Looking for discipline techniques that ‘work’? Forget it!

August 16, 2012

“If we don’t use rewards or punishments, what’s the alternative? What else can we use that works“.

I remember asking this question myself when I first began to make the shift in my attitude towards parenting. But the problem lies in the question itself. What do we mean by ‘works’?

Usually, I think we mean ‘get our children to do what we want, now’ or ‘Get a child to stop an unwanted behaviour, and sooner rather than later.’ So we’re measuring the success of a particular method by the immediate and perceivable outcome. Conventional discipline techniques like the naughty step are all about gaining obedience in the short-term. So when we ask, ‘What’s the alternative?’ I think we’re still too hung up on short-term obedience, or in finding ways to manipulate and change behaviour.

There are different strategies we can use to try to avoid power struggles and upsets, and gain cooperation. There are different ways we can respond when a child’s behaviour is unacceptable. But there are no quick fix solutions. We need to think long-term, and seek to guide our children into acceptable behaviour over time, not overnight. If, instead of looking for things that ‘work’ in the immediate term, we pay attention to the relationship, to being connected, and to meeting our child’s emotional needs, this in time will lead to fewer difficulties, and a fresher, more effective approach to the challenges we encounter – and often it’s a change in our own attitude, expectations, and approach that’s needed, rather than a change in our child’s behaviour.

Let go of control.

Too often we try to exert unnecessary levels of control over our children. Make sure there’s a good reason to say no. Often there is. But sometime it’s possible to come up with a compromise or solution that allows your child some autonomy. Save rules for things that really matter. Be mindful of safety without using it as an excuse. Respect a child’s need for what little freedom and autonomy we can afford them. Life as a young child is restrictive enough already.

Don’t be a helicopter or try to micro-manage. Step back a little and chill out. Allow that kids can be messy, forgetful, impulsive, and may not always like or enjoy what you expect them to.

Don’t expect, or even desire, blind and instant obedience.

Have realistic, age appropriate expectations.

Don’t expect a two-year-old to happily share toys with other children. Don’t expect a young child to follow you quietly round the supermarket without ever running in the aisles, attempting to touch anything on the shelves, or whining. Be reasonable, get real, and plan accordingly.

Furthermore, many unwanted behaviours will change over time as part of a child’s natural development, and don’t need to be interfered with by adults with “behaviour modification techniques”. Hitting will stop when a child develops greater impulse control and anger management. We can take steps to prevent it, step in quickly when it happens, gently teach and guide, but we can’t change things overnight.

Change the situation, not the child.

 “It takes a truly adaptive parent to sense the futility of harping on behaviour and to stop railing against what the parent cannot change……It takes a wise parent to focus on what the child is reacting to: the circumstances and situations surrounding the child.  In other words, a parent must first let go of trying to change the child.” Gordon Neufeld, Ph.D., and Gabor Mate, M.D., “Hold On to Your Kids“.

Strive to prevent difficult behaviour from happening in the first place. If your child can’t manage certain situations, avoid them, or change them. Maybe they just can’t handle the supermarket. Can you shop online? Make it more fun for them? Leave them with dad and do it on a Saturday?

If something’s going wrong on a regular basis look at the circumstances surrounding it and for ways to change them.

Meltdown? Maybe they didn’t get enough one to one time with you today. Can you build some in tomorrow? Maybe they’re over-tired. Perhaps that after-school playdate wasn’t such a good idea. Every situation is different, and a different set of circumstances led to things turning out how they did. Things will go wrong sometimes. Learn from these without letting yourself or your child feel bad about it, and emerge stronger and wiser the next time.

Stay connected and give attention when it’s needed

“…I hate the phrase, “He was just looking for attention.” For years, the standard advice has been to ignore such behavior. I don’t get that. We don’t say, “He keeps asking for food, but just ignore him: he’s only saying that because he’s hungry.” We don’t say, “Your cup is empty; so I’ll make sure you don’t get a refill.” If someone is looking for attention that bad, I figure they must need some attention! If we give them enough of the good kind, they won’t be so desperate that they’ll settle for the bad kind”. Lawrence Cohen, Ph.D., “Playful Parenting”.

Forget the old philosophy of not rewarding ‘bad behaviour’ with attention. If your child is attention-seeking, give them some attention. Then give them some more the next day so they won’t have to resort to ‘bad’ behaviour to get it in the first place. Simple.

