elevating child care

If Gentle Discipline Isn’t Working, This Might Be the Reason

If you’re reading here because you’re committed to guiding your child’s behavior without spankings or punishments, I salute you, especially if you were punished as a child and are looking for a better way.

Setting limits without punishments works. In fact, it works so beautifully that you’ll find you need to set fewer and fewer limits, especially once the toddler years have passed.  Many of you have sent me inspiring stories about the positive results you are experiencing, often immediately.

I also hear a lot about what isn’t working from parents who believe they are practicing gentle discipline.  Parents share about behavior that might have started as minor testing but has become more aggressive, destructive, defiant or deliberate. I hear about needy, demanding five year olds, preschoolers intentionally hurting their peers, and children who seem either fragile or angry much of the time.

Parents wonder: How can my child keep acting this way when I’m committed to respectful, non-punitive guidance?

I had a sudden inkling about the reason while re-reading blogger Suchada Eickemeyer’s post: “The Most Valuable Parenting Phrase After ‘I Love You’”.  The important phrase she refers to is, “I won’t let you.” Suchada remarks, “This phrase has helped me become the disciplinarian I want to be: in charge, but not controlling; gentle, but firm; honest; clear; and direct.”

There seems to be a common misconception that gentle, non-punitive discipline means avoiding a direct confrontation with the child rather than providing the simple, connected response children need when, for example, they hit the dog.  In this case, appropriate discipline would mean getting down on the floor next to the child, making eye contact and saying calmly, “I won’t let you hit the dog, that hurts” while holding the child’s hand or otherwise blocking the hit.

My sense is that many parents over-complicate this issue, perhaps because of confusion about some of the terms commonly used in regard to discipline, terms like ‘connection’, ‘unmet needs’ and ‘playful’.


Yes, children need to feel connected for discipline to be successful. But how? When I hear the word ‘connection’, hugging, laughing and running through grass together come to mind, not saying “no” and  possibly upsetting my child.  Connection during boundary setting doesn’t look warm and fuzzy, but it is crucial. Here are the two most important ways to connect:

1.  Just talk to your child

Most of the advice I hear about setting limits suggests wording that subtly skirts a direct confrontation and distances us when we should be connecting.  The verbal examples are commonly in third person, “it is not okay to…”, “Mommy doesn’t like it when you…”, or “Joey isn’t allowed to…” Then there’s the philosophical approach: “Faces are not for slapping”, “Streets are not for running into”, “Friends are not for biting”. Or, the royal “we”: “We don’t throw food” (while our perceptive toddlers are thinking, “well, some of us don’t”).

Personally, I’m even a little uncomfortable with “Honey (or Sweetie, or Pumpkin), don’t hurt the dog.” Terms of endearment at times like these sound phony and patronizing to me, especially if the adult is feeling annoyed while faking calm and affection.

“I won’t let you” (or “I can’t let you” or “I don’t want you to”) instantly connect us person-to-person and clarify our expectations. This is the connection children need first and foremost when they misbehave. Toddlers don’t miss a trick, so they need (and deserve) a respectful, straight answer. We can run through the grass together afterwards.

2. Acknowledge and empathize

Children need their perspective and feelings acknowledged when we are setting limits. (I describe this in detail in “The Key To Your Child’s Heart”.) It is usually best to empathize after first setting the limit (“I won’t let you”). But empathy means understanding and supporting, not going down with the ship.  In other words, reflect verbally, (“You were upset about not getting another cracker”, or “you wanted my attention when I was busy talking to Grandma, so you threw the food”), but don’t get upset or discouraged when your child has an emotional reaction to your limits. That level of connection isn’t healthy for either of us. It wears us out and clouds our perspective, making effective guidance less possible, and our child is without the strong anchor she needs.

Unmet needs

By the time they are 18 months of age, most children are fully aware of many of the things we don’t want them to do. So, why do they do them? There are many possibilities to consider, but only after we fulfill the child’s number one need in that moment of limit-pushing behavior.  If we hesitate to set a limit with conviction because we’re trying to figure out what is driving our child’s behavior, he or she is left with a faltering, vague or inconclusive message instead of real help.

The most common need children have when they act out is our attention, beginning with a very specific kind of attention — a kind but firm acknowledgement of their behavior and of our expectation.


Anyone who knows me can tell you that I’m a silly, playful person and parent.  I love the genuine, spontaneous playfulness and joking that happens with children when I feel confident about my leadership. Playfulness is wonderful when we’re “feeling it”, and it helps us encourage cooperation for cleaning up toys or brushing teeth. But I don’t advise playfulness as a technique for limit setting when it replaces (or dances around) the connected, honest, clear response children need.

