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My Discipline Spectrum

Often when I hear people talk about their discipline style it sounds unrealistic or ineffective. I haven't read or heard any single approach to discipline that really made perfect sense to me. There are elements of many approaches that I like and elements of others that I abhor. Rather than taking one approach and running with it, I have developed a discipline spectrum that seems to work for me most of the time.

Difference between discipline and punishment

Before I explain my spectrum, I want to be clear about the difference between discipline and punishment. Over and over again, I see people post questions on message boards or places like Yahoo! Answers asking whether it is okay to spank or whether it is okay to use time outs. Inevitably, someone will respond and say that they don't use spankings or they don't use time outs because they believe it is harmful to the child. This, in turn, always sparks a rash of responses from people saying how irresponsible it is to not discipline children and that those non-spanking anti-time-out people are the reason for all of the world's problems. But what those people don't understand is that there is a fundamental difference between discipline and punishment (see this excellent chart comparing discipline and punishment). Discipline is about teaching and guiding a child in the right direction. Punishment is about demanding compliance by exerting control over a child.

Finding my place on the discipline spectrum

Some experts will claim that one approach to discipline is better than all others. In my book, there is a sweet spot on the discipline spectrum that is ideal and then, depending on the situation, I may move slightly to the left or slightly to the right to use less desirable but sometimes important discipline tools.

PhD in Parenting Discipline Spectrum

On the right hand side of the spectrum is abuse, including physical and verbal abuse that parents may use to try to control their children. I consider it abuse to spank a child or to shame a child. On the other end of the spectrum is neglect, where the parents are indifferent and often not present and children are left to fend for themselves. Either of these approaches to discipline is obviously detrimental. But in between these two, there are many approaches and tools that parents can use.

So where is my sweet spot?

My preference (highlighted in green) is to focus in the range of modelling, choices and teaching. I think this is the area with the potential to produce the greatest benefit to the child. It gives some structure, but at the same time gives the child the tools to make wise decisions and develop competencies. It allows me to share my values and pass along things that I have learned without forcing my child to make the same choices that I did. It is, to me, what being a parent is all about.

However, I also think that there is room for some laissez-faire approach to allow the child the full range of decision making. For a child that has learned some structure through other modelling, choices, and teaching, the occaisional use of the laissez faire approach gives the child room to grow and learn and can be empowering. But if it is used too often and in absence of other techniques the child can feel lost and the parents lose an opportunity to teach key values and skills to their child.

I also do use consequences and rewards selectively and punishment as a last resort (see also my post When all else fails). For me, consequences are an extension of choice. Choices obviously have consequences attached to them but sometimes even outside of choice we need to impose consequences. My preference is to use natural consequences wherever possible and if that isn't possible, then to at least use logical consequences. I don't like using rewards because I think it teaches the child to always expect rewards for doing anything right (brings out the greed aspect in human nature) and I also think that it takes away from the unconditional love that I am trying to show my child when I bribe him with a piece of chocolate or a new toy. That said, he is a stubborn mule sometimes and I will use rewards sparingly to convince him to do something that he is otherwise unwilling to try , but that I know he would like if only he tried it (a Bob the Builder toy was required to eventually convince him to try to poop on the toilet). Punishment is something I use as an absolute last resort in dire circumstances. If my child is in danger or putting someone else in danger and not listening or if he is purposefully defiant (e.g. hitting his sister for the fifth time after being told why it is not okay), then I may revoke privileges or remove him from the situation. When I remove him, it does often mean going to his room by himself for a few minutes while the situation resolves itself, but I always go in and talk to him and will tend towards a "time in" rather than a "time out".

These other techniques that I will use sometimes are highlighted in yellow on the spectrum. I think it is important to note that the more often you use the techniques that are in the yellow zone, the more you become dependent on them (because you are losing the benefits usually realized through modelling, choices, and teaching), and the easier it is to slip into abuse or neglect.

The importance of a secure attachment

I think it is important to underscore that none of the discipline techniques discussed above will work without a secure attachment. Dr. Sears has a great article called 10 Ways Attachment Parenting Makes Discipline Easier. Essentially, having a strong and secure relationship with your child provides the foundation that is needed for other discipline techniques to work. It is often in the absence of this strong foundation that parents feel like none of their discipline techniques are working and, again, find themselves slipping further towards abuse in an attempt to control or towards neglect as they give up and sink into indifference.

