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The Power of Positive Discipline | Insight from a Parent Coach

The Power of Positive Discipline


What does positive discipline mean to you? You might be picturing a parent who always uses a calm voice and puts their child before all else; you might imagine that child never cries. 

Now what does discipline mean to you? Now you might be picturing a child sitting in a corner, maybe getting spanked, being shamed into doing the right thing. 

Do you see the extremes by just adding or taking away a word? WOW.


The word discipline has had an interesting history. The current definition is:

Discipline Verb: 

1. to punish or penalize for the sake of enforcing obedience and perfecting moral character

2. to train or develop by instruction and exercise especially in self-control

In positive discipline we are focusing on the second meaning. One of the hard parenting truths is that the adult can only control themselves. That being said there I believe there is no such thing as a bad parent.


Understanding Positive Discipline

The foundation of Positive Discipline is becoming a kind and firm parent. A parent who is warm and fierce with follow through.

This comes from the intentional use of routine, the practice of patience, and the use of flexibility. Blending all of these together can feel overwhelming and unachievable. Learning how to find the balance between being both kind and firm is the magic sauce that I help coach parents to. This balance of both is the happy sauce to creating a solid authoritative style of parenting that both encourages children and holds them accountable for their actions.

Too often, the idea of Positive Discipline is misunderstood to mean permissive and passive parenting that uses a lot of cooing and “babying.” Or, it is often passed for the typical authoritarian “because I said so” method. I am here to say that idea cannot be further from the truth. The magic word in Positive Discipline is the word “and.” This is the idea of being kind AND firm.


The Principles of Positive Discipline

Positive discipline uses both kind and firm strategies, a balance of the two.

First, I want to look at the definitions of these words. I want to create a clear picture of how these words are defined, illuminating how to it work all into a balanced form of parenting.

According to Merriam-Webster:

Kind (adjective): of a sympathetic or helpful nature

Firm (adjective): having a solid or compact structure that resists stress or pressure

And used to join sentence elements of the same grammatical rank or function

If we are parenting from kindness only, we will encourage no boundaries or respect. Children will be led to feel insecure and have a lack of self-discipline. The feelings of permissive parenting will set in, and you will be eaten alive! You will be scared to say “no,” afraid of the tantrum that will ensue. This may not seem important when your children are two, but if we think long-term to when they are sixteen and experiencing social pressures, this will come into sharp focus why we cannot act out of kindness only.

However, if firmness is the only tool in your parenting belt, feelings of submission or rebellion will start to be nurtured. Authoritarian style parenting is fueled by punishments met with cold feelings. This will lead to rebellion, revenge, or retreat -- none of which are helpful when your children are facing obstacles they are not able to manage on their own. Firmness only fosters a disconnected and cold relationship, which creates a disconnect to others in your children’s environment. Also, it’s a scary situation when feelings of validation and connection come from poor influences.

When we insert the word “AND,” magic starts to occur. We set boundaries, routines, and limits while holding children accountable for their choice to adhere to or challenge them. Authoritative parenting supports the practice of using everyday challenges as the moment to practice and learn. There is a break in the good/bad cycle. No more punishments and guilt cycle. No more hurt and fear. Instead, your family becomes allowed to learn through mistakes and grow closer together. These are qualities that will be fostered throughout your entire lifetime!



Positive Discipline in the Real World, or Not

Something that really bugs me, I mean something that really, really bugs me, is the utter unawareness with which we as a society operate in regard to what we are actually teaching our children in preparation for their future. I don’t mean academics learned in school. I’m talking about what they learn about life. For example, we learned how to interact with each other through tough times, imperfect times, and times of anger. Those moments define us not only as individuals but as a culture.

Imagine your child knocking on the door in 25 years. What would you want them to be like?

My Clients came up with this list:

Strong, Brave, Kind, Smart, Driven, Loved, Happy, Resilient, Confident, Risk Takers, Good Citizen

Now, think about the typical ways we discipline our children. 

We yell, punish, humiliate, shame, blame, spank, isolate, suspend, ground.

The ways we are disciplining our children work against us. Bluntly put, we are punishing all the strength and resiliency out of them. We then unintentionally set them up to spend their adulthood searching for the validation and support they craved in childhood. If we foster children who are simply scared of getting punished, we are fostering a fear-based culture that does things “because this is how we’ve always done it.” And that’s a scary world. 

