As parents today, we are met with a raft of information (and mis-information) about how to raise our children. One minute, we're being told to gently guide our child out of a tantrum, and the next we're warned against the dangers of being too soft...
But one thing is for certain – in the moments that we feel overwhelmed by misbehaving children, erratic sleep cycles or the pressures of everyday life – we will inevitably return to what we intrinsically know. Which is why it is more important than ever to find a simple, practical, proven approach that resonates with your family and your values. An approach that can become your ‘new normal’.
If that approach is one that involves raising your child with compassion while ensuring they know right-from-wrong (and behave accordingly), let us introduce you to Positive Discipline. Positive Discipline is an approach designed to teach children to become responsible, respectful and resourceful members of their communities, teaching important social and life skills in a way that’s respectful and encouraging for both children and their parents or carers. Based on the understanding that discipline must be taught – and that children need to learn these important social and life skills to be able to thrive and survive in the world – it’s a refreshingly simple and practical guide to raising children in a way that feels natural and effective.
We spoke to the Founder and Lead Trainer of Positive Discipline UK, Joy Marchese, about the approach, and she shared a wealth of information that can be taken on board from the moment you finish reading this article. From how to prevent meltdowns, to why punishment doesn’t work, and how we can avoid being a pushover – this is a must-read for any parent looking to raise their child in a way that will set them up for success, without losing their sanity along the way.
Can you tell us a little about your background and what led you into Positive Discipline?
When I say Positive Discipline saved my life I mean that figuratively and literally. I had already been teaching for 8 years (and making a ton of mistakes) when I found myself teaching at Rikers Island Jail in New York City. Thankfully I read my first Positive Discipline book right around that time, and it gave me the tools I needed to not only survive in a challenging situation but to successfully teach my first of many wellbeing curriculums.
I never looked back, as Positive Discipline is grounded in Adlerian Psychology and the philosophy is completely aligned with my own personal values and vision. I couldn’t imagine raising my own child any other way.
For people who aren’t familiar with the method, can you give us a rundown on what Positive Discipline is?
Positive Discipline is an encouragement model. It is based on the philosophy that a misbehaving child is a discouraged child. Therefore, all of the tools are intended to be encouraging to children (and to parents). They are based on mutual respect and were designed to increase a sense of belonging and significance, thus addressing the belief behind the behavior. To be more specific, they meet all five of the criteria for Positive Discipline that have been developed over decades of experience.
Five Criteria for Positive Discipline
- Is it respectful (kind and firm at the same time)?
- Does it help children feel belonging (connection) and significance (contribution)?
- Is is effective long-term?
- Does it teach valuable social and life skills for good character?
- Does it invite children to discover how capable they are and to use their power constructively?
“ A child needs encouragement like a plant needs water - Rudolf Dreikurs ”
Tell us about the problem with punishment...
“Where did we get the crazy idea that in order to make children do better, first we have to make them feel worse?” That’s what I heard Jane Nelsen say during my very first Positive Discipline workshop 15 years ago, and it resonated with me.
Why do we have to break a child’s spirit in order to build them up? What we’ve observed over and over is that punishment will usually lead to one of the four R’s:
- Rebellion – “You can’t make me. I’ll do what I want.”
- Revenge – “I’ll get even and hurt back, even if it hurts my future.”
- Retreat – Low self-esteem, “I must be a bad person.” Or Sneaky, “I just won’t get caught next time.”
- Resentment – “This is unfair. I can’t trust adults.”
When parents feel frazzled, we often resort to quick fixes such as punishment, rewards and bribery, because yes, they give temporary results. However, many of these approaches do not empower children with the life skills they need to succeed. This leads to a vicious cycle of discouragement, confirming a child’s belief that he or she doesn’t belong, as well as increased stress for the parent.
Why is it so important to connect before correcting?
Simply, children (and adults) do better when they feel better. This does not mean feeling better because they get everything they want. They feel better because they feel connected (belonging) and responsible (significant). Thus, it is very important to make a connection before you attempt correction. One of the easiest ways to do this is to validate their feelings.