Where is your sweet spot?

Where is your sweet spot on the discipline spectrum? Why does that work for you?

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Reader Comments (36)

Wow, you pretty much described my sweet spot exactly, as far as both the green and the yellow ranges go. Love the chart! What a great way to lay it out.

I really wish more people understood the difference between discipline and punishment. It's so frustrating to say you don't spank and get hit with a monologue about the necessity of discipline. I know how important discipline is, and I do discipline my child - just with techniques other than punishment (when possible - like I said, your ranges match mine exactly).

October 20, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterCynthia

Cynthia is so right. People who use punishment seem to be continually judging me by assuming that if I don't spank or use time-outs, that I must be neglecting my child. I often think that non-punishing parents spend *more* time on discipline. It takes a lot of time and effort to pay attention to your child proactively, and to spend time talking with our children about how what we do affects the world.

I just read your other post on discipline, and I'm off to request a copy of Playful Parenting from the library. Thanks.

October 21, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterTrish

Wonderful post. This is a subject that has given me a tremendous amount of angst. I was raised primarily by my father as both mother and stepmother were unfit. I would like to think that my father was more of the green circle in theory but in execution more to the left. In his defense, it was not out of desire, but of necessity having to deal with supporting the family financially as well as two terrible partners. I, the eldest, was left at a very young age to assume the roles of carrying for my sib. My biological mother fell somewhere so left that when she was alone with us we had less respect for her than a stranger. I would like to My stepmother, sadly, focused on the right portion of your chart. She used belittling and brutal physical force to dicipline. The saddest part, observing it from a mother's perspective, is that we were excellently diciplined children. We were very self diciplined and never were more trouble than bickering between ourselves. My stepmother exacted "punishment" for unreasonable things associtated with being kids--accidentally breaking an object, tooth paste in the sink, etc.

I have put a lot of thought into how I want to raise my child and I am not sure how I best can reach the happy medium you have presented. Instead of working by example, I am working by knowing NOT what to do. I only hope that she grows up with the security, esteem, and peace of mind that I had not always had afforded to me.

October 21, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAnita (niter)

WOW I love this post. For me you have really hit the nail!!!
I have so many people looking at me as if to say kids just will not learn if you don't push them into it, force them into it, or beat it into them.
And you have pointed out that there are other ways...thats what makes me so angry some times is that most around me are so into beleiving that there is only one way and will not even try.
I'm with Anita...I can only hope that my child will see one day that I have put a lot of effort into giving her what I feel is security, esetem and peace of mind (nothing against my parents as they were more far out than most and I love them for that)...but as I was talking the other day...there is always more and we can only do what we know and love as much as we can for the bits we don't....as long as we love with all of our hearts and tell our children that and keep learning...we can only get better.

October 21, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMegan

Great post and a topic close to my heart. I agree spanking and shaming are just uneccessary when there are so many other options. I'm a big fan of 'time out' but not too long, making choices (eg: children being able to pick thier own clothes for the day) and also choices coupled with consequences. But it should be fair. I also like asking children to problem solve - if they are having a conflict with thier peers.

I think we can see our dicipline styles played out when our children role-play us in a game like 'mums and dads'. It can be a mirror to our parenting style, choice of words, and attitude. Lukily, most of the time, I enjoy watching my daughter play this game, but can be confronting.

I guess how we model our behaviour and attitude while interacting with our children and others is one of the biggest influences on our children. I agree that love, security, and building esteem have to always be foremost.

October 21, 2008 | Unregistered Commenteraztec-rose

At my daughter's 9 month appointment one of the developmental questions that the nurse asked was if my daughter knew what "no" meant!!! I was shocked! Should a nine month old be told NO so often that they know what it means? At the time I do not think I had ever said no to her. I rather yes her into learning than no her into submission. Parenting is not a relationship of powerless and powerful- it is a partnership- teaching, modeling, and allowing choices!

My daughter is 13.5 months old, so the discipline at this point is minimal- guiding at most. However I watch some children at my house and a two year old was hitting (today, actually). The first time I was rattled by it and did a power move- I put her in time out. I don't really like time out. After reading Alphie Kohn I have a new view of it. I now see it as more of a power play and a way to create more negative enegry. The second time I caught myself and did a time-in. What a difference! She really responded positively and after a couple time-ins the hitting stoped. We will see what tomorrow brings... :) Great post, thanks Annie!

