Hitting kids doesn’t work. Research shows that corporal punishment is no more effective in making kids listen than other kinds of discipline. Instead, physical punishment puts children at risk for poor mental health, worse performance in school, and violent behavior in adulthood. Simply put, it’s an ineffective way to communicate, and one that does long term harm. Even when a child does stop what they’re doing in response to being hit, it’s only out of fear – fear of the person tasked with protecting them. It does nothing in the way of teaching children right from wrong, making them understand the consequences of their actions, or helping them take responsibility for their mistakes. Positive discipline does all of that, helping children learn to regulate their feelings and make amends for their mistakes without harsh punishments or even rewards.
As a developmental psychologist who studies corporal punishment, Dr. Joan Durrant knows the damage done by harsh forms of punishment. She also understands how difficult it can be for parents to change how they react to behaviors, which is so often guided by childhood experience.
“If we’re going to really move away from corporal punishment, we have to change our thinking on so many levels, because it represents a way of thinking about children, about relationships, about our role as parents,” says Durant who is currently a professor of community health sciences at the University of Manitoba. “I didn’t want the answer to be well, you can’t hit them, but you can punish them this way, this way, or this way, because that doesn’t give parents any more knowledge or tools or skills or understanding or empathy.”
That’s why Durrant created Positive Discipline in Everyday Parenting (PDEP), a framework for positive parenting that trades punishments and rewards for emotional regulation on the part of both parent and child. Positive parenting teaches caregivers to recognize and react calmly to their own feelings, and then help kids do the same. Instead of punishing children for outbursts, parents learn to help kids articulate feelings, identify the issue, and problem-solve together. Positive parenting gives caregivers the tools to examine situations through their child’s eyes, considering what feelings and stages of development might have motivated certain behaviors, instead of immediately labeling them as bad.
The foundation of positive parenting considers the needs of both parent and child: parents must learn to manage conflict without hitting or yelling, and children need dignity, participation in their own learning, and protection from violence. In practice, PDEP fundamentally shifts the parent-child relationship, treating adults as mentors, children as learners, and both as members of a team that creates solutions together.
Fatherly spoke with Dr. Durrant, who is also the author of the Positive Discipline in Everyday Parenting book, which is available online for free, and a nine-week positive parenting course, developed in collaboration with Save the Children Sweden, which teaches caregivers in over 30 countries how to implement these skills in everyday life. Fatherly spoke to her about parenting during quarantine, saying you’re sorry, and learning how not to lose your shit.
How did you arrive at the idea of positive discipline? Why did you feel the world needed a new parenting philosophy?
So the framework is all about being conscious of what you’re really trying to aim for in the long term. Right now, it might be driving you crazy that a child won’t put his shoes on. But if we respond with punishment in that moment, it leads us down a very different pathway than where we want to actually end up. We want to end up with children who are skilled, competent, confident, empathetic, kind, optimistic, good problem solvers, and non-violent. When we shout and hit and threaten and coerce, we’re going down an entirely different road.
What I constructed was this combination of warmth and structure. We know from a ton of research that warmth is extremely important to building strong relationships and to children’s social competence and their well being. And warmth is really about safety and security and trusting that in your world, you’re not going to be hurt, physically or emotionally so you can take chances and you can fail and you can make mistakes and nobody’s going to stop loving you or abandon you or hurt you, either psychologically or physically. And then at the same time providing what I call structure, and that is not punishment or control. It’s about scaffolding children’s learning.
Do you have an example of a positive parenting solution?
If the child is having a tantrum, I could ignore it totally. I could turn my back on the child, I could lock him in his room, I could spank him. But none of those things recognize his level of understanding and where he is along his developmental pathway in terms of understanding emotion and regulating emotion.
What he needs is for me to help him learn how to do that. As opposed to punishing behavior, it’s understanding behavior. What are the developmental reasons for it? We teach a lot about child development so that when parents see a behavior, instead of going into their own limbic system and just reacting, they can think, Okay, what does this tell me about the child’s developmental understanding? And they can much better see the situation through the child’s eyes. If I can say, okay, this child is dysregulated so I need to regulate, I need to breathe, and I need to calm myself and sit with the child and show the child how I do that. And then when things settle down, talk about emotions and help them acquire labels for their emotions, help them think about, when I’m feeling that intense frustration later, what can I do. And then when they put that all together, they can problem solve. And that takes years. Really, many of us are still trying to get better at it. So to expect two-year-olds to be able to do it is pretty unfair, and then we punish them.
It’s pretty common for parents to use reward-based discipline. But that is pretty stunting as well.
Acknowledging children’s efforts, making sure they know that their successes are recognized, that’s really important. I don’t think we should just ignore what the children do well. But children are born internally motivated to master things, and rewards tend to dampen that. I take my child skating and he falls. And then I say, okay, if you get up I’ll give you a nickel. Over time, he’s getting up for the nickel, not because he’s motivated inside. There’s a lot of research on this. It’ll motivate the behavior to get the reward, but it actually weakens the intrinsic motivation.
We really focus on the relationship, the communication, the sense of learning together, parent and child, and sharing each other’s successes and achievements and building a relationship instead of imposing external kinds of unrelated rewards.
