So I disciplined like the sissy liberal I am.  And it worked,
February 16, 2012

A few weeks ago, Charlotte hit her friend at the park.  Twice.  With a stick.  I was mortified.  I knelt down to her level, grabbed her hands, and asked her to look at my eyes, please.  She looked at the sky, at the bushes, at her feet, but refused to look at me.  “Charlotte,” I repeated.  “I need you to look at me please.”

“No,” she answered.

“I understand that you do not want to look at me,” I said, “but I would like to talk to you about your behavior.  Would it be better if we sat quietly together for a little while first?”  Her lip quivered.  Tears fell.  She started wailing and threw her weight on the ground.

So I took her in my arms and I walked to a bench nearby.  I explained that after we talked she could return to playing and I could return to chatting, but until then we were just going to sit here.  So we sat.

Minutes ticked by and still we sat.  I sang.  Charlotte fussed.  And still we sat.  Until finally Charlotte said she was ready to talk.  Then I held her hands and I looked her in the eye and I explained that WE do not hit.  In our family, behavior is almost always ‘we.’

I explained how hitting can be painful and how the stick she used could have injured her friend if it were to strike his eye or his throat.  I reminded her of how she feels when other children hit her.

She didn’t know what I was talking about.  “What does, what does ‘hitting’ mean?” she asked me.  So I explained what hitting was.

Then I gave her options.  I listed off some phrases she could repeat to her friend if his behavior was frustrating her.  I told her that if she could not find the words to convey her anger, she could call for me to help her.  And then, I said, if she really just wanted to hit something, here were some things that she COULD hit: trees, the ground, and the big boulder at the edge of the playground.

I told her that I was not angry or disappointed.  I empathized with her emotion.  And I explained that although I did not want her to repeat the behavior, how she behaved had no influence on how much I love her.  Then I explained that because her behavior could have hurt her friend, she needed to apologize to him.  And I explained that because my behavior had caused him angst, I told her that I would apologize too.  We could apologize together, I said.

So we went to her friend.  I told her friend that I was very sorry to take Charlotte away so abruptly and for such a long time.  He said it was okay.  Then Charlotte whispered that she was sorry and they hugged each other.  She needed a little reassurance from me that everything was okay and she could continue playing.

Then I went back to chatting with my buddies.

Four times that week, Charlotte hit someone.  Four.  Times.  And each time took somewhere between five and twenty minutes for me to resolve.  Each time I did the same thing: I removed Charlotte from the situation, gave her time to calm down, talked to her about her behavior, asked her about her feelings, gave her options, reminded her that I love her unconditionally, and helped her apologize.  And each time I wondered: is this working?  Am I being stern enough?  Is she getting the message?  Would something else be more effective?

Every few days, I receive an e-mail from a reader asking me how Donald and I discipline Charlotte.  I almost never answer them because, quite frankly, I don’t know how to talk about discipline.  For starters, I have only one child.  Taking twenty minutes out of my day to talk to my child about hitting in an age-appropriate way is 100% do-able because I am not parenting any other children simultaneously and we rarely have restrictions on our time.  Second, my child is only two.  She cannot lie to me or take drugs or shoplift.  Our gravest problem is that she likes to sample dinner while we’re preparing it and that she isn’t that keen on bedtime.  It’s not like there’s much to discipline.

But for a hiccup, there was.  And I followed my gut.  And it worked.  And I know that tooting your own horn on the Internet makes you a narcissistic jackass, but right now this narcissistic jackass (twice in a week! IT’S A NEW RECORD!) is feeling very very proud of herself.  The end.

That said, DISCIPLINE!  What do you do?  Why?  What do you think?  And do you have tips?  Because if you do, then I want to hear all about them.

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  1. By on February 16, 2012

    Your methods of dealing with Charlotte are so gentle and yet firmly effective-I admire and emulate you. Thanks, Sarah.

  2. By on February 16, 2012

    thank you for that post !

  3. By Thrifty Vintage Kitten on February 16, 2012

    My husband and I take the “time out” route. I would never dream of hitting my child…we’re a total spank-free zone. So when my daughter acts up, we sit her on the stair in our house, set the timer, and make her sit for a couple minutes. It usually chills her out. Then I make her tell me what she did wrong and why it’s wrong. Then we go back to normal.