October 21, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterKelly

Thanks everyone for the great comments! It is sometimes really hard to do things differently than the way we were raised. I think there is a tendency to just fall into that (the same way our kids imitate us when role playing!).

I think my parents did a great job raising us, but there are still things that I want to do differently and I do have to sometimes catch myself or correct my course when I fall into doing what they did.

The interesting thing too is that my parents both had very different styles. Neither of them abusive or neglectful by any means, but my mom was more of a "good job!!!" person (and she still is with my kids!) whereas it was like pulling teeth to get a compliment from my dad, but he always challenged me to do better which I think really helped to motivate me.

October 22, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

You explain this so well!

I would add that my particular sweet spot shifted a bit with each child. I have four kids, and they are all individuals with different needs and different ways of responding. And the youngest child has always had the advantage of having two parents and THREE older siblings modeling behavior.

I used to get heavily criticized for not "punishing" my kids when they were small. But then they grew up and turned out to be really wonderful young adults (they are 22, 20, 17, and 14 now), so people stopped criticizing me ....

October 23, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterjo(e)

This was an excellent post, and the comments have been interesting too. My heart goes out to Anita - I too have based a lot of my parenting on NOT following my parents' examples. I am lucky enough to see a counselor who believes in attachment parenting and supports all the things I do as a parent. He asked me one time what I thought when my father would hit me for punishment, and my reply was, "Is that the best you can do?" Even as a child I understood that it was not an effective tool.
My feeling is it is almost always best to err on the side of mercy and love. There are many parenting 'mistakes' that can be ameliorated by lots and lots of love, and the feelings of security it can bring.

October 23, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterbarelyknittogether


I love this: "My feeling is it is almost always best to err on the side of mercy and love. There are many parenting ‘mistakes’ that can be ameliorated by lots and lots of love, and the feelings of security it can bring."

Well said!

October 24, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

[...] is not the only alternative to spanking (I wrote more about this in my Discipline Spectrum [...]

Discipline is a big issue for parents, thanks for this.

I just recently got renewed enthusiasm for it, and am glad to see your pointers in print.

I love your site, I'll be back!

November 18, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSusanna (A Modern Mother)

Ideally I fall in the realm of using discipline to teach. So I give her a choice: you can get ready for bed or one of your stuffed doggies goes into toy jail, which do you want? Sometimes I lose it. I hate that I lose it. Thankfully that doesn't happen as often as it used to when I wasn't rested (when she was younger). I've found that it helps to focus on teaching her only a couple new things at a time (such as eating dinner without a fuss or going to bed without a fuss or getting dressed in the morning without a fuss.. yes there's a lot of fussing in our house.)

PS found you through the blogging carnival.

Alisa Bowman

November 18, 2008 | Unregistered Commenteralisabow

[...] I’m a bit of a model geek myself and reading this post reminded me of the work that I did on My Discipline Spectrum, which has some shared concepts and ideas with TwinToddlersDad’s [...]

[...] 5.PHD In Parenting talks about the difference between discipline and punishment and where she stands in the middle in My Discipline Spectrum. [...]

[...] their child. But often when they say discipline, they mean spanking or punishing. However, the word discipline means to teach. That is what parents need to do. They need to guide and teach their children. In the same way that [...]

[...] it comes to something like infant feeding (breast or formula), discipline (spanking or punishment versus gentle discipline), sleep (cry it out versus parent to sleep), there are people who say “Do whatever is best for [...]

September 26, 2009 | Unregistered Commenter“Don’t Judge Me&#8

Thank you for another wonderful post. My first babe is not here yet and this is a topic my husband and I do discuss. I was physically abused as a child, so was my mother, and her mother and it is a cycle I do not wish to continue with my kids. I worry that in my case discipline can cross the line to abuse despite seeing therapists about my past (I have never had anger issues, but an abusive past makes it a reality). There are scenarios I have not faced yet, I have not been a parent yet. At this point with our child in utero I keep telling myself I will parent out of love and not anger and rely on my husband and close friends if I feel I am getting anywhere near abuse with my child.

January 4, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterkia

I don't have a problem with consequences, as long as they're logical. Like if you don't clean you room then you can't find your shoes and you miss the first half of story time at the library. I try to avoid rewards and punishments as much as possible, even when I know it would be easier in the short term. LOL

January 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSummer

"At my daughter’s 9 month appointment one of the developmental questions that the nurse asked was if my daughter knew what “no” meant!!! I was shocked! Should a nine month old be told NO so often that they know what it means?"

