Top 10 Must Have Tools for Gentle Discipline

So, we arrive at the point where we must think about the gentle discipline tools we have in our toolbox to replace physical punishment, yelling, nagging.  This post is especially applicable to those families with small children under the age of 7, although many of these techniques will work with school-aged children as well.   A brief note before we get to our Top 10, though.

Barbara Patterson and Pamela Bradley say in their book, “Beyond the Rainbow Bridge – Nurturing Our Children from Birth to Seven” this:

“In The Kingdom of Childhood, Rudolf Steiner says that the child in the first seven years is really an eye. If someone has fits of temper and becomes furiously angry either with the child or in the presence of the child, the child will have the picture of this outburst throughout his entire being.   ….Everything we do in the presence of the child goes in deeply.  Scolding, threats, and yelling do not help in disciplining young children.  This approach may actually weaken their ability to deal with situations later in life.”

So the first thing to remember is that we always guide the under-7 child with the principle of imitation.

Imitation Rahima Baldwin Dancy says this in her book, “You Are Your Child’s First Teacher”:  “If you want to teach a certain behavior to your child, one of the best ways is to actually do it in front of (or with) him.  This demands that we as adults get up and actually do something, rather than giving the child orders or directions.”

This idea of imitation is so important, it doesn’t even get a number!  It is the basis for so many things in life with a small child.  A small child will imitate in their play the exact way you do things down to how you throw a cleaning rag in the sink, how you roll your eyes when you are upset, and everything and anything else.  So, when you see a behavior, look first to yourself

So, without much further ado, let’s look at some other tools you can pull out in the moment:

1. Humor – Lots of parents take parenting very seriously.  But please don’t take every word that comes out of your small child ‘s mouth so seriously and feel whatever they say is in deep need of serious explanation and weight. 

Here is an example of a “loaded statement” a child may make.  I had a friend recently ask me about her three-year-old saying “I hate you!” when the child was upset.  Fun?  No, but I would give it about as much weight as a three-year-old telling me they can ride their tricycle over hills in the Land of the Giants.  A three-year-old simply does not understand the depth and weight of that statement, and to imply that the child does is not in accordance with their developmental stage or maturity level.  They are mad; but don’t digress from the original situation and get sidetracked!

I think for children of all ages, a better tact to try sometimes, particularly with children under the age of 12, is humor.  I have a wonderful friend whose parenting I really admire, and humor is her number one tool.  I so enjoy watching it at work.  One day her daughter was in the backseat of their car with some other children,  just playing,  when suddenly she looked  like she lost her balance and sort of fell into the corner of a book.  She was holding her eye and getting upset.  There was no blood, no visible bruising, the eye was not teary or red…….

Daughter:  “Mom, someone hit my eye with their foot!”

Mom:  “I thought it looked like you fell a little into that book.”

Daughter:  “No, no, it was a foot!  It was someone’s foot!” (wailing, gnashing of teeth)

Mom:”Hmmm…..Oh well, in that case – Was it a stinky foot?  Does your eye smell?”

(Little brother is now giggling).  Daughter, still teary:  “I don’t know if it was stinky or not. I didn’t get a chance to smell it.”  (Little brother and adults now laughing).

Mom, grabbing daughter for a hug:  “A stinky foot might cause a stinky eye, let’s see!  Um, yup, definitely stinky!”

This could have gone another way – complete escalation as all the adults were certain it was a book corner in the eye, the daughter was sure it was a foot in the eye (like it matters, still hurts!),  it could have deteriorated into reasoning (well, it couldn’t have been a foot as no one was near you at the time), or just being overly serious and pulling out ice packs and lots of concern (remember, there was no blood, or redness) or it could have turned into a small Treatise On The Danger Of Playing in Close Quarters with Others.

Think about humor, think about not taking it all quite so seriously.  There are many situations where humor can save the day.  Humor helps de-escalate things and also models for your child a positive way to look at the sunny side of things and a way to deal with a stressful or frustrating situation.

Many parents say, Save your big reactions for the big things in life! I agree, but in order to do this, you must know what is BIG in your family and to you.  Think about the developmental stages and what fits where and decide what is BIG….Go back and re-read the post on “Big Tools for the Big Picture of Positive Discipline.”

2.  Distraction – this is a viable tool for all children under 7, and even children that are 7 or 8  can still be fairly distractible.  However, this takes creativity in the heat of the moment to think of an appropriate distraction.  Distraction is not a bribe; it is a way to change to scene to your advantage.

Distraction can also show itself by changing the environment.  Some children just need to be outside when they are upset!

3.  Hugs and kisses and being held – solves lots of things without a lot of words. Sometimes you do not need to say much of anything to your child; just holding them lets them know you are there for them.

4. Pictorial imagery –  This is a Waldorf tool that is very useful with small children.  Instead of pulling children into their heads and into a thought-decision kind of process, try using phrases that paint a picture instead.  This can be anything from “Turn that siren down!” for a noisy little one or “Hop like a bunny over here for some food.”  You are re-directing behavior into something more positive through the images that arise from these types of phrases.  For those interested in more about pictorial imagery, please do see Donna Simmons’ bookstore and look under her audio downloads for her CD entitled, “Talking Pictorially” at 

5. Use of the word “may”  – as in, “Little Johnny, you may bring your plate to the counter for me.  Thank you!”  Be sincere, and this word works well as you set the tone for your own home.

