Teach, Don’t Punish – The Lessons of Positive Discipline

Teaching children about acceptable behavior is one of the most difficult challenges for parents and teachers.  Children can learn that for every action, there is a reaction.  For every mistake, there is a consequence.  After every consequence, there is a chance to do better.  Discipline is an opportunity.  Given the opportunity, will you be instructive or punitive?

In his book Lost in School, Dr. Ross Greene asks the question, “Why is it that when a student that struggles with reading or math… we support… yet when a student struggles with behaviour… we punish?”  The greatest lesson that a child learns from being punished is how to avoid punishment in the future.  They do not learn why their action was inappropriate.  They do not learn the life lesson that will forestall similar behavior in the future.  They learn that they need to be more careful so they don’t get caught next time.  When we yell, children learn that to solve a problem, you must become emotional and angry.  They learn that it is acceptable to yell at people smaller than them.   When you send children to time out, they learn that their feelings are going to be ignored and that you have the power to make them feel isolated.  Hitting children teaches them that it is acceptable to hit people.  Extensive research shows that there is a correlation between children who were recipients of corporal punishment and those who are more apt to exhibit violent behavior as teens and adults.  You can correct behavior in a way that is instructive and sets a positive example rather than in a way that is punitive and teaches only about punishment.

For every action – good or bad – there is a natural consequence.  It is an important lesson for children to learn.  Do something good and good things happen.   Do something inappropriate and something unwanted will happen.  When your child does something inappropriate, think about the natural consequence of that action.  If your young child throws a toy, he cannot play with that toy now.  If your young child isn’t nice to a friend, she cannot play with that friend today.  The same is true for the teen years.  If your child is out too late, he/she cannot go out next time.  It is important to calmly explain the situation to your child.  Rather than yell and grab a toy from a child that has misused it, say, “Throwing toys can hurt someone so you may not play with this toy now.”  Repeat that sentence when the child protests.  After your child calms down, give other activity choices.  “You may not play with that now.  You can come to the kitchen with me or do a puzzle.”  Limit to choosing between two specific alternatives that meet your approval.   Your child may protest.  If so, it is time to repeat the choices calmly.  Repeating an instruction in the same calm intonation over and over is called The Broken Record Method.  Sound like a broken record long enough and your child will choose one of the activities you approve.  When you finally give the offending toy back, be sure to repeat the lesson they should have learned – “Remember we don’t throw toys because we don’t want to hurt anyone.”  It is essential that the same consequence be used if the incident happens again.  It may take more than once for a child to realize that every time they act a certain way, the same unwanted reaction will occur.  Having patience and being consistent will pay off. 

Try “time in” instead of “time out.”  When you send children to time out, you send them somewhere to be alone – still angry and upset but alone.  There is nothing more irksome than the plethora of television shows that demonstrate the wonders of time out.  Episodes on television show children whose behavior is miraculously improved.  Producers don’t show you the unedited film of the families for which it didn’t work.  I would like to see what happens when the cameras leave.  Contrary to the entertainment industry’s opinion, you cannot reason with a child who is hysterical from being isolated.  Isolating them until they say “I’m sorry” is meaningless.  Children need to know why they are sorry and not use the word as the key to opening the door to freedom.  Sometimes children do need time to sit and compose themselves.   “Time in” is an opportunity for you to remove your child from an activity, help him/her to regain control and teach a lesson.  During time in, children are not isolated.  They are asked to sit in a chair near you.  The child will still feel connected to you which provides a sense of security even when he/she is upset.  Children who feel secure will calm down sooner.  Stay nearby so that when your child is composed, you can start a discussion about the inappropriate behavior.   Being in time in facilitates a quicker calming period and the discussion can take place much sooner than if the child were banished from the room.

Above all else, it is essential that adults remain calm and in control.  We are our children’s role model for self-control, coping, composure and appropriate behavior.  We, as parents and educators, are in the position of modeling all behavior.  Children learn good from us and, unfortunately, bad from us too.  Take a deep breath, stay calm and instill life lessons.

Copyright 2012 © Cindy Terebush
All Rights Reserved
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  1. While I agree with some of what you say, the consequences you talk of imposing for inappropriate behaviours are not natural consequences, they are still parent-imposed punitive consequences. Natural consequences for throwing a toy may be that it breaks when thrown, and you can't afford to replace it. Natural consequences for not being nice to a friend may be that the friend is upset with you, and may not want to play for a few minutes.
    While the parent-imposed consequences you advise may surely be a positive step away from corporal punishment, what they have in common with it is that they don't teach what the parent thinks they're teaching. Not letting a child play for that day with someone they weren't nice to just teaches the child that if they're struggling in a social situation that you're not going to support them, you're going to punish them. The answer is to be more present. Kids don't just throw toys spontaneously in anger. Something happens before that. Be there to partner them and help diffuse or redirect a situation before it gets to that stage. Be there when they're playing with their friends, and help them negotiate the situation; they haven't got the experience we have, and can do with guidance sometimes!
    I'm a big fan of time-ins, too, but not as you portray them. They're not for teaching lessons, they're for changing the course of a day. If a situation has spiralled, take *both* of you out of it, and go and do something fun. Make the day better for you and your child. Go and dance, go and dress up, go and watch a film/movie. When the bad feeling and stress has blown away, later on, if it's appropriate, have a cuddle and a chat about what happened and what you could both do to help next time.
    Children don't need teaching lessons, they need parents who will partner them to navigate situations that they're not developed enough to navigate alone.

    1. It is true that the most natural consequences would be the toy breaking or the children not wanting to play. If those things happen, they are the best learning opportunities...but they don't always happen. I direct a school and am in a setting in which I also have the obligation to ensure that other children don't get injured. I am an educator and it is in fact my job to teach social skills as well as more academic skills. As a parent, I also want to be instructive and not punitive. Children will throw toys or exhibit behaviors for a variety of reasons. In my experience, behavior is less often a reaction to anger and frustration than a product of their age appropriate egocentric viewpoint of the world. We need to be guides because they cannot see the other point of view. They cannot understand the reactions of others. We need to help them see how their actions effect others. We need to be kind, gentle and instructive.

  2. I do agreed with that children learns through daily life experiences, the importance of be instructive rather than punitive for positive learning . I also think that age appropriate behaviour guidance should be taken into consideration when guiding children's behaviours. For younger children, it works more effectively by redirecting their attentions towards positive acts rather than paying attention towards his/her misbehaviours!

    1. I agree - that's when giving choices works well.

  3. The Broken Record Method will teach children that they will have infinite chances to complain. It's not going to prepare them for a work setting with a boss, and eventually they will learn to tune their parents out (as they are being tuned out).

    1. As an early childhood educator, we want to redirect young children and help them to gain coping mechanisms, become decision makers and build self-esteem. This method helps them to feel less powerless and calmly redirects them. It does not tune them out - it gives them choices that help them to redirect and feel empowered. They tune you out when you yell, show a lack of regard for their emotions and make them feel powerless. As they continue through their lives into elementary, middle and high school, they will learn the lessons needed to cope with future employment. A foundation of guidance, decision making and redirecting may even lead to them being the boss.


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