What If Gentle Discipline Doesn’t Work?

Sometimes parents will tell me they are trying hard to set boundaries in a gentle and positive way, but it seems like it’s just not working or that they are afraid they are “babying” their toddler too much……

Sometimes it just seems as if gentle discipline doesn’t work.

I really don’t think there is an alternative to gentle discipline though.  Or, I guess if the alternative is to be cross and yelling and screaming and hitting a child, I don’t want to live in a house like that.  I don’t want to do that to a child.  I don’t want myself to be the adult doing that.

Raising children is physically exhausting at times.  Children are messy, loud, and  immature.  Their development is SLOW.  Part of YOUR job is to have PATIENCE with the developmental process.   Part of your task is to re-frame how you look at parenting – raising a child should not be an inconvenience or a task of raising a child to “obedience”  but the thought of raising a healthy adult who is going to contribute to society. 

Does this mean no boundaries?  Does this mean that it is not frustrating?

Of course not.  You must have boundaries, you must guide, but you must also be prepared that it may take 500 times for something to “stick”.  You must be prepared that it will take more than just words.  You must be prepared that the first seven years have the most pronounced physical behaviors, which do seem to trigger parental anger.  Face slapping, running away, kicking, hitting, biting, melt-downs, – all there.

Go back to realistic expectations for each age. Remind yourself that children generally do not work well with only  verbal directions well until they are about seven, and even after seven they completely get distracted and need your help to keep on track.  Children really do need pretty constant supervision until around age 10 or so to avoid destruction of property.

Go back to your rhythm and how much outside time your children are getting.

Look carefully at the alternatives to gentle discipline and imagine what those will get you in the long run.  It may provide short-term obedience through fear, but will it foster your goals for a healthy childhood, for a healthy adult future?  You shape, you guide, but you also project confidence that this is a phase (that will be replaced by something else!)

Connect with your children, stay with your children during the times of their melt-downs.  I am very against time-outs, I have not seen any other country where sending a child off to their room to melt down in a torrent of emotion is seen as acceptable parenting.  I know this is not common in Europe.  Maybe some more of my readers in foreign countries can help me out here?  Is this common?

Part of parenting is CONTROLLING YOURSELF.  Calm down, and GUIDE.  That is your part in this.  Guide, guide, guide.  “Let me help you.”  “You may not do that, but you may do this.”  “I cannot hear you when you speak to me like that, please try asking again.”  Movement, fantasy, re-direction!

I find over and over that while parents have concerns regarding age 2 and 3, the bulk of “am-I-doing-this-right” really comes in at ages 4, 6 and 9 –which are ages of enthusiasm, exuberance, over-the-top behavior coinciding with developmental disequilibrium and the six/seven and nine year old change.  Please do go back to the posts on those ages, and the ones filed under the Gentle Discipline header if you need extra help.

Hang in there, and get support!  If you need brainstorming as to handle something from a gentle discipline perspective, you can write me!  I will try to help!  Hook up with your local La Leche League or Attachment parenting group!  Join an on-line gentle discipline forum – the Mothering Magazine forum has a good subforum on this!

Be confident that gentle discipline is not only the right path, but really the ONLY path.  Be confident that there is strength in setting a boundary, and that you can be gentle while you are doing it.

Much love,



21 thoughts on “What If Gentle Discipline Doesn’t Work?

  1. HI Carrie,

    my one and very pressing question is what is your bedtime routine like around your house? Can I really expect a 3 year old to sleep in his room, to sleep through the night without asking to sleep in mommy’s bed, and to fall asleep on his own? Night times are becoming a monumental problem around here and my little guy is not very rested these days (nor are his parents).

    Could you write about this perhaps?

