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What is Gentle Discipline?

Hilary Flower
St Petersburg FL USA
From: NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 22 No. 3, May-June 2005, pp. 94-100

Gentle discipline means, quite simply, placing empathy and respect at the very center of your parenting. Few parents are prepared for the emotional shock wave of falling in love with their first tiny offspring. They hold the new child's life in their hands, and through that sacred trust open themselves up to new depths of compassion for another person.

When the time comes to provide guidance or limits for this incredibly important being, you may find yourself rethinking old concepts of what discipline and parenting are all about. Your baby may have taught you that when it comes to nourishment, sleep, and being held, you can trust his cues and your own inner voice above the many public voices telling you what you "should" be doing. It is empowering to discover that you are the most reliable expert on your own child.

Could the same be true of discipline? Yes. You can trust your heart on this one. If you let him, your child will always lead you to gentle ways. You can place compassion at the center of your parenting.

What are some of the goals of gentle discipline?

Many parents who are attracted to gentle discipline share a view of the central importance of empathy and respect in meeting parenting goals. It's probably fair to say that, regardless of their parenting style, most parents want their children to develop the ability to meet their own needs in ways that work well for themselves and others. Parents who practice gentle discipline want other things, too. Perhaps some of these goals resonate with you.

Safety. We want our children to feel safe with us, so that we can be trusted resources for our children to turn to throughout their lives.

I want my girls to see their relationship with me as a place of refuge, a place they can retreat to for honesty, unconditional love, and support. I want to teach them and have them trust me, not fear me. I want to preserve the gentle souls that I see in them.
Liz M.

Partnership. Gentle discipline is a way to forge a partnership between parents and children. We recognize that our children's behavior will reflect their age and developmental level, and some behaviors will be difficult to face. While we wish to address undesirable behavior, we also want to look below the behavior to our child's underlying feelings and needs, and to help them meet those needs in more constructive ways as they grow. We realize that growing up takes time.

The quality of the parent-child relationship, more than the presence or absence of particular behaviors, is the best measure of the effectiveness of gentle discipline.

Most parents want to know what will "work," as if discipline is some kind of magical thing that makes a child never misbehave. Gentle discipline encourages my child to go with me instead of against me, and for me to go with her rather than against her. I truly believe it leads to a happier, more positive relationship in general with my child. It gives my child the feeling that, "Mommy and me are in this together," rather than "It's mommy versus me."
Elizabeth B.

Building better options. By looking for the positive intent behind our children's behavior, we can build better options for the next time—an infinitely more positive approach than simply eradicating unwanted behavior. As we work with our children to solve problems, we can help them learn to be effective problem-solvers.

To me, gentle discipline is a way of raising children that focuses on building them up instead of tearing them down. This method of parenting shows respect for our children as human beings and teaches them to do the same toward others.
Carissa D.

Self-discipline. We want our children to develop their own sense of inner discipline. To this end, we don't want to cover their inner voices with our own, but rather provide lots of good guidance and role modeling. We want them to bloom forth as the beautiful and good people that they are.

My goal is for my daughter to remain "intact" with all of the innate parts of her personality she was born with. I believe that non-gentle discipline tactics teach children to hide, suppress, and even loathe the parts of themselves that cause their parents to hit, belittle, disrespect, or invalidate them. The curious child who is told "no" over and over again will soon shut down his curiosity. The sensitive child who is scolded for crying or protesting unfairness will soon grow to harden himself.
Mariah W.

Nurture respect and empathy. Gentle discipline allows us to protect and nurture the human elements in our children that more traditional discipline methods tend to gloss over.

Gentle discipline just seems like the obvious route to key elements in real happiness: feeling connected to others, loving oneself, and the ability to express feelings and needs in order to get those needs met.
Dore T.

By emphasizing empathy and respect in every interaction, gentle discipline nurtures these qualities every step of the way—in us and in our children.

If I want my kids to learn empathy, I have to show them empathy. If I want them to learn respect, I have to respect them.
Michelle N.

What does it look like in action?

If you are practicing gentle discipline, chances are that your approach is as individual as you and your child are. But, more likely than not, there are key components to your discipline that unite you with other parents who practice gentle discipline.

Make empathy and respect number one. You seek to orient yourself to be your child's trusted ally, placing respect and empathy as big priorities, even when facing challenges.

Track your child's well-being. Because your child will act his best when he feels his best, you strive to stay on top of his basic needs, and you look for unmet needs when things get off track.

Fit discipline methods to your child. One size does not fit all! Your guidance is in tune with your child's feelings and capabilities.

Become a prevention expert. Why react when you can prevent? You set your child up for success as much as you can.

Be a cheerleader. You look for the win-win scenarios, options for your child to meet his needs in positive ways.

Take care with consequences. You don't dish out consequences lightly, but weigh them in light of your child's learning style, the purpose behind them, and any potential costs.

Take care of yourself. You have figured out that the more you are able to meet your own needs, the more patient and positive you can be with your child.

