For a little while now I’ve wanted to write about why I hate the word “discipline” when used in reference to something parents to do their children, and why I am increasingly rejecting the notion that as parents we need to discipline our children at all. And yes, I’m even including “gentle discipline” in this definition.
I realise that in a world of time-outs, sticker charts, and naughty steps, this may sound radical – in a bad way – and a recipe for selfish entitled children who are a menace to all those around them. But hear me out…
I now reject the term discipline when it comes to raising wholehearted children.
Cambridge dictionary online defines discipline as “training that makes people more willing to obey or more able to control themselves, often in the form of rules, and punishments if these are broken, or the behaviour produced by this training.”
Oxford dictionaries online define it similarly as “the practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behaviour, using punishment to correct disobedience.“
Fundamentally, discipline is about getting someone to comply with your rules. For this reason, I am increasingly convinced that parental discipline can ever be truly “gentle”, as at its heart it is about training children to obey us – and punishing them if they do not.
I’ve written here about why we don’t use punishments, and here about why we don’t use positive behavioural reinforcement in the form of praise.
I don’t believe that this approach can comfortably sit with a truly peaceful approach to parenting which embraces connection, compassion, autonomy, and empathy.
Gentle discipline is undoubtedly better than traditional methods of punishments and rewards, but at the centre of it is still parental control over their children. It still implies something we do to our kids, rather than working with them.
I used to refer to my parenting style as “gentle discipline” before I really thought about what that meant, but now I’ll admit the term makes me cringe a little (which is why I have been mindful to stay away from the term when describing my peaceful parenting membership group.)
Many people believe children need to be disciplined and controlled in order to learn how to act appropriately.
This view is very prevalent in mainstream parenting culture which sees children as inherently irrational, incapable of empathy, and in need of training and controlling by their adult caregivers. But I disagree with it. Children are full humans in their own right, not just adults in training. They do not act in ways which challenge us because they are bad, or naughty, or irrational. Their behaviour simply reflects their needs in that moment, and their attempts to get their needs met.
When children push against our limits (drawing on the walls, pushing their sibling, refusing to get their shoes on), this might be due to:
- Feeling hungry or thirsty
- Physical discomfort (too hot, too cold, itchy clothes)
- Feeling unwell or in pain
- Feeling upset
- Feeling lonely or disconnected
- Feeling overwhelmed, frustrated, or angry
- Curiosity or experimentation
- Lack of self-control
- Issues at nursery or school
- Issues with another adult or child
- Changes in their life (new home, new sibling, divorce)
- Not being able to communicate or express themselves fully
- Disagreeing with your assessment that the limit is needed
- Not understanding the limit
- The limit being developmentally or otherwise inappropriate
- The reaction they received last time they tested this limit
In short, when children behave in a way which challenges us, they do so because they either need our help, our support, our guidance, or all three. By turning to discipline in these moments, we miss out on a precious opportunity for connection and building our relationship.
A classic example would be a child doing something they know they’re not supposed to do to meet their need for connection with their parent because they know that this will get their attention. In this situation we could either punish the child, causing them (further) suffering by denying them the connection they are seeking and inflicting punishments on top of that. Or we can put our relationship with our child first, and respond with empathy and kindness to their attempt to reach out to us, reconnecting with them and showing them that we love them unconditionally and will help them when they need us.
In the second scenario we can still make it clear that certain things – pouring water on the rug, hitting the dog – are unacceptable and not permitted. But we can do so kindly, whilst imagining how our child is feeling in this moment and always trusting that they are doing the best that they can.
Remember that you’re on the same team as your child.
When we start approaching things as a team, a lot of conflict disappears. Rather than parenting from the top down, when an issue arises, we can talk to our children. Ask them what would help them stick to the limit you have in place, talk to them about their needs, and look for solutions together. eg. If your child breaks a glass by throwing it, ask them what they think can be done about it. They may not have a solution every time, but gradually they will learn that you’re on their side and want to work together.
When we start to view challenging behaviour not as naughtiness which needs training, punishing, or discipline, but as a problem to solve and collaborate on together, the dynamic of our parenting shifts and conflicts can become opportunities for connection and even joy.
Children do not need discipline to learn positive and appropriate behaviour.
As parents, the most powerful thing we can do is to model the sort of behaviour we want to see, showing up as the kind of humans we would like our children to grow into. This is much more difficult than meting out punishments and rewards: it requires us to work hard on ourselves and live our lives in alignment with our values. It means we need to practice what we preach, to exercise self-control, to be vulnerable and authentic. But it’s the most important thing we can do, and our best bet if we want to protect our relationship with our children whist giving them the best chance at developing a strong sense of autonomy and self-worth.
Of course there will be times when our children need us to step in, or need our guidance. Whilst I believe that control for the sake of control is inherently harmful to any individual and their relationship to others around them, I am still my daughter’s parent. It is my job to keep her and those around her healthy and safe. This means that sometimes I have to step in and enforce limits or stop her from doing something.
But I can do this calmly, with empathy, and with unconditional positive regard for her. I don’t need to moralise, to train her, to punish her, to coerce her, or to bribe her. I can step in when needed, connect with her needs, check in with her emotions and hold space for them, and offer suggestions and support.
It’s not “permissive” to not use discipline. I still step in when needed, I still guide her and talk to her and discuss how our actions make people feel and share ideas for how to control those impulses which might hurt others. But all of this can happen without top-down discipline; in fact, the lack of parental discipline leaves space for my daughter to develop self-discipline, driven not by fear of punishment but because she wants to be the best person she can be.
My daughter doesn’t need to learn to blindly obey me. She does need me to model being a kind, vulnerable, compassionate, hard-working human who lives her life with integrity and joy. She needs to feel that our relationship is one between two humans who are equal in worth, neither of whom have the right to control the other. She needs to know that whatever happens I love her unconditionally, and I am always on her team.
If you would like support from a like minded and warm hearted community of peaceful parents to walk alongside you in your parenting journey, The Peaceful Home will be opening up to new members for just a couple of days on the 28th February. You can read more about membership here, and you are so welcome to join us.