, their sense of comedy is maturing, making faces doesn’t cut it anymore. The Ministry of Silly Walks is a big hit, though.
Singing instructions is a playful way to gain compliance, too. It gets attention without yelling.
Redirection is one of the subtlest ways to change unwanted behavior in the moment.
It can be as simple as exclaiming “look at that!” as a distraction to stop unwanted behavior. That works best with the littlest children.
For older kids, redirection can be more of a set-up, like offering a choice between two different activities when negative behavior rears its head (for hitting: “do you want to hit the pillow or the stuffed animal?”).
The Power of Praise
Gentle discipline relies heavily upon positive (rather than negative) reinforcement. Positive reinforcement is a type of operant conditioning.
It occurs when a behavior is followed by a reinforcing (positive) stimulus, which increases the likelihood of that behavior being repeated in the future.
Common rewards used in positive reinforcement include things like praise, attention, and privileges. Praise developing skills and wanted behavior profusely; work hard to “catch” children being good.
Pick Your Consequence and Stick To It
I’ve put this rule last because the consequences for unwanted behavior are less important than trying to prevent the unwanted behavior.
The only hard and fast rule for gentle parenting/discipline regards non-violence. So a variety of consequences are available in gentle discipline, so long as it isn’t hitting.
For very young children, basic timeouts can be effective. Timeouts involve placing the child in a designated spot for a set amount of time (usually one minute per year of the child’s age), giving time to calm down and reflect.
Other non-violent punishments include taking away privileges (such as television or video game time), limiting playtime with friends, or early bedtimes. For older children and teenagers, grounding can be used.
Consistency is key. Whatever consequences are used, the important part is sticking to them. Even in the face of opposition, and especially in public.
It can be hard to resist the urge to yell or get angry when our kids don’t listen, but with a bit of patience and gentle discipline, we can achieve the long-term results we want.
By taking a step back and looking at the situation from our child’s perspective, we can understand why they are behaving in a certain way and help them learn better coping mechanisms.
Have you tried any of these techniques for disciplining your child? Let me know in the comments.