How to Put the Positive in Discipline

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An interview with Jane Nelsen

I thought getting fierce push-back from my son was supposed to be over after 3. I have since learned how misguided that line of thinking was. He’s a master negotiator and beggar. When my nerves are fried, my fortitude in the face of defiance or melt-down is fractured. I spoke with Dr. Jane Nelsen on her theory of positive discipline. Her straight-up advice and insight are quite the panacea for the parent on the brink. — Laurel Moglen, Web Content Producer

You site five criteria for “Positive Discipline” as: be kind and firm, help child develop a sense of belonging and significance, use tools that are effective long-term, teach valuable social and life skills, and help children believe they are capable. Can you walk us through an example of using the criteria in a real-life situation?

There are hundreds of “Positive Discipline Tools.” Every one of them meets all five of the criteria. The idea is for the parents to apply their choice of “Positive Discipline Tools” that are appropriate for the situation in question.

Let’s take the example of a temper tantrum. What most parents don’t understand is how important it is for a child to have his feelings. We usually want to take them away or talk them out of it, or tell them, “You’re okay.” But, one of the tools that would meet the five criteria of Positive Discipline is to be empathic, because this approach is both kind and firm. Such an attitude also establishes a connection with the child, which makes him feel as if he belongs and is significant.

Another way to establish that connection is to validate feelings: “Oh you’re feeling really upset. I can see you’re really mad.” Then, you just shut up. This is what parents don’t understand. They just need to shut up and allow the child to work through it. Staying quiet while the child moves through his feelings is an effective long-term tool, which also teaches valuable social and life skills.  In the name of love, parents want to fix their child’s suffering, but by intervening during the tantrum, they’re robbing their child of developing the belief that they’re capable of dealing with the ups and downs of life. Parents need to trust that their child can feel their feelings, and work through them.

By utilizing “Positive Discipline Tools,” parents set-up a foundation of communication. I refer to it as “Connection before Correction.” Once the child feels connected to you, you can use behavior challenges to help him or her learn life skills.

What if their temper tantrum is specifically about something the parent has said the child cannot do or have? Do you say something like, “you can’t do that. But you can be upset about it?”

To me, parents talk too much, and they do too much. The child already knows she can’t have it. You know, to me, telling them all this stuff  just sounds like lectures and sounds patronizing, and that’s what we have to be very careful of. So again, I say you validate their feelings. “Gee I can see you’re really upset. You really want that.”

And that’s it?

And then, don’t expect you saying that to fix or stop their crying. They might continue to cry.

And you just let them cry until they’re done?



See, that’s what’s so hard for parents to understand. One of the examples I give of this is of a little boy who was watching the butterfly try to break out of the chrysalis. As he watched the butterfly struggle, he felt sorry for it. So he decided to help. He broke open the chrysalis and was so delighted to see the butterfly soar into the sky. But then he watched in horror as it fell to the ground, because the butterfly had not developed it’s muscles. Parents do not let their children develop their disappointment muscles — their resiliency muscles, because we always want to fix and help and soothe. Children need to learn self-soothing. We need to let them learn in an atmosphere that is both kind and firm, that is encouraging and empowering. They must be allowed to learn from their own experience that they can survive their disappointment.

How do we set-up a supportive atmosphere in the midst of a meltdown?

After you say, “I can see you’re very upset right now,” you just sit there and send out empathetic energy towards the child.

What about logical consequences?

No more logical consequences — at least hardly ever. I used to teach logical consequences, but then I just got so frustrated because parents would disguise punishment as consequences. So, I came up with the three “Rs” of logical consequences: if they’re related, respectful, and reasonable. But still parents kept disguising punishment as the three Rs, or they would apply this type of discipline tool for every problem. So, I finally just said, “Let’s just forget about consequences and focus on solutions.”

Okay, so for example, my child leaves a toy at the park. I don’t want to go back and get it. My child throws a fit. What’s the solution?