When these tools are implemented in families, what impact do you see on the children (and the parents)? And in what timeframes do you begin to see shifts in behaviour?
There is no doubt that children (and adults) feel more connected and more empowered when Positive Discipline is implemented in the home. What’s important to note is that we typically notice that it starts with us (the parents). It is when we change our behaviour that we then can see a change in the behaviour of the people around us, especially our children.
There is no specific timeframe and it’s important to mention that sometimes the child’s behaviour may get worse before it gets better. If the child doesn’t get the same response that they’re used to they may push harder until they realize that the parents ‘new response’ is the new norm.
The good news is that when you stick with it and trust the process you will be teaching important character and life skills, as well as experiencing the long-term results instead of just the short-term impact of punishment and rewards.
How does Positive Discipline impact our children’s ability to come into their own and live fulfilling lives long-term?
Here’s an important nugget for parents, “Don’t do anything for a child that they can do for themselves.” In some instances we do things for our children because we don’t want to see them “suffer” or we’re in a hurry and our way is more efficient, or we want things done a certain way. What we don’t realize is that the message we’re sending our children is, “you’re not capable.”
Children need to be given the opportunity to learn skills, make mistakes, and survive them. They need to stretch and grow, to learn that they are capable of acquiring new abilities and taking risks. Children need to learn the sound judgment that comes from facing problems, exploring solutions, and learning from the results. Effective parenting means equipping children with the life skills to succeed in a challenging and difficult world. We do this by “allowing them to suffer” and to experience the discomfort of their choices while at the same time offering emotional support and helping them brainstorm for solutions. This is much more helpful to their growth and development than over-protecting and/or rescuing.
Why do you think parents today are so overwhelmed by parenting (and all that life involves!)?
These days there are even more parents working, and there is a lot of Mum pressure do it all and to do it all perfectly. Whether it’s pressure to breastfeed, pressure to get back to your pre-baby body, or pressure to build a successful business, striving for ‘balance’ can be a dirty word. Our job is to raise our children as best we can while maintaining our sanity. The huge benefit of giving up perfectionism is that much of the guilt and feeling of overwhelm goes away (not easy to do but it can help to start with realizing that ‘perfect’ doesn’t exist)…
Do you think that women can have it all?
The answer is yes, just not always at the same time. Pursuing personal and professional goals doesn’t have to mean trade-offs. They can be mutually beneficial and provide a positive way of living.
However, accepting that, at times, one area of life will have to make way for another is realistic as we search for balance over time. Self-care is essential to be able to have fun juggling a busy (and sometimes overwhelming) schedule. And yes, juggling can be fun. To make sure you have the kind of energy and attitude required, we cover many ideas for taking care of yourself in our book, Positive Discipline for Today’s Busy (and Overwhelmed) Parent.
How do you walk the fine line between being kind and compassionate as a parent, and being a pushover?
We believe in being kind AND firm at the same time. One of the best ways to be kind and compassionate is to validate the child, and then stick to your boundaries. Here’s an example, “I know you’re upset because you can’t have the latest smartphone, and I’m sure you can save enough money to purchase one soon.” You are connecting by showing understanding and validating their feelings, and you are giving them the opportunity to contribute (earn and save their money) instead of rescuing them and buying it for them. If you have a younger child it may sound something like this, “You’re really enjoying that show and it’s time for dinner. Would you like to record the rest of it and finish watching it tomorrow or just turn it off?” If they persist and want to finish watching it now respond with, “That wasn’t one of the choices. Are you going to turn it off or shall I?” If they still don’t turn it off calmly turn off the TV without using any more words.
Making agreements and following through is essential! If you don’t follow through the child is learning that you don’t mean what you say and this will very quickly lead to even more pushback until they eventually get what they want.
What are some simple tips you have for parents to incorporate positive discipline into their everyday? (Before we get to meltdown phase?)
