Today, I wanted to look more closely into the concept of “Gentle Disciple“, “Simple Discipline“, “Loving Authority” or “Respectful Discipline“. I think this subject is often a sticky web of mixed concepts and expectations, including strands from our own childhood, inconsistent societal expectations, cultural overlays and personal expectations. Through this three-part series I will attempt to piece together what Gentle Discipline is, how it’s different from traditional punitive models of discipline, and most importantly how we can strive to consistently use it in our homes. A lot of my research on this subject is inspired by the work of Rudolf Steiner, Kim John Payne, Magda Gerber, Janet Lansbury, Joseph Chilton Pearce, John Holt, Jon Kabat-Zinn and Alfie Kohn, to name a few.
How is Gentle Discipline different than the traditional Punitive Models of Discipline?
Alfie Kohn lists the way punishment fails in his article Punitive Damages:
- It makes people mad. As a form of control punishment enrages and disempowers the receiver and even worse, the victims may eventually become victimizers.
- It teaches power. Punishment provides the child with a model for expressing power over another.
- It eventually loses its effectiveness. As children become more and more desensitized to punishments they become less and less effective.
- It erodes our relationships with our kids. When we punish we become power enforcers instead of carers who lovingly connect and guide our children.
- It distracts kids from the important issues. Punishment doesn’t lead to children reflecting on their wrongs- instead it turns their anger (and distracts from the original issue) towards the punisher.
- It makes kids more self-centered. A child’s focuses on how h/’she is personally affected by the punishment (or potential punishment) instead of exploring why there is a boundary that needs to be met in the first place.
So now that we know that punishments and rewards are not helpful, what is the difference between a punishment and a boundary?
For me, Gentle Discipline infers remaining connected to your child while simultaneously setting and holding boundaries. As an ever-evolving parent with ever-evolving children the boundaries I set are also constantly evolving. But I am getting more and more clear about how to set them and how to hold them.
In Beyond the Rainbow Bridge, Barbara J Patterson writes about “being a calming force in the midst of chaos”. Meghan Leahy describes boundary setting as the parent being the beautiful garden wall (boundary) that is neither punitive nor judgemental- just loving, firm and unwavering. Carrie Dendtler describes holding boundaries as remaining “Ho Hum“. When we reflect on our own children it quickly becomes clear that they are more responsive to loving guidance when we empathize with them and resist the temptation to be punitive.
As a parent it’s important to remember that you can move and shift boundaries if you feel the need. They are not set in stone. Of course consistency is important, but often when we’re not holding a boundary it’s because we as the parent do not have clarity about why we are holding it in the first place. When you feel that there is a specific boundary that your child is constantly pushing and which you are not holding well, re-connect with your WHY. Ask yourself, Why am I holding this boundary in the first place? Why is it important? Simply answering this question clearly is enough to resolve the issue one way or the other.
Boundaries have a myriad of purposes- boundaries keep children physically and emotionally safe, healthy and happy. Boundaries inform older children about group dynamics and foster empathy for others.
The final part of this Gentle Discipline series will delve into how we can create and hold boundaries in our home depending on our children’s ages and developmental stages.
For me personally, not allowing anyone to snack before dinner is a very easy boundary to set and hold (even if it means a lot of emotional upset from hungry children), limiting screen use is another very easy boundary for me to set because I feel it is a strong family value for us. Boundaries I have trouble with are things like limiting my eldest’s bedtime (he just loves reading- “one more page”, he begs! “And reading is so good for him”, I think…). I also have trouble preventing little ones from toddling into our bed in the middle of the night (my need for a proper night’s sleep clashes with the empathy and attachment I feel my three-year-old needs at night sometimes, plus I know she will eventually grow out of it). For me, the boundaries I struggle to hold are clearly the boundaries I feel wishy-washy about myself. When the conviction is there, I hold them. When I do not feel clarity about why I am holding a boundary, I simply don’t hold it. And in these cases I need to re-assess why and if I want the boundary to be continued to be held.
Do you struggle with setting and holding some boundaries in your home? Which are easy for you to hold and which are more difficult?