Actually, I think it's really important that kids learn about "no" early on. I teach baby signing and we introduce the "no" sign early on; I always start the topic along the lines of not being negative to your baby but using the word/sign for immediate safety (eg "don't touch the hot thing"), an introduction to creating boundaries (which is so important for little ones to feel safe) and for the CHILD to be able to say no when they're unhappy/uncomfortable too. Our emphasis is on two-way communication, of course! :) and I'm always delighted when parents come in to class and say things like "my baby was having tests at the hospital and was able to express "no, I'm fed up, I need a break" rather than scream the place down". I've even had kids arrive and sign "no, go home" - in several case these children have gone home and slept for hours because they've been coming down with a cold, rather than being miserable in class. They had the confidence to order their world and the respect of their parent to realise something wasn't right. So "no" itself isn't always negative or destructive even for very young children - it's the context it's used in that matters. I try and get parents to model it to each other, too, which helps a lot with everyone's understanding. I completely agree that it's better to say "yes, you can do x" to help children explore rather than constantly saying no to everything, but an understanding of "no/don't" and expecting that to be respected whether it comes from adult or child is surely one of the greatest protective gifts you can give your kids.

Great article, very nicely put.

January 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCaroline

[...] read a lot about gentle discipline. I have a general idea of the tools and techniques that I think are appropriate. When I’m confronted with discipline situations dispersed over the course of a day, generally [...]

[...] I believe in gentle discipline, focused around modeling appropriate behavior, giving them choices and teaching them about the things I think are important and that I think will help them in life. I do not believe in spanking or any other form of corporal punishment. But there are other tools, like rewards and punishments, which I will use as a last resort. I wrote more about my discipline spectrum on my blog: http://www.phdinparenting.com/2008/10/20/my-discipline-spectrum/. [...]

I'm reading this for the first time and it's exactly how we discipline in our family. We followed Dr Sears' attachment parenting philosophy and have very healthy relationships with our children that set the groundwork for all parenting. We've been very clear on our family rules, why we have them and what could happen if we don't follow them. I like to use natural consequences (unless there's the potential of danger or harm to someone) so that they learn first-hand why a decision was a poor one.

We have friends and family with different rules in their home, or different styles of parenting, and my children recognize this and tell us that our system works. They actually like knowing there are rules in place to keep everyone happy and safe.

Great post, Annie. The illustration is perfect!

October 22, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterGina

Our sweet spot matches yours too, and I agree with others who have said that disciplining within this zone is perhaps harder work in the sense that it is a continual process. There are fewer peaks and troughs. Our daughter is strong willed and quite sure of what she wants and doesn't want but we rarely have any difficulties because life is more or less one long conversation...and when she refuses something we can almost always talk through it.
My Dad in particular thinks I am too soft, although I actually only remember him using this approach.
Great post. Thanks.

October 22, 2010 | Unregistered Commentercarolb

[...] to hear about how other people do it.”  Generally, I feel like I said it all in my post on my Discipline Spectrum, but I do understand how some people do find day to day stories useful. Unfortunately, I often feel [...]

[...] me seethe. I can handle my kids being defiant if that is the only thing going on and I find that my Discipline Spectrum generally tends to guide me in the right way. However, I find it gets to be too much for me when [...]

Hmmm. I liked this. It sparked a lot of thought! So much that I had to get my thoughts down before I got to the end, in case I lost them :-)

Firstly, I am a behaviour-nerd. I think if punishment in it's literal sense; something added that decreases a behaviour. This could be something abusive (a smack) or it could be in the realm of consequences (I drawded on the wall so I haff to clean it off"). Or it could be "negative punishment"; ie. something taken away to make behaviour decrease. Loss of a privilege for example... Again, consequences.

In the same vein, I tend to think of "rewards" as reinforcers or bribes. Reinforcers: something added to make a behaviour increase. While you may not think you use them, you do. All the time. When you smile, hug, thank, kiss... All these things are "reinforcers". A feeling of satisfaction in a job well done is just as much a reward as a new toy. I'm guessing you try to lean on "internal reinforcers" rather than material ones, but they are still there, and still shaping your Childs behaviour and responses to you and the world, whether you recognise this fact or not. The Bob the Builder toy is a bribe. Bribes are something I try not to utilise with my child.

