How can discipline be “positive”? Isn’t the idea of discipline to make children feel bad so they won’t misbehave again? Although this belief was common in the past, many parents, teachers and psychologists now prefer a different approach.

The meaning behind the word “discipline” can offer some understanding to a new way of thinking. In the book, Positive Discipline (Ballentine Books, 2006), author Jane Nelsen explains that the word discipline comes from the Latin root disciplus, which means “to teach” or “to become a venerated leader.”

How is Positive Discipline Different from Traditional Discipline?

Instead of using punishment to stop negative behaviors, positive discipline takes the approach of teaching life skills and encouraging children to explore how capable they are. Positive discipline discourages the use of punishment (blame, shame and pain) and encourages the use of tools that help children mend their mistakes, make restitution and use age-appropriate problem solving.

Positive discipline philosophy also respects a child’s developmental stages and age-appropriate behaviors. For example, parents are urged to child proof a home instead of expecting that a toddler won’t touch breakable items on a coffee table.

Positive discipline strategies teach parents to be firm, yet respectful when setting limits  and exploring solutions with children. Jane Nelsen offers five criteria for Positive Discipline:

  1. Helps children feel a sense of connection
  2. Is mutually respectful and encouraging
  3. Is effective long-term
  4. Teaching important social and life skills
  5. Invites children to discover how capable they are

Positive discipline believes that a healthy parent-child relationship is the best environment for children to learn life skills and social-emotional skills. Examples of popular positive discipline parenting tools are

  • connection before correction
  • take time for training
  • deal with the belief behind the behavior
  • “3 R’s of Recovery”
  • routines and
  • family meetings

Positive Discipline – Similarities to Old Style Parenting

One aspect of positive discipline seems more old school than new. Positive discipline philosophy expects children to do chores and help out around the house from an early age. Positive discipline does not encourage pampering of children and aims to help children develop a sense that they are capable.

The positive discipline view insists that helicopter parenting (rescuing kids from experiencing the consequences of their actions) is harmful to children in the long run. If a child arrived at school and discovered he left his homework at home, he might call a parent to ask the parent to bring it to school. The positive discipline parent would respectfully explain to the child that he or she isn’t willing to drive the homework to the school.

Why Rewards are Not Part of Positive Discipline

Rewards seem positive, right? Not so, says a bundle of research and the positive discipline philosophy. Both punishments and rewards teach children to look for an outside source for motivation. Positive discipline wants to promote an inner motivation for children – qualities liken to a work ethic, responsibility to others and a sense of teamwork. According to those who support positive discipline, the motivation behind completing a task is just as important as doing the task.

In the book Positive Discipline, Jane Nelsen warns that luring kids with rewards creates children who become approval junkies and adopt a “what’s in it for me?” attitude. Instead, she suggests parents model and provide opportunities for children to learn the skills of cooperation, contribution, daily routines, problem solving, and so on.

Psychological Basis for Positive Discipline

The positive discipline philosophy is based on the work of Alfred Adler, who is credited as the founder of individual psychology. Instead of using a system of punishments and rewards, Adler believed that the primary goal of all people, including children, is to seek a feeling of belonging and significance to a group. Adler believed in equality for all, as well as the notion that pampering children is extremely damaging to one’s sense of self and one’s perceptions about belonging in a group setting.

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