The use of peaceful discipline is sometimes misunderstood, but when adopted correctly it has the potential to not only guide children towards making better choices but to also build their confidence. When discipline uses fear, shame or other unpleasant strategies to force children to behave in an acceptable manner, it can have the complete reverse effect.
Discipline can sometimes be used as a tool of power to wield over children in the hopes they will obey our every command. Using this form of discipline may indeed convince a child fairly quickly that they don’t want to feel that horrible feeling when they do something wrong. It may even consequentially reduce the undesired behaviour as intended but in doing this the child has missed out on a crucial step. They have been denied the opportunity of internalising the right way of doing things; coming to their own conclusion that they shouldn’t behave in that way with good reason. They haven’t learned the art of self-discipline.
Of course this doesn’t mean that we bring our children up in an environment completely devoid of limits or expectations, being too permissive in this way can be equally damaging for children as they spiral out of control and lose the feeling of security every child needs.
The type of peaceful discipline proposed by Magda Gerber through the RIE organisation she founded uses respectful, loving and gentle practices to help our children internalise the type of behaviour we would like to see in them.
We have been following a peaceful discipline path for a number of years now and have at times bumbled along somewhat blindly, feeling our way for what works and what doesn’t. We have found the following five strategies, when used effectively in combination and delivered to our children calmly, have been the most effective discipline tools we have applied.
1. Role Modelling
When we model kind and generous behaviour, our children see this and learn from it. When we are persistent and persevere through frustrations using positive self-talk, our children learn not to scream as soon as they can’t do something. When we act gently towards them, even when they do something that angers us, they learn that violence is not the answer. There are so many things our children watch us do everyday. The messages we send our children do not only come in the form of words, more often, in fact, they come in our actions.
For example: I recently had to follow instructions to put together a double-barrel spinning compost bin. There were many moments where I found it difficult, made mistakes and became frustrated. I wanted to scream and yell and curse but mindful of my children, I verbalised: “I am getting frustrated that I can’t clip these lids together. I know I can do this so I am going to take some deep breaths, count to 10 in my head and try again.” When I retried, I talked to myself as I exerted the effort needed to clasp together the joints “This is really difficult but I know I can do it. I. just. have. to. squeeze. a. little. more…there. I did it!” Modelling perseverance, self-belief and anger-management all whilst my children looked on.
2. Setting Limits
Children need to know what the limits are. They can’t automatically know that pulling the cat’s tail, for example, is not acceptable, they need us to not only tell them we won’t let them do that but physically stop them doing it if they seem unable to stop themselves.
Any behaviour that is not appropriate, whether in the family home or out in public, needs a clear limit set appropriate to the child’s age and understanding. Limits should always be set when it comes to physical violence, destruction and of course unsafe behaviours such as running on roads or playing with power points.
Limits are also important in public where their naturally curious and exploratory nature might be at the expense of others eg. grabbing items from shop shelves or pulling dirt out of shopping centre pot plants etc. It may also be necessary to set limits around behaviours that are particularly triggering or upsetting for the parent eg. upending the clothes drawers or splashing water out of the bathtub.
When we set limits for our children we ensure we do so calmly and clearly, with a matter-of-fact tone. If we are ambiguous or become frustrated or angry, it is unsettling for children and they will seek to test again in other ways to be sure of our ability to be the strong, confident parents they need.
We also need to be prepared to patiently enforce the limits repeatedly as our children will usually retest them to determine whether in a different time, place or outfit, the limit still remains.
For example: If a child starts pulling groceries from the shelves. We would explain to them: “I won’t let you pull the groceries from the shelves” and then gently stop their hands from doing so. If they persisted testing this limit we would state: “I see you’re having a hard time leaving the groceries on the shelves so I am going to help you.” We would offer a choice if possible “Would you like to sit in the trolley or hold the trolley and help me push it?” If they choose to hold the trolley but then make their way back to the shelves, we would state: “I can see you really like pulling the groceries from the shelf. I can’t let you do that. I am going to pick you up and place you in the trolley now.” Then do so, acknowledging their cries of protest but holding firm on the limit.
