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What Is Positive Discipline and How Can I Use It?

smiling father and daughter

While discipline is not the highlight of any parent’s experience, it can be less dramatic and more meaningful to everyone involved. One philosophy of discipline that can be extremely effective is called “positive discipline.”

If you’re a parent, you’ve probably had more than your fair share of days where you seriously considered selling your kids (or yourself) to the circus. Miniature human beings can be surprisingly stubborn and cranky and even on your best days, keeping your cool can be tough.

Not only does losing your temper potentially make a tough situation even worse, but it also feeds into the one thing parents have far too much of already: guilt.

What is Positive Discipline?

Positive discipline operates on the premise that children will behave without threats, bribing, or spanking. The practice of positive discipline relies on a parent’s ability to take a step back from a situation and analyze the behavior from a place of understanding. Knowing why a child is throwing a fit doesn’t always solve the problem, but it can help you address it more appropriately.

For example, when your child starts throwing a fit midway through your grocery trip, is it because they’re bored, tired, or hungry? Even if you don’t have an immediate solution, understanding why they’re screaming like a howler monkey could change the way you react to the situation.

The critical thing to remember is that children don’t really misbehave; they behave like kids. And no matter how they are behaving, they are trying to communicate something to you.

Positive discipline does not mean that a child doesn’t face the consequences for their behavior or that you’re expected to respond correctly all of the time. Consistent consequences for misbehaviors, focusing on positive behaviors, and approaching the discipline from a place of love and teaching are the primary focal points of this discipline method.

Doctor Jane Nelson, the author of a series of “Positive Discipline” books, is most often cited as the expert on this type of parenting, though her books are inspired by the work of Alfred Adler and Rudolf Dreikurs completed in the 1920s.

How Do I Use Positive Discipline?

sons and dad sitting at table, leaning heads on palms and staring indifferent at camera
Cookie Studio/Shutterstock

There are a few methods you can employ quickly that can help diffuse a situation while ensuring your child learns.

  • Say no to no: Kids learn quickly to tune out the words “no,” and “don’t.” So, try telling your kids what they can do as an alternative to what they are doing. For example, instead of, “Don’t touch that statue,” try, “Let’s play with this toy instead.” This approach works well for younger kids, but even elementary school aged kids will react more positively to, “Let’s race down the sidewalk,” instead of “No climbing on the fence!”
  • Praise positive behavior, ignore the negative: Sometimes ignoring behavior you don’t like is more effective than snapping or lecturing. If your little one is whining, arguing, or having a tantrum, try walking away instead of trying to fix the behavior. This won’t be ideal in every situation, but kids will learn that they aren’t going to get a reaction or your attention when they whine. Alternatively, make sure to acknowledge when they’re doing something well.  Something as simple as “Thank you for asking politely,” can go a long way towards encouraging repeat good behavior.
  • Skip the timeouts: Time-outs might seem like a good idea, but recent research has found that while they can provide temporary correction, they are not effective long term. And it makes sense; when a child is “misbehaving,” there are typically a lot of emotions—including fear—involved. Isolation strengthens that fear. Instead, remove your child from the situation if you need to, but don’t remove yourself from them.
  • Don’t argue: When you’ve asked your child to do something or given them an answer they don’t like, you’re probably going to get a bit of pushback in the form of arguing. Don’t rise to the bait. Instead, have a response at the ready that you can keep repeating if they continue to argue. A few ideas include, “I love you, and I won’t argue,” or “Asked and answered.”
  • Follow the rules too: One way to help your kids respect rules is to make sure you set clear rules, and that you follow them yourself. For example, if your family have a house rule that anyone who doesn’t have their stuff cleared up before bedtime loses the items left out for a few days, parents should make sure their stuff is cleaned up too, or risk losing their favorite item for a week. The easiest way to implement this is to make sure rules and boundaries are clear so that parents don’t feel like they have no freedom in their home, but kids also don’t feel like the rules only apply to them all of the time.
  • Develop a warning system: Many classrooms implement this type of discipline. Children are given three opportunities to fix their behavior before they face a more severe consequence. For example: If your child goes to bed without cleaning up their room, they may lose TV time until it’s cleaned. If they do it a second time, they lose a privilege for a whole day. If they do it a third time, mom or dad goes in and puts their toys in “timeout” for a few days.

Parenting is hard. Children are still learning everything you already know, and it’s really easy to get impatient or frustrated when they react negatively to rules or behavior expectations. But, being positive and approaching these opportunities as a teacher instead of as the distributor of discipline will result in happier responses from the whole family.

Angela Brown Angela Brown
Angela has 14 years of writing and editing experience, including as a reporter and copy editor for two newspapers. Angela has a Bachelor's in communication with minors in creative and technical writing from BYU-Idaho. She works closely with real-estate and financial industry clients. Read Full Bio »
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