This article appears in the November 2017 Family magazine.
Sarah Ockwell-Smith knows that parenting is hard work, even in the best of times. The latest in her series of parenting books explores a gentle approach to discipline.
“Gentle discipline is about conscious, mindful decisions,” Ockwell-Smith said. Her approach aims to change not only a child’s behavior but also the parents’. Instead of looking for quick and easy fixes, “it’s all about understanding and shaping,” Ockwell-Smith said.
How it’s different
The traditional approach to discipline is as a way to punish or shame a child to motivate her to behave better, Ockwell-Smith said.
“Methods such as time-out and punishments originated from work on laboratory rats and an era when children were seen as inferior, manipulative little beings, who should not be loved too much. Science has frequently disproved these theories and current understanding of neuroscience, or brain development, has shown that mainstream discipline is not only ineffective, but potentially damaging to children, too,” she said.
Show mutual respect
“Gentle discipline is conscious and mindful, by that I mean that today’s generation of parents are increasingly seeking to break the cycle of harsh discipline with which they and their parents before them were raised. They want better for their kids. Most of all though, gentle discipline is about working with — not against — your kids. It’s about showing them empathy, respect and compassion and gently guiding them to be the people you hope they will be,” Ockwell-Smith said.
Why time-outs don’t work
“The most important thing parents need to understand is that kids don’t misbehave for no reason. In almost all cases poor behavior is caused by an unmet need or the kid feeling bad. Kids who feel good don’t act bad,” Ockwell-Smith said.
A time-out may temporarily stop the poor behavior, but it doesn’t deal with the cause of it.
“A better response would be, take some time-in with the kid and talk through their feelings, reassuring them,” Ockwell-Smith said.
Another problem with time-out is that it presumes kids will spend their time thinking about what they did wrong and how they can do better next time.
“This requires a level of concrete thinking that we know is not developed in the brain until 7 to 11 years of age. At most a kid in time-out learns to be quiet so they are let out, but that’s all,” she said.
A better way to deal with a tantrum
Parents may not want to hear this, but “tantrums are normal and common,” said Ockwell-Smith, who likens a tantrum to a pot of boiling water soon to overflow if no one intercedes. “Toddlers don’t tantrum because they enjoy it or because they’re trying to manipulate us. They tantrum because they can’t do anything else.”
When a kid tantrums, a parent must think about the safety of the child and others.
“After that, you need to support them. Sit as close as they will allow and let them express their feelings. Show them you understand by naming what they feel — ‘You’re really angry that kid wouldn’t share his ball with you.’ This not only shows compassion, but helps children to learn what emotions are called,” Ockwell-Smith said.
Be your kid’s role model.
“How you react at this point is what they will copy. If you’re angry and yell, they will do the same. If you’re calm, they will eventually be, too,” Ockwell-Smith said. “Finally, offer to help them calm down, maybe with a hug, talking it through, using a really simple breathing exercise or playing a game. Just try to remember you’re on the same team. You may feel awful when your kid tantrums, but chances are, they feel even worse.”