Limits should never be placed on the expression of emotion. If a child is unhappy about a limit that has been set for them, that is perfectly okay. Allow them that feeling and, in fact acknowledge it to let them know it is normal.
3. Setting up an environment that encourages success
It is important that during a child’s early, explorative years, they be given a certain level of freedom to engage fully with their environment. This means that anything they encounter within the environment is potentially free game to them. If we do not want our children to empty all the kitchen drawers of the cutlery and tea towels and pull all the tin foil from the roll, then we should not give them access to these drawers or be prepared to stop them before they do so.
Becoming frustrated with them or angry because we have told them 15 times not to pull everything out of the drawers is not really fair. After they have done this 1-2 times, as parents, we should put steps in place to help them succeed i.e. latches on the drawers or a new home for the utensils for the time-being.
Ideally, a young child should have a designated space that is a small portion of the entire house. Restricting their space in this way actually affords them more freedom then allowing them open access. Play pens for younger, less mobile babies or a gated off room for toddlers are perfect ways to set a child up for success.
4. Preventing behaviours before they occur
In the same manner as having a secure environment helps prevent unwanted behaviours, being a proactive parent and predicting behaviours in order to be there to prevent them is vital. Many of us know our children’s inclinations whether it’s biting, hitting, throwing toys or ripping book pages, often times, they tend to happen more than once and we begin to see a pattern of behaviour.
As we recognise a behavioural pattern in our children clearly telling us they need help, we need to step up and be more aware and more present when our children are at risk of engaging in these behaviours. This might mean shadowing our children to prevent a hit or bite when they are around other children, or sitting with our child whilst they read to prevent the pages being ripped or only offering board books instead.
5. Natural or Logical Consequences
Consequences for certain behaviours may at times be appropriate. It is important that the consequences we choose are relevant to the behaviour that was unwanted. This is known as a logical consequence.
For example, if a child has repeatedly or deliberately tipped over their bowl of food at the dinner table, a logical consequence might be that their dinner is taken away and/or they could help clean up the mess (depending on their age). It would not be logical, however, to take away a favourite toy or send them to their room as a result of this action.
Another example might be that when a child is not cooperating at bedtime by not getting dressed/ brushing teeth within reasonable age appropriate limits, you might say that they won’t have time for a story that night. “It’s taking a long time to get your teeth brushed tonight. We won’t have time for a story in bed if we are too much longer.”
Not every action our child exhibits requires a consequence. Many behaviours such as hitting or biting should be, wherever possible, prevented using the strategies referred to above. If appropriate, we might invite the child to help us collect an icepack from the freezer for the injury so they can be part of a restorative practice, but this should not be forced.
Often a child’s misbehaviour is a signal to us that they are in need of something. It could be as simple as food, drink or sleep or it may be that they need some more connection with us or are communicating a deeper hurt or pain. For that reason it is so important that our reactions to their behaviour do not further their feeling of isolation or hurt. Spending a little extra time with them during the hard times, showing them understanding and acknowledging their feelings, goes a long way towards lessening a child’s need to test limits and increasing their feeling of contentment.
You might also enjoy reading:
Testing Toddlers Crave Limits ~ Kate Russell (Peaceful Parents, Confident Kids)
Coping With a Limit Tester ~ Kate Russell (Peaceful Parents, Confident Kids)
No Bad Kids -Toddler Discipline Without Shame (9 Guidelines) ~ Janet Lansbury (Elevating Child Care)
I so definitely follow these strategies for discipline however cannot be in the room with my two little ones all the time. As siblings squabble my 4 year old (just turned 4) sometimes ends up hitting my 2 year old. I always do the hitting hurts and if I can stop it will hold her hands and tell her I won’t let you hit. Lately she has hit and hit with a doll all leaving marks on my youngest. Together her dad, her and I decided on a privilege to be taken away (1st time we did this) and today she hit again so I took away another privilege. I don’t know what else to do? Any help would be appreciated! I think we are connected and do have some time just the two of us. Thank you!