- Celebrate mistakes as wonderful opportunities for growth. One of the fundamental cornerstones of Positive Discipline is to value mistakes as opportunities to learn. Pioneering this policy in your everyday life will help you to relax those exacting standards you hold for yourself (as well as your children, partner, and colleagues), and help you become a little more flexible and forgiving of yourself and others.
- Try not to multitask during family time. Check in with your focus where is your mind? If you’re spending time with your child but your mind is elsewhere, chances are he or she will feel it and could possibly act out. Children want to hear (with your words and your actions) the messages “You are important to me and your needs count.” Make a commitment that during family time you are present with your family and during work time you are present with your work.
- Practice Self Care. It’s not selfish, it’s essential! In order to have the energy to take care of others, you need to take care of yourself first. It’s like they say on the aeroplane to put on your oxygen mask on first. Do one thing every day just for YOU! Meditate for 10 minutes in the morning, take a bath in the evening, do an exercise class during lunch. By doing this you are investing not only in yourself, you are investing in your family. “A happy mummy creates a happy home.”
- Shared responsibility through jobs and chores. Harmony and respect are maintained when family responsibilities are discussed and shared together. At a family meeting, make a list of all jobs and chores that need doing. Find a way to creatively rotate who does what. This helps teach valuable life skills around home management and teamwork. Regularly reevaluate progress at family meetings [more on family meetings in our book..].
- It is not just parents who are busy—children are too! Your mind will be more at ease if you have good communication around plans and schedules as a family. The key is to have fun! Create a clearly visible chart for everyone’s schedules, and then sit down as a family to discuss what everyone’s priorities are and figure out together how to make it work in a balanced way.
Can you tell us about your own career and your family?
Achieving successful work-life integration required understanding what I truly wanted to achieve personally and professionally. Therefore, it was important for me to consider whether my work offered me the flexibility to not only spend quality time with my family but also do other things that I personally enjoyed. I began to change my life before I had my daughter because I knew that I would want a more flexible working situation in order to be able to spend more time with her. I went part-time at my job and I started my company (Positive Discipline UK). By the time my daughter was born my business was doing well enough that I could take a decent maternity leave and two years off from my part-time teaching career.
Currently I’m working on prioritizing my relationship and remembering that we were a couple before we created a family. Communication is key and it is important not to lose sight of why we chose to become parents in the first place. I strive to avoid controlling behavior, criticism (I’ve been working on this for a long time), and negativity in the home. Whenever possible my husband and I look to be encouraging and focus on solutions together during our weekly ‘couples meetings’.
Since half of my waking life is spent working professionally, it is critical that I find fulfilment in what I do. I am passionate about children and helping parents and teachers to develop the social-emotional and character strengths of the child. I am so blessed that my work is not my job, it is my passion!
How do you make the balance work in your own family?
Making flexibility happen with my work so that I can spend more time with my family is essential for me and requires two things; discipline and letting go of perfection (two of the very things I personally struggle with). It requires setting boundaries around family time and work time, and a firm commitment to stick to my plan as much as possible. Without this commitment, I find that the urgent demands from work and the incessant beckoning of household tasks steal precious relationship-building time with my child and my husband. Equally, to be successful and content at my work I need to protect that time too and not feel guilty about it. The guilt is the most difficult part especially since my work requires me to travel and be away from my family. However, often I find that all that is required is a shift in mindset (let go of the guilt and procrastination) and a little bit of planning.
When I focus on all the benefits that my flexible work situation brings to my family in terms of income, personal fulfilment, and fun, it always feels much easier to do. I am also blessed that I now have a wonderful caregiver four days a week so that I don’t have to work late in the evenings anymore and my husband and I can schedule date nights.
How do you think parents can go about releasing a bit of the pressure that comes with life today?
Effective parenting means constantly checking in with yourself and your own thoughts and feelings. Your children will feel your attitude more than anything else you do. If you are happy practising encouraging parenting tools, they will absorb this attitude. If you are feeling guilty, they will feel the unease and usually learn to push your “guilt buttons”. Develop and attitude of gratitude and remember to schedule special time and have fun with your kids (quality is more important than quantity).