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Encouraging Discipline – Discipline that Helps Kids Grow

Boy On Swing disciplineLeft to my own devices, I am terribly afraid of making a mistake. Also, of getting it wrong, not knowing, and having to ask any question. A free-floating fear of punishment used to guide much of my decision-making. In fact, it took a lot of therapy for me to learn to keep those kinds of fears at bay and trust my basic goodness. It wasn’t until I was over 30 that I began to find new ways of being that were more open-hearted toward myself, and others around me. I’ve been thinking lately about what we can do as parents to try to give our kids this sense of security, so they don’t have to try and develop it at 30.

I think the answer might lie in this gem I found on the Conscious Discipline Facebook feed awhile back. They are a fantastic resource for anyone who spends a lot of time with kids, and this post has provided me with lots to ponder.

Conscious Discipline’s 6 Principles of Encouragement:

1. We are all in this together.
2. Contributing to the welfare of others builds self-worth.
3. How you “see” others defines who you are.
4. We are all unique, not special.
5. Effective praise relies on describing, not judging.
6. Children need encouragement, especially when they have made “poor” choices.

Conscious Discipline defines discipline not as something you do to children, but something you develop within them, and that’s how I think about it too. What’s hard is that this, just like anything worth learning, is a slow process that unfolds over a myriad of interactions each day. I know it’s not what exhausted parents want to hear when a child’s behavior is causing daily battles or frustration. But this is when #6 above becomes really important. Getting good at #6 can make really tough situations feel much better.

Discipline That Helps Kids Grow

When it’s time to discipline, we have to make a choice. Do we want to teach our children that when we mess up we should be ashamed, or do we want to teach them that mistakes are how we learn? That sounds kind of extreme, doesn’t it? But make no mistake, the messages we send our kids over our hundreds of interactions each day create a script for how they will approach the world. And since it is our job to provide a foundation of “internal security” (a felt-sense of being loved, valued and protected), if we instead convey that we are here to judge them and that their “poor choices” are shame-worthy, they will become anxious adults. For most kids, how we respond when they make poor choices will determine whether they can get over a mistake and try again next time, or whether they will retreat or collapse. If you don’t believe me, try this exercise: Think about how you feel inside, what kinds of things you tell yourself, when you do poorly in a job interview. Be honest. Not so pretty, eh?

The Gift of a Growth Mindset

Carol Dweck, one of the world’s leading researchers in the field of motivation, has coined the term, “mindset,” in which, “every word and action sends a message. It tells children how to think about themselves. It can be a fixed mindset message that says: ‘You have permanent traits and I’m judging them.’ Or it can be a growth mindset message that says: ‘You are a developing person and I am interested in your development.’” Evidence of a mindset is the tone our inner monologue takes. You know that voice in your head? The one that beat you up when you did poorly in the job interview? This is where it begins, in the lessons from these early interactions with caregivers that they may never have intended to give us.

Changing a fixed mindset as an adult is really difficult. It can take lots of work; for many of us it takes lots of work in therapy, and that work begins with self-compassion. Hold on, you say. What does this have to do with #6 again? What if by practicing encouragement when our kids make poor choices, we could develop within them a more compassionate monologue, a growth mindset that was flexible and understanding from the start, that had resilience enough to get up and try again, even after making a hefty mistake? 

Now stop berating yourself for your lack of compassion till now. Remember this is something we develop within our children over thousands of interactions. You have plenty of time. Mistakes are how we learn. And we are all just learning.

A client’s daughter accidentally pulled down her friend’s pants on the school bus one day. She grabbed the other girl who was standing when the bus started to move. The other child was certain that my client’s daughter had done it on purpose and her father was furious. My client’s daughter was afraid. She was only trying to keep her friend from getting hurt, but she had made a poor choice (grabbing, pants-ing) in front of a whole busload of kids. My client, who tended to be very anxious, was just learning how to be protective of her daughter in an empowered way. When the other girl’s dad called to ball her out, my client almost folded into shame. Growing up, her own parents would have demanded that kind of response from her, “You should be ashamed of yourself!” But as an adult, she worked hard to handle the phone call calmly, and went to speak to her daughter.  She inquired about the incident, attempting to understand her child’s point of view.  She reflected her understanding of her daughter’s true intention and empathized with her fear. As her daughter relaxed in relief, this mom took the opportunity to highlight the significant lesson here: that even while it had been well-intended, “we don’t grab people.” And together they thought about how her daughter might handle the same situation differently “next time.” No folding into shame! Learning from mistakes! And I love “next time,” by the way. It encourages executive skills, self-awareness and builds resilience. This is how you encourage a child who’s made a poor choice.

