What is gentle discipline and how does it work?

Posted on September 14th, 2018

Could you throw out all the old discipline tricks in favour of understanding, respect and communication? By Kate Sidley

Gentle discipline

If you’re the parent of a toddler, and that toddler has had a meltdown in public, you are probably acquainted with the view that today’s children are over-indulged, ill-disciplined and, generally, badly behaved.

Conventional wisdom dictates that modern parents are pushovers, overly permissive, and too scared to discipline their children. People believe that, as a result, their kids run rings around them and what children need is a firm hand.

There are many writers and “experts” who advocate a firm, routine-driven, no-nonsense, parent-led approach. Gina Ford is known as the “queen of routine”, and her book, The Contented Little Baby Book, promotes a strict timetable of eating and sleeping. Her controversial advice includes leaving a baby to cry for an extended period, so he doesn’t learn that crying results in being picked up. Gina’s devotees rave about the results – babies reportedly sleep through the night at just weeks old. In the same corner, you’ll find TV “supernanny” Jo Frost, advocating a fairly disciplinarian approach – including the famous naughty step.

But is a firmer hand what’s best for the child and the parents? Not according to paediatrician William Sears and the followers of the parenting philosophy known as attachment parenting, which focuses on the nurturing connection between parents and children.

Parents are encouraged to respond sensitively to their children’s needs, with lots of skin-to-skin contact, co-sleeping, and an almost-constant parental presence.

Sarah Ockwell-Smith, best-selling author of parenting books The Gentle Sleep Book and The Gentle Parenting Book is closer to the attachment camp, but advocates a balance.
In her new book The Gentle Discipline Book: How to Raise Co-operative, Polite and Helpful Children, she advises an authoritative, rather than authoritarian, approach based on respect and compassion. While she does not believe that parents should be pushovers, she says they should not be punitive, either.

What is discipline?

A gentle discipline approach means that discipline starts when a baby is born, not in the troublesome toddler years, which is when most parents start thinking about their parenting approach.

According to Sarah, “Discipline is simply teaching and learning. From the moment you hold your baby in your arms you are teaching him, just as he teaches you.” The key message is that discipline should not be a system of reward and punishment, but rather a supportive teaching process.

A basic understanding of the developmental stages of children, why they’re behaving the way they do, and what is likely to improve the situation, is something often left out of discussions around the various discipline techniques. Sarah, who has four children and a BSc in Psychology, and is trained as an antenatal teacher and doula, starts right there.

ALSO SEE: 4 discipline techniques that work

Instead of jumping in to fix the “problem”, she says parents need to understand why it happens in the first place. Firstly, there are the physiological and environmental triggers that parents know quite well – a tired, hungry, over-stimulated child is, inevitably, going to be hard to deal with. Then there’s the fact that a baby or small child can’t communicate their needs and feelings with words, so when babies cry or toddlers tantrum, they are communicating. There are psychological factors too – the book outlines a number of them, including children’s lack of control over their own lives, a lack of connection, and even stress.

The brain of a child

Often, what parents regard as troublesome behaviour is simply a child being a child. The behaviour might be annoying or embarrassing, but it’s entirely age-appropriate. It’s important to realise that a child is not a small adult – his brain is undeveloped in key areas.
The most immature part of the brain, the part that develops last, is the prefrontal cortex, which controls judgement, impulse control and emotion regulation. Even in their teens and early 20s, children simply can’t control their actions as well as adults can. So when your toddler reaches for that box of Smarties in the check-out queue, he really can’t help it!

What to avoid

Sarah is critical of some of the tools that are traditionally considered handy in the parental toolbox. Punishment, smacking and shouting teaches fear and damages the connection you have worked so hard to develop with your child. It might work, in so far as the child learns to stop the behaviour to avoid punishment, but he doesn’t learn how to handle the situation.

Rewards like star charts get quick results – your child does what’s required to get the reward. However, he will only learn that the particular behaviour he is exhibiting will result in a reward, and not the reasons why. The focus on external rewards may even damage the internal motivation of the child.

Distraction prevents children from feeling or expressing emotions, and doesn’t teach them any useful tools for managing themselves and their feelings.

ALSO SEE: 4 no’s for toddler discipline

What works?

Sarah adapts certain classic discipline techniques to fit her gentle approach.

  • Praise, for example, can be useful if it is specific. Instead of saying, “Well done!” say, “I love the unusual colours you’ve chosen to paint the trees.” Praise the effort and focus on what the child has learnt, rather than focusing on the result. When you praise, give useful feedback at the same time, and focus on things that your child has the power to change like perseverance, creative thinking and generosity.
  • Logical and natural consequences have a place, too. Discuss the consequences with your child as he gets older, and he can help to set consistent boundaries.
  • Gentle discipline offers a new and mindful way of thinking about discipline. The approach is gentle on parents too. Sarah recommends the 70/30 rule: “Trying to be the best parent you can be 70% of the time and not worrying too much about the other 30%.”

ALSO SEE: 10 steps to effective toddler discipline

5 steps to effective gentle discipline

  • Stay calm – don’t discipline in anger or when stressed.
  • Proper expectations – understand age-appropriate behaviour and brain development.
  • Affinity with your child – be clear that you love your child, even when you dislike his behaviour.
  • Connect and contain emotions – help your child manage his feelings.
  • Explain and set a good example – communicate in a way that shows your child how to handle difficult situations.