A couple commenters have asked for some practical examples of gentle discipline (or compassionate parenting or empathic parenting or whatever you want to call it). I don't think there's one right way of doing it. I think that as long as you are respectful of both your child and yourself and allow yourself to be guided by love, you'll be in good shape. For a lot of people, that's all they need to know and without reading any expert books on the topic, they practice gentle discipline as naturally as breathing air.

For others, however, like myself, who have never had gentle discipline modeled for them, there is a learning curve, and it can take a lot of practice as well as continued awareness of one's attitudes, beliefs and feelings in any given situation to remain committed to the principles of compassionate parenting.

Many of the suggestions below are taken directly from the book Becoming the Parent You Want to Be by Laura Davis and Janis Keyser, specifically from the chapter titled Moving Beyond Punishment. I've also drawn from ideas on the site Empathic Parenting, the website of Lisa Stroyan, a parenting coach and contributor to the book Adventures in Gentle Discipline by Hilary Flower. Also, my daughter's only 3 years old, so some of the examples I offer are more applicable to very young children.

1. Honoring the Impulse--This is the tool I fall back on the most and usually first. I can't tell you what a paradigm shift it was for me when I realized that when my toddler daughter was doing things I didn't want her to (i.e., banging on stuff, throwing stuff, hitting, running away, doing the opposite of what I asked--you get the picture), it wasn't because she was being naughty but because her toddler self had not yet developed a level of impulse control to my adult satisfaction. What I needed to remind myself was that the impulse behind the behavior was not bad but perfectly natural and an important part of development and learning. For example, banging on stuff is a natural way of learning through her senses. Hitting may be her way of trying to communicate anger. Doing the opposite of what I ask may be an expression of her need to assert independence. Here's a quote from Becoming the Parent You Want to Be:
"In the midst of children's challenging, difficult behavior, it is worthwhile to ask: 'What's the impulse that's behind this behavior?' 'Is there something my child is working on that I can support, even as I help her adjust or change her behavior?'"

2. Redirection--This goes hand in hand with honoring the impulse because if our child is behaving in a way that is not appropriate (i.e., dangerous, destructive, etc.) merely honoring the impulse isn't enough. Their behavior needs to be redirected so that their impulse can be acted on in a way that is more acceptable, and so that the child knows that we value what they are interested in. For example, if my daughter starts splashing the water from her glass and making a mess, I can honor her impulse ("Looks like you want to play with water" instead of "Oh, honey, stop! You're making a mess!") and then redirect ("You can help me wash these dishes" or "Would you like to take a bath?"). We won't ALWAYS find an appropriate alternative to redirect a child's impulse or interest, but the more we try, the more likely we'll get better at it, and the more our kids will feel that we truly care about their interests.

3. Time-together instead of time-outs--I've noticed that when my daughter is being difficult, it's because she has a need that is not being met and she doesn't yet have the ability to communicate this to me constructively. I know some folks may roll their eyes and think, "Yeah, right. She NEEDS to be a brat and have her own way, right?" Actually, I don't think she's a brat for wanting her own way. It's a natural part of being her age. Who doesn't want their own way? At least she's being honest about it. That doesn't mean there aren't times when I want to just scream at her to shut up and leave me the hell alone because I can't figure out what the heck it is she needs. It's usually times like that when she needs my presence and focused attention the most. Sometimes she just needs a really long hug and to have her hair stroked. Sometimes she just wants me to be in the room with her as she plays. It's times like these when I have to remember that my daughter's need for my attention is a very valid need.

4. Put yourself into your child's shoes--Sometimes our kids may appear to be misbehaving because we just don't know where they're coming from. If we can pause to put ourselves into their shoes, we may be able to see that their behavior is just their way of communicating a need. If we believe that our kids are doing the best they can with what they've got and where they're at (developmentally, physically, emotionally, etc.) then we're more likely to empathize with them, figure out what their unmet needs are and hopefully meet those needs if possible.

There are many other suggestions that can make gentle discipline effective. I'm just listing these four suggestions here, but there are some good resources online that I'll list at the end of this post.