  4. By Allison on February 16, 2012

    We, like Thrifty, go the time out route. When Alex misbehaves, whether it’s not listening, whining, being “mean” or hitting, he goes straight to time out. Depending on the severity of the “crime” the time changes. When he can come out, we sit together, hug, and discuss what he did wrong. Now that he’s 4, he really gets it. He knows what he did wrong 99% of the time.

    Unfortunately, our other method for discipline is one I am not fond of but works: threatening to take away something good. I really don’t like it, but when I’m at my wits end and I know it’ll work? It’s hard not to use it.

  5. By Heather on February 16, 2012

    I have a one year old and while at one, like you said, there isn’t much to disipline there are times when something has to be done. She likes to throw fits, we are just in that stage right now. So I basically do the same thing you do, remove her from the situation and talk with her. Since she can’t talk back too much yet I just try to get her over the fit and remind her how much I love her, a lot of times by making her laugh. I love your approach and I am sure that is exactly how our disipline will turn out in about a year. :)

  6. By Cambria on February 16, 2012


    We didn’t have many challenges with Hadley while she was two, but three has been a new beast. Trial and error. But we do run time outs and we talk about her actions. Our biggest problem is sassing, which I believe she is picking up at school. We were super frustrated not long a go with the sass, did a time out, tears and everything. When we went to talk to her about it we realized that she didn’t know what we were upset about. So we are making it a point to talk with her, like you, further about the problem and hopefully correct it. Seems to be working better.

    The little one is almost 2 (can you believe it - almost 2 years since we were in the hospital with you taking her picture) and she has a pretty strong personality. She does hit, bite and pull hair. Plus, she is terrible with sharing things. She is very young, so reasoning with her is a little challenging. But we’ve started timeouts with her too.

    Our other challenge is that she throws tantrums, something we only faced with her older sister a few times. We are just letting those cycle through and not giving into the things she is throwing a tantrum about. It sucks to listen to your kid cry over something small, but we need to put our foot down now.

    Good luck, mama! Disciplining is challenging. Sounds like you’ve got a good system!

  7. By Sarah on February 16, 2012

    we did time outs at two and most of three. as they get older, I think the best thing is to put them in time out long enough for ME to calm down and then talk about what they did and then how he or she can best “fix” what they did. For instance, yesterday, my 5.5 year old got very smart alecky and down right rude with me at my husband’s workplace in front of his coworker. WHen we got home, we talked about how she should act and better ways to deal when she does not like the way things are going (she was not ready to leave). I then had her write an apology letter to his coworker. This might sound over the top, but one thing I cannot stand is rude kids and it only gets worse as they get older. I want them free to express their opinions, but not in a hateful manner. She seemed to really grasp what I was saying. Only time will tell I guess.

  8. By Jeneva on February 16, 2012

    We do time outs for the most part but I am currently struggling with finding a new method as it is no longer working with my 4 and 3 year old. I have also done what you do and that has very little effect as well. My children are wonderful around everyone but each other so I’m assuming it’s more of just a sibling thing (I’m an only child so I have no clue) but it’s still not good behavior. Very frustrating.

  9. By on February 16, 2012

    I highly recommend the book “Unconditional Parenting” by Alfie Kohn. I haven’t even finished it and it’s already opening my eyes a ton to how it’s so easy to send children the message that we love them conditionally when using (even seemingly gentle) rewards or punishment. I have a degree in child development and a masters in early childhood education, but I am still learning a ton by reading it. With that being said, my son is only 15 months old, so I haven’t needed to “discipline” really. :) It also sounds like you already are practicing unconditional parenting. Way to go- it doesn’t come naturally to many people, in my opinion.

  10. By on February 16, 2012

    Mine will be 2 in 2 weeks and has gone from a perfect angel to having temper tantrums and “No!“.  We are doing our best, using time outs where I talk to her about why she is in time out and ask her if she intends to stop whatever behavior and apologize to me or daddy.  This works most of the time, but as of a few days ago, she has started saying “Sorry Mommy” right away, which…not really the point, right?  When she was in her hitting phase, we would do what you did, though not as long (I didn’t make her look me in the eye, but i would talk to her and make sure she understood not to hit).  The phrase that pays in that situation is “We dont hurt our friends, we give love.“ She understood that in her little toddler brain and would hug her friend. 
    That said, I, sadly, have become a slightly yell-y mommy in the mornings.