Ideas: Always go to the one that has been hurt first. Show your deepest caring and gentleness. Bring the other child into contact with the dynamic saying firmly “We do not hit” and “we are gentle with our hands” show gentle by your own touching each of them and opening the hitting hand and showing how soft and gentle it is. Usually the child is ready to leave and I would have them or go with them to get something nice and soothing/nurturing for the hurt child (ice, cool cloth, drink of water). It often helps to massage that arm firmly so they feel their own edges….you can say at the same time that “our hands ARE for doing good work….baking bread, chopping apples, digging in the sand, hugging!” =bring the joy back. If it becomes a pattern that child can just feel a consequence like having to be by your side (while you do your work) they can help you do this meaningful work. But taking this time to guide them slowly through this pays off. Often we adults need to slow way down and give them this clearly for there to be a long term shift.
Thank you for this bit of information. I find it so heart felt, and I believe it will make a difference in a child.
I had a hitter as well. The rules of the home should be simple for even little ones to grasp. For example: In this house we: #1. Take care of our family, #2. Take care of our home, #3. Take care of ourselves. When the little one hits, remind him of the rule #1. Take care of our family. “Hitting is not taking care of our family. We love our family.” I used to take the hitters hands and go over to the crying child and caress them with his hands. “See how we love and take care of our sister/brother?” So many times the hitter hits because they want to interact and play and just don’t know how to go about doing that. After I caressed the crying child with his hand, he would hug, and then I would guide the hitting child into appropriate means of playing with the other child. “Let’s play cars or this ball, etc with (the child). This helped me tremendously. I hope by now this stage has passed! If it’s a hit out of anger then I would swiftly take the hitters hand in my hands and speak clearly and directly and verbalize that “In our family, we do NOT hit.” I would then explain he needs a time out to let his emotions settle. After the time out I would approach him and have a little conversation that would go something like this, “I know you must have been angry with your sister because of XYZ…” It’s okay to be angry. Mommy gets angry sometimes too. Even when you get so so angry, you are still in charge of your actions. Your sister can’t make you hit her… you decide to hit. When you get angry let’s talk about ways we can express ourselves without hitting…” Have him give a few ideas and you can as well. After hugs and kisses it’s his turn to make the situation right by apologizing to his sister and giving her a hug. Have him verbalize that next time he gets angry he will….(whatever the healthy alternative you both discussed was). Hope this helps 🙂 Discipline is a lot of work… lots of continuous teaching! I think the key is getting to the heart of the matter. We ultimately want heart transformation not just behavior modification, right?
Hi Kelly! I know how tough it can be to be with the children all the time. For us, this period of our daughters’ relationship was so volatile that we really had no choice but to shadow them everywhere. Being with them and keeping them safe became our sole focus for several weeks, forsaking all other areas of the house, until they finally realised that we meant it when we said ‘We won’t let you hit’. I would try to refrain from removing privileges as this can serve to further the divide between the two of them and you and her. She may feel like she is not being understood and that you favour the other. The other thing that really helped us and still does is talking to the older one about how you understand how hard it can be to be a big sister sometimes and how you want to help her. Have this conversation during opportune moments when it is just the two of you. Maybe a little while after the heat of a moment of aggression has died down and you are trying to find connection. Lastly, have you read Siblings Without Rivalry? This is a must read for anyone with sibling issues. It really has some great ideas.
Tipped over their food bowl?
Wonderful post! I’ll have a discipline column coming out Sunday. We are in sync.
Sounds wonderful, Julia. I’ll have to look out for it!
