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Does Gentle Discipline Really Work?

I first read about gentle discipline when my oldest child was nearing his first birthday.  I’d practiced attachment parenting from the beginning, but hadn’t given much thought to discipline.  I knew from my own upbringing and my education in psychology and sociology that physical punishment was not right for our family. Unfortunately, I had no idea how to discipline without the use of spanking, time outs, and other punitive methods.  No one had modeled it for me and I didn’t know what to do instead.

After arming myself with information and finding a supportive friend and a support group online, I began to practice gentle discipline with my son.  For the first 5-6 years of his life there was always a nagging question in the back of my mind, “Does gentle discipline really work?”

I doubted myself with every tantrum and every misbehavior.  Still, I stuck with my ideals and continued to practice gentle discipline, keeping close to my heart the reassurance of the gentle mothers who had already raised children to adulthood.  They promised that it would get easier and that gentle discipline would pay off.

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Why Doesn't Gentle Discipline Work For My Child

My Experience With Gentle Discipline

As my children grew older (and especially after they each reached the age of seven when parenting gets easier) I saw that gentle discipline does work. I admit there were times when I thought I might be on the wrong track. I saw other parents using harsher discipline tactics and, often, their children immediately complied.

For example, when my friend smacked her son on the behind and told him to sit down and be still, he did. He looked a little scared, but he did as he was told. Her method sure seemed quick, easy, and effective. And it was quick, easy, and effective in the short term.

My goal was long term, however. By using gentle discipline I modeled appropriate behavior for my children, reminded them of what was appropriate, and gently (without spanking or shouting) corrected their misbehaviors.

Today the relationship I have with teen sons is quite different than the one my friend has with hers. She may have seemingly had an easier time with discipline in the toddler years, but I’ve had smooth sailing in the teen years.

I believe that gentle discipline was successful for me, in part, because of two important reasons – I always tried my hardest to put relationship first and I figured out how to discipline without using punishment. The gentle moms in my online support group made it clear that these two things were the key to their success, as well.

Putting Your Relationship With Your Child First

When my oldest was 2.5 I remember saying to my husband, “This is where parents begin to lose their children.” By that I meant this is the stage where parents become convinced that parenting is an us vs. them battle and children start questioning their parents’ ability to meet their physical and emotional needs.

Look, the toddler and preschooler years are intense and the disciplinary work is non-optional. It’s just plain hard. There is no perfect parent among us who doesn’t lose his or her temper from time to time. And, yes, toddlers and preschoolers sometimes purposely push our buttons.

The key is to learn your triggers and know when you need to walk away and to seek the reason behind your child’s misbehavior. With practice you’ll learn how to keep yourself from become overwhelmed by your child’s big feelings or insulted/embarrassed/annoyed by their misbehavior.

It won’t happen overnight, but with daily practice, it will happen. (Start with my article about how to stop yelling at your kids.)

Preserving relationships and teaching children to be internally motivated to behave well are the goals of gentle discipline.

Seek to Discipline, Not to Punish

Many parents mistakenly believe that discipline equals punishment. Discipline is about teaching your child how to behave. Punishment is about imposing consequences for misbehavior.

It’s hard to break the punishment mindset if you were raised by parents who believe in punishment. It can be difficult to believe that you can raise socially adept, kind, respectful, and successful children without using punishment. It requires a pretty big paradigm shift, but I assure you it’s worth it. Most importantly, it works.

Does It Seem Like Gentle Discipline Isn’t Working For Your Child?

If you are practicing gentle discipline but worry that it might not be working, here are some things to consider before throwing in the towel.

Gentle Parenting Isn’t Permissive Parenting

Sometimes parents make the mistake of equating gentle discipline with permissiveness.  Gentle discipline doesn’t mean allowing your child to behave anyway he or she wants.  You still have to tell them no when it is appropriate and guide them in the direction of healthy emotional and social growth.

The way that you say no is what is important.  You don’t have to yell or hit your child to get your point across.  You don’t have to punish or shame them.  You simply need to let them know firmly, but gently, what they should or should not be doing.

Gentle Discipline Isn’t Lazy Parenting

Parenting is a lot of work.  It requires you to get off your butt and discipline your children.  Yelling at your child from across the room is lazy, punitive parenting.  Ignoring your child’s behavior or being afraid to discipline your child for fear of hurting his feelings is also lazy parenting.

Often times, gentle discipline is more work than punitive parenting.  You have to put in more effort than a swat or a shout to teach your child right from wrong. You often have to be proactive instead of reactive.  However, the work you put in now leads to a better relationship, and therefore less work, in the years to come.

Gentle Discipline Won’t Stop Age Appropriate Behaviors

Two-year-olds sometimes hit other children.  It’s an age-appropriate behavior.  That doesn’t make it socially appropriate, however.  Discipline is what we use to teach our two-year-olds, for example, that hitting is not an acceptable behavior.

It doesn’t matter if we spank them for it or teach them about “gentle hands” in a calm voice – they will continue to hit until the behavior is no longer age-appropriate.  This is a great example of when proactive parenting becomes an necessity.  It requires you to pay close attention to your child to head off misbehavior instead of being distracted and, thus, being forced to react to misbehavior in a punitive way.

Gentle Discipline Won’t Stop Special Needs

If you are truly concerned about your child’s behavior and his or her lack of response to discipline, your child may have special needs.  Gentle discipline is a wonderful tool to use with special needs children, so continue to practice it while you work with your child’s doctor to uncover the source of his or her struggles.

I have two children with special needs (Asperger’s and ADHD) and I can attest to the fact that gentle discipline is effective with them both.

You Don’t Have a Good Support System

If you feel like gentle discipline isn’t working for your family, ask yourself how much you’ve got for this method of parenting. If your child’s other parent isn’t on board with gentle discipline, you’ll have a harder time. If your friends or family don’t agree with your parenting style, you’ll feel isolated.

Check out these articles for more help with getting your support system on board with gentle discipline:

My Husband and I Disagree on Discipline

My Mother Criticizes My Parenting

Get support from other gentle discipline parents online in my private Facebook group for positive parenting support.

I know that some days feel endless when you’re dealing with behavior issues.  Just when one sort of misbehavior ends, another begins.  This is a normal part of your child’s growth.  If you want to understand more about age-appropriate misbehavior, what time of year your child is most likely to seem difficult and what you can expect in the next six months, check out this series of books from Louise Ames.  They were a priceless addition to my parenting library and I’m sure you will find them immensely helpful, as well.


Get support for parenting and connect with other moms – join us in our private Facebook group for Positive Parenting Support.

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