  11. By Alicia S. on February 16, 2012

    Life for me and my (now) four year old got exponentially easier when he learned to rationalize. He was a total hot-head from the womb, but he has become much, much more even-keeled with age. Granted, I’m definitely no authority on handling every situation, but I really think his general demeanor shifted a great deal because I worked my ass off to implement the kind of tactics you are now with Charlotte. It isn’t always practical to take that much time for each individual child (trust me, I have three so I know)—but it’s the only way I know of to do it, and get results. I call it (to myself) “waiting out his crazy.”

    I have had three - three - self-proclaimed non-spankers that have never put a hand on their OWN children say that my son is the type who is “just gonna need it” once in a while - a few of them being family. But I’ve learned as he’s gotten older that he is actually a very fair and rational thinker for his age. He’s not a hitter or anything like that, he is just very intent on doing things his own way and he has a hard time accepting that he has less say over things because he’s a child. Matthew is notorious for getting up in the faces of grown men, for example - be it an uncle or another parent at the park - who tell him what to do, as if they’re children who have absolutely no authority over him. I’m like Sarah, disrespectfulness is just very high on my list of non-tolerable offenses, so this was a big issue for us for a very long time before I got a grip on dealing with it effectively.

    We even carry a small board book around called “I Feel Angry” that literally takes about a minute and a half to look over, and usually helps him find exactly the words he needs to express himself.

    The key for us has been avoiding a power struggle. When we can walk away from a disciplinary situation, neither one feeling like the other has ‘gotten over’ on us, there’s so reason left to put up a fight. Whereas relatives and even friends who get fed up with his big and mighty attitude, who threaten to punish him seven ways to Sunday get nowhere. I’ve learned (and had to explain to others who think I’m spoiling him) that taking this kind of time with him is STILL more time-efficient than getting caught up in a power struggle with him would be. (Ex: I only have between now and the time I get to the checkout counter to make his life harder - HE HAS ALL DAY. He will win at that game if that’s where we go with it.) Eventually, nine times out of ten, I could simply say: do you remember that one time you did this and what we talked about afterward? Now, a lot of times when a stressful situation crops up, he doesn’t even need the reminders to work his way through it, which makes me so proud I could literally squeal sometimes. Life has become insanely easier on both of us as a result.

    Right now my husband and I are kind of butting heads over whether or not to let him “earn” things back after he has them taken away. I say no, he says yes. UGH, It’s always something! ;-)

  12. By Phase Three of Life on February 16, 2012

    I think you handled that with total grace. I’m filing this method away for when I need it in a few months!

  13. By Catherine on February 16, 2012

    Thank you for this.  Right now, I’m not in my best “mommy place”.  My four year old is regressing a bit emotionally and it’s really frustrating.  My two year old follows his lead.  I’m about to have baby #3 in four weeks.  My patience is shot.  I truly and firmly believe in Gentle Discipline but sometimes it is SO HARD to stick with it when I am exhausted and they are fighting and being completely defiant. 

    I do always try to end any sort of disciplining with a hug and reassurance that their behavior never effects our love for them.  Right now, that’s the best I can do, I think. 

    I have no words of advice but I have been reading a wonderful book called, “I love you rituals” by Becky Bailey which I think have given me tools to try to enforce that my kids are special and deserve my respect, even if I don’t always rise up to the occasion and blow it by getting angry before I can rationalize.  *sigh. 

    Anyway, any reminder is always a good one.  So thanks again for your timely blog post.  :)

  14. By on February 16, 2012

    Discipline in our house would be time outs. But I always give him a chance to stop. So if he hits me, I sit him down tell him he hurt me and it makes me sad when he hits me. I ask him to apologize. Most of them time he does, and we go on our merry way. But if he decides to get sassy, which isn’t very often, he goes on time out. They say a minute per age, but 2 minutes is not enough for him to really think about what he did. We are at 3 minutes now. After time out I ask him what he did to get time out, and if he’s sorry. He says yes, (most of the time) I’m sorry and I won’t do it again.

    Our discipline method, isn’t really a method I guess. I just try to make him understand that what he did was wrong, in the most loving way possible. Which isn’t always easy, but I try, and that’s all that matters.