6. Limited choices, less words or no words at all – Sometimes just a look suffices more than a hundred words.  Try just helping your child get into their coat while you sing a song that you usually sing when you go outside.  Try just handing your child their toothbrush after their bath instead of a whole book about the necessity of dental hygiene.  This idea leads to…

7.  Time-in.  According to Alfie Kohn, author of Unconditional Parenting,

“Sometimes parents are advised to use a time-out instead of spanking their kids – as though these were the only two options available. The reality, as we’ve seen, is that both of these tactics are punitive. They differ only with respect to whether children will be made to suffer by physical or emotional means. If we were forced to choose one over the other, then, sure time-outs are preferable to spankings. For that matter, spanking kids is preferable to shooting them, but that’s not much of an argument for spanking.”  -Alfie Kohn, Unconditional Parenting, page 65-66.

“Time-out is actually an abbreviation for time out from positive reinforcement. The practice was developed almost half a century ago as a way of training laboratory animals….When you send a child away, what’s really being switched off or withdrawn is your presence, your attention, your love. You may not have thought of it that way.” -Alfie Kohn, Unconditional Parenting, page 26-27.

So, consider the value of time-in instead.  Some families have a place where adults and children can sit together until they all calm down, some mothers just have their child sit near them while they do some sort of rhythmical work.

8.  Ignoring –yup, you heard me right.  The Gesell Institute books routinely recommend turning a blind eye to some of your child’s behaviors if it is not hurting others or themselves (or just driving you plain crazy!).  There are times to draw a line in the sand, but if you nit-pick every behavior, you are on the verge of demanding, and not commanding as an Authentic Leader.

9.  Physical follow-through – If you say something to a small child, you should expect to have to physically  help them follow through.  You should expect to have to physically hold an upset child if they need it.  The physicality of life with a small child is always there – hugs, kisses, a lap to sit on and help to do things as needed.  The child’s respect and dignity always needs to be respected, so you need to be calm when you are following through, but please remember a young child under 7 is probably not going to function well on verbal directives alone.

Rahima Baldwin Dancy states in her book, “You Are Your Child’s First Teacher”:  “It isn’t until elementary-school age that a child is ready to respond consistently to authority that is expressed only through the spoken word without being accompanied by actions. With the preschool age child, you need to correct and demonstrate again and again, but you can’t expect children to remember it.  Their memories simply aren’t that mature yet.”

10.  FREEZE!  One of the best tools in parenting is learning to take that quick pause in your mind’s eye and ask yourself if what you are about to do is going to help your child be the adult they were meant to be; is it going to escalate or de-escalate the situation, is it going to teach your child something or is it just a moment of anger for you that will pass?

This series of posts about being an Authentic Leader has been great fun for me to write.  I would love to hear from all of you what situations you could use help with in being an Authentic Leader in your own home; please leave it in the comment section and I would love to address it in a future blog posting!

Just a few thoughts from my little corner of the world.

20 thoughts on “Top 10 Must Have Tools for Gentle Discipline

  1. Pingback: Peaceful Living with the Six-Year-Old « The Parenting Passageway

  2. I have one of the unique experiences of being born into an asian family in a time of financial crisis and growth in my lifetime. My little brother and sister are 10 and 8 years younger than I am respectively, and when I was 12 and up, I was called upon to raise them with little to no interaction with other children outside of my brother and sister. No hanging out with anyone my age, I was called upon to watch over them after school, until 3 AM when my parents were done with work (not to say I didn’t sleep when I should have as a child ).

    So I in effect became their third father, while being at the same time their brother. Their older brother, who shared with them the suffering of a mother who suffered under a step father who was better, if still not good, like their real father before him.

    I’m sorry if that’s exceedingly wordy, and fails to make sense, that’s how I communicate in the english language.

    Sooo, I understand that these things are necessary in a child’s growth. I’m sorry to say that as a brother, I shouted out and formed many of the things you warned against early on, because I didn’t realize the impact I had on them being children. But that’s mostly because I was a child myself, and I was too concerned with myself and what I was supposed to be than to think of how to better my brother and sister. Which I confess, I should have been, but I’m actually moving back home for a little while to go do that.

    Thanks again for all of this, because it makes so much more sense having gone to hell and back like I have. Thank you for being the random blog I went to and read.

  3. I am so glad you found my blog at random as well, how interesting that it was something that resonated so strongly with you and what you had experienced. Thank you for sharing your journey with me and all of my readers; it is a valuable one for us to hear as not only parents, but as human beings. It obviously was a hard and painful path for you, and I hope your heart heals from all that you were called on to do to help your family when you were so young. We all do the best we can do at the time where we are and often experience tremendous growth in ourselves in these situations. It is easy to look back when we are more mature and think how we should have handled things; I guess that is part of growing up! Please be easy with yourself, and thank you once again for sharing. I wish you much luck as you head toward moving back home! Thanks again for reading!

