I recently interviewed Jane Nelsen, a parenting expert and author of many books about positive discipline. She is the author of the book I reviewed not long that gave me the idea for a Chill Out/positive time-out room. I loved all the reader feedback I got on that post. So I sat down to speak with Jane Nelsen and here are the transcripts of that conversation. If it reads like a conversation that is because it was. We talked about positive discipline, why punitive parenting and permissive parenting don’t work, why an understanding of normal child development is so important, and we even talk about some of my personal issues here including my mom. I walked away from this interview with even more respect for how knowledgeable she is. Enjoy!
Tiffany: I am here with Jane Nelsen of Positive Discipline for Preschoolers. Jane has also written several other books about Positive Discipline and positive parenting and in fact I just blogged recently about Positive Discipline for Preschoolers and received a lot of great reader feedback. So after that I wanted to interview Jane and ask her some questions. So Jane can you briefly tell us a bit about your background and how you same to be so knowledgeable about positive discipline?
Jane Nelsen: Well, first of all I have my before during and after children the ones that were raised before I learned about these concepts and the ones that were 3, 5 and 7 that I learned on and the two that came after. And I was just taking child relations and family development for my bachelor’s degree and I was struggling with my children and not knowing how to be a good parent and that is what I wanted to be more than anything else. I would be too permissive until I couldn’t stand to be with my kids and then I would be too controlling until I couldn’t stand myself. I would go back and forth and when I went into a class where they said we are not going to teach you a bunch of theories…but one theory and how to apply it in practical ways it really worked. It helped children learn self discipline, responsibility, cooperation, problem solving skills I thought oh that would be great. And this philosophy is too have respect for children and I still struggled though because I don’t think you ever have to teach anybody how to do punishment…we know how to do that, it comes second nature. We also know how to be permissive but to be both kind and firm at the same time and not react is a real challenge and I found the best way to keep me doing a better job was to teach parenting classes, so I started teaching classes and I kept learning more and more and thinking more until I finally ended up with a book after working with so many people and having so many successes of my own.
Tiffany: What is the basic concept behind positive discipline and how does it contrast with more conventional discipline methods that we are all used to?
Jane Nelson:Well first of all the most conventional methods are based on the behavioristic approach which is Skinner and punishment, and reward. And the thing that sustains us in these in my opinion is that they work…kids do respond to punishment, at least for the moment, it will stop the behavior right now. But what is the child thinking, feeling, deciding and doing to form their personality? Or a lot of them love rewards but that also teaches them external locus control where the adult has to be there to catch them when their “good” and reward and catch them when they are “bad” and punish. But what happens when the adult is not around? And so the first thing is that Positive Discipline is designed to help children develop this internal locus of control. In fact I would like to tell you about the five criteria for disciple that is effective.
Number one is that it is both kind and firm at the same time…or respectful. I was just talking to somebody yesterday that said “Sometimes you just want your kids to do it because you told them too.” You know because I am the mommy and I said so. But how would you respond to that if you had a boss, or a husband, or wife that wanted you to do things just because they said so….and they wanted you to do it now without asking any questions? So number one is respectful…kind and firm at the same time.
The second is that effective discipline tools address the basic need that children belong and feel significant. Punishment certainly does not make children feel wanted and significant; it makes them feel bad and inadequate and most kids will either become rebellious or approval junkies.
Three, every tool is designed to work long term not just short term. It may work in the moment but as I mentioned before what is the child thinking, feeling, deciding, and how is their personality forming? Effective discipline is designed for the long term.
Number 4 is that it is designed to teach children valuable social and life skills for good character. In other words you will see how many of them develop brain storming skills, problem solving skills, concern for others…it is really focusing on solutions and teaching them the last one…five which is teaching them that they are capable and they can use their power in useful ways. If you really look at punishments and rewards you can really see that those methods don’t meet any of these criteria.
Tiffany: Wow those are some great tips for effective discipline…it is very true that you don’t see those as the end result with the harsher and more punitive discipline methods. This is very true.
Jane Nelsen: Or with permissiveness. So many think that when we say no punishment that the only alternative is permissiveness and that it means to let children do whatever they want but that is certainly not healthy for children and it too does not meet any of those criteria. When we are permissive they don’t learn that they are capable and that they can contribute and that they can feel good about helping others and accomplishing things.