Let her have her fit, and you say, “I’m so sorry you’re so upset. When you’re ready to talk about this, let me know.” It’s critical to wait until your child has calmed down. When that’s happened, then you might say something like, “What would help you next time to remember? Should we have a timer keeping track of how long you play with your toy until you return it to me? Or, would you like me to give you some words?” Or, you could suggest ways she can save up money to buy another. You might want to give her an extra chore, (not what she does regularly) to help earn. Right away, she is involved in the problem-solving. As she thinks of solutions, it helps her feel more capable.

Could you expand on your opinion about how over-involved parents lead to demanding and entitled children?

You’d be amazed at how many parents will go back to the park to get the toy, time and time again, bitching and complaining the whole way. That’s what’s so sad. While they’re busy rescuing, they’re also lecturing: “Well, maybe next time you’ll learn to be more responsible.” So, they’re putting the child down, while simultaneously rescuing the child. So, it’s a double-whammy and it’s mixed messages. You know, children are learning to be such good negotiators. If the rule is you get one story, they always want 2 or 3. Parents give-in. But, parents should say, “I know you’re upset, but the answer is no.” Parents don’t know how to say no, and if they say it, mean it, and if they mean it, follow-through. The other thing is at that age, it’s so common for them not to know how to go to sleep by themselves. Some kids are demanding they get their backs rubbed in order to go to sleep. Where did they get that idea? Parents started it! I have one friend who has a teenager that still demands his back be scratched to get to sleep. Children are demanding undue service: Love means getting other people to meet my demands, to take care of me; the world revolves around me. The pendulum keeps swinging. We’ve gone from “children are meant to be seen and not heard, to children are always to be heard, and all their needs must be met.” Now, I never think we should inflict suffering on our children. But, I do think we should allow them to suffer. There’s a huge difference. If they‘re suffering due to a choice they’ve made, parents don’t need to lecture them.

We should help children explore the consequences of their choices, instead of imposing the consequences on them. For example, instead of saying, “You left your bike out, and it rained, and now it’s rusted. How many times have I told you? (etc).” Instead you might say, “Oh, how disappointing. What do you think caused that to happen? What do you need to do to solve that problem and prevent it from happening again?” Now the child is understanding the consequences of why his behavior caused the problem, and not feeling shame and blame about it. The child also has the opportunity to start thinking about solutions to the problem.

Jane Nelsen received her Ed.D in Educational Psychology from the University of San Francisco and is a licensed Marriage, Family, and Child Counselor with 40 years of experience. Jane is the mother of seven children and has 20 grandchildren. She is the author and/or co-author of the Positive Discipline series.

The Mother Company aims to support parents and their children, providing thought-provoking web content and products based in social and emotional learning for children ages 3-6. Check out the first episode of our DVD series, “Ruby’s Studio: The Feelings Show,” which teaches children how to express their feelings. We want to be a parenting tool for you!

Posted in: Discipline, Expert Advice, Learn

Comments (18)

  1. Matayo

    Articles like these put the consumer in the driver seat-very imnptraot.

  2. Sylvia Rath

    Redirecting is fine but when that does not work– sometimes kids just need to cry. Sometimes kids cry and have tantrums to get what I find that with adults too. Why are parents so afraid to let their children cry?

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  7. Amanda

    “While they’re busy rescuing, they’re also lecturing: “Well, maybe next time you’ll learn to be more responsible.” So, they’re putting the child down, while simultaneously rescuing the child. So, it’s a double-whammy and it’s mixed messages.”

    This really hit home for me. I’ve fallen prey to this too many times. I don’t want to see them suffer, but I’m pissed at having to choose between their unhappiness and whatever other inconvenience the situation has caused. My mother was a rescuer, and I can see Jane Nelson’s point about it leading to narcissism and emotional dependence. The need to rescue and the urge to shame stems from the same, so it’s a vicious cycle.

    Thanks for the post and your awesome blog!! 🙂

  8. kim

    Granted, this stuff makes good sense for sure, like alot of other advice that’s out there right now. But let’s not get too caught up in what we’re all doing wrong, ok? I sometimes get weary of all the parenting advice that’s coming at us all the time….. Do we ever just get the message we’re good enough, and trying hard enough?
    nobody, at any time, or in any generation has ever been able to be the perfect, never-screws-up type of parent. So let’s stop trying to get it so ‘perfect’ please!