Difficult behaviours stem from disconnection. Staying connected with your child is the single, most effective way to avoid these.

It’s not discipline techniques we need, conventional or not. It’s the bigger picture, the whole approach and attitude to parenting as an ongoing journey. There are no short cuts. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to any given situation, to any particular child or particular behaviour or issue. We’d all love there to be a magic step-by-step procedure to stop our children hitting, to make them share with other children, to make them get ready for bed every night without any fuss . Programs like Supernanny would have us believe there is. But there isn’t.

How do you get your child to do what you want?

February 14, 2012

I was asked this question by a father I met on a parenting course last week. He didn’t ask because he was marvelling at the incredible obedience of my child (who wasn’t there and who he’d never met), but I think because it was a question that had been puzzling him lately, and he wanted to hear what other parents had to say.

I found it difficult to give a short answer, which I guess sums it up really – there is no simple answer. So I’ve decided my answer deserves a blog post.

Without the use of bribes and threats, it’s all about strategies. Here are some of mine. None of them are guaranteed to work – that’s why it’s useful to have a few to try for different situations. But I believe they are, however, guaranteed to avoid jeopardising relationships, damaging a child’s self esteem, and creating long term problems.

Give choices

A child is much more likely to comply if they feel they have some control over the situation, have had their wishes consulted, and have been shown respect. Giving choices can achieve all this.

“Shall we put your shoes or coat on first?”

Or “Are you going to sit here or here for shoes on?”

Note that the child does not have overall choice about everything – they don’t have a choice about whether or not they’re going out – the adult retains overall control but gives the child choices within this. Let’s face it – children have very little choice over what happens to them each day. Giving choices where possible can help alleviate feelings of powerlessness and frustration and feed a child’s growing desire for independence. See my previous post on this strategy. 

Give information not commands

A subtle re-phrasing can sometimes be all that’s needed. So instead of “Put your shoes on”;

“We need to put our shoes on now so we can go out.”

“It’s time to put our shoes on.”

“It’s time to go out. Your shoes are ready at the bottom of the stairs.”

Again, I’ve written another post just on this strategy. Don’t knock it just yet – it’s surprising how well it can work.

Be playful and stay connected

This is probably my favourite one, and the one with which I have the most success. Be silly, make a joke, make things fun.

“Let’s race to see who can put their shoes on first.”

“We’re going on an adventure. Let’s get our special adventure shoes on.” Elaborate, create themes ad hoc.

Make silly noises as you put your shoes on and challenge your child to make some of their own, do a silly shoes-on dance or song, get creative, have fun and giggle!

Playfulness brings us to our child’s level and keeps us connected with them. Connection is the key to cooperation – well, to everything really.

This strategy is on my list of topics for future posts. In the meantime, read Lawrence Cohen’s “Playful Parenting”. Brilliant.

Give warnings

Give your child a chance to shift gears. If they’re in the middle of something, don’t expect them to drop everything any more than you would want to if you were in the middle of something.  Give some warnings, explain what’s happening next, and when they can return to what they’re doing now. Make a connection with them before trying to get them to comply.


If your child protests, cries, gets upset – validate, don’t scold.

“You were having fun doing that and now we have to go out. That must be hard. You’re feeling upset about this etc…”

Showing a child we’re on their side and understand is far more to likely to head off a major power struggle or meltdown.

Do it yourself

Don’t obsess about what age your child should or should not be doing things themselves. Just put their shoes on for them if this is easier. Nicely, whilst talking or joking with them, and making eye contact.

No, you will not still be doing this when they’re a teenager.  You just won’t. Really.

These strategies may sound unrealistic to some, but the most important thing I’ve discovered is that once I made the shift in attitude away from that of expecting instant compliance and blind obedience, and once I dispensed with using any bribes or threats, I found these strategies worked better simply because I was coming up against less resistance in the first place.

Difficult behaviour usually stems from disconnection. Playfulness, empathy, patience, understanding and respect will keep you connected whilst punishment and reward systems won’t.

Please share what strategies have worked for you.


January 12, 2012

There are no step by step guides, no rights and wrongs, no quick fixes or easy solutions when it comes to parenting, especially, I find, when it comes to parenting without the use of rewards or punishments.  It’s really about strategies, having lots of them up our sleeves, and judging the right time to use them.