I also think advising playfulness imposes even more pressure on parents to keep children happy all the time, which most of us would do if we thought it possible or healthy or the route to true happiness.  But always smiling isn’t real life or a real relationship. Our kids know better, and they deserve both.

I offer a complete guide to respectful discipline in my new book:

NO BAD KIDS: Toddler Discipline Without Shame

(Photo by roland.lakis on Flickr)

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139 Responses to “If Gentle Discipline Isn’t Working, This Might Be the Reason”

  1. avatar Mom of Two Year Old says:

    Just wondering about your advice for my situation. My 2.5 year old daughter tests with us at home, but is really quite easy, I believe. HOWEVER, at preschool, she is causing the teachers a lot of headache. We are now in constant communication with them about her and we are worried that they will kick her out of the school, which she loves and would be heartbroken to leave. This is what they say she does:

    1) Refuses to pick up toys at clean up time. She either stands in a corner or runs outside.
    2) Laughs during time-outs. They give her 2-minute time-outs because she is 2 years old.
    3) Is loud and active during naptime, distrupting the other kids.
    4) Says, “chicken butt” during snack time, after being asked not to and after having had time out.
    5) Challenges teachers when asked not to do things, such as putting her feet in a cubby. She will argue that her feet are not in the cubby, since they are not touching the bin inside the cubby (or some such technicaility).

    They are quite unhappy with her behavior and it sounds like she is an outlier in the school (as in, most the kids are more compliant than she is).

    My husband is completely mortified by this and wants to start punishments in earnest (acting angry with her, taking away activities and toys) whenever he hears that she has been defiant at school. He picks her up every day and gets a daily report from her afternoon teacher. He feels that we are to blame for her behavior, because we are not strict enough with her. He believes that we are harming her by not being more strict, because the repercussions of her behavior might break her heart (getting kicked out of school).

    What do you recommend we do?

    • avatar Nikki says:

      All those behaviors from a 2 yr. old need to be ignored. Put the toy bin at one side of the area and have her throw them in like playing basketball would help. Time out for a 2 yr. old? Nope. Also, if she is distracting others during naptime she should be moved to a different room. Silly names? 2 yr. old normal. Putting feet in the cubby? Ignore. They just don’t know how children are or something? I’d find a different place. Sounds like they want the 2 yr. old to be 6 yrs. old instead.

    • avatar Vlad says:

      I hope i am not disrespectful but i have laughed with tears at your post. She is so cheeky at 2,5 yrs old? Mine already has a PHD at that age :)))). If she gets better, take her to the doctor. As a father, maybe not the most experienced and as a dog trainer i learned the following:
      1 – Never punish – correct by forbidding and redirecting (punishment requires that the subject has the ability to connect his behavior with the punishment that comes minutes or even hours after the fact)- if you don’t catch her in the act, foget about it, correct it next time
      2 – respect the needs of the subject – if they are energetic, give them action! If you really want her to sleep, turn off all the lights, close the room where you are sleeping WITH her and go to sleep, ignoring her requests or her noise making. She will play for a while and then fall
      3 – If she is behaving well at home, than they are the idiots! Kids have the ability to understand whether the person in front of them deserve their respect. Let them kick her out eventually as it won’t kill her – judging by their methods (“time out” as punishment), it won’t be such a loss!
      Things i say here are backed by most ethologists and behaviorists, but that is a much longer story..
      VERY IMPORTANT: sounds like you are doing an excellent job at home! Don’t let people full you, she is well behaved at home, than she is well behaved – she’s 2,5, for god sake! :)

    • avatar Jennifer says:

      Find a new school. There are amazing and respectful schools. She sounds like an intelligent kid with a keen perception of her surroundings, find her a space to match her not squash her.

  2. avatar cassie says:

    I worked in a daycare, we had very loose “rules”, we had “safe spot”, and “make good choices” for some of the kids, this did not work. If the school is not working to develop a discipline plan that is effective for your child, than I would find a new school. Especially if you are paying for her to go there. Not every daycare/preschool is a perfect fit for every child. Even in public schools, if a discipilne plan isn’t working for a specific child, the teacher has to reevaluate what they are doing to create an appropriate plan. The rules are still the same, but how it is handled may be different

  3. avatar Inger says:

    So for 2+ months we have been using theses techniques with a little 18 mo girl who bites. Trouble is she bites with no warning most of the time! I have 4-5 children here, with me and my assistant keeping our eyes out for any situation that might get out of hand. She has also started hitting and pinching now, and is really hurting the other (mainly older by a few months) children. Since we are not close enough to physically stop her, all we can do is tell her after the fact that “I don’t want you to bite, I don’t like it and it makes “child’s name” sad. I have to work really hard not to let my frustration show! Her grandma says she spend yesterday with 10 children and there were NO incidents. That makes it hard for us to understand, intuitively it feels like we are doing the right thing, but I’m not sure everybody believes us. Please help!