    • HI Annie, I have several posts about sleep collected under the Baby/Toddler header…in short, I don’t know many (any?) three year olds that sleep in their own room, unless perhaps an older sibling is there. Most children who are four or five can start in their own rooms, but many still come in during the night…Most children still like to be parented to sleep in some way, even an eight or nine year old likes to be read to and tucked in. Most children who are younger than that like you to lay down with them until they fall asleep. As far as as sleeping through the night, most six year olds are, most seven year olds are, some five year olds will depending on if an older sibling is there or not… These are just my experiences from working with families for many years, of course every child is different.
      I would say to adjust your expectations as much as possible, these Early Years, whilst seeming endless whilst you are in them, are very short indeed…


  2. I think gentle discipline does work. People misunderstand gentle discipline. You don’t have to shout, hit, and scream at your children. You are right, I wouldn’t want to and don’t live like that. I think that it is important to note that you should use a firm voice and have very clear expectations. I think some people confuse gentle discipline with using a soft sing songy voice. You are so right on about setting a boundary and being clear about it. I stumble dacross your blog a few weeks ago and am loving your advice. Though I do much of what you do discipline wise I find good and new ideas through your blog.


  3. “Control yourself”


    thank you

    our daughter was so good at bedtime until the crib went away
    now she requires that I sit with her until she falls asleep…

    Well, it’s ok…for us…i don’t mind the 10 mintues it takes for her to fall to sleep

    She will wake, but only if I don’t change her wet diaper aorund 11:30pm. Then she’ll go until 6 (our normal wake up time)

    Good luck to all with sleep issues. that’s tough…

  4. or she’ll get up around 5ish and want to come have teh “big snuggle” in mama’s big bed 🙂 I love it

    it will be over all too soon…

    ps I work full time too…so while i’m a little tired, to me, it’s worth the big snuggle 🙂

  5. my new one discipline question is regarding sitting in church. i have a three year old who goes to a kids program for most of the time, but when he comes in, it is so challenging. when my six year old was three, he sat through a whole service, this guy can’t stop moving, will not whisper, and we end up just having to go out with him and miss the rest of church.

    i do come from a background where it is normal to expect a child of three to be able to at least sit and be mostly quiet for 20 minutes or so at church. is this unreasonable? if so, what do we do? miss church until he is older? i have an old belief that if he doesn’t “learn” now to be respectful and quiet, when he is six he will still be unable to sit respectfully in a place that requires it.

    i should mention that our church is full of kind and mostly tolerant people, so no one has made us feel badly, but my husband and I get embarrased.

    thanks, carrie for any thoughts you have on this.


    • Hi, Amy.

      A child of that age really can’t pay attention to something for more than fifteen minutes–and that’s things geared to them, like a story book. It’s usually far less with something like the weather channel or a pastor preaching–important things, but things without meaning to the child.

      What our church did was make little bags for children that had a few crayons, a colour-in-the-picture bible story (nothing fancy, just four or five pages stapled together), and a random small toy, like a toy car or a mini teddy bear or doll. We sat in the back, and the kids would play and colour under the pew.

      If your church won’t do that, I suggest you pack a bag with a colouring book, crayons, a couple of books with bright pictures he can look at (or you could whisper the words to him), a small toy or two, and a juice box and small snack like Cheerios. Also, try to have some running around time right before church.

      If he gets too fussy, it’s perfectly okay to take him out of the room and walk around with him for a few minutes–not as a punishment, just to help him get some of the wiggles out. You could go by the front door of the church and let him stamp his feet and yell and spin around if he’s feeling really energetic, and maybe in a few minutes he’ll be able to go inside. Or not. Don’t stop going to church–just keep trying every week, and he’ll be ready when he’s ready. Don’t push it.

      In the meantime, practise sitting at home with a picture book or a colouring sheet–but when he wants to do something else, let him. Just have him do a quiet activity a couple of times each day, and it will become easier for him as he practises and develops. If you don’t make a big deal out of it, he’ll barely even notice.

      Your sons are simply different from each other, and that’s okay. If we were all the same, how boring it would be!