"Gently discipline" yourself, too. Gentle discipline goes both ways. You cultivate ways to keep your cool while making room for yourself to be authentic, to make mistakes, and to learn from them.

Get support. Gentle discipline can be more difficult when you're the only one around who is practicing it. Chances are you are able to do your best when you have a support system for yourself within your family and community, while bridging differences as positively as you can.

Can gentle discipline be strong, too?

Initially, the phrase "gentle discipline" may evoke mushy, weak, absent-minded discipline. It may remind you of families with no boundaries, children controlling the parents, or selfish, impulsive children that no one wants to be around. Or perhaps you might think of parents afraid to say no, afraid of their children's tantrums.

This kind of parenting does exist, but it is best described as "permissive parenting." Fortunately, gentle discipline has nothing to do with this ineffective and problematic style of parenting. Gentle discipline is strong and effective. Let's look at four myths regarding gentle discipline that contribute to doubts about its effectiveness.

Myth 1: Gentle discipline means no boundaries. Being respectful and compassionate toward your child and yourself means having good boundaries. You are not respecting your child if you let him walk all over the people in his life, and you are certainly not respecting yourself or those around you. If you always say "yes" to your child's requests, he won't learn the meaning (and value) of "no." Firm boundaries, where necessary, help children move harmoniously and safely through their days.

Parents who practice gentle discipline put a great deal of thought into which boundaries are important, and how best to help their children learn to meet their needs within those boundaries.

Myth 2: Gentle discipline means passive parents. On the contrary! Because boundaries and respect are important aspects, parents who use gentle discipline need to be doubly active. In some traditional discipline methods, a parent can make a demand from the couch and then punish the child for noncompliance and consider that discipline.

Practicing gentle discipline requires active participation from parents. Parents consider what expectations are realistic given their child's developmental level. They take the time to get down on their child's level and communicate with him in a way that reaches him. They try to be proactive, heading off problems when possible. They learn about their own reactions and cultivate peaceful ones. They involve their children in seeking solutions and offer physical help as needed. It's hard work!

From your heart to your actions, gentle discipline calls you to be fully present and engaged.

If my child is hitting in an unsafe manner (as in hitting another person or an animal) and I turn a blind eye, this is not gentle discipline. It is the absence of discipline.

If, on the other hand, I intervene before someone gets hurt to explain to my darling child that hitting or hurting others is not okay, and then let my child know that he can hit a drum or the floor or the bottom of a pot with a wooden spoon, that's my definition of gentle discipline.

It is every minute of every day. It's repetitive because children need lots of reminders. It's getting creative and choosing my battles. Is this truly harmful or do I just find it annoying? The bottom line is one of respect and kindness—two very important things I want to pass on to my son.
Mary Beth K.

Myth 3: Respecting your child weakens your position as the parent. What kind of strength do you want to have? Think of the stern old school marm with the ruler. She's from the fearsome, powerful, and unyielding school of "strength." But look closer and you'll see a puffed-up authority figure, alienated from the children in her charge. The children may obey out of fear or self-loathing, but it is unlikely that the stern school marm will ever bring out the best in them. Is that the kind of strength you want as a parent?

Respect and empathy for your child call you to embrace a different kind of strength. A strength that comes straight from your own humanity and connects to your child's. A strength that helps you listen to your child and take his needs into account along with your own. It takes more courage to make yourself vulnerable to your child than to lean on an authoritarian role and superior might.

True respect is a two-way street. There is a pervasive fear in our society that in treating your child with respect, you will erode his respect for you. Some discipline methods insist that respect is a one-way street; parents deserve all of it, children none. We do well to re-examine this belief.

I inherited the belief that children must show respect to adults, but adults aren't required to show respect to children, that children's needs and feelings are not very important. But in reality all people, including children, have equal rights to dignity and respect.
Lisa S.

Bear in mind that to say that children are equally deserving of dignity and respect does not have to mean that the relationship itself is of equal power. As a parent, you have a broader view and more life experience to draw from. These are assets you bring to your child as his adult caretaker. You also bear more responsibility for choices surrounding your child than he does. Your child is looking to you to exercise your authority in ways that keep everyone safe and life flowing as well as possible. The more respect and empathy you can bring to your child, the more you fortify your authority as benevolent.

Respect has the most vitality when it is two-way. When you treat your child with respect, you make it more likely—not less so—that he will seek respectful ways to treat you and others.

Gentle discipline doesn't mean chaos and confusion. I simply treat my child with the respect I wish to be treated with. I teach him by setting a good example and being respectful of him as a person. Anyone in "authority" that I have ever respected has not been a dictator or authoritarian, but someone who worked with me and treated me with respect. I think this is true for most people. Also, I strive to be the kind of person I hope my boys will be.
Laurie D.W.

