Wednesday 27 June 2012

Gentle Discipline Basics: Teaching Skills

While punishment and praise may be effective as a means of modifying a child's external behaviour, gentle discipline seeks to provide children with the tools they need to better manage the situation in the future. One of the primary methods of doing so is placing the focus on teaching the child what to do rather than imposing a punishment for what was already done.

This idea of teaching skills applies throughout childhood. For example:
  • babies can be taught to touch gently rather than hitting,
  • toddlers can be taught how to express and work through their big emotions rather than being sent for a time-out, and
  • children can be taught the skills of conflict resolution and making amends rather than having an arbitrary privilege removed as punishment after an altercation.

These future-oriented solutions provide the child with skills that will be used throughout and beyond childhood. The focus is on developing the child's own internal control rather than on managing behaviour through external control, thereby assisting the child in navigating life in a way that keeps their dignity intact.

This often requires that the parent first reframe their own view of their children. Rather than viewing their behaviour as "naughty", "bad", or "defiant", accept that they are immature beings who have yet to learn the skills necessary to handle the situation in a more socially-acceptable manner. Once that perspective is in place, we can move on to providing them with those skills in a respectful and consistent manner.

Teach emotional awareness

The first step in teaching skills is to give the child the words needed to name their feelings as well as the tools needed to handle, rather than suppress, those challenging emotions. Reflect their feelings and give names to them while describing what you see. As they get older, encourage them to use these phrases themselves, coupled with other healthy and appropriate means of expressing and working through their feelings.

Look for the need behind the action or the cause behind the behaviour. Can an acceptable alternative be offered, allowing the parent to say "yes" to the driving need instead of "no" to the action? Can the root cause behind the behaviour be solved, such as a nap, snack, or moment of reconnection? As the child grows, a healthy emotional self-awareness will allow them to recognize these driving needs for themselves.

Use scripts

Expanding on the idea of providing children with the necessary vocabulary to name their feelings, the use of scripts provides children with a more appropriate way of making their needs known. Scripts are simple sentences provided by the parent that rephrase the child's less acceptable way of expressing themselves. The scripts will increase in complexity along with the child's verbal abilities.

In the beginning stages, the parent will simply state the script while carrying out the action. Eventually, the child will be prompted to repeat the script. In time, the prompting will become a requirement, where, for example, a request will not be carried out until it is restated in a polite manner. In its final stages, a simple reminder will be offered.

There must be an acceptance of the fact that children will require repetition in order to form healthy habits. "Try again" is a useful phrase to use as a reminder that what the child just said was unacceptable, providing them with an opportunity to restate things in a more appropriate manner.

Provide alternative actions

While scripts provide children with alternative phrases, they will need to be provided with alternative actions as well. Instead of focusing on what they shouldn't do, teach children what they should do. Show them better alternatives to undesirable actions, and be calm and consistent in enforcing the alternative. As the child grows, involve them in brainstorming these alternatives and putting them into place going forward.

Give them ownership over the situation

Children grow in maturity and responsibility when they are given ownership over the situation. Depending on the specifics, this may involve fixing the resulting problem, making restitution to the wronged party, seeking reconciliation, or determining a better course of action for the future. This acknowledges the wrongdoing but then shifts the focus away from the mistake and places it instead on finding a solution, thereby empowering the child and allowing them to develop their own sense of inner discipline. Punishment, which requires the child to pay an arbitrary penalty of some form in order to deter the behaviour from being repeated, removes this problem-solving opportunity and leaves the child feeling powerless.

Brainstorm with the child what this restitution may look like, but leave the bulk of the responsibility (increasingly so as they get older) on their shoulders. The parent is there to guide, advise, and support the child, but not to rescue them or punish them.

Giving the child ownership over the situation allows the child to acknowledge their mistakes, accept responsibility for finding a solution, and develop the capabilities to then put their plan into action - not out of fear of punishment, but rather because doing so is the respectful and compassionate course of action.

Model appropriate behaviours

Children learn what they live. The way we treat our children becomes the basis upon which they view themselves and interact with others. When a parent seeks primarily to control the child, the child learns both to be controlled and to control others. Alternatively, when a parent treats the child with respect and grace, the child learns to treat others in a similar manner and to refuse to allow others to treat them poorly.

Children also learn from the way we treat others and the way we allow ourselves to be treated. Lead by example, modelling essential life skills and appropriate behaviour: respectful manners, non-violent conflict resolution, healthy boundaries, emotional awareness, time management skills, and more. Model humility through sincere apologies when a difficult moment has gotten the better of you. Model careful decision making and problem solving by narrating the processes out loud for the child to overhear.


Each of the above will need to be modified according to the age, stage, and personality of the individual child, but the basic principles remain the same throughout. Teach the child healthy emotional awareness, appropriate ways of expressing themselves, and acceptable alternatives to undesirable actions. Increasingly guide them to a place where they can acknowledge their mistakes and take ownership over correcting the situation. Finally, model those same healthy and appropriate behaviours in the way you treat the child, the way you treat others, and the way you allow others to treat you.'

Please join us all week, June 25-June30, 2012, as we explore the world of gentle, effective parenting. We have new posts each day by talented authors providing us with insight into why gentle parenting is worth your time and how to implement it on a daily basis.

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This year's beautiful motherhood artwork is by Patchwork Family Art. Visit the store to see all her work.


  1. Modelling is so, so important. If we model peaceful ways of resolving conflicts, then that's what we'll see from our children. If we punish them and spank them, then they'll think that that's ok to do to others.

  2. Yes, so very true! Lovely piece, which I found through the Gentle Discipline Carnival. I haven't heard of "scripts" before in that context, so very interesting...All these points are very well worth making, as I am finding more and more that people want alternative methods of disciplining children - something that works - they often just don't know where to find the information. I will be following your blog; lovely stuff! :) Zanni