    • avatar Ursula says:

      Sounds like this child is biting for attention. She may be doing it because she’s bored and gets attention from you after she does it. When a bite occurs the hurt child should get all of the attention while the biter should be told do not do that and totally ignored.

      • avatar Suzie says:

        I disagree, in totally ignoring the biter it is saying to that child that their feelings don’t matter and that will only perpetuate the unwanted behaviour. Behaviours/actions are all determined by our thoughts and emotions at that moment in time, so I my opinion the biter needs her emotions lovingly acknowledging, once the bitten child has been lovingly tended to.

  4. avatar racal says:

    What if your child DOES NOT care about what you won’t let them do? I am commited to positive discipline but I have a 3y/o that truly will not listen to one single thing that I say, no matter what. If he hits our dog and I block it and say “i won’t let you” he just continues anyway. He does not care if he is asked not to, doesn’t care about anyone’s feelings about anything and even back when we used timeout or sent them to rooms he didn’t care about that and would come out doing the same thing. positive discipline and connection have worked wonders with my 4y/o and 2y/o but my 3y/o isn’t having any kind of discipline. I feel pretty lost with him. And, yes he gets a great amount of attentiona dn plenty of one on one. his diet is also as close as can be to perfect… completely sugar and caffiene free etc… he is very very smart and very sweet, loving and kind when he wants to be but if he wants to do anything, he does it and no one can make him stop. his pediatrician sees the issue as well and has recommended psychologists but im not sure. any other options?

    • avatar Bibi says:

      My own daughter was like that. We also had a super healthy, homemade, organic diet–I even tried restricting our diet from milk, eggs, etc. but it made zero difference.

      It’s like she didn’t have feelings, only a desire to push buttons that was not attached to any ulterior motive like the need for connection or love. Connection, love, attention: none of these affected her behavior in the short or long term.

      Finally I decided that if I was going to have a child that could function in the world I was going to have to do what worked, no matter what, with the caveat that if I could get arrested for it I wouldn’t do it.

      The only think that worked was, “If you can’t be nice to people/dogs/whatever, you can’t be around people/dogs/whatever.” And total isolation.

      Her motivation, her key motivation in life, is to get any response or stimulus from the living beings around her. This seems strange to me but she reacts the same to yelling, gentle guidance, firm limits, anything. If you’re there, it’s like her brain says, “Yep. This is a good situation. Keep doing this.”

      So we removed her from that and put her in her room, a safe place, but all alone. Door locked. (When she was <3 she had a water bottle and a potty; light was always on.)

      I realize this sounds super anti-connection.

      But the fact was, this was the only way to connect with the child. The only way to communicate "this is not okay; what you are doing is breaking our connection" was to physically remove her from the positive reinforcement she was getting. And again, *any physical, verbal, or sight contact was to her, positive reinforcement*, even saying things like, "You're hurting me so stop or I will make you stop," Her reaction to that was EXACTLY THE SAME as it would be to, "Honey, you seem to be having a hard time" and EXACTLY THE SAME as it would be if I yelled at her, or even if you took her things away. All of it said, "You're part of the group and you're making me do something."

      So, that was my solution. I've had a super hard time in a house without locks BUT even two years in that situation, when I could completely cut off her power source, was very helpful.

      This comment might not go through. I know people here don't know people like my kid (I have two–the little one is not like this AT ALL, she is normal, cries when others are sad, etc. etc.). But I do. And I feel for people who've had to do what I have.

      But now she associates hurting others with something that keeps her out of the group, and she's actually improving… albeit slowly.

  5. avatar Nicole Tate says:

    Dear Janet, this was extremely timely for me, but I have a burning question. I am wondering what to do when I get there too late! The action is complete, the eldest has whacked the youngest (it can happen in an instant) and I’m left picking up the pieces. I want him to know it’s not ok, but I want able to “not let him do that” in time. He gets plenty of one on one time, connection, unconditional love, clear limits at all times I can be there to say the clear “I won’t let you do that” and also plenty of time free to explore his safe back yard without me fussing. In short, I’ve been working determinedly with non punitive, connection based parenting and we seen great age appropriate growth in my children’s confidence and calm affectionate behaviour, but I still struggle with how to respond when it’s after the event scenarios.