  4. Hi Carrie…

    I love your blog!…I have just started reading it and have gone back to the beginning, so this is where I am…Hopefully I will catch up to the new posts soon 🙂

    Thank you so much for posting these steps to gentle discipline…Your posts really resonate with my feelings and my thinking…I am working to get my actions on the same page…I agree with everything you have said here and look forward to trying the suggestions…

  5. Pingback: Discipline for the Four-Year-Old « The Parenting Passageway

  6. Pingback: HELP! My Children Don’t Listen! « The Parenting Passageway

  7. what a wonderful series of tools to have in your parenting box!!! i work in a waldorf/steiner inspired pre school amd was searching around for lesson plans but stumbled across your wonderful blog as it happens i have been really struggling with disdipline in my own house with 11 and 7 year olds dealing with a very tough yea…losing their beloved grandmother very early and unexpectedly….will deff be trying out some of these…also often get asked by parents at nursery for techniques to try so will pass on …many thanks and blessings to you…Emma x

    • Emma, Did you see the Header on Gentle Discipline? Over 500 posts on this site, and many of them are oriented toward holding boundaries in a loving way.

  8. Hi, I have been reading your blog for a few weeks now and just want to say how helpful it is to have all these positive and encouraging thoughts in one place – although sometimes I disagree with the odd thing, it is always honest and genuine. Thank you!

    I have to ask though, do you get things wrong sometimes? Don’t feel you have to reply but it is a real curiosity. (Hope you don’t mind me asking!)

  9. Jessica –
    Hi and thanks for reading! I get things right for my family most of the time, I think, but of course there is always uncharted territory as one’s children grows, there is always the fact I am human and make mistakes! Absolutely! There is no perfection, just the journey…
    Bu t, I do think my advantage is that throughout my professional life, whether as a neonatal/pediatric physical therapist, an IBCLC, a group leader for a lay breastfeeding group, as a consultant for homeschooling, I have had the privilege of literally walking along side thousands of families. So I have had a good opportunity to see many children of the same age with different personalities and challenges, and that has shaped how I view things tremendously. It doesn’t seem as if it would be enough to say these things work in my family, but when I look at thousands of families over twelve years, it really helps tease out what works and what doesn’t.
    Hope that helps,

  10. Thanks Carrie for your reply. I’m very glad you’re sharing your experience – things have changed for the better in my family thanks to your blog, and I’ll carry on reading and thinking about it, and happily recommend it to others.

    All the best,


  11. Pingback: A Few Fast Words Regarding “Defiance” In Children Under the Age of 6 « The Parenting Passageway

  12. Hi Carrie,
    I just happened across your blog when I googled “expectations of a 7 year old”. I’m reading your blog and learning alternatives to yelling at my kids. Yelling usually occurs after I have repeated my request several times or if they haven’t followed a rule that I have made known. Unreasonable I understand after reading your blog. I have a 4 and 7 year old and am beginning to understand their developmental level, thanks to you, which means I need to change my behavior.
    Thank you so much! I feel that this is the beginning of having a happier household!

    • Amber,
      I am so glad you are here! Four and seven are really really tiny, and understanding where they are developmentally is so important.
      I do hope you keep reading!
      Many blessings,

  13. Hi! Thanks so much for writing all this posts… i end up finding your words in the net every time i am confused and frustrated about parenting, and they are always a big help.
    I am mother of a 4 and a 2 years old (and of a tiny 1.5 months old that still does not give me any moral dilemma 🙂
    My eldest daughter – great as she is (responsible, sweet, and for the most good-intended) – has a one-side war going on with my 2-year old daughter, the only kid she would ever do anything mean to. All day long she bothers her – she passes and hits slightly with the elbow on her face, or takes everything she is playing with, or scratches/pinches/kicks if the little one just happens to do something she did not like. If she gets bored, she tries to make her sister cry, just for the sake of it.
    I believe it comes out of jealousy, and I also have paid attention other big brothers/sisters and saw that they are all acting similar… but whatever the justification i try to give, it is still very difficult to react “positive” to all these behaviors. I think i made all the mistakes you mentioned above – i shouted to her, over-rationalized why she should not do this, threatened her saying she will not have any friends, and even in the most unfair cases, did to her the same thing she just did to her little sister. Of course nothing seem to work – i also can see that none of it is coming from the right approach. But where can i apply gentle discipline here? Humor, distracting or ignoring do not seem to fit when one of your daughters is crying because of something done to her in a totally unfair way…
    I must admit, on this one I am very lost…
    Anyways, thanks again for sharing your wisdom and for helping me to grow. This blog has given me strength several times.
    All the best,

  14. Im so glad i read your post im still having trouble controling my temper( getting loud). When i read your post my heart feels so guilty especially when you wrote that the image of a parent sticks with that child for the rest of there life.y son is 5 and i want to start learning how to control my temper quicker. I would really appreciate your advice thank you

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