Is there a difference in the effectiveness of bribing a child — saying, If you do this, I’ll give you this, versus giving them a reward after they’ve already done the behavior?
There’s so many subtleties to these things. Let’s say what I really want to do today is walk my dog. But I’m gonna make sure that I get this other thing done first. And then I’m gonna go and walk my dog, and I’ll feel great, I’ll be relieved that it won’t be on my mind. I’ll be able to enjoy it more and I’ll feel a sense of accomplishment. That’s really different from if you do that thing you hate, I’m gonna give you some candy. That’s not learning delay of gratification, it’s not learning how we manage the things that we don’t like to do. It really simplifies that process of learning how to do things if you’re not motivated to do. It’s kind of an artificial contingency.
Something else that’s unique about Positive Discipline in Everyday Parenting is the idea of earning a child’s respect, rather than the other way around. Can you expand on that?
I think that a lot of people confuse fear and respect. You can control kids through fear. Your life is easier in many ways if they’re afraid of you. But in the long run, you’re going to lose them because that erodes the relationship terribly. Fear can be accompanied by a lot of hostility, and it creates a situation where children feel always insecure, they don’t trust you, they don’t know when you’re going to hurt them, and they aren’t going to come to you if they make mistakes. So when they’re teenagers, and they’re having to struggle with something, they’re going to be afraid to come to you. And it’s so undermining.
Respect is something that we develop for a person after we’ve seen them in situations where they’ve really handled things with wisdom. We respect people for wisdom, not for inflicting pain and cruelty. Respect grows over time as we see people in action, and we say, I want to be like that. Most often, those people, they’re usually kind. And they’re usually patient. And they listen, and they give good advice when they’re asked for it. They guide us as opposed to hurting us.
Positive Discipline teaches parents to deal with conflict by first managing their own emotions. But the state of the world right now is exacerbating all of our normal stressors. How can stress management and self-regulation improve the parent-child relationship within this context?
Emotional regulation is really important, and the more stressors on us the harder it is. So, we have to kind of become aware of our own stress levels and what helps us. People have different ways of managing stress. I walk. I have to move. Other people just need to sit and close their eyes and breathe. Some people meditate. Some people sing and some people go and play an instrument.
At a societal level, we need to really support families. In the US and Canada, neither of us has a national childcare system. And that’s just fundamental. If you don’t have a childcare system in place, the rest of it just isn’t doable. So the governments need to take responsibility. It’s not just an individual thing. We need to recognize that just like children need a safe, secure environment where they’re supported and understood, so does everybody else.
What are some phrases parents should avoid saying to children when they have an outburst? What are some positive parenting alternatives?
Well, when a child is having an outburst, like a tantrum kind of situation, there’s not much you can say that’s gonna help. Pretty much whatever you say is going to aggravate it because the child has gone into fight or flight mode. Their emotional brain has taken over. Their thinking brain has just been disconnected.
What we can do is just sit with them and let them know they’re safe. When children have emotional outbursts, they’re often afraid of what’s going on inside of them. They feel like they’ve been taken over by this emotion and they don’t know what it’s about. They don’t know where it comes from, all that those feelings are new to them. They don’t have names for them. They don’t know that it’s ever going to end. As you get older, you realize, oh, emotions ebb and flow, they come and go. And sometimes they’re really intense, and then they fade and then they come back. But for a child, they feel like this might not ever end. And so we just need to make sure that they feel safe and secure while that’s going on.
Do you think there’s ever an appropriate situation to ignore a child?
I think that there are lots of things that we can definitely just let go that shouldn’t be battlegrounds. There are a lot of things that we turn into battles that are so unnecessary and it’s like a squandering of the relationship and the love between us to make such a big deal out of something. So I think like ignoring it, letting things go, is certainly appropriate in a lot of situations.
But this active ignoring that parents are taught to do, this cross your arms and turn your back on the child, I don’t think that’s a good idea. I think that that’s communicating rejection to the child and telling them that when you do that I don’t love you and you don’t have my affection. It makes my love and affection contingent on you doing things in a certain way.
If my child is dropping food on the floor, usually it’s because they’re experimenting and they’re learning about objects and gravity. I certainly would never punish a child for that. Instead, you can say like, “Ooh, look at that. That hit the ground, now try this ball.” And then they drop the ball and it bounces, and the corn didn’t. You’re helping the child understand the properties of objects. And just realizing that this is what children do.
Sometimes when you ignore them, you might be ignoring a great opportunity to teach. But it’s all it’s an art. There are no recipes. There’s no absolute truth. Well, other than punishing, which is an absolute that is probably never a useful thing to do.
Can I assume that forcing a child to say they’re sorry if they don’t mean it is ineffective? Or is there value in encouraging this behavior and getting them in that habit, even if they don’t fully understand it?
It’s not a good idea. Because if they’re not feeling it in that moment, what you’re doing is training them to lie. You’re forcing them to say something they don’t mean. And that’s not what you want. You want them to be able to be honest about their feelings. The way you’re going to get to an apology that’s heartfelt is for them to really understand the impact of whatever it was they did.
