Respectful Discipline: How Can You Empower Your Children?


As parents, we wield a huge amount of power over our young children. The word ‘No!’ started to appear more often in our house around the time that our firstborn learned to reach out and grab for hot coffee cups, or someone’s eyeball. Of course, you can say ‘that’s hot and dangerous’ or ‘that hurts mummy, please don’t do that’ or even, with false merriment, ‘mummy needs her retinas darling, please don’t try to detach them’. The meaning is still a clear negative.

When it comes to their children, parents can give power and take it away in a most unequal fashion. It’s no wonder that young children have tantrums. No one likes to be ordered about, or have their desires thwarted. Children are smaller, less good at arguing, and less able to control their world, their families, their bodies, and their emotions. However deep down the urge seems to be buried, they want to please and be pleasing. When there is a power struggle, parents can be sure of winning much of the time. Young children need parents to occupy this position of authority, but also to build that certain self-confidence that comes from gaining control of one’s destiny.

When disputes arise, how best to handle them with sensitivity to children’s need for power? A complicating factor is that there are different reasons behind power struggles, so they require different kinds of response. The question of how to both discipline and empower children has to be answered in a way which reflects these variations. That children require boundaries is widely accepted, so doing nothing is not a sound option. Also, it is worth considering evidence which suggests that forms of discipline which diminish a child’s sense of personal agency, tend to be unsuccessful. One such study, headed by Dr Laure De Preux at the London School of Economics, found that spanking, shouting at, or ignoring the child, increased undesirable behaviour, while reasoning with the child provided positive results.

A while ago, I read a post by Glossologics about the meaning of the word ’empower’. The term was coined to describe how a king or queen might delegate responsibility to underlings, giving them the power to act on their behalf. They would take a small chunk of power and hand it over for the designated purpose, and in all other matters the usual decree of the realm would apply.

I commented at the time that

I’ve been thinking about this word a lot lately with regard to parenting. When I think ‘what principle am I basing my parenting on?’ The answer is that I want to empower them to pursue fulfilling lives, to have the self-confidence and moxy to go after what they want (and perhaps also less lofty goals like getting them to tie their own shoelaces!). At the moment they are very little, so it is about asking stuff like ‘how can I help my daughter to learn to use the loo when she gets the urge’ rather than ‘how can I make my daughter admit she needs wee and put her on the loo in time’. The meaning of empowerment for me is to help her in attaining control for herself, rather than trying to control my child.

I realised later that this was a bit simplistic, as the definition deals more with learning behaviours which benefit the child and parent. There are, of course, other kinds of behaviour which parents need to discourage, based on safety, pragmatism, culture, morality, timing, or location.

So yes, there are the things we want a kids to start doing for themselves like eating, dressing, going to the toilet, and so on. For this we can devolve control to the child without too much conflict of interest. Once the usual ups and downs of learning are accounted for, it is straightforward. Though children vacillate between desiring independence and checking you are still there as back up, they all want to attain mastery of these things one day. Power struggles will arise in these situations when the parent tries to force the child, and research shows that it is counter- productive. Best to concentrate on removing obstacles to independence and providing ‘scaffolding’ where necessary. For example, rather than forcing a child to sit on the toilet on demand, making it easier for a child to access the toilet by leaving the door open, providing a child seat, and placing a stool at the base of the loo.

On the other hand, there are also the things they do unbidden, which you want them to desist: Those actions which experience has taught us are not a good idea; the behaviours which fly in the face of common human decency; the active screwing with cultural expectations; the rebellion against the law of the family unit. Sometimes one behaviour can be controversial for all the above reasons. Lapping water out of a puddle or hitting an unsuspecting sibling over the head with a bucket, are recent examples that spring to mind.

There are also the moments of curiosity: what will happen if I take a spoon and drop milk ever so gradually onto my jumper? So many experiments need doing in childhood. After ruling out hitting, yelling, or ignoring when these transgressions occur, there is still plenty of scope for dealing with them in different ways.

The consequences should probably relate to the action as far as possible, which means that there are no blanket measures which cover everything. However, showing respect for the child’s feelings and understanding of their wishes must be a steady bedrock for any number of approaches. At least then it seems that you are on the same side, rather than opposed parties.

I would argue that a greater sense of grievance should be communicated for doing things which harm others than for simply being gross. The means of imparting this would be various depending on family style. In our house, we usually draw attention to the injured party and encourage making amends. A repeat performance earns a timeout: sitting on the ‘timeout spot’ for a few minutes. On the rare occasion of a vicious attack, their is an immediate timeout policy so everyone can cool down. In my experience, I am not convinced of the efficacy of timeouts in preventing the behaviour from reoccurring, but find them useful for disengaging the child from a power struggle with me or their sibling. A bit of breathing space can be important in resolving difficult situations. It is not a perfect system, but one which our kids know about, and is established in our family, so they will probably remain part of our discipline approach until we work out something better or the kids grow out of it.