An actual psychotherapist, who happens to be a client, said, "It’s interesting that you work with parents to help support their children in the present. I help my clients return to their childhoods to validate and support themselves. Your job seems much more logical.”

As a parent coach, this is exactly why I do my job. I help parents learn how to navigate the day-to-day challenges with a fierce focus on the long-term goal. I support them while they remove fear so that children can make safe failures and use them as opportunities to learn and grow through them. Mistakes are how we all learn to innovate.

I urge us all to examine the discipline methods we use with a long-term vision.

A client of mine shared that her child ran punishment laps at her elementary school. I have heard this from other parents before, and I have witnessed it at the preschools where I have worked. I know this is a common disciplinary method. In my client's case, her child's class had misbehaved, and the teacher had all the children run laps as punishment at recess. A very obedient child at school, my client’s daughter found herself running on a twisted ankle because she didn’t know that she could stop.  In other words, she felt scared to stop running, so she kept on. That evening client's daughter complained of a sore ankle and was ultimately put in a cast. It wasn't broken but quite strained.

When my client shared that with me, my jaw literally dropped. I couldn’t believe that this school would still run (no pun intended) on such archaic methods of discipline. I asked my client what she thought her daughter learned in this experience. She shared that maybe she learned just to be quiet and run and behave in class. I added that perhaps the students may now see running as a punishment and be turned off by physical activity in the future. Punishments rarely reach the long-term goal of changed behavior. Instead, punishments tend to end in resentment, revenge, rebellion, or retreat.


"Children do better when they feel better." - Jane Nelson

The same goes for adults. 


Why punitive discipline does not work

Imagine all the ways that you were disciplined as a child, from anything from grade, roughhousing, getting home late, making a mess. I'll let you take a moment and create your inventory. Imagine or write down all the different ways your parents disciplined you and your siblings. Perhaps the same, perhaps differently.

When I first practiced this exercise, I wrote down things like "spankings with a wooden spoon", "yelling and threats", "banished to my room", "restriction", "one time a belt to the leg". These were not happy memories. These were moments when my parents laid into me as they tried different methods to get me to comply. I cannot imagine the frustration they must have felt as they did their best to parent five vastly different children who required five vastly different parenting styles. At the time, they were disciplining us the best they could.

The list we came up with was the list of punishments that were inflicted when we were non-compliant with our parents’ requests. Discipline, by definition, means “to teach.” As such, parents are disciplining their children all the time, not just when their children misbehave. There is much power to be found through looking to kind and firm techniques to discipline your children, not just the punishments.

Punishments are the easy way out. It is easy to spank a child who is misbehaving. It is a short-term fix that offers instant gratification. However, teaching your child the appropriate behavior while staying consistent with follow-through is a much tougher practice. Reinforcing your patience as a parent, staying curious as to why your child is acting out, and quickly assessing and applying an appropriate consequence takes a lot of work and practice.

The difference between executing punishments versus long-term positive discipline all comes down to building intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation.

Let's all agree that we want our children to make healthy choices. We all hope our kids would not eat the hyper-sugary fifth cookie when offered. We fantasize that they would look inside and make a more healthy choice, but doing so takes the ability to look inward and assess the consequences.

When a child has been taught to rely on the external tool of a parent's management to know whether or not to eat the cookie, have no doubt that the cookie is getting eaten when the parent is not around to enforce a healthier choice. When a child's choice is fostered and reinforced using the consequence of their actions, then when the cookie is offered, the child will internally think about their choice, realize that it may be too much to have another, and feel proud of his choice to stay healthy.

Punishments often create rebellion, revenge, and retreat. Positive Discipline explains these as the 3 R's of Punishment.

REBELLION: "They can't make me. I'll do what I want"

REVENGE: "I'll get even and hurt back, even if it hurts me."

RETREAT: "I must be a bad person" (low self-esteem) "I just won't get caught next time." (sneaky)



The Impact of Positive Discipline

A hitting 3-year-old

A client shared with me during our group coaching call that her three-year-old daughter hit her. Rather than reacting harshly, she created a pause for herself to identify how she wanted to respond. She told me,

"For the first time, instead of blowing up, I labeled her emotions, and it felt so good. Being able to vocalize her know, because she's not able to...she's three."