It’s very common for a two year old to bite another child. That’s a common behavior that often gets really severe punishment because the parent feels like their child is turning into some kind of violent criminal. They don’t realize it’s common and what it represents, so that’s a situation where children are often forced to apologize. And the child doesn’t understand. They often don’t know what an apology is. And they don’t know that they’ve hurt that other child, they’ve just done it impulsively. They are unable to feel what the other child is feeling. So forcing an apology isn’t teaching them anything. What they need to start learning is that their actions can cause pain to other people. And once they understand that, then they’re likely to want to apologize on their own in some way.
For a parent who’s just learning about positive discipline, what’s the first step they can take, or something they can implement in the short term?
I think really giving thought to what kind of person you hope your child will be when they’re grown up. What kind of person, and then how do I model that? So if I want my child to be honest, I don’t force them to say things they don’t mean. And I don’t do things to make them afraid of me, because then I’m training them to be dishonest and hide things. If I want my child to be empathic, then I need to help them understand other people’s feelings, recognizing that it’s a gradual process. I want them to be good problem solvers as opposed to freaking out when something goes wrong, then I need to help them learn how to do that, I have to be able to know how to do that.
That’s often the hard part, right? Because if we were faced with a lot of punishment and a lot of coercion, it’s really hard to see what an alternative could be.
It really is the most difficult part of the process. It can take a lot to unlearn and stop relying on our automatic reactions.
The story that I often tell is a kind of an illustration of this process. My son was three or four years old and we were in the bathroom. Suddenly he grabbed his dad’s toothbrush and dropped it in the toilet. And that’s one of those everyday things where you have so many choices about how to respond to that. But how we do respond comes from what was scripted into us.
So if I did something like that [as a kid] and I was hit, I probably can almost reflexively spank him. Or if I was sent to my room, that’s probably what I would do. But in a matter of seconds I went through this in my mind, what are my long term goals? I want him to trust me, I don’t want him to be afraid of me. I want him to come to me whenever he makes a mistake like this later in his life. So I don’t want to do anything in this moment that’s going to start building fear in him. What else do I want? I want him to not ever do that again, but I want to understand why. So how do I help him understand why? And I want him to know that he can fix his mistakes and make things up to people.
I’m thinking, he plays in the sink all the time. He loves water. We had little toys that we’d set him up on towels and just let him play in the water. So to him water is water. He doesn’t know why this is a big deal. So I started to explain about germs and a little bit about plumbing and how, if we flush that it’s gonna clog it, and then I’m going to call a plumber and it’s gonna cost money that I’d way rather put toward our holidays. And now Daddy doesn’t have a toothbrush. So what are we gonna do? And he just looked at me and said, “Mom, I should buy him a new one.” And so he went into his room and he got his little money. And we went to the drugstore, and he bought him a new toothbrush. And then we came back home, and he went into his dad’s office, and he said, Daddy, I dropped your toothbrush in the toilet. I’m sorry. And he meant it.
So he apologized on his own.
He did. I didn’t tell him he had to apologize. He meant it because he understood. What more do we want? Like, why would making him suffer have created a better outcome than that? We have this urge to make them suffer in some way. He didn’t suffer at all, our relationship didn’t suffer at all. We had a conversation. He learned, he never, ever dropped anything in the toilet again. He didn’t have to be hurt. He didn’t have to be humiliated. He didn’t have to be punished, he just needed to understand.
I love that example. It really is a choose your own adventure in terms of how one reacts. You’ve spoken about how in moments of frustration and stress, we often become versions of ourselves that we don’t like, or that we didn’t know existed until we had kids. It seems like parents who follow the PDEP framework and practice self-regulation long term can avoid a lot of regret. Has that been your experience?
That’s a really good question. Parents carry so much regret and shame. And I think part of what makes parenting challenging is feeling like, I am ashamed of that, I regret that, I feel terrible about that, but I keep doing it over and over and over. And what we need is a new way of thinking. To take a problem-solving approach as opposed to feeling like we always have to be in control. If we think that the child’s job is to comply, then we’re setting ourselves up for a lot of conflict and a lot of failure and a lot of regrets. If we think of ourselves as mentors to a child, and recognize this child has very little knowledge of how things work, and they don’t understand other people’s feelings, they don’t understand time, they don’t understand danger, they don’t understand death, they don’t understand all the things we understand. Then I see myself as more their protector and mentor.
Definitely. And what are some things that parents should know about how this situation might be affecting children, how the stress of our current situation might affect their behavior?
I think that it’s helpful as parents recognize that this is placing extra stress on everybody and the things that ordinarily stress us are being amplified. If a child gets really frustrated that they can’t see their friends, or they refuse to do their schoolwork, they’re not being bad, they’re being placed in a situation that’s really hard for them. And we need to try to talk with them about it. you know, What’s it like for you and how can we make this work together?. But also often we just feel anger. If we recognize it as I’m struggling, you’re struggling, let’s just take some time here and see if we can figure out a way to make this work. What do you need? What do I need? And how can we figure this out? Because otherwise, it could be just days of fighting, and that’s really awful and very detrimental in the long term.