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  10. Renata

    Mostly, I agree with both Heather and Jacquelin; however I agree that caving after having said “no” is a bad idea. If the parent is consistent, the child will come to understand the concept. As for the bike incident, if the child is under six, asking “what can WE do to fix the problem ? and “what do you think YOU can do so it will not happen again” sends the same message but is more supportive and less punitive.

  11. Dawn

    When my kids take toys to the park, I make it clear that those beloved objects are their responsibility. If they forget them at the park, I do not go back to retrieve them. They have to learn to protect their stuff. Now, I might remind them before we go to pick-up their belongings, of course. But here’s the thing, sometimes I don’t remember to remind them because I’ve got too much on mind looking after my two children under 5. If I’ve got to get the littler one home to bed, I’m not turning around to get the matchbox car, of which my son has far too many. Okay, but if it was a super special toy? I might go back. But, before I went to the park, I would warn my child that by taking his highly prized toy that it’s in jeopardy of being left there if we aren’t careful.

  12. Jacqueline

    I have to agree with Heather. I feel a real lack of empathy in these parenting techniques. It don’t feel it’s appropriate to expect a child of such a young age to “remember” all his belongings everywhere he or she goes. And just one of the many reasons children have parents, and aren’t kick out of the next until they are adults. Fro heaven’s sakes, I forget things ALL the time as a grown up! We make mistakes and I think the lesson is to not feel so awful for making them, as well as learning how to solve and even prevent them.

    And hey honestly, If my teenager still wants me in bed next to her/him tickling their back – I’ll welcome it! That is time well spent that we can make positive by talking and connecting – ESPECIALLY during the teenage years!

    • Jacqueline

      And look at all my spelling errors! More mistakes….

  13. Christina Simon

    The photo says it all! Great piece, very helpful.

  14. Heather

    I don’t agree with the bit about just letting them cry. Especially associating “Self-soothing” with it. That’s CIO propaganda. The fact is, if you were sitting next to your best friend and they were crying in disappointment, you wouldn’t sit there and ‘send empathetic vibes’ to them (if you do, you’re not being a very good friend). You’d try to find out if there was anything you could do to comfort them. You’d hug them if they are a hugger. You don’t abandon them to their feelings. The same should be true of your child. ESPECIALLY your child.

    There’s no such thing as a ‘disappointment muscle.’ You don’t get over disappointment by crying. You get over it by finding something else to focus on (distraction) or finding a positive in the situation or simply figuring out what you can do to help get through the situation.

    And the park? I’m sorry, but if I left my camera or purse or even a favorite water bottle at the park, I’d go back, even though it wasn’t convenient to anyone else in the car. A child doesn’t have the CHOICE to go back. That’s insensitive and again, you’re not treating them like an equal person. That’s just plain punitive, in fact, regardless of what you’re saying. Sure, it’s a natural consequence (oh, yes it is!), but the fact is that with an adult, we’d have the respect to go back to the damn park.

    A more reasonable response would be to ask the child, “Is the toy important enough to go back for?” If necessary, explain why you don’t want to go back. Don’t just freaking say “No. Sucks to be you.” (no matter how empathetic your language sounds, that’s EXACTLY what you’re saying).

    The bike thing, that’s reasonable. But the other situations, no. Those are abandoning the child to adult expectations (especially when we’re talking about a child the age in the picture at the top) and disrespecting them as a human being.

    I see this as very negative–no place in honest, empathetic positive parenting or consensual living. It’s like you took the concepts of unconditional parenting and took the real empathy out of it.

    • Somyot

      Entiehlgning the world, one helpful article at a time.

  15. Diane

    I love PD and Jane Nelsen. I love how, unlike some of the parenting experts out there, she has continued to make changes in what constitutes PD. She’s the leading edge of positive parenting of all description. Has been for many years, and will probably continue to enhance PD “forever”.

  16. lindsey

    I have almost finished Positive Discipline and love it!! Thanks for the nice article and for spreading the word about this “alternative” way to raise children.