Write me: rebecca@positive-parents.org

I realize that nonpunitive discipline can be hard to wrap your head around at first. It was for me. After all, the vast majority of us were raised to believe that children need punishments and consequences in order to learn better behavior.

There is apparently this myth that parents who do not punish their children are lazy parents who are not fulfilling their duties. I saw this prevalent myth when I read LZ Granderson’s article Permissive Parents: Curb your brats and the comments that followed.

Here I go myth busting again.

Nonpunitive discipline does not mean no discipline. In fact, keeping in mind that, in Positive Parenting, discipline means to teach, nonpunitive discipline requires MORE discipline.

Let me explain.

Punishment is not a good teacher. Imagine for a moment that you have just started a new job. You have had no training, and you are expected to produce a report using a program you’ve never used before. You try, but you get it wrong. Your new boss yells at you for doing it wrong and tells you to come in an hour early the next day to start on it. The next morning, you try again to get this report out, but you still haven’t been taught how to use the program, so you try and figure out for yourself, but you get it wrong again. Once again, your boss threatens you and tells you if it happens one more time, you’re fired.

How are you feeling about your boss? Are you feeling a lot of respect for her? How are you feeling about yourself? Incompetent? Like a failure? Disrespected?

Now imagine that, on your first day, you had been shown how to work the program. Let’s say you didn’t quite master it the first day, but your boss is understanding that you’re new and tells you that she has confidence in your abilities. The next day, she shows you how to work the program again.

How are you feeling about your boss now? About yourself?

It makes absolutely no sense to punish a child for doing something wrong that he didn’t know how to do right. Sitting him in the time out chair does not teach how to do right.

But what if the child already knows what the right thing to do is, but does the wrong thing anyway?

I had this conversation with my 4.5 year old son yesterday after his grandmother put him in time out for hitting while he was at her house.

Me: How did you feel when she put you in time out?
Him: Mad!
Me: While you were sitting there, did you think about why you shouldn’t hit?
Him: No! I was just mad!
Me: Did the time out teach you not to hit again?
Him: No. I already know not to hit. I didn’t mean to do it.
Me: Let’s think of what you can do next time you’re upset so you don’t hit. You can walk away, count to 10, or take deep breaths.
Him: Yeah. I’ll try that next time.

Do you see why the time out was still pointless? He already knew hitting was inappropriate; however, because he is still developing his frontal lobe, he doesn’t always have the cognitive ability to stop himself from reacting and to think it over. Does that mean he “gets away with it?” Well, no. I reiterated that to him that it was inappropriate, and I gave him new tools to try next time he’s upset.

“Where did we ever get the crazy idea that in order to make children do better, first we have to make them feel worse? Think of the last time you felt humiliated or treated unfairly. Did you feel like cooperating or doing better?”
— Jane Nelson

What if I’d spanked him instead? Well, that would just taught him that it is, indeed, okay to hit people. What about taking away his favorite toy or show? Those kinds of made-up consequences don’t teach lessons. Do you know what does? Problem-solving. You can read more about that here.

I’d like to make another quick point. I’m a medical transcriptionist by day, and I type for a neurology account. One of my doctors specializes in dementia, and often these patients, who range from mild cognitive decline to severe dementia, will have behavior problems such as lashing out, aggression, agitation, and inappropriate language and manner. They also often have sleep problems. Never ONCE has the doctor indicated to the caregiver that the patient needs to be punished for his behavior problems. Why not? Because it is widely recognized and accepted that these behaviors are caused by a lack of cognitive ability. Neuroscience has now proven that children (especially under age 6) do not misbehave out of defiance, but rather out of lack of cognitive ability because of their underdeveloped brains. It takes the brain 20+ years to fully develop, but particularly before age 6, children literally do not have full access to the frontal region of the brain which handles logic, sequential thinking, self-awareness, and self-regulation.