A child who has made a mistake is already feeling shaky, and looks to their caregiver for cues about how to perceive what’s happened.  This is why kids need encouragement especially when they’ve made poor choices.  Whether our discipline is discouraging by way of judgments (“You should be ashamed!” or by way of our failing to empathize, the result is the same. Our kids will feel judged, and thereby Capital B-Bad.  We encourage a fixed mindset, not resilience when we do it this way.  What if my client hadn’t shown an interest in her daughter’s experience? Might this girl have believed that her own mother, her protector, agreed with that other girl’s dad, that she was a “bad kid?” Is there really such a thing?

Here’s how my client encouraged her child through a poor choice and helped her grow:  My client modeled that shame is not the only possibility by managing her own anxiety through the phone call.  She encouraged her daughter with compassion, creating space around the incident for other feelings besides fear, like hope – which is actually transformative. She boosted her daughter’s self-worth by validating that helping a friend to be safe is a worthy cause (see #2 above). She encouraged protectively by teaching that mistakes are human and that no one is bad just because someone else says she is. This mom encouraged resilience, giving her tools to handle the situation “next time.” In sum, she fostered a growth mindset.

Testing Limits Helps Kids Grow

But what do we do when we are in the midst of a child’s poor choice, and hindsight is not yet available? We must remember that testing limits is a child’s developmental work.  Coming up against boundaries is one way that children discover how powerful they are, who they are and what society requires of them. Family therapists often say, “she’s looking for a boundary,” when a child pushes limits – whether refusing to eat vegetables or stealing the family car for the night. When they do things like this, kids are looking to us both for a sense of security in the face of their growing personal power, and for an understanding of how much boundary pushing is just right (ie, “No you may not skip your vegetables every night, but perhaps once in a while is ok.” Feel free to extrapolate to the car).

How do we handle it when a child makes a poor choice and seeks a boundary? Simple enough, we give it to them:  “No hitting.” And what happens after that, when a child continues to hit after we’ve set the boundary? We put our money where our mouth is – Time Out! Without a doubt there are many alternatives to the time-out, but for facility’s sake let’s stick with this common technique. And of course, “no hitting” goes for parents and caregivers as well.  Current research overwhelmingly shows that spanking only encourages children to cooperate because they are afraid, and absolutely increases the aggression they show towards others.  

How to Use Time-Outs Gracefully

A well-executed time-out encourages kids by providing containment when they feel out of control, by teaching that people are not equal to their behavior; that we can learn from mistakes. It provides stability, a sense of where the edges are, so they can push up against them, and thereby do their developmental work. Always give a warning so that your child has the opportunity to self-correct before going straight to time-out. Keep it consistent, so that your child knows what to expect. Be mindful of your words and body language. Trust that crying is a normal form of protest, and expect it. Don’t attempt to explain all the reasons the behavior was out-of-bounds; keep it to a simple one or two sentences: “Using the big scissors is dangerous. They can hurt you.” Take a moment to recap and come back together afterwards, summarizing what led-up to the time-out, and underscore once more the reason: “Dangerous.” Follow it up with a reminder that you love your child no matter what, you’re just not happy with the behavior. If your child is not used to time-outs, be aware that it will take several of them before he knows the drill, and you will experience push-back.

6 ideas to  help you discipline your kids with compassion:

  1. Encourage with Compassion, Validation and Modeling.
  2. Manage your own anxiety, and communicate the kernel of learning in your child’s mistake. If you are stumped, it’s usually about kindness, respect or safety.
  3. Be clear within yourself what the boundaries are – don’t be wishy-washy!
  4. Trust the wisdom of boundary pushing and the powerful inclination for learning that motivates most rule-breaking in young children.
  5. Even when you’re angry, try to come from kindness.
  6. Your body language and tone of voice speak louder than your actual words.


Jenny Kepler

Jenny Kepler

Jenny Kepler is a marriage and family therapist from the Bay Area who has been helping families welcome babies and navigate parenthood for over 10 years. Her office is in downtown Portland, OR where she does in person therapy with adults, couples and families. She also does teletherapy and parent coaching over the phone for people who can't see her in Portland. Jenny specializes in counseling people who are struggling in their relationships due to anger, depression and anxiety, helping them to discover joy, vitality and resilience.

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