One strategy I find I use many times every day is that of giving choices.  This has been an essential tool for me when it comes to gaining the cooperation of my control-crazy child.  “Just tell him” just doesn’t work.  It’s a red flag to a bull, an open invitation for power struggles and day long conflict.  Here are some examples:

Instead of “Come and put your shoes on”, try “Where are you going to sit to put your shoes on?”

Instead of “Brush your teeth and put your pyjamas on”, try “Do you want to brush your teeth now or in your pyjamas?”

Instead of just making his meal, give him a choice; “Do you want pasta or potatoes today?”

Instead of “Time to get out of the bath”, try “Are you ready to get out now, or would you like two more minutes?”

Open ended choices, however, I avoid;  “What would you like for lunch?”, followed by a list of suggestions, is usually followed by a list of “No”s.

All sound a bit tedious?  It can be!  And my neighbours may attest to hearing me on occasion yelling at the top of my voice “Oh for God’s sake just put your pyjamas on!” or similar, especially towards the end of the day.  However, overall, I’d say it’s a lot less exhausting, unpleasant, and remarkably quicker than the “just do what I say” approach.  Power struggles can be time consuming as well as exhausting and unpleasant.  Those two extra minutes in the bath are nothing compared to what could have been.

Some parents worry that giving choices leads a child to expect them all the time and means they will never do as they’re told, which sometimes – actually a lot of the time – they just have to. But others assert that the more children feel respected, and the less they get bossed around, the more likely they will be to comply when we let them know they really need to.  Giving choices doesn’t mean complete anarchy.  There are still limits and boundaries.  You’ll notice the examples I gave are all of giving very limited choices.  But there is still a choice, and children appreciate this.

Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish write in their book “How To Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk“,

“It might seem inconsequential to ask a child whether he wants a half glass of milk or a whole, his toast light or dark; but to the child each small choice represents one more opportunity to exert some control over his own life.  There is so much a child must do that it’s not hard to understand why he becomes resentful and balky.”

Another great benefit, aside from gaining cooperation, is that choices make children feel respected – they feel that their wishes have been consulted, that they are part of the decision making process, that their feelings are important, and likewise that they are an important and respected member of the family.  All good things for a connected relationship and for a child’s self esteem.

How do you deal with tantrums?

January 6, 2012

Every parent dislikes the dreaded tantrum, but the question of how to respond to a tantrum seems to be somewhat divided.

Many, including some child psychologists and writers, advise that ignoring tantrums is the best way to stop them, on the grounds that children use tantrums to try to get their own way, and will stop having them if they realise they’re not working.  In her book, “What Every Parent Needs to Know“, Dr Margot Sunderland, Director of The Centre for Child Mental Health, adds an extra element.  She writes that as well as this type of tantrum, which she calls a ‘little Nero tantrum’, there is what she calls a ‘distress tantrum’ in which the child is overwhelmed by their feelings, and needs your help.  She advises ignoring a ‘little Nero tantrum’ but comforting a ‘distress tantrum’.  She gives various tips for distinguishing between the two types, but warns, however, that a ‘little Nero tantrum’ can turn into a ‘distress tantrum’.   Hmmm.

Here is my problem with all of this.  First, if there’s a chance that the ‘little Nero’ or power struggle type tantrum can become a distress tantrum, then I’m inclined to hang around just in case.  The idea of leaving a child alone to deal with their feelings, though advocated by many, is not one that I buy into.  Young children have trouble dealing with strong feelings.  This is precisely why they have tantrums.  So how is leaving them alone going to help them resolve them?  Besides, I would never ignore my child when he is crying, for whatever reason, little Nero or not. When we ignore a child who is upset, angry, frustrated, we lose that vital ability to reconnect with them. Ignoring also shows disrespect for him and for his feelings, and does not model compassionate behaviour.   Ignoring just doesn’t seem right to me at all.

Secondly, if we go for the idea of a tantrum being used by a child to get their own way, this attributes to the child manipulative behaviour, which must lead to the conclusion that they are in fact not upset but just acting.  It would also attribute to them an ability to think in such a devious manner, which I think is somewhat questionable, especially whilst in the throes of a tantrum. It brings to mind the equally dubious message pedalled by some parenting gurus that babies have the capacity to manipulate, and this is a reason to fail to respond to their cries.