  15. By on February 16, 2012

    BTW, Aiden has been hit a few times in park by other kids, and their moms never disciplined them. We talk about what he should do when it happens. But it always irks me when moms see them do it and don’t do anything. So thank you! :)

  16. By on February 16, 2012

    I’m not a parent, but I do have 25 children in my class. The key to discipline is being fair, firm, and consistent. It’s important for all children to be treated fairly, whether you have one child or many. You must be firm and consistent with discipline. If a child in my classroom doesn’t listen to me, they are disciplined. It doesn’t matter if they’re a student who has trouble every day or a student who is normally well-behaved but has a bad day. I’m firm but caring. I don’t let the children get away with bad behavior but I am still a caring teacher and show them that I appreciate them.

    That being said, I’m still just student teaching and I have a lot to learn still.

  17. By on February 16, 2012

    I am an only child and have not been exposed to disciplining other children. So when it came to disciplining James, I didn’t know what to do. THANK GOODNESS we have him enrolled in a wonderful Montessori school. We asked his teachers for advice and so far it’s working wonderfully. (i.e. I am not taking credit for these ideas)

    They told us to explain his bad behaviour and then have him show us the correct behaviour. So if James throws a toy on the ground, we tell him that we can only throw balls, not toys. And then we ask him to show us how to gently place the toy on the table. This works about 95% of the time.

    If he continues to exhibit the same bad behaviour, the teachers told us to remove James from the situation (or remove the object) and tell him that once he’s ready to use it properly, he can have it back. Once he gets it back, then he shows us how to use it properly. This works 100% of the time.

    I like this approach because the “punishment” is directly related to the behaviour. I saw a video once that said if you use time-outs or consequences (like you can’t have dessert if you throw your food), then at a certain point the child will not care about the consequence and continue the bad behaviour (like “I’m not hungry for dessert, so I’ll just keep throwing my food”). In fact, I remember once when I was with James at a park, two 7(ish)-year old girls had run ahead of their Mom to get to the playground. The Mom was mad and told them to take a 10-minute time-out before playing. When the 10 minutes were over, I could hear the girls say “Hey, let’s stay here, it’s fun!“. Obviously they didn’t learn their lesson. By finding a consequence directly related to the behaviour, it’s win-win. So if I take a toy away because James keeps throwing it on the ground, and I tell him he can have it back when he’s ready to play with it properly, if he doesn’t care about not getting his toy back, that’s fine with me. The behaviour stops and we revisit the proper use later when he wants to use that toy.

    The Montessori teachers also use a form of time-out, but it’s directly related to an activity. When James was running around goofing off with his buddy during reading time, they told him to sit down on a chair outside the circle until he’s ready to participate in reading time properly. They also recently told me that if he’s not behaving correctly, they’ll have him hold their hand during an activity until he’s ready to behave properly on his own. I saw this first hand and surprisingly it works! Toddlers love their freedom and there’s nothing more annoying than having to hold a teacher’s hand instead of doing something on their own.

    Maybe this is obvious to most Moms out there, but it certainly didn’t come naturally to us. I’m so glad to have their guidance through this phase…

  18. By on February 16, 2012

    Perfect timing! My darling DD is 26months and attends a 5hr/week Montessori program. We were *shocked* when my hubby went to pick her up today to learn that she was not only hitting other kids but also tackling them. She’s never done anything like this before (and we’re hoping she doesn’t do it again). She’s not aggressive normally and also doesn’t really throw tantrums like I’ve seen other kids at her school do. We’re expecting #2 any day now so we’re hoping that’s what’s going on and it’ll blow over but we’ll see.

  19. By on February 16, 2012

    I just thought of something else… Something I actually came up with on my own. When James gets a little worked up and jittery when I’m trying to correct his behaviour, I take his hands, look him in the eyes and tell him to breathe. Together we take several deep breaths. Then I ask him to use his words to tell me how he feels or what he wants.

    It seems to help because his teacher told me that once, during the start of nap time at school, he took off his socks and started playing with them. She told him it wasn’t time to play and placed his socks at the foot of his cot. James whined for about 2 - 3 seconds. Then he took a deep breath, looked at his teacher and asked if he could have his socks back. She said yes as long as he kept them on his feet. And that was that.

    She told me the story later and said she was impressed that he was able to regroup like that. I was so proud of James… and kinda proud of me too….