  6. Hi Carrie,

    I love your blog! To answer your question about time-out – I’m from Sweden, but I have lived in the US for the last 5 years. No, I pretty much hadn’t heard about time-outs before moving here. It is an American thing, right? I think I saw it the first time on one of those nanny programs on TV. And yes, I was shocked 🙂 I have gotten used to it after living here and working as an early childhood teacher, but I don’t like the practice and it will not happen in my home (I might have to take a time-out though 😉

    • Thank you Sophie! Time out can from lab testing on rats and how it made it into parenting, I will never know! You can use the phrase “time-out” to search the other posts on here about that with the search engine… Parental time-out okay, kid isolation no.
      Carrie 🙂

  7. Amy – Most traditional child development sources say a child’s attention span is three to five minutes for each year of the child’s age. So, for a three year old one would be looking at nine to fifteen minutes. Boys, most boys, (oldest boys seem to be more mature many times!) are six months to a year behind developmental standards, which often adds to the challenge.

    Not that you shouldn’t have an expectation! But, I would definitely come equipped with a Sunday bag with something in it to do or look at…:) And try to have time to run around before church:) And to know that it is going to take time and patience to make sitting quietly “stick”. Can you practice at home sitting quietly as well?

    Hope that helps! He is different than his brother, and that is okay! Keep striving for your parenting goals with this little guy!

  8. Carrie,
    Thanks so much for this post today. Your posts have been SUCH an inspiration to me. This morning, after I had showered and dressed, I asked the kids (5 and 3) to play with the baby (1 year old) for 2 minutes while I used the bathroom. They were all upstairs with me, with the stair gate locked, and everything is pretty much babyproof. I just wanted 2 minutes to use the bathroom all by myself, without the three of them in there with me. When I came back out, I couldn’t believe the mess they had managed to make in those two minutes. They had gotten out just about every blanket they could find. They emptied out a full bag of disposable pull-ups (that we had purchased for a recent road trip), and they were all over the hall. The baby had dumped the entire contents of his change table onto the floor. It took me nearly an hour to clean up the mess they made in 2 minutes. I stayed as calm as I could (considering the circumstances), and the kids helped clean up (in fairness, it was the baby that made a big part of the mess). I had to put the baby in the crib while the three of us tackled the mess (otherwise he would have kept pulling stuff out while we cleaned up). Prior to finding your blog, and Waldorf, I probably would have completely over-reacted to this situation, and I’m sure there would have been time-outs involved. It also reiterated to me that even 2 minutes is too long to leave children alone!! My days of using the bathroom with the door closed are over for now… I just thought I could get two minutes to myself but I guess not. Anyway, just wanted you to know that your posts mean a lot to me, and have helped me find my way. 🙂

  9. I completely agree with you! Your writing is beautiful and inspiring and I know you are blessing so many people through your blog.