There are a number of things which you must make the child do or not because their wellbeing depends on it. A kid has to sit in their car seat during travel, cannot eat a poisonous plant, and must not run into the road or hurl themselves out of the window. Though many of these struggles can be preempted by removing the danger or otherwise child-proofing, this is not always the case. The child has to learn of worldly danger and there is no room for negotiation as far as I can see. In these situations, perhaps the best thing is to offer a brief and to the point explanation as to why the unwanted action is dangerous, as well as putting an unequivocal foot down.

Finally, there are the things which you are happy for your child to do, but not in the particular time and place you are in. For instance, the urge to dress up as a dragon when you have to be out of the door ten minutes ago, or to start an ambitious art project at bedtime, or to squirt water all over the place while standing on a slippery tiled kitchen floor. Perhaps a way of dealing with these situations is to either assure that the dragon costume or art project will be available at a specified later date and mean it, or to find a way for the activity to move to a more acceptable location. For instance, laying out the costume ready for the return home, or providing apparatus for outside water games.

In the end, we are not so different as the rulers of a principality. Young children do need looking after and we are responsible for preserving their wellbeing, demonstrating behaviour we would like them to learn (while knowing for a fact that we shall transgress at times too), and showing them where and when it is appropriate to act in particular ways . Children cannot do this for themselves and we need to support and yet, at times, curtail their personal freedom.

I do try to remember that when a high pitched whine is emanating from one of the kids, it indicates that something is interfering with their ability to control their world. Often, that something is me. If I do not want to listen to a load of wailing then reflecting on the following questions helps to assess the behaviour:

  • what does the child want to do?
  • Is it a reasonable thing to do?
  • If not then….
  • Is it unreasonable because of morals, hygiene, geography, or time?
  • what choices can be offered in place of allowing the unreasonable action?

This is not a ‘how to’ post, but an attempt to reflect on ways of disciplining with respect for the child’s position: setting clear boundaries, but also looking for ways to help them explore the social and material worlds they inhabit. I have not sorted out a perfect approach for my family, let alone everyone else’s! There are so many methods that are brilliant or useless depending on the current circumstances or personality of a particular child. I would love to hear how other parents answer this question: how do you balance saying ‘No!’ with empowering your kids?


4 thoughts on “Respectful Discipline: How Can You Empower Your Children?

  1. Very good question, Alexis. We are also trying to figure out how to continue saying no and empowering Lea as she grows up. For me, it’s choosing my battles. I am now 5 months pregnant and don’t always have the energy to react to every thing that bothers me, but there are some lines that can not be crossed and you mentioned them in your post: when the child willingly harms me or someone else or when the child does something which will endanger her. Then, it’s usually warning, if the child doesn’t stop, then timeout. We’ve just introduced a beeping timer that goes off after the required time and she really responds to it well and stays on her timeout stool. As you said, I don’t think it really stops them from doing the same thing again, but at least we get a bit of breathing time and space. The other day, Lea decided to experiment by putting a while roll of toilet paper down the loo complete with cardboard roll and of course blocked the toilet. She watched me calmly pull all of the offending paper out while holding the bucket for me. I explained why it was a bad idea and said next time, only 3 sheets were enough. Since then, she reminds me when I use the loo that I must only use the required amount, OK, Mama? 🙂 Disciplining is all about being as consistent and patient as one can be at any given time. After all, we’re also experimenting and trying to see what will happen if… Good luck

    • Yes, and now you can NEVER use four sheets. No no. There must be a fair few opportunities for shared learning in the bathroom area as you approach the latter stages of pregnancy. I like the idea of a timer. For me, one of the more difficult things to get to grips with when having a new baby around has been the decision of what to let slide and what is truly important, so a good job you are choosing to preserve your sanity and resilience to intervene over the big things. For me, getting kids to tidy up has gone to back burner, but getting them to empathise with one another remains at the forefront. Don’t love the mess though, so one day we’ll have to have a mass sorting, which I hope I can get them enthused about. It’s amazing watching the sibling relationship develop, which makes up for the increased complications in wrangling them, and general chaos. Sounds like you, Rob, and Lea are building a really strong foundation of mutual respect and love for your new baby girl to rock up into xxxx

  2. I think one of the other key aspects of discipline is in helping the child locate themselves within the boundary system you have going. There are things, for example, which are culturally dependent – by which I mean it might be ok for your child to craft a moustache on their face made out of yoghurt when they’re in the home, but it might not be acceptable in a grandparent’s home or in a fancy restaurant. In other words there are situational nuances that you are aware of that your child will not be.

    Much of the frustration of the tantruming child lies in not knowing where the boundaries lie – and in preferring a black and white approach. Something either is or isn’t and consistency is the key. Shades of grey and the differentiation between them, is something that our kids can’t quite manage yet and I think the shifting boundaries and the behavioural relativism that we end up teaching our kids helps them come to terms with the fact that this is not a one size fits all world.

    • Absolutely! It’s more a case of preparing them to negotiate various small cultures, than adhering to a large culture view of behaviour. I think you have a good point about the source of kid’s frustration too, and that they would rather things were more straightforward. It’s no wonder they spend a lot of time testing those boundaries, especially when we’ve just been away and stayed in a few different places with different rules. I think a lot of frustration lies in feeling powerless, and removing certainties might well contribute to that. So we have to provide patience and consistency as much as we can, until they have the experience to understand these subtleties themselves Xx

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