I like how your sweet spot leans so far to the left.... The secret to good parenting is to know when to sit on your hands and let them find their own way....

Thank you, I loved this post :-)

December 2, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSam

i have a 4 year old daughter who has pdd which is a language developement problem. i have been having problems with her behavior towards me and i tell her to stop and sit down and i out her in time out but when she is running around with me or with me period, she has tantrums and throws herself on the flour or sometimes pulls my hair. Yesterday her teacher had to help me get her in the car because she was kicking and screaming at me. No one really knows what its like to be a parent of pdd/autistic childeren. it is hard and sometime i do cry a lot because i feel liek she hates me and that i can not do anything about it but if there is anyone that has this same problemi will take all the help i can get. She never does this with her dad.

March 25, 2011 | Unregistered Commentershanelle hall

I commented on your recent smirky defiant post a bit: I mentioned that people redefined things when I wasn't looking. This page is a good example. You view rewards and punishment as external things but not everything and different from consequences. My definition of reward is something that reinforces, and punishment as something that extinguishes. Rewards and punishments are naturally occurring (your natural consequences) or applied externally. I actually find that many parents protect their children from naturally occurring punishments and rewards that could make parenting a heck of a lot easier should the child be allowed to experience them.

As well, I get the feeling that you don't consider praise or other positive verbal feedback to be a reward. I'm guessing they are what you call teaching. But I think praise or criticism are the strongest rewards and punishments as they can be given instantly, at any time without being used up. I do distinguish that from instruction and demonstrating, which is more what I call "teaching".

I'm with you in that object rewards are not that good. Normally if my kid wants chocolate he just has to ask for it or get it. I don't withhold anything just for when he behaves because I don't withhold it from myself just for when I behave. I do sometimes like them as something very special -- but even then I make it more about the child getting extra special treatment not the object; "Ok, we're going to go to the store and you can pick out any candy, take it up to the cashier and buy it." like my son is a big special 3 year old man, but he's also learning how to read prices and pay for things.

Anyway, my comment is that it's sometimes hard to know what people are talking about if the words all mean different things to different people. We could eventually argue while both having the same position :)

May 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPerfecting Dad

Thank you for this post. I just discovered your site and can't seem to stop reading! I think it is really important for everyone to find their middle ground and comfort zone. I just always try to remember that my goal is not to get my child to "obey" in the here and now but to teach him the skills he needs to be a responsible and compassionate person capable of making his own decisions.

[...] of Minnesota– How behavior changes in babies, Ages 0-18 months Discipline versus Punishment Annie’s Discipline Spectrum Setting The Boy Up 10 Wasy Attachment Parenting Makes Discipline Easier (Dr. Sears) Discipline in [...]

A swat on the bum is NOT abuse. I prefer to live by the principle of "Children obey your parents in the Lord for this is right..." there is truth to these words.

October 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAnna White

My husband and I decided to parent without punishment. Once we did, we found out we didn't NEED punishment. Our boys are 2.5 years old, and fully functioning members of our family. They don't "rule the roost", there are limits set in place for the benefit of everyone in our family, and it's just a nice way to live with children.

Thank you for the illustration of the discipline spectrum. It helps to see it in graphic form.

October 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMama Mo

Is it deliberate that you place the proximity of rewards and punishments next to abuse on the continuum? Perhaps I am misunderstanding, but by placing them so close to the word abuse, it seems like you area suggesting you believe them to be close to being abusive parenting techniques. As a teacher of individuals with autism in an Applied Behavior Analysis educational setting, these are powerful teaching tools and it's hard for me to see them placed so close to the word "abuse" on your continuum. We have literally saved lives using reward systems, and I know many parents of individuals with special needs that would agree. I guess it just struck a chord with me to see you continuum, from the perspective of an educator and knowing what many families go through.

October 22, 2012 | Unregistered Commentersblairc

I think it's that punishment and rewards are not the psychological versions of the words, but the lay versions of the words. i.e., don't spank but enforce consequences. Don't reward but ... praise effort or other various versions.

October 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAlex | Perfecting Dad

The continuum was very deliberate, but I'm not sure the spacing was. I just put everything in order as I saw it from very hands-off laissez-faire through to very controlling abuse. You can see that the yellow part of where I fit on the spectrum does touch rewards and even touches punishment a bit, meaning that they are things that I will use in some circumstances, even though they are not the primary focus of my approach to discipline (which is the green area).

October 23, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

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