    Nicole Tate

  6. avatar Katie says:

    I have the same question as Nicole. My 3.5 year old keeps on pushing over his 7 month old sister and hurting her. I cannot catch it each time. Timeout has not worked. I feel anxious whenever I leave the room for a moment and leave them alone for a second. I am at a loss. Also jumping on the couch is an issue that timeouts haven’t worked on. We have a small apartment and the only room he can go into without a couch is his bedroom. Please help!

    Thank you,

    • avatar Bibi says:

      Katie, it is not realistic to leave a child under seven and a baby alone. You must bring the baby with you every time.

      This is not negotiable. Even if you are the best mom in the world with the best 5 year old in the world, no pediatrician or psychologist in her right mind would suggest leaving kids of those two ages (much less a 3.5 year old!) alone for even a single second.

      The discipline issue is secondary to this. I had two children with a similar spread. I know that it is extremely, extremely difficult and soul-sucking. In some families, it might mean every dinner for two years has at least one canned and one frozen ingredient. I get that.

      But you just can’t leave a baby and a pre-schooler in a room together–ever.

  7. avatar Vlad says:

    I like your article and i think it makes a good point.
    But, i avoid eye contact when forbidding. Eye contact in conflict is bad, in my opinion because:
    – we are huge compared with toddlers;
    – eye contact is, in all animal regnum, a threat in itself unless in playful context;
    Therefore, it will introduce fear in the relationship and maybe even create a reflex of shyness in confrontational situations later in life (lack of assertivity.
    Thank you!

    • avatar janet says:

      Thank you, Vlad. I’m not sure what you are basing your opinions on, but I could not disagree more with your point about eye contact. It is when we avoid eye contact that children feel uncomfortable and wary, just as I would if you avoided eye contact with me. I would sense you lacked conviction or were being dishonest. I would not trust you. Humans definitely differ from animals in this respect. Children need to feel our solid connection with them in these situations.

      • avatar Emily N says:

        Eye contact means different things in different cultures. We need to be aware of other people’s frame of reference before making that sort of judgment (trust or not, etc.)

      • avatar Audrey Hanson says:

        I can see what Vlad is saying. I was a very shy child and uncomfortable with direct and especially prolonged eye contact.
        It very definitely can make people uncomfortable. I still remember a teacher leaning in and demanding that I look at her again and again and how I hated her for it. I know that is not what you are saying necessarily Janet (you are talking about looking in their eyes not demanding that they look at yours) but it can be intimidating for some children.

    • avatar Ursula says:

      Could you explain further? OR if you could provide links to references. Thx

  8. avatar Grandma Kathy says:

    When one of my grandsons behaved like that his parents took him for testing. It turned out he had suddenly developed Asbergers Syndrome. Now he is 16 years old, happy, goes to a special school, is very bright, is not social, but can control himself with his medication and a lot of consistent loving training.
    If that turns out to be what is going on, take heart there is a lot of parent support and education to help parents learn how to assist their children and lead them to good goals.

  9. Hi janet! I m new to RIE parenting. I have been reading your posts and trying to implement them for quite a while now. But what I really need help with is I am raising my 20month toddler with few other moms in one house. They all have toddlers and preschoolers and schoolers… but no one follows any method I know off… soo even though i m trying, i don’t achieve much results bcz there are multi disciplinary methods…is there anyway I can proparly take charge of my child? Desperately in need of help!

    • avatar janet says:

      Hi! It’s hard to help you without knowing the specifics you are referring to. What you should know is that your interactions with your daughter are what will have the most formative impact.

  10. avatar Mia says:

    My nephew is a spoiled little brat. His mom always read these child behavior things and say you have to be gentle, you can’t do that and this. I think kids are much smarter than they look and the more they can get away with things, they will do so. I feel like he thinks he has total control and knows how to manipulate and get what he wants. Seriously, I’m not against hitting a child as long as it’s not beating (like hitting their hand just so they’d feel it). When they are little, parents need to guide them, so they know what is right and wrong. If he yanks an animal’s tail, I want to yank his hair so he knows what it feels like. When you are younger, adults do know more. They need to learn how to respect the elders. I hate kids that seems to be out of control and the parent’s excuse is “oh they are just kids.” Teach them? I think it’s important to always explains reasons for things, so they know that the parents are not upset for no reason. Brushing it off is like ignoring the problem. I don’t think you should yell or scream. That solves nothing and it’s just like an adult throwing a tantrum. But showing them the importance of not hurting others and to prevent them from hurting themselves is quite important. You can’t be soft and let things go when it comes to that.