Let me get back to my original point. Neuroscience has also given us the valuable information that every interaction with our children is developing neural pathways that will ultimately determine how he reacts to situations and handles problems. Nonpunitive discipline focuses on understanding development, teaching the child what is appropriate (and this can be done through play, role-playing, modeling, setting a good example, etc.), giving the child the tools to do better, and building a strong relationship with your child.

So, when I say that nonpunitive discipline requires more discipline, what I mean is that we are *always* disciplining (teaching) our children with every interaction, every word, everything they see. We are mindful that, above all, who we are to them is more important than what we do to them. A very wise friend of mine once said

“The power of your influence does not come from the force of your will or the fierceness of your punishments, but the strength of your relationship.” – Lori Petro of TEACH Through Love

I never spanked, but I used to do time outs and take away toys or cartoons. I thought that was how my kid would learn not to misbehave again. A whole lot of reading and reflection later, I realized that our relationships with our children are based on the same things that all healthy relationships are based on: Respect, kindness, compassion for the other person, love.

Love. Not fear.

How do you respond to people you’re afraid of? People who hold things over you?

I thought one day, why does my husband come home from work after 12 hours and do the dishes for me? He surely doesn’t fear me. He does it out of love. Why do I lug the trash across the road when he’s running late? Love. Why would my child tidy his room if I asked? There are 2 choices. He could tidy up because he’s afraid of his punishment if he doesn’t, resenting me all the while, OR he could do it for the same reason hubby does the dishes and I take out the trash. Love.

I choose love.


“I choose love” reminder wrist bands are available in my shop in red or purple.


  • Natalie Posted 8 July 2011 0:04

    Brilliant! That last paragraph really made me feel like crying, beautifully written! I am trying, trying, trying to convince my work mates about the benefits of not using time outs, yelling and unnatural consequences for the children in our care (I work at a child care centre).

    I have changed the way I respond to the children in my care and the differences are amazing. There is less aggression, less tantrams, more sharing, less sleeping troubles…less of anything that might be considered "negative". And with less of the negative things there are more positives and my job is that much more enjoyable!

    The people who run the Toddler Room are always yelling at the children, threatening them, putting them in time out (which the centre calls "sit and watch" in an attempt to make it sound like it isn't time out!) or sending them to the office. I have provided so much information on the disadvantages of punitive punishments but the advice is falling on deaf ears because the people still believe that their way is the best way and don't want to hear what I have to say.

    The thing that bothers me is that I can see the difference in my approach, yet the Toddler staff continue to struggle with aggressive behaviours (hitting and biting happen A LOT!)and blame the children, saying things behind their backs like "he is such a bully" or "he knows he is biting and doesn't care" or "they don't listen to us".

    I just don't know how to change their minds?

  • RE Posted 8 July 2011 6:27

    Send them this post? In all honesty, it is very hard to change people's minds who aren't open to change. Keep modeling your approach and they will see the difference, and that may spark a desire to change in them.

  • Unknown Posted 8 July 2011 7:38

    Thank you! I have been reading a lot about gentle and positive parenting, and I have agreed with everything said, but so much time is focused on what NOT to do, I was really having a hard time know what TO do! I already felt that the laziest parents do nothing, the not so lazy punish, and the least lazy nearly never punish and only teach, but teaching is hard!

    My son is just over two. Until this point, we've used time-outs and taken away problem toys. And last night, for example,we were eating dinner at the table. He got food everywhere, spread it out on the table, made a huge mess. I wasn't sure what to do so I just watched, thinking about it. But when he was done, he dumped his extra food on my plate and put his plate in the sink. Pretty good for two! So I am glad I didn't punish him and take away his plate. I would have stolen that change for him to feel responsible for himself (although next time I think I'll put more effort into showing hime the purpose of a fork).

