Positive Disciplining

Recently, I was at the home of a dear friend, and I heard her say to her son, “Sweetheart, if you don’t sit straight I am not going to give you any soda.”

Since it was not in my own home, it was very simple to think of a better and more constructive way to get that point across. How about, “Sweetheart, I want to give you soda, so please sit straight.”?

What is the big difference between the two approaches?

The answer is simply, control.

When we use the first statement, “If you don’t sit straight I am not going to give you any soda,” then we are maintaining control over our child. However control is neither motivating nor educational. Your child learns nothing from control tactics, aside from how to deal with feeling threatened.

Little Joey does not understand the connection between sitting straight and getting soda. He is excited; he has no intention of misbehaving. Perhaps he is simply too excited to sit still, or had been sitting uncomfortably still for too long. A pet or sibling may be touching her toes from under the table. Joey does not want to annoy you, in fact he’d really like to please you.

Using the second method of instruction, “I want to give you a drink, so please sit still,” gives the child instruction. Now, Joey has learned a lesson, that in order for Mom to give him the soda, he needs to be in a better position in his chair.

A controlling message will convey the need for a power struggle between parent and child. Avoid power struggles at all costs. Saying, “If you don’t do this, I won’t do that,” on a regular basis teaches our children negativity. Look for the words “If you don’t do this, then I won’t…” in your vocabulary, and think about how you can re-phrase your message more positively.

“Joey, if you don’t finish eating dinner, you can’t play with the new hockey set.”

Is there a better way to say this? Absolutely!

“Joey, I’d like you to be able to play with the new hockey set, so please finish up eating your dinner.”

What a world of a difference our attitude makes when conversing with our children. Will your kids always listen and do as they are told when we drop the controlling commands from our speech? Of course not. Even when we say things in the most positive light, the response we desire may not be forthcoming from our children. The chances of a good response, though, are far, far greater.


  1. Karen Griffiths says:

    I’d like to say that there is a better way, both ways you describe are controlling, eventually it will backfire on the parent when the child is too big to be controlled. Loving guidance is a way of guiding our children without controlling their behavior, it is about instilling a sense of internal motivation. In this situation Mom could say, “I’m worried that if you are moving in your seat that the soda will spill, is there a different way you can sit in your seat?” That way you do not associate toys/behavior/food in the childs mind. The child changes their position in the seat because you keep the issue about the soda spilling.

    Karen Griffiths

  2. Hi Karen,

    I appreciate your comment, and love the termonology “loving guidance”- yet sometimes little souls DO need to be lovingly controlled! I suppose that it depends on the child’s disposition and age… let’s all LOVINGLY find the method that works best for our children.

    What would you do if your child was sitting precariously on the edge of his seat and responded, “Nah, the soda won’t spill”? In this particular situation I did not want to give him a choice about sitting straight or not- I needed him to switch to a safer position… let’s assume the cleaning woman just shined the floor, or we were guests in an immaculate home:)

  3. I like that. I feel helpless at this point to change the way I do things. But I am going to try to slow down and give my words more thought. Thank you.

  4. dear ellen,
    i’m sure ur advice would make a positive impact
    in my relationship with my son. I’m striving to be a better mom.

  5. Ellen, your ideas for eliciting the desired behavior are commonly used by successful influencers. I felt a strong reaction to Karen’s suggestion to use “I’m worried that if you are moving in your seat that the soda will spill, is there a different way you can sit in your seat?”

    First, you are setting yourself up by telling the child you are worried. S/he doesn’t need to have *your* worry, and if this is a manipulative child, s/he may use that information to further control the situation. Also, by phrasing in this way, you are actually implanting the idea to spill the soda – which I’m sure is not the intent!

    Ellen’s suggestion offers both her preference and a positive consequence for the child. It does not set up a conflict and it does not create a power struggle. It’s very clear and precise. If the child doesn’t want the soda then s/he won’t comply, but the non-compliance won’t be as a result of threats, it will be as a result of his/her preferences. So it’s not likely to be an angry response – unless the child has been repeatedly subjected to the negative frame (“if you don’t….then I won’t).

    I do like Karen’s question about the possibility of there being a different way of sitting in the seat. Perhaps that could be combined with something that acknowledges the child’s activity or desire for movement. “You seem very excited right now. Can you think of a different way to sit in your seat to make sure the glass of soda stays safely on the table?”

    We want to make sure we frame our statements to children in the direction of what we *want* them to do, rather in the direction of what we *do not want* them to do. Reframing our statement allows the child to think of ways to create the positive result we would all prefer.

  6. Yikes! What confusion! … there’s really nothing you can say to your child, is there. But you’re all missing the big point – the kid should not be getting a soda!! If it’s mealtime, the child should be hungry, washed and ready to eat… if it’s not mealtime and he’s thirsty – give him a glass of tap water full of minerals and non-staining to the floor.