Monday, January 03, 2011

Mythbusting: Positive Discipline

I've been writing about, running my mouth about, and learning to teach Positive Discipline for the last few years (and have been using it with my own kids for longer than that). PD is much different from the way I was raised, and, if I had to venture a guess, it's different from the way most of us were raised.

Certainly, not everyone is convinced of the value of PD (yet, ha!), and that's okay--I've had many most interesting and thoughtful discussions about childrearing with people who are not on the PD Plan, or even strongly opposed to it.

In this post, I wanted to address a few of the common objections to Positive Discipline that I've heard from others. I think many times, the objections stem from a misunderstanding of what Positive Discipline entails, the principles involved. If I think of more objections, I'll either add them to this post or post them on their own.

The Pollyanna Myth: Positive Discipline means everyone is happy all the time! 

I think this misunderstanding is rooted in the word "positive" (though now that I think about it, perhaps most of the misunderstandings are for the same reason). Indeed, Jane Nelsen, who coined the term, has said that this is something she hears a lot, too.

The fact of the matter is--SPOILER ALERT for all you non-parents--sometimes the child will be less-than-thrilled at what you have to say or do. And those times are not all that fun for Mom and Dad either. Parenting is fun and challenging and very rewarding--but it's not all puppies and rainbows (no matter which discipline method you use).

The Accentuate the Positive, Pretend There Is No Negative Myth: Positive Discipline means only rewarding good behavior and ignoring the bad.

PD parents do not use reward systems. (By reward systems, I mean some kind of external positive reinforcement created or performed by the parent as opposed to the natural rewards or feeling of pride that comes from doing the right thing.) We also do not ignore inappropriate behavior or let it just happen without appropriate intervention.

Instead, we do notice appropriate behavior and encourage it (for a discussion on the differences between encouragement and praise, see Kelly's and my podcast on the topic). And we do intervene to stop or limit wrong/inappropriate behavior when necessary, in order to protect rights and to show the kid a better way to behave.

Take the example of a toddler throwing trains at his brother or sister (just to use a completely non-random happened-very-recently sort of example). You have to intervene--not only for the safety of the innocent victims, but also to teach the child what he ought to be doing instead. In this case, I might put the trains away for a bit until said toddler is in more control of himself. And after he got the trains back, I'd remind him that the trains shouldn't be tossed about willy-nilly, and I'd be sure to tell him when I noticed that he is using them appropriately: "You're driving those trains right on the tracks where they belong. Thanks!"

The No Noes! Myth: Positive Discipline means never ever saying 'No.'

If you are concerned that my children never heard the word 'no,' then please talk to them directly and they'll set you straight. :o)

One PD idea I really like is to try to minimize how often you say 'no.' One of Kelly's and my ideas about this is our principle Err on the Side of Freedom--in other words, if you can't think of a good reason to say 'no' then say 'yes!'

Other things to say instead of 'no' (I'm getting these from the Positive Discipline for Preschoolers book, pp. 120-121, but it's applicable for all ages and stages I think):

  • Say what you do want. Instead of "Don't throw trains!" say "Use the trains on the tracks."
  • Say yes instead (see above).
  • Ask a question or make a statement (see Curiosity Questions and One Word PD tools). "Are trains for throwing?" or in a different scenario "I see milk spilled all over the counter."
  • Agree to discuss the subject. Sometimes, when I've been all prepared to deny a request, I've changed my mind after talking with the child about it some. 
  • Draw a picture (with very young kids).

There are advantages to taking care about how often your kids hear you say 'no.' One advantage is that you are modeling for them how to do all of those things above ("Say yes instead" and "Agree to discuss the subject."). This is handy if your children come into contact with other human beings such as their siblings, or yourself. 

The other advantage to minimizing your use of 'no' is that when you do say it, it will have a bigger impact on the kid. If they hear it too much, they could become inured to its effects. I try to keep 'no' for the big stuff.

The Parents are Doormats Myth: Positive Discipline means there are no limits.

Every once in a while I hear someone say "But how will your kids learn right from wrong if there are no limits? The children must rule the roost and run all over the parents!" I'm not quite sure how this particular misunderstanding arises. As with the 'No' question above, I'll be happy to let my kids explain just how often I set limits and how many limits we have around here. I think--no, I know--they have fewer limits than I did as a kid, but we're still a far cry from Pippi Longstocking around here.

Some limits that parents set are pretty universal. Most parents have safety limits such as "No, you may not stick a knife in the light socket." And most parents have rules or limits about potty usage and bedtimes and homework and whether or not clean clothes ought to be worn on a semi-regular basis. These limits may or may not be spelled out ahead of time (or at all).

Where the limits vary is often based on optional values and different contexts. An optional value kind of rule might be about jumping up and down on the furniture. Some parents don't mind; others prefer a "feet off the couch" approach. A contextual rule might be about playing outside: my 8 year old can go anywhere on our street and even go up to the playground by himself; my 5 year old can play on our street up to the stop sign; my 2 year old needs an adult outside with him at all times.

The point is, PD has less to say about the kinds of limits and rules you set than how you encourage and enforce them. For my part, the principles I use when setting limits with my own children are as explicitly rooted in the philosophy I try to live my life by (Objectivism) as possible.

The Kids are Brats Myth: Positive Discipline means there are no consequences.