  10. Carrie – I really find it so uncanny whenever I come to your blog to write about something and there is the post I need to read, right at the top of the home page! You just seem to know what we all need to read at that moment! I was coming here to comment on a post you put out a few weeks back asking for what mothers of 2y/o children most wanted help with. For us, it is gentle discipline. I have just had arrive in our post box Judy Arnall’s book ‘discipline without distress’, It is amazing. I always smile to myself when I hear you saying ‘the most common thing I hear from parents of wee children is “my children don’t listen to me!”‘ I smile because that is exactly our thought so many times a day! It is comforting to know that it is just a developmental season! And it all comes down to the way we approach our children. This is our challenge now – integrating this. All the reading and advice in the world is great, but implementing the changes – that is the challenging part. I would love to read more about implementing the gentle discipline ideas and values – bringing it into the home. Living the gentle discipline. Don’t get me wrong, most of what we do is gentle discipline, we don’t spank, talk down to DD, use negative speech etc etc… but I do get frustrated and this I know is visible to DD, in my tone and raised voice. I always feel terrible when this happens – so I am very committed to turning this around. I always bring back to mindfulness your words of ‘remembering and looking at how very little they are’… they just really are so tiny aren’t they and there is SO much for them to take in about the world. I like Judy Arnalls words in the opening of her book, which are something to the effect of ‘I had been a yeller, I was surprised to go 24 days (I think that’s the number she gives) and realise I hadn’t even yelled once!’ (this is not an exact quote – just the idea of what she says). We provide a very nourishing home life for DD, but I am committed to going that extra step and fully implementing all the gentle discipline principles into our home, it is what we know is best. I wish there could be a book study somewhere on the ‘Discipline without distress’ book, I would really like to go through this book with others, I know so much more insight is gained through studying a book with a like minded community. I have also looked up the Mothering Magazine forum you recommend – is this the one? http://www.mothering.com/discussions/ Just so I know I am on the right site – they appear to have a gentle discipline sub forum.
    Thank you so much once again Carrie – I would love to read lots more about this topic from you in future posts, I have found your past posts on this category very helpful – I recently searched back through your posts and read many of your posts of gentle discipline – thank you, they were great. I definitely feel that we are moving in a positive direction.

    • That is the right forum…Just remember to not stress about being perfect. Healthy doses of forgiving yourself. 🙂

  11. It’s also a question of what people mean when they talk about a discipline strategy “working” – if “working” means controlling or manipulating or scaring a child into doing what an adult wants, then no, GD doesn’t “work.” If the goal is to teach self-motivated, self-initiated, thoughtful behavior in the long term…there may not always be instant gratification for mom and dad, but I’ve seen enough older kids who have been parented this way to feel really, truly confident that GD works wonders.

  12. Hi Carrie
    We have had a very easy week, lots of sleep for mummy and my two loveys have been so good the last 2 days. I have enjoyed this post (and the comments) as well as the previous post about exhaustion very much. When I am in a good space as this moment it is hard to imagine why things are so exhausting, frustrating etc on some days.
    Your blog does make such a difference. It gives me so much food for thought.

    PS Almost forgot. I was brought up in South Africa and it was only when we arrived in New Zealand about a decade ago that I heard about time out (NZ does follow the UK, US model).
    I spend time in Switzerland and never saw time out put into action with the families I lived with.

  13. I just wanted to check back in to say I am LOVING the Judy Arnell book and really think GD is wonderful. Lauren I agree so much with every word you have written. It is so true – the end goal is the kind of human being we raise, not whether or not they are doing exactly what is being asked of them in one particular moment in time! 🙂

    I have been mindfully focusing on giving my attention to the positive today and not giving negative attention to the negative – and here’s the thing, there just hasn’t been any negative! I guess we might just be having a ‘positive day’ but I really do think a little bit of attraction comes into play – that if one focuses on the positive, then that is what appears, if one focuses on the negative, it seems that, that is more of what appears.

    I also have been mindful to ‘think ahead’ as is so often recommended and think out certain challenges that arise and present ‘clash of wills’. With a little bit of forethought and changing around things that can present negative energy, we have had a beautiful day.

    There has only been one or two instances where I have had to be ‘firm’ with a boundary, but doing this out of a place of love and genuine kindness, this has been well received and it is almost like DD knows ‘ok, this is the boundary, this is just how it is here for this moment’. No fuss! I am sure as I said that we are having a ‘positive day’, and there of course will be many challenges that will arise along the path – but I just feel so light and so fresh in implementing these GD guidelines. I just wanted to share that with everyone here. I feel a true deepening of our bond when we interact in this manner with mutual respect. It’s amazing. Thank you all for sharing your stories and experiences and for everyone’s guidance and advice. Much appreciated. love to all xxx

  14. Pingback: May Gentle Discipline Fair » The Road Less Traveled To Parenthood » Baby Dust Diaries

  15. Pingback: May Gentle Discipline Fair « Baby Dust Diaries

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