  20. By Taryn on February 17, 2012

    Wow, what impresses me most about your disciplining technique is Charlotte’s maturity! My Charlotte is 6 months younger, and there’s no way she’d understand any of that stuff you told your kiddo, other than that she couldn’t play right now.
    For me, almost from the start rather than just saying “no” we’ve explained to Charlotte why she cant do or have something, like because it will make a big ouch, or our simple fallback “not for babies” which she totally buys… for now :)

  21. By missjoules on February 17, 2012

    I have a question fore time-outers (and not because I’m trying to start anything or saying what you do is wrong, it’s something which I genuinely wonder about):

    Does your kid actually take the time to reflect? I remember being sent to time out or to my room or whatever when I was a kid but I do not remember “reflecting” at all. I remember thinking my mom was being unfair or that my sister was mean for tattling, etc. I’ve never even considered using time-out because of that. Is it just that I was a weirdo? ;)

  22. By on February 17, 2012

    I am just finishing up reading “Playful Parenting” by Lawerence Cohen, a play therapist who emphasizes connecting with our children in all situations. He talks about how he doesn’t think time outs work because they leave children isolated when ultimately we “discipline” in order to “teach,“ yet leaving children by themselves doesn’t help them learn (other than that they get left when they really need something else). My son is only 17 months, but I’m already trying to game plan how I want to “discipline” him, and I applaud the way you handled Charlotte - you connected, you remained connected even when it was difficult and you got a chance to really figure out the emotions underneath the behavior.

  23. By on February 17, 2012

    There’s a lot of literature out there that says time-outs only work temporarily, and don’t actually curb behaviours. There are better disciplinary methods available if you have the time and energy to devote to them.

    I find time-outs are sometimes useful for parents and kids to regroup and calm down, but not as an actual disciplinary method. That said, it seems to work for a lot of people I know…

  24. By on February 17, 2012

    I think, as in many aspects of parenting, there is no one good solution for every child.  From what I gather from reading about Charlottle, she is generally a very well behaved , thoughtful, articulate child for her age.  My son, only about 10 days younger is more high strung, more impulsive, though he is also articulate and geeeeeenerally speaking wants to be good.  Talking and rationalizing just don’t sink in as well as it does for Charlotte, though I still do it anyway.  He usually disrobes in time out but we do it to calm ourselves down.  So far, “counting” is more effective than anything else.  It gives him a chance to correct his behavior himself ( ‘“I am giving you to the count of three to stop doing XYZ “).  But in the end, he is just so little that impulse control is very difficult.  Our
    mantra , “he’s only two”, helps us through the umpteenth time he hits his baby sister or shouts at us rudely.  We trying to figure out what will work with him but quite honestly I think he is just full of testosterone, and unable to control himself.  Like I said, he WANTS to be good, but just can’t all the time.  He is certainly strengthening our impulse control!

  25. By on February 19, 2012

    I only know of you what I have read in the few months that I have read your blog.  What I do know is that you are a very strong woman to be sharing all of your life experiences with the world at large.  You are so brave to open yourself up.  I commend your parenting skills.  I have three children who are all grown (college and older).  I did the best I could with them and know that they are all beautiful, loving people.  I applaud your techniques!  No one has the right to criticize.  No one else is there in your moment.

  26. By Sheila on February 21, 2012

    This is just beautiful.  It’s silly that this kind of parenting is stereotyped as being a “hippy liberal” thing to do.  Maybe it’s just treating your child like the individual human being she is!

    My son is younger (22 months) so as far as I really get is, “No hit. Soft touch.  Like this.  Come sit with me for awhile” (if he won’t stop hitting).  I think in time we’ll reach where Charlotte is.

    I’m not much for time-out, though.  I hated time-out worse than anything, and spent the whole time getting angrier and angrier and more and more resentful of my parents for “rejecting me” as I perceived it.  I know the idea is that the child has a chance to calm down, but what child actually does calm down in time-out?  We do what I guess is called a “time-in”—I remove him from the frustrating situation and stay with him in another room till I think he’s ready to face that situation without hitting or hurting or whatever it is.  More often, I just remove whatever he isn’t ready to have—like books if he’s tearing them, or a stick if he’s hitting things with it.  I’m not trying to punish him, just prevent him from doing harmful things.  When he’s older, I can explain to him why he can’t do those things.

  27. By Camille on February 21, 2012

    I do the same thing as you do. I’ve always done that. I think that even when they’re too young to understand the words, they catch the meaning. It works well for us too. :) My best discipline tool is prevention though. Sleeping enough and eating healthily stops a lot of behavior problems from ever happening. I notice a huge difference in behavior if my daughter has junk food or not enough sleep. I don’t know how disciplining will be once we’re out of the toddler years and when we have more kids…. I have a feeling it will get more complicated!





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