What’s the Point of Discipline? Three Questions to Ask Before Reacting to Misbehavior

February 12th, 2015 by Dionna | 2 Comments
Posted in Consensual Living, Gentle/Positive Discipline, natural parenting

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three questions

Why Parents Discipline

Parents seldom have time to themselves, much less time to thoughtfully study how to discipline. Consequently, we often end up doing what our own parents did, not by choice but by default. And because our bodies can be on autopilot, dishing out discipline in the heat of the moment (as remembered from childhood), we may not stop to think about what we’re really doing.

What do parents really want to accomplish with discipline?

Usually, we discipline to stop some behavior that we deem undesirable. That’s the short-term goal.

But for discipline to be really effective, we need to consider our long-term goals as well. What are the qualities we hope our children will have when they are adults? Every time we discipline our children, we are shaping our children’s values, their attitudes, their future relationships, and their morals. That’s a little overwhelming, isn’t it?

It helps to keep in mind that discipline ultimately means “to teach.” It’s not simply “to correct” or “to stop behavior” or “to punish.” With discipline, we want to encourage healthy and age-appropriate behavior right now, and to develop positive skills (interpersonal, anger management, etc.) for the future.

Why Fear and Punishment Don’t Work in the Long Run

One of the primary reasons child psychologists and other experts warn against using fear and punishment as discipline tools is that they contribute very little to the long-term goals of raising healthy kids. Fear and punishment teach children that power, control, and size win.1

When parents use fear and punishment as discipline tactics, it’s not usually planned or purposeful, but a reaction to “misbehavior.” I’ve been there – when the big kid hits the little kid and that internal mama bear rears up, those fight or flight hormones can make fear and punishment seem awfully attractive. But I do not want to teach my children that power, control, and size win. I want the big kid to learn more appropriate ways to interact with the little kid and to manage his own anger. And to do that, I need to control my own.

How Parents Can Make Discipline Less of a Fear-Creating Reaction and More of a Skill-Building Response

So how do you move into a conscious discipline routine, one that is based on both short- and long-term goals and not only on reactions to misbehavior? The authors of No Drama Discipline challenge parents to ask themselves three questions before responding to any misbehavior:

  1. “Why did my child act this way?” When a child misbehaves, the anger or fear inside of us might answer this question with “because my child is selfish!” or “because he is thoughtless!” But if you take a moment to breathe and focus on the child’s needs behind the behavior, you can often “respond more effectively — and compassionately.”2 Taking care of the needs behind the behavior – the tiredness, hunger, frustration, or anger – will do more than addressing the behavior itself. When you solve the root of the problem, you’re not only extinguishing the negative behavior, you’re also teaching the child how to solve problems and how to care for herself.
  2. “What lesson do I want to teach in this moment?” Do you want to teach your child how to interact peacefully? How to manage anger? Where the appropriate spots are for coloring? Remember that those lessons cannot be learned by a child who is in fight or flight mode due to their fear of your anger. Breathe before you blow up. (Need some help staying calm? Read 101 Things to Do Instead of Yelling or Spanking.)
  3. “How can I best teach this lesson?” “Too often, we respond to misbehavior as if consequences were the goal of discipline.”3 We can be so quick with the “go to your room!” or “that’s it, no TV!” when really, consequences aren’t teaching much beyond “my parents are mean!” or “life is so unfair!,” which is what our kids are more likely to be thinking after we impose consequences. I always feel so much better when, after I’ve taken some time to calm down, I have a calm talk with my children about what happened. When they are in a place to listen, and I am in a mood to teach, that’s when we have the best results.

A final reminder from the authors of No Drama Discipline: don’t take your child’s actions personally. Your four year old isn’t hitting you because she is trying to get a rise out of you, she’s managing her anger in an age-appropriate way. Our job is to teach her healthier ways to express frustration. Your seven year old isn’t whining about homework to get under your skin, he’s expressing his frustration at feeling helpless. Our job is to teach him time management skills and to make sure he has the strategies to succeed.

“Our kids don’t usually lash out at us because they’re simply rude, or because we’re failures as parents. They usually lash out because they don’t yet have the capacity to regulate their emotional states and control their impulses.”4

But we as parents DO have the capacity to regulate our anger. It’s just not something that we’ve all had a lot of practice with.

This week I challenge you: before you react, take 90 seconds to breathe and ask yourself the three questions above. Then come back here (or to Code Name: Mama’s Facebook page or to Natural Parents Network’s Facebook Page) and share – did you have more positive interactions with your children? Did you learn more about discipline?

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I’m reading through No Drama Discipline right now with the volunteers at Natural Parents Network, and I’m writing about it at my personal blog, Code Name: Mama. Check back on both sites over the coming weeks for articles sharing thoughts and tips that we’ve picked up from the book and from our discussion. Grab a copy of the book yourself (Amazon links are affiliate links). It is one of the most down to earth and helpful books I’ve read on discipline in a long time.

  1. For more study-based evidence on the negative effects of fear-based discipline, try Spanking and Child Development, Spanking and Child Development Across the First Decade of Life, and StopSpanking.org. And check out this article from the authors of No Drama Discipline on Time-Outs. There are several other books I’ve learned from on positive discipline that also shed light on why we should move away from fear-based discipline, including Peaceful Parents, Happy Kids, Respectful Parents, Respectful Kids, and Playful Parenting.
  2. No Drama Discipline at 7.
  3. No Drama Discipline at 7.
  4. No Drama Discipline at 9.

2 Responses to:
"What’s the Point of Discipline? Three Questions to Ask Before Reacting to Misbehavior"

  1. Life Breath Present   LB_Present

    The yelling is the most difficult part for me. get upset and tired of repeating myself, frustrated and start yelling. Usually it’s basically just to pick up toys or stop touching something despite already having talked about it, shown how it works, or whatever.

    It feels good when I stop myself, but it’s definitely my biggest struggle. I’m very glad we don’t spank or otherwise discipline harshly. :)

  2. Ashley Trexler   LiesAboutParent

    “Taking care of the needs behind the behavior – the tiredness, hunger, frustration, or anger – will do more than addressing the behavior itself. When you solve the root of the problem…” Well said! Too often I find myself getting frustrated, but remembering to ask “why?” makes all the difference in the world! There’s always something else going on. Thanks for the reminder!

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