  • Laura Posted 8 July 2011 8:39

    Natalie, the school I take my child to is like that. Her primary teacher is very positive and the children are amazing with her. The after-care providers are very traditional and the kids are completely different with them. At least in this case, it's blatantly obvious where the problem is, as everyone can see the difference with the exact same kids. (She is trying to train them, but it's definitely a case of how the individual sees the children and they fall back to yelling at them after awhile.)

  • Kristi Posted 8 July 2011 15:26

    I have the same thoughts as Unknown. I am trying to figure out this whole positive discipline thing for my 13 month old. I am reading a lot about what NOT to do but nothing about what TO do in certain situations. I'm clueless when it comes to natural consequences. The only things my 13 month old does right now that bothers me is pull books off the book shelf and DVDs of the shelf. Someone said to me, "Well, move the books!" I really can't just move everything my child touches b/c then we'd be left with an empty room. That just doesn't make sense. I want her to learn that there will be things that are within her reach that she should not touch. All I've really been able to do is show her the books or DVDs and tell her that she is not supposed to touch them. And unfortunately, before reading anything about positive parenting, we've tried the time out thing. I'm really really really anti-spanking. So I really don't know how to teach a 13 month old. She's not really doing anything wrong, just doing some stuff that I don't like. She's really sweet, and she seems to be doing it less. I'm not sure why, but I just wish I knew how to handle certain situations.

    I read that article about curbing your brats. I didn't like it very much and I have a feeling some people shared it with me in mind.

  • AK Posted 8 July 2011 18:20

    Kristi – I can imagine how frustrating it can be having to constantly clean up after your son. The best place to start with positive parenting is to learn what is age-appropriate for your child, ask yourself "what is really behind this behavior", and see every behavior as an opportunity to fill a need or teach a more appropriate behavior (depending on the function of it). Its totally age-appropriate for your daughter to explore – and yes, pulling things off of shelves is her way of exploring. I never moved a thing, but what I DID do was sit with my son and allow him to explore safely, while talking and teaching about what things are, how we handle them, and where they go when we are done looking at them. Eventually, all of the things that they have been allowed to explore to their hearts content begin to lose the allure and its no longer and issue. We made the choice to allow our son to explore while we teach him to navigate the world he lives in safely. He is 2 now, and there is nothing in our house he is not allowed to touch. (In addition, we have taught him to clean up. So whenever he takes something out, he typically puts it back where he found it.) Hope this helps. 🙂

  • AK Posted 8 July 2011 18:21

    Sorry, Kristi – *daughter*

  • RE Posted 8 July 2011 19:23

    Kristi, I just did 2 posts called Positive Parenting In Action: Exploration/Danger and Positive Parenting in Action: Tantrums. Look in the blog archive for those. I give practical tips on how to handle these situations. I also agree with AK. The first step is to learn what is age appropriate and what is driving the behavior. You can also check out mhy post Positive Parenting: What? Why? and How? and What's The Deal With Consequences. Best of luck to you and your sweet daughter. 🙂

  • Anonymous Posted 18 July 2011 19:54

    I love this post! You sum up exactly where the problem lies in regards to punitive disciplinary methods. Having studied early childhood development in college, it gave me a good base in the psychology of learning that made me realise just how outdated 'traditional' parenting methods are. The information on basic neurological development in children is readily available for parents to learn about even online. Once aware of a child's normal cognitive development you can't possibly still believe that using time-outs or physically harming them is a good idea. Just saying.

  • RE Posted 20 July 2011 16:10

    Wolfmother, you hit the nail on the head there with "Once aware of a child's normal cognitive development you can't possibly still believe that using time-outs or physically harming them is a good idea." Thank you for your comment.