Now, granted, a child has the capacity to whine and cry and carry on about something that they want that we’ve said they can’t have.  A tantrum, however, indicates a loss of control on the part of the child, due to their being overwhelmed by their strong feelings.  OK, the power struggle may have been the trigger, but this just tells you that frustration and anger are  most likely the predominant feelings they’re experiencing. For me, a preceding power struggle is not a reason to ignore and fail to empathise with a child’s feelings.  It is very easy to empathise and validate whilst still not giving in to demands.  Even without the tantrum, I’d say this is the way to go.

Many fear that giving attention to tantrums gives attention to and encourages bad behaviour.  But the way I look at it is that if we ignore a child’s feelings we teach them to suppress them in order to gain back our attention.  I do not want to teach my child to suppress his feelings, and I certainly don’t want him to think I don’t care about his feelings.

I think the most important change in attitude that needs to be made is that of tantrums being bad behaviour that must be stopped.  Tantrums are an expression of extreme emotion.  The problem arises from our own dislike of the noise and fuss, and often from our consciousness of onlookers.  Once we have ceased to see tantrums as bad behaviour we can respond to our child with empathy and understanding, so even when they can’t get what they want, at least they feel listened to and understood – surely a better recipe for connectedness, and if you want the tantrums to stop, connectedness is the key.

Lawrence Cohen, Ph.D. writes in his book, Playful Parenting, “Tantrums are children’s way of expressing and releasing frustration….If they can’t express their frustration, or if they are punished for having a tantrum, it continues to interfere with their happiness, their ability to cooperate, or their achievements……Children in the midst of a tantrum are flooded with feelings, and they feel out of control. They need a loving human being near them.”

When a child has a tantrum, whatever the cause, they are experiencing a frightening loss of control, and overwhelming feelings of frustration, anger, hurt and powerlessness.  They need us to show that we are there for them,  that we are strong enough to handle it even it they aren’t, and so are providing that safe base they so desperately need at their times of crisis.

Don’t take the bait

November 29, 2011

My son really likes control.  I have become expert in side stepping around power struggles with him.  I also like giving him choices.  Not only do they encourage autonomy, but they give him a feeling of having some control, making him more likely to cooperate with my requests.  I usually find this is true when it comes to eating, a potentially endless source of conflict and anxiety for parents.  However, I’ve recently been experiencing the following scenario.

I give him a choice of what he would like for his meal.  He tells me his choice.  I prepare the requested dish.  He sits down at the table and looks at it.  He starts to whine and say he doesn’t want it.  How annoying is that?

In one of my less patient moments I tried, “Well that’s what you said you wanted, so I’ve made it and you can sit there until you’ve eaten it!”  Result:  power struggle.  Child refuses point blank to eat food.  I get even more annoyed, resort to bribes and threats about pudding or where we’re going after the meal (I don’t agree with bribes and threats, how has he driven me to this?), they don’t work (I already knew that, so why did I try them?), he eats enough to feed a mouse, then either spends all afternoon being bad tempered because he’s hungry, or I spend all evening stressing about him waking up early in the morning because he’s hungry.  Everyone’s a loser.

On the next occasion, in a wiser, more patient moment I tried a casual, “Oh dear, that’s a shame” and carried on washing the dishes.  Child whined for a further 30 seconds, then ate food.  Brilliant.  (I managed to refrain from making any smart arse comments along the lines of “I told you so”, or “Thought you said you didn’t want it”.)

On the next occasion, being slightly bemused by his contrariness I commented, “I asked you if you wanted pasta and you said yes”.  Reply: “Yes, but not with cheese on.” (I had grated some cheese on top. I usually do.  He likes it.)  My response, “Oh dear. You’ll have to take the cheese off then”.  Child whined for a further 30 seconds, then ate food.

What’s going on here?  It’s as if he’s looking for a fight. Is he testing me in some way?  I’ve already given him a choice of what he would like to eat, but it’s like he’s double checking; “Am I being forced to eat this?  If so, I’m not going to”.  If this is the case, it’s a great example of coercion provoking counterwill.

Whatever it is, I’ve definitely learnt not to take the bait.