Learning by Example

December 16th, 2010 by Dionna | 4 Comments
Posted in Carnival and Special Series, Gentle Discipline Ideas, Successes, and Suggestions, Gentle/Positive Discipline, Guest Posts, Just for Fun/Miscellaneous, natural parenting, Respond with Sensitivity

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When my son was four years old, he had a small snow globe with Pluto the dog in it. Every time he’d touch it, I would say, “Be careful, it is glass, so if it falls it will break.” One night, he played with it intensely, not heeding my warnings. It shattered. My initial response was one of exasperation, and I quickly removed him from the area to protect him from broken glass. I fought back the impulse to say, “I told you so; you didn’t listen!” but I am sure he still felt that negative energy as he broke down into inconsolable tears. My husband and I both hugged him, and I said “It is my fault. I should have helped you use more gentle touches with the snow globe.” I calmly suggested he go play with his miniature sandbox, and he agreed that would make him feel better.

I think many would be taken aback that I took responsibility in this situation (and I do this in most parenting situations). I frequently get comments such as, “But how will he learn responsibility?” “How will he learn if there are no consequences?” I was first exposed to this response in a parenting class. The presenter1 gave numerous examples of “taking responsibility” as a parent. For example, the presenter shared a story about how she had stood before a judge for a foster child and agreed to take responsibility for the child’s actions. Her stories surprised me because they were counterintuitive to what I was raised to think. But her reasoning and examples sold me.

So let’s apply the reasoning to the situation with my son. First off, let me stress that I did not take responsibility for him; I took responsibility for my behaviors. The parent is normally the one with more knowledge, more experience, more skills, more resources and is responsible for meeting (or helping to meet) a child’s needs. I once read that when a child is born, the parent is in debt to the child because he or she chose to bring them into the world. The child is a gift.

By taking responsibility for the snow globe, I decreased the negative energy (i.e. blame, disappointment, shame) being absorbed by my son. It also helped me calm down. All negative behavior comes from a state of stress. When we are stressed, we usually react negatively and inappropriately. Scolding, raising my voice, or punishing would only add more stress, which a child (and most humans) can’t handle as well as escalate the situation. It also causes the child to focus on and retain negative feelings about the parent, and it lessens the child’s ability to internalize the actual event and subsequent lesson.

When we are calm, we are able to respond gently by becoming aware of as many variable as possible and by problem solving effectively. I was also role-modeling for my son how to take responsibility. There are complaints that there is not enough discipline and kids have no respect anymore. I think we need more positive and respectful role models. I can’t tell you how many times I hear a parent or adult say “Don’t you raise your voice to me!” in an elevated and harsh tone, and the countless other times that same parent raises their voice to that same child or to a person driving by or to their partner.

Dr. Bruce Perry commented once that if you hear English, you learn English; if you hear rudeness, violence, anger, etc., then you learn rudeness, violence, anger, etc. How is one able to learn respect and empathy when they are rarely given any? Or only given respect and empathy when certain conditions are met depending on someone else’s mood? I really wish adults could notice all the things they complain about or demand of their children or partners, and then really think about how many times they have committed a similar offense. I continue to do this experiment and I have yet to find a time I have NOT behaved or reacted in a similar way at some point in time. I then choose to hold my complaint until I have successfully worked on changing my own behavior. By then, I have gained enough insight and empathy for the person that the original complaint seems a bit unreasonable and even petty.

Children will learn more positive skills and values from vulnerable and calm adults who change their behavior to reflect their requests, than defensive and angry adults who threaten consequences. I know threats and punishments seem to work, but they work for the wrong reasons and promote more destruction than you can imagine, at so many levels.

So back to my son and the broken snow globe . . . after about 15 minutes, my son called to me. He said he felt better now and asked if I would help put his sand box away to keep it safe. I did and we went to his room for story time. He immediately went to the spot where he broke the globe and calmly said, “I am sorry mommy for breaking it.” I accepted his sincere apology and we got back to our bed time ritual. Teaching responsibility = fostering the “ability to respond” appropriately.


I am pleased to host a guest post today from Debra Wallace, MS LMFT. Debra is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist from Colorado who is currently a stay at home mama in New Zealand, unschooling and nurturing her son Everett (age 6) and daughter Soren (23 months).

  1. Juli Alvarado of Coaching for Life.

4 Responses to:
"Learning by Example"

  1. Amanda   Half_past_crazy

    I agree with this SO much! I’ve been using this method for a long time with my children. It really does work better, and It helps the child develop better self confidence and coping skills, which will be necessary later in life. Excellent post!!

  2. Bryan Post   bryan_post

    You have shared an excellent example of love-based parenting in action. You are modeling love thereby teaching love, modeling responsibility thereby teaching responsibility. You are also inducing your own oxytocin response and initiating your son’s oxytocin response. Oxytocin is the anti-stress hormone and the hormone that makes love possible. Keep up the great work.


  3. I read this last night while I was trying to help my daughter fall asleep. I have always struggled with night time parenting, and your post helped me to think more clearly about what we are teaching her (That she doesn’t get to decide how to best settle herself down) and think about how we can help her learn this skill rather then enforce our will on her in this area, where we don’t in the rest of her life.

  4. Rachael   RachaelNevins

    “Vulnerable and calm adults” — I don’t think that I’ve ever heard these adjectives used together to describe parents as models, and I really really like it. Because though I aspire to be better than I am, I’m far from perfect. And so I think of myself as modeling how to be imperfect with grace, which requires a certain vulnerability.

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