  • Jen Posted 27 August 2011 14:45

    I think that the flaw in this article is the assumption that most parents are raging and aggressive and that smacking and punishment is a first measure. I have also seen this measure fail utterly while a mother attempted to 'positively' teach her daughter by telling her why physical assault is wrong while the 5 years old smacked another child, then kicked her for 5 mins straight. I do think there is an instance where packing up the XBox works. I also think that the majority of parents do actually discuss right and wrong when disciplining their kids and as I said actual discipline is usually a last resort…

  • Swimming-duck Posted 29 September 2011 15:16

    Jen – Without seeing the situation with the parent and aggressive child, it's hard to say for sure what that parents parenting/discipline style might be. What you've described seems a bit more permissive to me. The parent might have been using words in that moment to try to stop the aggression, but I personally think a better choice would've been to simply pick up her kicking/hitting five year old and remove the child from the situation. There is nothing punitive in that and it is a form of discipline that shows the five year old that hitting/kicking another child is not okay.

    I'm not sure where in this article it says that most parents are raging and aggressive. There are some methods of discipline that are not aggressive, but still punitive and therefore not positive. In fact, our culture has changed such that I think there are a lot of parents out there that are not smacking their children and are using timeouts, natural consequences, and other such forms of discipline. But research is showing that these nonagressive forms of discipline are still punitive and can still have a negative effect on a child. This is why learning about and using positive discipline is so important. Discipline, when done correctly, should not be a last resort. Instead, discipline should be a first resort and a constant in our homes. Example – my child was just petting our dog correctly. He's a bouncy four year old and isn't always good at this. I just told him that he was petting the dog nicely and that's the way we pet our dog. That was a form of discipline and he learns more from that than he would from using a punitive measure when he's not petting the dog correctly.

  • Cdyer24 Posted 29 September 2011 17:08

    Positive parenting and the idea of disciPline requires a paradigm shift. Every moment is a teaching moment and play is a child's way of mastering ideas, expressing and processing (sometimes on a nonverbal level). I like the ideas behind it but am sure that there are times that it is not most effective (ie stove or other dangerous times) but certainly we can be proactive and teach our children to look both ways and etc. the principle I guess I have a hard time wrapping my head around is how use of time out is not appropriate? If my kid is in a group of kids and doing something inappropriate sometimes talking works other times I think she needs to take a few minutes to calm down ifs she's overstimulated or hyped up. Any feedback?

  • Sondra Rose Posted 9 November 2011 12:14

    Beautifully written! What a wonderful resource for the parents I work with.

    Thank you so much!

  • JoAnna LovesMail Posted 21 December 2011 8:01

    I really agree with this article, although I will say that for me, time outs are usually used to give ME some time to cool down. I have temper problems myself and sometimes I need that. With regards to hitting or physical violence, even though I know my child doesn't mean the harm she is committing, it still makes me so upset that I need to step away from her for a few minutes. I always talk to her about it afterward so that she knows why I did it (so *I* could calm down). Parents need tools to not only help their kids grow and learn, but to keep their own cool under pressure, and getting smacked in the face repeatedly can really push buttons!

    If you have other ideas for how to handle things like that, I'd love to hear them! New ideas are always helpful.

  • Ktietje85 Posted 6 August 2012 8:15

    I've learned a lot as I've parented my young kids. I don't claim to be an expert, but with my third having just turned 1, I understand the young toddler phase pretty well. 🙂

    With my oldest I really thought she was doing things on purpose. I tried out smacking her hands and even spanking her to "teach" her. Of course it didn't work.