Aloha my daughter is just turning 1 and the past few months started biting me. Mostly when she is hungry or teething or when we are playing and tickling she gets excited. Some one suggest we put her in the crib every time saying ” I won’t let bite and it really hurts mommy. ” or “no biting” or ” I don’t like it when u bite me” this worked but she cries in her crib and I feel like I’m isolating her. I give her my love and something else to bite on like a teething toy or necklace. Then a week goes by and she starts again:-( I don’t want to isolate her and tell her “no” and have her cry in the crib. She is still so young. I’ve also over exaggerated my reaction of “owie’ when she bites and moved my arm before she does it and it scarred her and she cries. Although sometimes she will bite when we play in a very random spot like my tummy when I am not expecting it at all. It’s so sad and we are having a challenging time. She’s really sweet loving she is the happiest baby girl, I don’t want to scar or ruin her amazing vibes by making her feel neglected or scared. I’m open to any suggestions please. Mahalo
My 3 year old went through a little biting phase. We didn’t punish her when she bit, other than a scolding and a reminder that it hurts. She grew out of it. I’d recommend not making too big a deal out of it, especially if it happens during play and it doesn’t appear to be malicious.
Hi Jesse, you mentioned that your daughter bites when she is hungry or teething which is very normal for a 1 year old and not normally about testing limits, but rather, satisfying a physiological urge to have something in her mouth. Therefore, you are right in thinking that putting her in her cot would be isolating for her. She would not understand why she is being left alone especially if she has an unmet need like hunger or discomfort from teething.
Wherever possible, try to predict when it seems she is going to bite. Stop her gently by moving the body part away and say, “I see you feel like biting. Lets find your teething toy for you to bite on.”
If she catches you by surprise try not to react too much (I know it’s hard when it hurts but your reaction can create an interesting situation that she may try to replicate) and simply state “I won’t let you bite. It hurts when you bite. Are you feeling hungry? or would you like your toy to chew on instead?”
This phase will pass. She is way too young to have malicious intent so address her needs and keep supporting her to keep her teeth away from your skin.
Good luck xx
Loved this article, thank you. I try to live by these strategies, but is great to have a reminder as it gets hard sometimes. Please can you give me some advice on how to deal with taking your toddler to the shops and them wanting things they cant have, for example a big chocolate bar which I don’t want my child to eat, or another set of tools which he has a ton of already. He grabs it and says mine and then when I try to take it from him nicely he screams and cries. I remain calm and tell him try to give other options, sometimes it works but sometimes it really does not and ends with a lot of tears.
We have been there too, Stacey! If my daughter picks something up at the shops and wants it I acknowledge first “You really want that chocolate bar, chocolate is yummy isn’t it?” Then I tell her why she can’t have it, “I can’t let you have it today because (insert reason like I don’t want you eating too much chocolate, it’s not good for you or other)” Then when the protesting starts I would say “You seem disappointed. It’s hard when you don’t get something you want. The chocolate needs to go back on the shelf now. Would you like to do it yourself or would you like me to help you?” If she doesn’t place it back within a reasonable time I would then say, “I can see you need some help so I am going to take it now and put it back.” Then follow through, gently blocking grabs for it and accepting the anger and cries that come as a result. To them, their world IS ending. This means EVERYTHING to them in that moment and the feelings they have are big. Support them and show them you understand. It’s actually a good sign of assertiveness and confidence that they feel they are comfortably expressing these feelings. Stay firm on your limit though. That needn’t change. It may be that you need to end you shopping trip quickly and get your son home where he would feel safe and secure.
Remember too, that sometimes it is not about the chocolate bar, it could be that they want you to set a limit so that they can release some negative emotion that has built up throughout the day because they got the wrong cup, got rejected by a sibling, weren’t allowed to paint on the floor etc. Life is tough for toddlers and sometimes getting these cries out helps clear the air for them to be more content after.
I hope that helps. xx
I have a 2.5yr old. He is very physical with peers, bumping up against them, hitting & pushing. What would you suggest?
The best way to help your child not to do that is to stay close by him when he is around his peers. When you see him make to push/hit etc gently block him and state “I won’t let you push/hit”. If he persists let him know you can see he feels like hitting/pushing and offer him something more appropriate eg “You can hit this cushion instead.” Or you might like to say “I can see you are feeling a bit rough towards X. I’m going to stay here and help you to stop. Do you need some cuddle time?”
