Discipline is not about control

How to discipline your child in more positive ways that celebrate who they are

Misbehaving in public

Recently I watched a mom struggling to control her children in a Chapters checkout line. The kids, a girl who looked about five and a boy who might have been three, were running around the way little kids often do in stores: nothing hugely obnoxious, but the sort of behaviour that makes parents feel the eyes of the world are on them. This mom responded by reprimanding her kids loudly and sharply, as if to show bystanders she was an in-charge parent. She was intermittently barking and hissing, “Stop that, right now!” and “Get over here this minute.” You know what I mean. We’ve all done it, and usually it doesn’t work very well. I didn’t think much of it except to sympathize with the mother’s plight.

As we left the store, my wife muttered under her breath, “Quit yelling at him. Hold his hand and help him wait!” That statement really caught my attention because, very simply, it expressed what might be the key idea about positive discipline and little children: Discipline isn’t just about making kids behave, it’s about helping them behave.

Helping that three-year-old boy wait in Chapters that night would have meant the mom taking his hand, drawing him to her side and saying things like “Look, there is just one more person ahead of us, then it’s our turn” or “Could you hold these books for me?” or “What would you like to do when we get home?”

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Positive discipline

It’s hard for three-year-olds to stand still. But sometimes they have to. And they need our help more than they need to be told over and over to do something that’s almost impossible for them. It’s not always easy to remember to help kids behave — especially when you’re frustrated, in a hurry or embarrassed because you’ve been conditioned to think discipline means controlling your children (likely the case with that mom in Chapters). Yet I do see parents helping kids behave all the time. They distract and amuse their little ones in a grocery line by making funny faces, playing I spy, or picking them up and singing a song.

I saw a textbook case out my front window one day: A mother came along the sidewalk with a toddler who kept trying to meander out into the street. Rather than scold or coerce her persistent little charge, this mom just kept putting her body between the girl and the street — over and over again. Eventually, she got her daughter interested in some dandelions. They picked a few and continued on their way, the quest to venture out into traffic forgotten. I wanted to run to the front door and yell, “Bravo!”

This mother kept her child safe and showed her — far better than words could — that you can’t run out into the street. And she accomplished this in a positive way that accepted the child for who she was — a normal toddler brimming with energy and curiosity, but lacking in self-control and judgment.

These mundane, labour-intensive interactions are a crucial part of how children develop self-regulation: the ability to control impulses, behaviour, feelings and attention. Experts are increasingly homing in on self-regulation as perhaps the key factor in child development, mental health and school success.

If you’re like me, you use all kinds of tricks to manage your kids, including some you may not be proud of. But much of the time, getting little kids to behave is more about helping them than showing them who’s boss. Remembering that will not only help your kids, it will help you accept and enjoy them for who they are.