    I wouldn't dream of doing something like that to my now 1-year-old. If he touches things he shouldn't, I move him and give him something else to play with. Today I had left a pot of water on the floor while I was cooking (needed the space on the stove) and he got into it. I moved it and handed him an empty pot and he was perfectly happy. If he were pulling books off the shelf, I might sit him on my lap and read him one. Then I might see if he could help me put them away (obviously he can't do much yet, but he can at least get the idea — with a 2-year-old I would definitely ask for help picking up the books). For the most part, though, I just remove him from the situation. Throwing food? You must be done eating! Screaming in your highchair? I guess you want down. I also teach some baby sign so that they can communicate at least basic needs/wants at this age, which reduces frustration and "bad" behavior quite a lot. My 1-year-old can sign "milk," "more," "all done," and "drink" so far. We're working on "eat" and "help" too. This is enough for him to at least help us meet his most basic needs. If we meet his needs, then usually he is very calm and we don't have any issues. And sometimes, you know…think about why you're saying no and if you really have to. Sometimes my son likes to pull items out of the pantry and set them on the floor, or go into my plastic bowls cabinet and pull those out. Is he hurting anything? No. And I really don't want him to do that at that moment (say, because I'm cooking and I might trip on these things), I'll just put him in his highchair with a snack or get him involved with a pot and spoon or something. I really haven't found a need for punishment whatsoever with him.

    With my older kids, because we are Christians, I have been starting to emphasize how Mommy and Daddy listen to God's direction, and so sometimes they need to listen to our directions. We talk about this quietly when they have defiant attitudes, and also examine ourselves — were WE impatient or harsh? That's our biggest issue at times, the outright defiant attitudes, and that's how we've chosen to address that issue. For more common issues, like fighting, hitting, biting, I just step in and ask what's happening, and walk them through what they might say or do instead. "You're mad because he took your toy? Can you tell him it makes you sad when he takes it, and ask for it back?"

    Finally, for those times when kids just "do the wrong thing" or have a bad day…kids are people too. They need some grace and understanding.

    I can't think of a normal kid who has been lovingly parented who would be outright crazy defiant and rude to everyone. They'd have to have seen that behavior displayed at home, if they were going to act that way on a regular basis. Or there would be some bigger issue. Ignoring that behavior without investigating a cause is…not parenting. My oldest will be aggressive and tearful (among other things) when she's eaten certain foods she's sensitive to. We've become aware of that and avoid those foods. There's always a reason…and children are relying on you to solve the problem, if there is one.

  • Tanya Posted 12 February 2013 12:26

    Wow! Your likening it to Dementia nearly made me cry. We just found out that my grandpa has Alzhimers and is much further along then anyone had told me. After sitting with him for an hour I can so see the similarities. My son is now 7 and I can see that things are clicking that just were not before. I wish I had this knowdledge 3yrs ago as I have been trying to figure my son out all this time. I always hoped it was just immaturity, but when you have a teacher telling you that they think he is ODD, ADD, misbehaving because he is not getting consequences at home etc etc it's so hard to push those naysayers out of your brain. All I (and he) ever heard was "bad kid" even if that is not their intention. And in reality my son is actually just trying to find himself and figure out who he is and how he belongs, and growing up. Even if he is a little slower to mature then others his age. Thank you for this eye opening view.

  • Anita Posted 13 March 2013 10:16

    Hi, great article! I'm really trying to learn how to positively parent as I believe it is the right approach with your children. I find myself struggling with how to handle a situation as my first impulse is to punish and I'm trying to train myself out of that. I was wondering if you can help me "positively" discipline through a scenario. About 2 weeks ago, my 2yo son (who doesn't talk yet) started to refuse to eat his breakfast every morning. it doesn't matter what he is given, he cries and screams and stomps his high chair in a tantrum. I do not buy that he is "not hungry" since he hasn't eaten anything for over 12 hrs and up until recently this was his favorite meal of the day. I'm not comfortable just letting him not eat because 1) he gets super cranky when he is hungry and it's even more difficult to feed him and 2) I don't want to set a precedent that it is ok for him not to eat. Him eating 3 meals a day is very important to me. When he throws his morning tantrum, I try talking him into eating, distract him with stories, getting him excited about what we will do AFTER he eats, even walking away for a few minutes at a time letting him calm down. Not having him eat is not an option I want to go with. Do you have other suggestions on how to handle this situation? Keep in mind that he doesn't talk (except for a few words, of which "no" he uses quite well during breakfast time) so our communication is very much one-sided at the moment. Thank you so very much!

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