My client went on to explain how her child hit her out of frustration at dinner time. Instead of letting the incident last the rest of the night, she vocalized how her daughter was feeling frustrated, angry, and possibly embarrassed. She described that her daughter just stared at her, then instantly apologized and hugged her. My client was amazed! An incident that would typically last the rest of the night with "you hurt Mommy, she's upset" was over in five minutes, and they moved on to bath and cuddles, able to reconnect.

My client explained that after resolving this small conflict with her daughter, she cleaned up her daughter’s dinner plate immediately and moved on to the next task for the evening routine. She ended the conversation with me by saying it just felt good. I believe she said the word "good" about a dozen times. This kind of change comes from lots of hard work and persistence. But it just feels good.

She said that the biggest gift that she gave herself and her daughter in that moment was the gift of taking a pause. In the pause, she decided how she was going to respond. In that response, she chose to be kind and firm. In that pause, she was disciplining herself and her daughter to take an honest inventory of their actions to one another and opt for connection.

And that was certainly a win.


I am two-faced?

I love to play a game called "good, bad, good". I love to play this game with children. Allowing them to bookend a difficult problem with two things that are good. This game helps develop trust, bonding, and communication skills! The funniest time I played this game, my husband Jason and I were watching my friend Emily's two daughters, Chloe and Claire.

The four of us were sitting around the table just chatting and talking up a storm- and I suggested playing this game. I wrote down the rules of the game, even going as far as to write down the order in which we would be sharing. Jason first, then Chloe, Claire, and lastly myself, Miss MegAnne.

As we were going around the table, we were sharing and giggling- it was a great time. When it was time for Claire to share, she asked if she could share something about me.

"Of course, I can be part of your good, bad, good," I said.

"Okay, well Miss MegAnne, this is something that is going to sound a little bad, but it's still a little good," she said.

"Uh...okay Claire, go ahead," I said.

She went on to say, "Well, Miss MegAnne- you're kinda two-faced. But in a good way!"

Everyone at the table GASPED and started to giggle.

She went on to explain her comment.

Claire shared that I am really fun to be around. I come up with fabulously fun games to play and things to do, and she loves spending time with me. I was a fun person to her.

But...I was also very strict (her words). When I told them it was bedtime, she knew it was really bedtime. When I asked her to do homework, she knew that she was going to be doing her homework. She shared that whenever I asked them to do anything, she knew that it was going to get done. So two-faced. Fun and strict. Or, like I say kind AND firm.


1st Grade Boy

A story during an extra elementary school class.

On this day, a 1st-grade boy entered the classroom with a sour look on his face. I could tell by reading his body language that something was wrong.

When I asked, "Hey Nick, you alright?" He answered, "No, I am feeling shy, sad and frustrated."

I shared with him, "Okay, well, we are here to help. When you feel better, you can come join us on the carpet."

At this time, I gave him some space to move through his feelings. He was safe and in control, and I was working on connecting with him by showing his feelings of respect. 

Just as I finished saying that he could have some space to process his feelings, the teacher, whose room we were meeting in, interjected and reprimanded him:

"I need to get my papers [from behind Nick], and you need to listen to her, go to the carpet." 

She then used her body to direct him, not with her hands; she kind of leaned into him and led him to the carpet.

Instantly, he moved over and sat next to me and started crying. Everyone in the club just looked at him and held silent space. I rubbed his back and shared "I am sure you're feeling upset that someone wasn't respectful of the space you required, I can totally understand that."

The children then asked me, "Why did she do that?" and I answered, "I'm sure she thought she was helping." First grader Karina shared, "It wasn't helpful."

The lesson that day was exploring with a feelings chart. (Thank you, universe.)

I passed it out and asked the children to decorate and mark it up. I prompted them to make it their own.

Nick quickly set to this task. He grabbed a black marker and started asking me what each picture was. I would read "Happy," and he would replay "No." and put a giant X across the picture of the cartoon feel. 

"Excited". No. X

"Angry." No. X

"Surprised." No. X

This continued until he found the three feelings he identified with, circling them. Shy, sad, and frustrated.

We discussed his feelings, and I shared with him that those are not fun things to feel. I also offered some hope that perhaps when we start talking and playing, those might change. This is where he dug in and said, "My feelings will not change for the whole class."

