By Mayim Bialik, Ph.D.
Author of Beyond the Sling
A major component of Attachment Parenting is what’s known as Gentle Discipline. Here’s what people say about it: “Gentle Discipline only works for small families, at-home moms, mellow kids, inhumanly super-patient moms who must possess alien DNA.” You name it, I’ve heard it.
I’ve also heard a lot of people from the “Tiger Mom” school of thought claim that Gentle Discipline encourages and allows children to do whatever they want; that they will “rule the house” and become spoiled and dictatorial tyrants who hold us hostage with their every whim. They hold that a firm hand (and even some physical consequences such as timeouts or spanking) makes for “good children.”
Gentle Discipline is not permissive parenting. It means parenting without violence, relying instead on respectful communication and seeking to see your child not as someone lesser or weaker than you who you can and should control, but rather as a partner in your life and a source of potential joy and loving interaction. Some general goals of Gentle Discipline include making our children feel safe with us, feeling that they are partners in their relationship with us, and finding ways for children to find better choices for behavior as opposed to simply teaching them to stop a behavior that we deem inappropriate. In addition, by nurturing respect and empathy, we teach self-discipline and encourage children to be the best that they can be.
What Works for the Wrong Reasons?
1) Timeouts. I can usually identify a child in timeout by the sound of crying or screaming. The parent is usually close by, looking appropriately concerned and often murmuring reminders that this is because the child did so-and-so, and they can come back when the time is up, or when they stop crying. Gentle Discipline encourages us not to ignore the cries of a baby, and as children get older, they have more emotions and they acquire more words, but they do not acquire all of the words we’d like them to have. So they “cry” in different ways, and we have to—we are privileged to—take the time to learn these new cries.
2) Threat and reward. Like timeouts, threats and rewards seem to work, but they work for the wrong reasons. Just as children respond to threats because they fear the consequences, they also respond to rewards because it is the reward that is driving them, rather than being motivated by working well with others, earning respect, being valued, and being appreciated and loved.
3) Violence. The only relationship in society in which you are allowed to hit or spank another person is your child; you can’t spank your husband or your wife. You can’t spank your teachers or your friends, and you most certainly can’t even adopt a pet in most states if you say that you plan to spank them. People who hit say that they hit out of love, and not out of anger. The distinction between hitting in anger (as in “the heat of the moment”) as opposed to hitting as part of a purportedly “calm” regimented spanking is an academic one, but not a practical one. Both methods involve hitting a child, thereby causing the brain to release neurotransmitters and hormones to cope with pain and fear while suppressing fight/flight pathways. The simplest reason we don’t hit is this: Hitting is hitting. It’s not love. It’s not teaching. It’s hitting. You can say you are hitting with love, or that you are using hitting to teach something, but it’s still hitting.
Research indicates that physical punishment fails to promote long-term compliance and is correlated with less internalization of “appropriate” behavior and compliance. Throughout the world, physical punishment is associated with increased psychological maladjustment and mental health problems such as anxiety and depression, as well as drug and alcohol abuse. Twenty four countries in the world have banned physical punishment and have seen amazing shifts in behavior and societal expectations. Maybe it’s that simple.
What Works for Us
1) Always assume the best. All children have the potential to be sweet, cooperative, helpful, kind, and loving. Does this mean that they always are? No. Does this mean that they can be? Yes. Try to start each day knowing that somewhere inside even the unhappiest child there is the seed of a child that can grow into a happy one who meets your expectations and then exceeds them. This can only be done, though, when we foster that growth.
2) “Bad” behavior is a sign of an unmet need. When children act out, disobey us, behave rudely, or display disturbing emotions, it’s easy to dismiss the child or the behavior as “bad” or “wrong.” However, as we go about redirecting our children and disciplining them, it helps tremendously to see these behaviors as a child’s best attempt to meet a need. It calls upon us to look at our relationship with our child to try and find the source of their unmet need.
3) Parental timeouts. Imagine that the day comes when you cannot contain your disdain for the way your child is behaving. This is when it’s time for a parent timeout. If you have older children, you can simply say that you are having a hard time and you need a moment to gather yourself. Physically take a moment, or hone the skill of taking a timeout in the child’s presence using breathing techniques or some sort of mantra or short meditation.
Our Favorite Discipline Tools
1) “Not for” instead of “no.” The word “no” is not very helpful and using it will come back to haunt you. We’ve used the word “no” very rarely; instead, coming up with myriad ways to indicate “no” and stop undesirable behaviors. We never baby-proofed our home except for power outlet covers, and a stern tone (which we saved for only such occasions) and strong body language did the trick in averting exploration of dangerous things. To this day, neither of my boys have ever said, shouted, or screamed “NO!” at us.
2) Give a “yes” for every “no”—sometimes two. There are times when we need to and ought to say “no” to a child, such as when a slice of brightly colored, fantastic-looking birthday cake is not vegan. Small people love to hear “yes” even if it’s after “no.” Even if it’s a really disappointing “no,” I’ve found that providing a “yes” to something else can work wonders. So for the non-vegan cake, if the answer is “no,” the “yes” is to our own treat waiting for us at home after the party.
3) Pick your battles/Do you want to die on this mountain?/Let it go. I am not a permissive parent; I hope you can trust me on this by now. However, a very effective tool I have used possibly more than any other as a parent is this: Pick your battles, especially with a baby. Ask yourself, “Do I want to die on this mountain?” and answer it very clearly and honestly. Know that sometimes you just have to let it go and that this does not doom your child to a lifetime of bad behavior. It simply means that you acknowledge that every phase is just that: It’s a phase, and it will pass. And it will usually pass with you doing very little to fix it; maturity, experience, and observing good modeling of behavior is often enough to correct undesirable behavior.
Certain behaviors, such as a baby who bites while nursing or a child who thinks it is funny to pull hair, need a different kind of guidance, but for most things that are challenging but not truly problematic, I say let it go and you will be amazed that it passes. You don’t have to punish a baby for it to pass. I am here to tell you that it passes on its own.
Gentle Discipline can work for every child and every parent, if only we invest the time and energy to make it happen with consistency, authenticity, and love. And that is quite simply, the most intuitive way to discipline and to be.