I first read about gentle discipline when my oldest child was nearing his first birthday. I had practiced attachment parenting from the beginning, but hadn’t given much thought to discipline. I knew from my my own upbringing and my education in psychology and sociology that physical punishment was not right for our family, but I had no idea how to discipline without the use of spanking, time outs and other punitive tools. No one had modeled it for me and I did not 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 work?” I doubted myself with every tantrum and every whine. Still, I stuck with my ideals and continued to practice gentle discipline, keeping the reassurance of the gentle mothers who had already raised children to adults close to my heart. They promised that it would get easier and that gentle discipline would pay off.
Yes. Gentle Discipline Works.
Eventually, as my children began to grow older (and especially after they each reached the age of seven) I saw that gentle discipline does work. When my oldest was 2.5 I remember saying to my husband, “This is where parents begin to lose their children.” The toddler and preschooler years are intense and the disciplinary work is non-optional.
Preserving relationships and teaching children to be internally motivated to behave well are the goals of gentle discipline. These ideals are wonderful, but many parents never had gentle discipline modeled for them. Many parents struggle to believe that gentle discipline works, especially when their child seems to be misbehaving at every turn.
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.
1. Gentle Doesn’t Mean Permissive
Sometimes parents make the mistake of equating gentle discipline with permissiveness. Gentle discipline doesn’t mean that you should allow 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 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.
2. Gentle Doesn’t Mean Lazy
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 yell 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.
3. 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.
4. 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 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.
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