As the afternoon progressed, he began playing with Karina. As they were playing,  I asked how they felt playing together. Karina said, "Good!" and Nick shared, "Good!" I asked him if he was still feeling shy. He looked confused and then looked at me and said, "No!!! I'm not!!! I need my chart!!!" I watched as he crossed out shy. By the end of that afternoon, Nick had successfully cleared all his negative feelings from his chart.

That is what we all need more of. Help us move through our feelings safely. Bringing awareness to the effort it takes. This is how we start setting the future up for success.

I was practicing positive discipline in that moment. I was kind and allowed him space to navigate his feelings in a safe environment. Had he asked to leave the room, I would have firmly said no, since I had to be with the other children. It is a balance, and it takes practice. 

It took me 10-12 years in my profession to learn this, and now I support parents around the world to learn these strategies to use in their homes in a matter of minutes; it takes months to practice, but it is worth it to create a secure relationship with their kids.


My Introduction to Positive Discipline 

I remember the exact moment when my purpose for working with children came into sharp focus. In 2010, I was sitting by myself in a room full of strangers at a NAEYC conference, waiting to hear about anger and its power. The speaker was Tamar Jacobson, speaking about her book, Don't Get so Upset: Help young children manage their feeling by understanding your ownLittle did I know that the trajectory of my career would take a huge pivot and become deeply rooted in building meaningful connections and good relationships with any child I met.

Tamar spoke about all her research and experience as an early childhood educator. Her stories were beautifully told and filled with inspiration. I sat at the table for 3 hours, and when it was over, I had filled about 6 pages of front and back notes, and I wanted even more! 

Finally, validation in the work that I was so passionate about. Finally, someone truly got it. Finally, I understood why it was so important for me to do the work.

During her presentation, Tamar introduced the group to a discussion of punishments vs discipline. She asked us all to initially write down ways we were "disciplined" as a child. Then she asked if anyone was brave enough to read their list.

People shared that they were spanked, yelled at, put in timeout, and even burned with a cigarette. Once the group settled down, she engaged us in her belief that those were all punishments.

To be truly disciplined means to look at all aspects of how you were led as a child. Every interaction you had as a child was not only negative. This is your discipline. A-ha! Something clicked into place for me. It wasn't just about the destination- it was about the journey. 

Tamar explained how she empowers children through their failures. Walking them through the process of correcting poor behavior by modeling and staying with them through the process.

She shared her strategy after a child hits or bites a friend.

She would put her toddler on her back after they hit or bite. Physically walk over to the child that was bitten and verbally walk them through the steps of taking care of the hurt friend, labeling that she was keeping everyone safe through the process. She would say:

"I need to keep you and the other children safe, so I will put you on my back while we take care of our hurting friend."

I love this approach and the idea of keeping the aggressor close to you in the process of rebuilding. (Maybe not the piggyback style, but I get her point!) Mistakes and accidents will always happen, and showing children how to get themselves out of the situation is empowering.

Labeling the actions as "keeping everyone safe" helps teach children WHY you do not want them to hit. By keeping your anger in control, you are introducing the concept of what safe is and why it's important.

I was also introduced to Haim Ginott's work during her talk. I learned about his extensive work as a teacher, psychologist, and psychotherapist. I heard the words "respect" and "dignity" used all throughout. I really understood that making a deeper connection with children requires adults to stay intentional and in control of themselves first.  

"I've come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the [room]. My personal approach creates the climate. My daily mood makes the weather. As an [adult], I possess a tremendous power to make a child's life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or dehumanized."

-Haim Ginott

This quote touched my soul. I wrote it down immediately. I must have read it about 500 times, just over and over, letting it sink in, releasing the need for control over children, and embracing the role of the weathermaker. It was up to me to help teach the children about their emotions and how to move through them, as opposed to denying and shaming them. I was ready to embrace my role when working with children fully. 

This has become my personal check-in. When I start to feel overwhelmed and out of control I will revisit this quote and feel empowered to push the reset. If I am going to enjoy the children in my care- I first need to be in control of myself. My role is no longer to rule over the children in my care- more working WITH the children in my care. 

I continue everyday to feel grateful I was in that room at that moment. Fully ready to hear and absorb the message that was being spoken about, and take it back to my everyday life.

This is why I provide online parenting classes that support parents to become the most effective parents for their children.

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