Empathy isn't mushy! On the contrary, true compassion for your child gives you strength as a parent, calling you to proceed with care. It clears your vision to see the beauty and goodness in your child. From there, you can find the most positive and powerful solutions. Sometimes it may take patience and focus on your part to get in touch with your compassion for your child, particularly if you're in conflict. But when you can do so, it empowers you to make more humane choices for your child and yourself.

For me, gentle discipline is the communication technique with which I wish to treat all humans and the way I wish to be treated. It is all about setting boundaries, teaching respect, and disciplining with love instead of fear. I do not believe discipline is the same as punishment.

When my daughter does something I don't like, I treat her with the same respect that I would show my husband. I have gentle ways to express myself. First and foremost, being able to tell her that her behavior makes me angry, sad, or frustrated.

I aim not to criticize the person, but discuss the behavior. In my experience, fear and anger-based tactics do not open the lines of communication. I want to demonstrate to my daughter that she should expect respectful treatment throughout her entire lifetime from me, from her friends, and from her future husband.
Jessica K

Myth 4: Gentle discipline is not effective. Because gentle discipline focuses more on guiding your child than on simply eradicating behaviors, it helps you make room for your child to continue to make mistakes as he learns. Once again, the effectiveness of gentle discipline can be measured more aptly by the quality of the relationship between parent and child, rather than by how quickly a behavior has been made to disappear.

By bringing fear into the equation, traditional discipline may sometimes be quicker to stop an unwanted behavior. But the implication that traditional discipline is more effective even at this goal seems more fantasy than reality. Often the overtly active nature of the punishment makes it seem as though the parent is being very effective indeed. But look closer: in many cases, the behavior and the punishment keep repeating, even escalating. Sometimes, the child learns how not to get caught rather than what might be problematic about the behavior, much less how better to meet his needs.

Gentle discipline offers ways to establish and maintain boundaries in ways that encourage the child to become an active participant (rather than a passive or resentful one).

One of the criticisms I have heard of gentle discipline is, "I don't know why there seems to be such a low expectation of a child's behavior." My experience is the opposite. If anything, gentle discipline has a much higher expectation of a child's behavior, which is why we seek to guide, rather than subjugate. I believe that children can learn without being humiliated or "controlled." If I had low expectations, I would simply dictate rather than teach.
Jessica K.

Am I doing it yet?

Whereas some people suffer from the misconception that gentle discipline is non-existent parenting, many worry just the opposite, that it will demand more of them than they can possibly do. Indeed, many parents who believe wholeheartedly in the importance of empathy and respect in their parenting are uneasy about claiming they "do" gentle discipline. "Oh, but I'm far from perfect!" is one of the reactions. What is wrong with this picture? How did gentle discipline become the domain of the mythical Super-Mommies and Daddies?

Let's step clear of that costly misunderstanding and take a hard look at what gentle discipline is not:

  • Gentle discipline is not about doing it "right."
  • It's not a list of things to do and not to do.
  • It's not a lofty standard for us to somehow measure up to.
  • It doesn't make adults able to parent in reasonable, calm, and fun ways all the time.
  • It's not a way to have idealized children, always cheerful and cooperative.
  • It's not an insurance policy against times of struggle.

These ideas are holdovers from a more traditional style of parenting, which places a great deal of emphasis on right and wrong and tends to have unrealistic expectations of both parents and children. These notions often become mixed up in perceptions of gentle discipline, but they actually have nothing to do with it. Gentle discipline seeks to get past right or wrong dichotomies and embraces a realistic view of both parents and children.

If you are earnestly endeavoring to place empathy and respect at the center of your parenting, there is really no way to "do" gentle discipline wrong.

Gentle discipline is at heart a belief: the more gentleness you can bring to your child and yourself, the better. You either believe it or you don't. You can't get it wrong.

As you take that belief forward into your family life, there's all the room in the world for you to be yourself, for you to engage in the messy and meaningful art of developing a relationship with your child, to make mistakes, and to feel good about yourself as a parent along the way.

When you consider saying, "I practice gentle discipline," do negative thoughts come to mind? "But my child's behavior sometimes embarrasses me in public." "But sometimes I lose my temper." Bringing these thoughts to light gives you the chance to make room for more of your humanity and your child's in your concept of gentle discipline. Thinking about where any negative reactions might come from, perhaps comparing notes with a trusted friend, may help you come to terms with them and replace them with more positive beliefs about your parenting.

Gentle discipline is not something distant or unreachable. If you want it, it's yours, right now. Like a favorite comfy sweater, gentle discipline is a belief that can nurture you and your child if you let it.

We can change the world.

Our society as a whole is in many ways torn apart by a self-perpetuating habit of power and control. This pattern is reversible. Recent generations of parents have been making headway in turning away from the harsh authoritarian models of the past. As it picks up pace, the movement toward more compassionate parenting has tremendous potential.

You can't snap your fingers and change the world in an instant, but you do have power over your own orientation in life, how you treat the people you encounter, and most importantly, you can author new possibilities for your family.

You can change the world from your family outwards.

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