This is perhaps the most common objection I hear. If the kid isn't punished for wrongdoing, then how will he learn? If he isn't rewarded for doing the right thing, then why will he continue that behavior? These are legitimate questions, and common for those of us who were raised with punishments and rewards. There's definitely a paradigm shift required for those of us previously punished kids who are raising our own kids using PD.

Does the lack of parental-imposed rewards and punishments mean that the kid doesn't experience the consequences of his decisions and actions? No.

The things that happen as a result of his choices and actions (and inactions) occur anyway. And the child will learn from these things--he will make assumptions, draw conclusions, and yes, test to see if his assumptions and conclusions still hold. Sometimes he might need help connecting the dots here, and that is certainly something a parent can help him do. But he won't learn the lessons any better if Mom adds on another layer of punishment to a bad consequence, or if Dad gives him a gold star for doing something great.

Examples of Negative Consequences

  • You keep your drink too near the edge of the table and it gets knocked over. Consequence: you're out of chocolate milk and you have a mess to clean up.
  • You are really bossy to your friends. Consequence: Your friends don't want to play as often (and this one is an example of a time when I needed to help someone connect the dots between his behavior and the effects).
  • It's 40 degrees out and you refuse to wear a jacket or shoes. Consequence: You are really cold.

Examples of Positive Consequences

  • You are really nice and helpful to your siblings. Consequence: Your siblings want to help you out, too, and play games with you.
  • You choose to use the potty. Consequence: Wiping up is quick and easy.
  • It's 40 degrees out and you wear a jacket and shoes. Consequence: You are comfortable.

I think perhaps we adults want to punish and reward in order to drive the point home a bit more, that if a punishment is administered or a reward dispensed, the child will be more likely to "get it." I don't think it's necessary (though I fight the urge sometimes, as this punishment/reward strategy is still in my head, leftover from my own childhood).

Kids will learn from natural consequences, maybe with a little help in dot-connecting from an adult for those trickier situations and ideas. But they will learn. What's more, the real lesson might be more likely to stick out if the child is not distracted from it by feeling angry or resentful over a punishment, or dazzled by a reward.

So there's a few PD Myths for you, busted I hope. I'm interested in your questions, objections, feedback, and if you have another myth that might need a-busting, let me know that, too!


Anonymous said...

Well written! I am a PD fan and was introduced to it when my son was 14 mos. old. He's 8 now, and I am so glad we've had PD in our lives. Glad to have discovered your blog.

DeAnne said...

Thanks for writing this! I have been doing similar things with my girls (6 and 4) but didn't have a name for it. I just really liked the idea of lots of verbal positive reinforcement for their good behavior.

It helped drastically with my youngest when her out of control temper tantrums got worse as she got older. They are almost non-existent now because when I see one coming, I am now able to "talk her down" with a lot of praise and admiration. She still doesn't always get what she wanted (that caused the tantrum in the first place) but she is able to think more logically because I'm not freaking out over her behavior or going crazy with disciplinary actions in the heat of the moment. When I am calm and rational and full of praise for her about good decisions she has made, then she is calm and able to think more logically and not let her anger and emotions get the best of her. When we tried time out's, taking toys away, etc in the past for her behavior, it just made things much worse and escalated her angry outbursts, they also became more frequent.
Thank you for explaining the myths. I learned so much and can't wait to implement some of the ideas!

Amanda said...

I really enjoyed reading this blog. My son is only 5 months old, but I have recently been researching gentle discipline as opposed to the way I was brought up. If you have more information, I would love to read it or if you have any advice, etc. Also, from what I've read on other sites, most PD, GD parents baby proof the house. I'm personally very against this, as when we go to other people's houses, I feel my child should respect other people's belongings. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this and if you have any advice how to positively enforce this training concept. You can email me information, etc at

Anonymous said...

Just a quick comment to Amanda- baby-proofing is used when a child is too young to understand consequences of their actions (sticking a piece of metal in an electrical outlet will shock them, sort of stuff). Once your son becomes mobile and curious, protecting him from such hazards in your house (putting sharp knives in a drawer that is protected) is a very real option to having to keep your eye on him every second (because it only takes a second for something to happen). Of course, you educate him and use redirection too. PD rocks!

rainbowcreek said...

Interesting article. I was actually raised this way back in the 50s and 60s. I guess my parents were non-traditional although I didn't know it at the time. My dad was a spirited self made man and his philosophy was never to "break their spirit." Discipline was taught to us, because self-discipline has it's natural rewards. My parenting style was an endless source of conflict between my husband and I because he was raised in a totally authoritarian family. Somehow we managed to raise 3 children and keep our marriage together after he got to know my family and understand us. We are 33 years into our parenting and now playing in a support role as grandparents of 6 wonderful grands. As far as I am concerned a parent must guide their child through the learning experience and help them understand the natural consequences of their choices, allowing them as much freedom as they are capable of within safety limits. My granddaughter cut herself with a pair of scissors today because she decided to go into my sewing room with her cousin to make some clothes for their dolls. My husband's first reaction was to scold her for "playing with sharp scissors" then I redirected the conversation to how I had cut myself with scissors before I learned that I have to keep my fingers clear of the tip. And I praised her for how nice the doll clothes turned out and her creativity of design. When her mom got home from work I made sure to tell her about Anna doing such a great job of making clothes for her dolls and how proud I am of her. That is not some false "gold star" to build her self esteem, kids see through that right away. But when they do something that you are truly proud of they know it and they feel pride too!