I always stay within 5 feet of him, but he is quick. I would have to stay within 6in of him. The other moms in my playgroup already think I’m a helicopter parent… they are always 20ft+ away and hardly paying attention to their little ones. :/
I have noticed that he often hits because the other kid grabbed something from him or was yelling in his face, or he asked nicely if he could have a turn with something the other child had and they yelled “No!” at him. I’ve only been successful at reading him in advance once or twice so far.
My little one was quick too, Selene! We did have to stay within 6in of her if she was in striking distance of her sister and have our hands ready to block! It can be hard and does seem like helicopter parenting but it is important to keep everyone safe, including your son. Reacting to him after he has done it doesn’t help him to see that his behaviour is not acceptable unless you resort to punitive discipline.
Do you sportscast for your son when his peers snatch the toys? This might help him strategies ways we can hold onto his toys and make him feel less like he needs to hit to communicate.
Another great post! Thank you! I think that in my respectful parenting journey, the biggest thing I miss sometimes is: “Often a child’s misbehaviour is a signal to us that they are in need of something. It could be as simple as food, drink or sleep or it may be that they need some more connection with us.” I do my best to stay calm when the misbehavior comes up, but I think that I’m more often letting it get me upset when I shouldn’t be bothered by it. I have two kids (3 years and 5 months), and it is hard to divide my best attention between the two of them, AND stay calm when misbehavior comes up. I know that’s a generic statement, but any tips to keep me from spooling up when my daughter does?
Hi Shannon, Have you read my post http://peacefulparentsconfidentkids.com/2014/06/5-tips-for-staying-calm-with-children/ ?
You may find some ideas there. I have a Mantra I repeat to myself in silence “She needs me to stay calm!” when I feel my temper rising. I also use self talk eg “I can feel myself getting angry so i am going to take some deep breaths and stop for a moment to calm myself down!” I say this phrase out loud as I think it is great modelling for children trying to manage their own strong emotions.
It is really hard but it sounds like you’re doing great – keep it up!!
These are both insightful and useful strategies that are vital for educating AND empowering children while minimizing shame and stress. I’m also a big supporter of peaceful, mindful, and effective discipline. And by continuing to share what we learn through these methods, perhaps more and more parents will do the same and balance out misconceptions that authoritarian — and even violent — discipline is somehow more effective, when in fact it has a negative impact on children’s self-esteem and ability to self-regulate (among other things).
Thank you, Elle! Yes, I hope that spreading the word will indeed effect the change that is needed. Thanks for dropping by 🙂
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There’s a lot of folks tat I think woupd really appreciate your content.
Please let me know. Cheers
Our one year old is going through a food throwing phase. We say no and when she does it again (staring blank faced at us while repeating the throwing) I hold her arm and say no again. My no’s have become slightly louder lately, and firmer, but still no change. Often she will eat again afterward so it doesn’t seem to be a signal for being finished eating, although it doesn’t happen at the beginning of the meal when she is hungrier.
Should I just keep persisting and hope she will stop? Take food away at the first throw? She seems too young to have food taken away if not finished eating.
Also, I understood that RIE ‘talk’ meant not using the “we”? Eg. We don’t throw food. As it doesn’t seem to make sense to the child as s/he does throw food so the royal ‘we’ comes across as derogatory? Would love your take on this? Both my husband and I have been doing our best not to use ‘we’ and I tell ya, it’s a struggle!
Hi Angelique, your precious little girl is indeed testing limits here. She understands that you don’t want her to throw food and is looking for a limit to be set.
Instead of simply saying “no”. Calmly and confidently tell her “I won’t let you throw food.” Always speak directly in first person to prevent any ambiguity. By telling your daughter exactly what you are going to do, you are confidently setting the limit she needs to hear.
If she makes to throw food again, gently block her and in a totally unfussed (almost upbeat like it doesn’t faze you in the slightest) manner state “Oops, I won’t let you throw your food. It seems like you are done eating. I will put it away now.”
Then take the plate away. You will only need to do this once or twice and the throwing food phase will be over because it is no longer interesting and she will know that this is not something you accept in your family.
Good luck and let me know how you get on. You’ve got this!
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