Let's take just these four suggestions and put them together in a hypothetical situation. Let's say that my daughter Cadence and I have been having a grand ole time at the playground on a Saturday afternoon. I work full-time outside the home, so these times are important to both of us. When it's almost time to leave, I can tell Cadence that we'll be leaving in five minutes. I may ask her, "Do you want to play on the slides or the swings before we leave?" After a couple minutes, I may tell her, "Ok, five more times down the slide and we have to go pick up Daddy." Each time she comes down the slide, we'll count together. On the last slide, I'll give her one more reminder that this will be the last time before we leave.

When she comes down the slide the last time, I'll offer my hand and say, "Let's go pick up Daddy at Trader Joe's!" Cadence may yell, "NO!" and run away from me. Instead of telling her, "Cadence, I gave you plenty of warning that we'd have to leave, so now let's GO!" I can Put Myself Into Her Shoes and remember that this is the first time all week that she's had Mama at the playground, and so it's understandable that she doesn't want to leave. Heck, what kid wants to leave when they're having fun? So I can Honor Her Impulse to keep on playing and having fun and say, "Looks like you're having fun and don't want to leave. We were really having a good time, weren't we?" Then I can Redirect and say, "Can you think of something fun we can do together as a family after we pick up Daddy from work, all three of us?" If she still refuses to go, I can say, "Looks like you're having a hard time leaving on your own. Will you walk with me, or should I carry you?" If she refuses to walk on her own, I will carry her off the playground to the car. This is when Cadence may just lose it and start screaming and kicking and hitting. Instead of thinking, "Oh, goodness gracious, what a BRAT!" I'll try again to Put Myself Into Her Shoes and realize that as a 3 year old, it's extremely maddening to be physically limited (by being carried) on TOP of being made to leave a fun situation. By this time, she may be in total meltdown mode, and I will give her some Time Together and hold her (if she'll let me), stroke her hair, and let her continue to work out her tantrum. If she won't let me hold her or tries to run away, I will carry her (best I can) to the car and put her in the carseat or take her somewhere else safe until she is done.

Okay, so maybe the various strategies didn't prevent a tantrum in this situation, and I wasn't able to find an acceptable alternative to redirect her screaming/hitting/kicking etc. However, by being respectful and truly caring about my daughter's experience of the situation, by showing my daughter that I was really trying to understand her, by not belittling her feelings (however trivial they may seem to me, they're important to her) and by staying with her when she was at her "worst" and remaining calm, my daughter's security in our relationship remains intact, and she knows that I love her and care about her and no matter what she does, I will NOT withhold my love. At the same time, by placing limits when necessary, I can still be firm and teach her about things I will not allow her to do because they are harmful to herself or to others. The relationship part is so important though, for the long run. I mean, when they're 3 or 4, the choices for their "rebellion" are quite limited. Yeah, they can throw food everywhere and be a holy terror on the playground. What I'm thinking about is when my daughter is a teenager and has her own drivers license. Or in college. By establishing a loving and attached relationship from the beginning, I believe that I'm increasing my chances that my daughter will WANT to do the right things because she loves me and doesn't want to make my life miserable. Hopefully, by having a loving relationship, it'll be easier to teach her about things like compassion, mercy, justice, responsibility, etc. so that she'll develop SELF discipline and do the right thing because it's the right thing to do, not because someone's watching to punish or reward her. I don't think this is too far off from God wanting us to obey and serve him out of love, not out of drudgery or guilt or duty.

A word on tantrums. I don't think that you can always avoid the Total Meltdowns. In fact, I think that temper tantrums are necessary and can be an indication that the child is working through something. I know that a lot of experts and pediatricians say to ignore kids when they are having a tantrum or else they'll keep throwing tantrums to get attention. I don't agree with this, especially for younger children. Ignoring children, especially when they are very young, teaches them that their feelings don't matter. Sometimes, I think the best thing to do is to provide a safe place for the child to have their tantrum and to stay with them (keeping them safe from being destructive to property or to themselves). I highly encourage reading this article regarding temper tantrums, which goes into these ideas in more details:
Cry for Connection: A Fresh Approach to Tantrums by Patty Wipfler. It's a long article, but I would read it all the way through. It'll take a load off your back, especially if you are a parent who absolutely dreads temper tantrums.

Also, if your child is tired, hungry, sick, or has some other basic physical need that is not being met, all bets are off...

