Sunday, August 02, 2009

A Quick Positive Discipline Example

You can't always tell what discipline method a parent has chosen just by looking at what happens when a child misbehaves--or, as I prefer to view it--when a child makes a mistake or a bad decision.

Take our situation this morning. Over the past few days, Morgan has consistently refused to help clean up her art supplies. So today she does not have access to them.

Upon hearing that Morgan doesn't get to use her art supplies, you might think that she is being punished for her refusal to clean up. But you're missing out on the whole discipline story if you are only aware of the problem and the end result.

A Punitive Scenario

The Problem:
Morgan wants to use her art supplies, but has refused to help clean up her art mess for the last three days.

The Discipline:

Mom or Dad says, "You never clean up your art mess, so you're grounded from your art supplies today!" And hopes the child will remember this and become motivated not to make a mess tomorrow.

The Result: Morgan spends a day without access to her art supplies.

A Non-Punitive Scenario

The Problem: Morgan wants to use her art supplies, but has refused to help clean up her art mess for the last three days.

The Discipline:

Mom or Dad says, "I feel mad when I have to clean up the art mess without your help. I've had to clean it up for the last three days, and I don't want to clean an art mess up again today. So we'll keep your art supplies put away until tomorrow. What would you like to play with instead?"

Morgan: "But that's not fair! I want my art supplies!"

Dad: "You can have them tomorrow. And tomorrow I know that you will show us that you want to have access to them. Do you know what's a good way to show us that?" "What?" "By helping us clean them up. So anyway, would you like to read a book or play with your dogs now?"

The Result: Morgan spends a day without access to her art supplies.

In both scenarios, the Problem and the Result are exactly the same. Discipline is a process, and you can approach any given problem in different ways and still achieve similar results.

In the Punitive Scenario I imagined (based on how it might have been handled when I was a child), Mom or Dad is (justifiably) frustrated and doesn't want to clean up the inevitable mess without help. Yes, the consequence is a logical one--Behavior X = Consequence Y--but the process used is designed to make the child feel bad, in the hopes that the bad feeling the child experiences will be a deterrent for future behavior. The parent's view of the child is as someone who has misbehaved.

In the Non-Punitive Scenario, Dad explains his justifiable feelings about having to clean up the mess without help and how does not want to do it again. That he is basing his prediction about what might happen today on what has happened in the past. He is protecting his rational self-interests (not having to spend his own time cleaning up a mess he hasn't created) for today by making sure that the mess can not be created in the first place.

When the child raises an objection, Dad reminds her that she can get her art supplies--tomorrow. He expresses his confidence in her that she might want to demonstrate her willingness to help clean (empty words in the past), and gives her a suggestion about how she might do that. He tells her that he is willing to give her another chance to show that she will do what she says--tomorrow. Then he redirects her energy toward something that she CAN do (read a book), to help her not remain caught up in the feeling of what she CAN'T do. [Sometimes the redirection works; sometimes not. It's okay if she wants to feel sad about what's happening for a while longer.]

The child is not being made to feel bad in order to make her change her future behavior. She is being held accountable for the consequences of her poor decisions. She is being reminded that the other people in this family have rational self-interests, and that they have a right to them. She must accept the consequences for her mistake, but her parents do not dwell on the mistake--the focus is on the confidence they have in her that she is capable of making a better decision next time. And they are telling her that she WILL get that chance. They give her an idea for making a better choice, and then they leave that decision up to her. The parents view of the child is that of someone who has made a mistake. They view the situation as a mutual problem that needs resolution rather than a misbehavior on the part of one party.

This is the "positive" part of Positive Discipline. The focus isn't on trying to change their future decisions by making kids experience negative feelings (about themselves or their parents). The focus is rather on holding them accountable for their decisions, expressing confidence in them, helping them out by making suggestions or problem-solving, and showing them kindness even while a limit is being firmly enforced.

We'll find out what decision she makes tomorrow! If she makes another bad decision, then we will handle the situation in the exact same (non-punitive) way. Our emphasis is on expressing confidence in her, reiterating our needs and why, and our willingness to give her our help and as many chances as she needs. We are setting this fair limit for our own self-interested reasons.

I'm completely confident that we'll get this all figured out. :o)


Amy said...

Today, we had to revoke Samantha's access to the cat because she was hurting him. Since she could not stop herself, we had to make sure Jinx would not get hurt by keeping her away from him. She also lost the mirror low on the wall in her playroom because she insisted on trying to tear it off the wall herself, which she has done before, damaging the wall. These seem like logical consequences and they're not even a big deal around here. She'll get both back tomorrow without much fuss. And she'll do it again in the future many times with the same results. But eventually, the lessons add up and she learns.

Thanks for the reminder to do it all with a show of confidence in the child.

Tenure said...

The more I read of your posts on PD I must ask: how applicable do you believe these methods are for dealing with, what seem to be, the growth-stunted child-like men and women one can often come across in daily life? I mean, without the power of arbitration, to actually give a discipline such as restricting access to art supplies, do you believe there is some commensurate quality?

Kelly Elmore said...


I wanted to make a comment about your use of the words "logical consequences." I think Jenn's point was that, though Samantha ends up with no cat and no mirror in both senarios, a logical consequences (punitive) approach would be taking those things away to make her feel bad about what she did, in order to teach her a lesson. If you just explained about what she did wrong and then protected the cat and your property (the wall) until she is able to control herself better, that wasn't logical consequences, it was non-punitive. Jenn's point was that the difference lies in the intent and the way it is presented to the child.

Amy said...

Kelly, I strongly disagree that "logical consequences" means punitive, and also, I do intend for it to teach a lesson. Just not in the old style of "I'll teach you a lesson!" The lesson is just the fact that there is a consequence for her actions - and the consequence happens for a reason - it's not arbitrary. Do we just disagree on terminology here? I read Jenn's use of punitive versus non-punitive to be an added factor in the logical consequences of both scenarios.

But what I agree with (with both you and Jenn) is that the point should never be to purposefully make a child feel bad as a direct consequence. And I need to be reminded of that as much as possible, so that's what was important to me in Jenn's post. A very important point.

Kelly Elmore said...

Perhaps our disagreement is just semantic. What most people mean by logical consequences, I think, is "Let the punishment fit the crime." They choose a consequence that is connected to the misbehavior logically, instead of one that is unconnected. I don't think parents should be choosing consequences at all. Children should be experiencing the actual consequences in reality from their poor choice (unless that is too dangerous, of course). Maybe the above is not what you meant by logical consequences.

Amy said...


I do think we have a difference. I do think that there are times other than extreme danger where a parent should "impose" a consequence. I wrote just a tidbid about this difference between logical and natural consequences when I reviewed Susan Crawford's course here. I think I need to think about it more, though. I have a positive gut reaction to Susan's distinction but I'm not totally clear on the concepts. This might be a good opportunity for me to collect a bunch of examples from real life to help work it out, a la Jenn.

Beth said...


Thanks for the example and the concise explanation.
This all seems to get trickier as the kids get older (and more creative in their self-defense.)

I particularly like the emphasis on recognizing that one must find a way to communicate displeasure and limits without intentionally (or unintentionally) using guilt and shame. What has helped me tremendously is to keep asking whether or not and how the behavior impacts me--and then speaking up from that point of view. This is in contrast to how I was raised where my parents operated from the point of view that is was their job to control me and shape me according to their ideas of what a "good" person should be. I am afraid that this default perspective has kicked in all too frequently under the stress of the moment. It's a tough habit to kick, but reading your blog posts helps me redirect my thinking.
Thanks again.