Yep, you read that right. I’m the mom of two boys, ages 4 and 7, and my husband and I will both tell you that we don’t punish our kids. Don’t get the wrong idea — our kids are not “practically perfect in every way,” and they’re also not running around the house, screaming like wild banshees (I mean, sometimes they are — but isn’t that every house with kids?). So, how is it that we’ve survived these years of parenting without punishment? I’m so glad you asked.
Like most new parents, we spent the baby phase in survival mode — just making sure our child was fed, clean, and moderately clothed while trying to get on some semblance of a sleep schedule was enough to make our heads spin. We talked generally about what our approach to discipline would look like when our kids got older. I was against spanking, my husband thought it was sometimes necessary; I thought I’d be the rule-enforcer, and my husband would be the softy. We both said all of the “our kids will never”s and agreed to get that whole discipline thing figured out, but the conversation was typically tabled until another day, for when we “needed it.”
Unsurprisingly, we were wholly unprepared when toddlerhood crept up, and suddenly, we needed it. Not to say that either of our kids were “bad” as toddlers. They had the same challenges that every small child has: not liking being told “no,” having trouble managing their emotions, not listening and following directions, and so on. If you’ve been (or are) a mama to a toddler, you feel me.
Our saving grace was that the school the boys attended utilized “Conscious Discipline,” which focuses on discipline as something you cultivate within a child, not something you do to them. CD uses positive choices to help direct kids and teaches consequences to those choices, rather than punishment. It’s been a game-changer for our household, especially recently with a spirited 4-year-old who appears to take after his mama in the emotions department. I don’t pretend to live and die by Conscious Discipline, but I can tell you that my success rate of resolving conflict is typically much higher when I use it.
Here are the parental skills of Conscious Discipline, as explained by a non-expert (me):
Okay, I’ll be honest — when my child is having an epic meltdown because his shorts are “too wiggly,” maintaining composure is a bit of a challenge. CD recommends using the “STAR” method, which stands for “Smile, Take a Breath, And Relax.” It sounds too simple to be helpful but is designed to illustrate that no one can make me angry without my permission. And by being in control and staying composed, I’m showing my child that he can also be in charge of his emotions.
If your child hasn’t reached the full meltdown phase, you might ask if he/she wants to breathe with you. If your child is like mine, asking him to breathe with you may result in a more melting down.
No one loves words of affirmation more than this girl, and kids are no different! They thrive on encouragement because it makes them feel safe and supported (and who doesn’t love that?). Conscious Discipline suggests that instead of using phrases like “Good job,” we reinforce to our kids that they are the ones who accomplished something. We try to use encouragement that’s specific to what our kids are doing right like, “You’re doing a great job putting those toys away,” or for my oldest who is too cool for school these days, “You’re rocking that homework, dude.” (Because I’m not a regular mom, I’m a cool mom.)
It should go without saying that we, as parents, should enter into conflicts with positive intent. I mean, we love our kids and the goal is to resolve the situation, right? Of course we do, and of course it is — but “wishing your child well,” as CD suggests, when he is screaming about the food you just cooked is a liiiiittle hard. Been there, done that, Mama! If you need to take a minute to look at baby pictures of said child when they were just a bitty squish to get you in the right headspace, do that.
Voice of Assertiveness
We all know that telling anyone, especially children, what you DON’T want them to do immediately results in them doing that exact thing. And, it’s not that kids are intentionally doing the opposite — their brains are actually wired that way. So, we try to remember to say/yell, “Walk!!” when children are running through the house instead of, “Stop running!!”
Conscious Discipline also recommends that we use the “Voice of Assertiveness” regarding when it’s time to do things. Asking “Can you please get ready for bed?” is lovely, but you’re giving your child the ability to answer your question with, “No.” “It’s time for bed” leaves no room for interpretation.
This skill is probably the one that I’ve used the most consistently in daily life, and not just with my kids! Everyone wants to feel like they have options, and children are no exception. The keys to this one are to avoid using the choices as a threat (aka “You can choose to listen or you can choose to go to time out”), and to make sure both options are positive and possible. For example, when one of our kiddos had a hard time getting dressed in the morning, his options were, “You can choose to pick out your own clothes, or you can choose for me to pick them out for you. Which do you prefer?” Even though he ended up in a shark shirt of his selection after choosing me to pick out his clothes, we accomplished the goal — a clothed child!
As an emotional being myself, I can empathize when my kids struggle with expressing their emotions. I mean, sometimes adults don’t handle things well — why should we be surprised when kids don’t? Conscious Discipline takes it a step further and helps kids identify and express their emotions, rather than making them go away.
For us, many times this means intervening when our boys are getting upset with each other, but lack the skills to figure out why. Instead of “stop” or “calm down,” we try to approach it as, “You seem frustrated. Can you tell me what happened that made you feel that way?” Having each child be able to explain what made them upset validates their feelings and allows us to find resolution and compromise much quicker.
And finally, the piece de resistance — consequences. Positioning the outcomes of choices as consequences is what allows me to make as bold a claim as, “We don’t punish our kids.” Whether it’s a natural consequence of an action, like falling if you’re not sitting safely, or what CD calls a logical consequence, which is one set by mom and dad — we’re trying to teach our kids that they’re in control of the outcome through their choices.
The most important piece of consequences, in my opinion, is also the hardest. It’s communicating what the consequences will be in advance of my child making a decision. Here’s a scenario of how it works in our house (when I’m on my A-game):
Me: “Okay guys, please turn the TV off!”
Me: “It’s time to turn off the TV.”
Kids: *combination of groans and more ignoring*
Me: “It’s important to turn the TV off so we’ll have time to read books. If you choose not to turn it off and I have to, the consequence is that we won’t be able to watch tomorrow.”
Just remember that whatever consequence you state, you will also have to follow through with it, or they just become empty threats.
There’s obviously no “one size fits all” solution to disciplining your children. I still totally, 100% lose my sh*t from time to time. So, if you do run into me in Target with a child who is clearly not getting his way, please just remind me to Smile, Take a Breath, And Relax. And maybe throw some words of encouragement my way while you’re at it.
For more information on the skills outlined in this blog, you can view a Parent CliffsNotes video on Conscious Discipline here.
Special thanks to Renee Mirowitz, Program Director of Ivy Hill Academy, who introduced us to CD.
When my daughter started preschool, her school also used Conscious Discipline. I loved the concepts they taught and it was incredible watching young children as young as 3 and 4 be assertive and try to resolve conflicts amongst themselves. Obviously they were so little and still needed help, but to hear phrases like, “I don’t like it when …next time you could … instead,” was so impressive. CD is a very cool way to help navigate kids into owning their actions and controlling their emotions. I now have another young daughter and plan on incorporating CD concepts with her.