For more suggestions on gentle discipline/empathic parenting, I highly recommend the book Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn. If you don't have time to read, get the DVD. My husband and I have watched it numerous times, when we needed affirmation and inspiration.

Here are also some good articles from Lisa Stroyan's Empathic Parenting website:
My Discipline Goals and Beliefs
Strategies for Handling Conflict with Toddlers
Respectful Discipline Tools (lots of good suggestions in this one)

I apologize for the wordiness of this post and for my inability to organize paragraphs. Fact is, I've only touched the surface on this topic, but it's something I care deeply about because I really do believe that compassionate and peaceful parenting CAN change the world.

P.S. My daughter and I had a traumatic experience tonight that involved an hour on the potty, a lot of clinging and screaming and wailing(on her part) as well as confusion, self-doubt and helplessness (on my part). Truly, I no longer measure success in the LACK of such experiences and situations, but rather in how my daughter and I feel about each other afterwards. If I didn't, I would've thrown in the towel on this stuff a long time ago.


posted by Unknown at 11:32:00 PM |


At November 19, 2007 at 8:19 AM, Blogger Robin M.

I want to second the recommendation to read anything written by Patty Wipfler. I went to a workshop she led about dealing with children and their emotional outbursts, and I read a couple of their pamphlets. They were wonderful. One about little kids and one about teenagers.


At November 19, 2007 at 10:04 AM, Blogger Sarah-Ji

Thanks, Robin. For those who are more interested in Patty Wipfler and the work she does with parents, please visit the site for the organization she directs:
Hand in Hand Parenting. I'm sure there's plenty of good info on there.

Also, if any one else can share stories about how they have applied gentle discipline, I'd love to hear them. This is something I believe in strongly, but I need all the inspiration I can get.


At November 20, 2007 at 5:00 AM, Anonymous Jenn

When my oldest son was about midway through his JK (we're Canadian :)- I believe this is called pre K in US), he started having major meltdowns and alot of crying before school. I ventured into many conversations with him to try to get to the bottom of what was really going on- I knew that this was his way of trying to tell me something was wrong. It turned out that there were some more aggressive boys in his class who were playing "trapping" games that he did not like. I made contact with the school and the situation was remedied by speaking with the other children, their parents and lots of emphasis of "hands off" conversations in the classroom. My son learned that we will listen to him when he is having a hard time in a situation and help him find a solution when he can't.
I loved the point about putting ourself in their shoes. It gives us, as adults, a whole new perspective on the situation for sure.


At November 20, 2007 at 5:18 AM, Anonymous cynthia

These are excellent ideas! It is difficult to give practical examples. It seems innate in humans to take something and make a formula for it. So, we take this idea of grace parenting and turn it into a law. It's weird.
I have been on my own journey with parenting ... started off very legalistic and punitive but hit a huge paradigm shift about 15 years into it. That sounds late but at that time, I had nine children ages 1 - 15 ... still many years left to go.
I look at it like this, especially for those who may have been punitive before, you have to create a toolbox of things that help you. One tool may not work so you just pick another one.
One of the first tools we learned was HALT. When there is misbehavior, meltdown, no self control ... ask ... is the child hungry, angry, lonely or tired. I added, for the benefit of older ones, are they embarrassed or distressed making it HALTED.
This was a tool for us to stop before we swept in with punishment or just trying to control the behavior and find out what the need is. Meet the need, first. Then you can instruct.
I use it for myself when I am feeling grumpy and out of control. That's the beauty of it. You can teach the children to ask themselves the questions to identify their own need. My four year old even learned to identify his hunger or fatigue.

I have neglected reading here and commenting ... looking forward to plugging back in.


At November 20, 2007 at 12:01 PM, Blogger Jeff

Thanks for the second post with all the extra links. I had just expected a couple stories to get my creativity flowing.


At November 21, 2007 at 8:20 AM, Blogger Sarah-Ji

Thanks for the additional stories. I especially appreciate hearing from parents who have more experience than I do, since my daughter's only 3. Practicing compassionate parenting hasn't been easy for me, since I didn't have that modeled for me growing up, and if it weren't encouragement and empathy from some of my friends who have similar parenting styles, I don't think I would enjoy parenting at all, to be totally honest.