    • avatar Gemma says:

      So you pull the hair of small children. You also think that all elders should be respected, regardless of faults? Jerry Sandusky and Charles Manson are senior citizens, should your children respect them? If you treat a child with respect, they will learn to respect, and lemme tell ya, that doesn’t come from pulling their hair. I’m not anti-punishment, I punish my kids and smack their hands when appropriate; I’m anti-treating your kid like they are a lesser person.

  11. avatar JJJ says:

    Complete bull shit article! I believe in the Bible way and that means loving your kids while spanking when necessary.

    • avatar janet says:

      Good luck with that

    • avatar Gayle Holten says:

      The Bible also says “Parents, do not stir the wrath in your children.” But you don’t hear spankers quoting this one so much, do you? How about this one…”a kind word turns away wrath.” Spankers have been cherry picking scripture for generations to rationalize their behavior of hitting children. If you want to follow Jesus then you will practice loving discipline.

  12. avatar C J Carpenter says:

    There is an “old” book still around called the “Bible” .. It seems that it s primary teaching on this subject is ‘reward and punishment’. In other words, do as I say, behave and you will receive a reward. If not then you will receive punishment.

    I personally would be uncomfortable to disagree with this system, considering who established it.
    respectfully submitted,

    • avatar janet says:

      Parenting is about building a relationship with your child and guiding, rather than manipulating him or her through these isolated “lessons”. The path you speak of is one that leads to children never really trusting you and, eventuallly, not wanting to be with you. If you consider that a a good trade-off for obedience, then… amen.

  13. avatar Samantha says:

    I really appreciate this article. It highlights a few things we’ve continued to struggle with as parents. We say we don’t make calm people as a joke. We have a 4 (almost 5) year old, 3 year old, and 1.5 year old. They are ALL very independent, curious, smart little people. We love these things about them but it can be a lot to handle!

    Our eldest has sensory issues on top of this (which we get extra help for in the form of OT and now play therapy). She is very challenging.

    I had to laugh reading the various version of “don’t do that” because we’ve tried all the language tricks we could find.

    We’ll add these tidbits into our arsenal. The more we communicate and connect with our kids the better off the entire household is, I find. The further we have come from my own “traditional” southern upbringing and my husband’s manipulative/permissive the better things are overall. It’s honestly a lot harder.

    I like to think we are parenting them with a goal to have thriving adults whose spirited nature is a blessing to those around them. If we were to follow through with the obsession of temporarily having an illusion of control over our kids through “proper” punishment we would not only stomp on their spirits but lose out on the hopefully long-lasting relationships we are building with them.

    For the record, we also believe fully in the Bible. We like to keep in mind the word Disciple when we are disciplining our kids to help direct our approach.

    Did you know the latin roots of disciple or discipline mean learn, instruction, and knowledge. In contrast, the latin roots for punishment or punitive is penalty or pain. The root of parents means “bring forth”.

    I recall the Psalm that calls children and “like arrows in the hands of a warrior”.

    Arrows cannot be shot if they are broken.

  14. avatar sue says:

    Spot on! Wish I had your brain Janet, agh! Thank you So much for sharing,Helping us all to be better parents. From a Bible-believer ;)

  15. avatar naledi says:

    I’m very confused about my child’s behavior at home she is doing things right when i tell her to right but at school she doesn’t I don’t know what could be the problem with her the teacher says she is playful and not ready to go to grade two I need help

  16. avatar Karen says:

    I feel angry reading this article and further advice for parents. It’s just not working. With myself in the same room all day every day with a ten month old and a two and a half year old, my ten month old still gets pushed and hit. They both get more connection, co sleep and are alone for seconds as I switch laundry, if I ever do laundry which if you look around my house is pretty much never. The little one gets pushed right in front of my face at random. Since the two year old has never been “not allowed” to do anything unless I held him very tightly while he tries to get away and return to the behavior and because he has a language delay, those words mean NOTHING to him. I really hoped for some magic answer because I feel it is entirely unfair that my oldest grew up without any idea of violence but now my youngest has to be violated by his brother until he grows into impulse control. I feel infuriated by the futility of this. I’m doing my best but this just isn’t practical advice. I’m starting to come to the opinion that it’s all bull and you either have a child who is a pleaser or you don’t. I don’t. I’m ok that he’s free spirited. I’m sad for little brother and there’s really no solution for free spirited kids who act whimsically.

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