Tiffany: You draw on a lot of research and studies that perhaps most parents never get to see as they are buried in obscure medical journals…
Jane Nelson: Or University journals…there has been SO much research that shows that punishment doesn’t work and now there is research that shows that rewards don’t work…I would like to recommend a book if anyone wants to see those studies is Alfie Kohn’s book Punished by Rewards. It is a great book for analyzing the research and seeing the long term effects of punishments and rewards.
Tiffany: Thanks for the tip. I am familiar with Aflie Kohn although not that particular book. I will have to look into it. He does go into a lot of depth. What would you say though to parents that feel positive discipline can be equated to permissive parenting?
Jane Nelsen: Well, that they don’t know anything about it then. I know that is the tendency when you find people who really do not want to be disrespectful and they really do not want to be punitive… they have to learn the skills and the Positive Discipline books teach you hundreds of skills. They don’t just teach you what not to do they give you lots and lots of tools for what TO do. Do you have the book Positive Discipline from A to Z?
Tiffany: Yes, I have that book, yes I do.
Jane Nelsen: Well that one allows you to look up any subject like fighting or biting or temper tantrums or back talk and you get several suggestions for what to try and several suggestions for how to prevent the problem in the future. Parents have to look at how permissiveness does not meet any of those five criteria I mentioned. Permissiveness is kind but it is not firm and it’s not respectful because it teaches children that the world owes you a living and means taking care of me and wouldn’t you hate to be married to a person who thinks that way?
Jane Nelsen: It might do many things but is does not teach children to believe in their own capabilities….that I am capable and that I can contribute and I have good life skills and character…permissiveness does not do that. It is a big mistake that a lot of parents make in the name of love.
Tiffany: On the other end of the spectrum…why is it so hard for parents to let go of harsh, punitive discipline methods? I personally think many moms feel bad about taking that tact but yet they can’t let go of it.
Jane Nelsen: I think that is so true, I don’t know of any hardly parents who believe in spanking who wouldn’t prefer not to if they knew what else would work. They just think that they have to control their child and that is a tool. And I do think it is just a lack of knowledge and that these parents don’t have any idea…they don’t think at that moment what is my child thinking and what are they deciding about themselves right now. Most don’t understand child development and it just breaks my heart to see 2 and 3 years olds being put in very punitive time outs where their brain is truly not developed enough to understand cause and effect. For example to teach parents their children do not understand and have the necessary responsibility and judgment I ask them if they teach their children and expect them not to run into the street and would you now be confident enough in that teaching you did to allow them to play in front of a busy street unsupervised? And of course they all say no and I say why not? If you spank them a hundred times would you then let them play by the street unsupervised? And again they say no because instinctually they know that the child does not have the judgment and yet they put them in time out at a time in their life according to child development’s Erik Erikson when they are developing a sense of doubt and shame or autonomy. So we’ve got all these children being put in time out when there are other things that would just be so much more effective. Like at that age (preschoolers) we just have to do a lot of supervision, and redirecting, and distracting, and teaching without expecting them to automatically change.
Tiffany: Great points and I love that example of the child running into the street because that seems to be the argument or scenario that parents who support spanking always throw out there. They ask, “If your kids run out into the street are you going to use kind words to get them to learn they can’t do that or are you going to scare them into submission with a spanking?” They use that scenario to show that spanking is supposedly necessary but your example highlights the flaw in that argument. If spanking worked then the lesson would be learned but yet they instinctually know the lesson was NOT learned…so why continue with that method of discipline?
Jane Nelsen: The other thing is letting go of this idea of control. I honestly believe that they do this because they live their children…they think this what they have got to do to get their children to behave well but they are not teaching them skills and I want to give you a real quick example of an activity I do in my lectures when I have 3 volunteers and I tell them okay one of you will be the telling parent, and one will be the asking parent and one will be the child. Then the child goes to the telling parent who says “Go brush your teeth.” And then they go to the asking parent who says “What do you need to do to get your teeth squeaky clean?”
They go back to the telling parent who says “Go to bed”. The asking parent says “What is on your routine chart that shows you the things you need to go to bed?” And then back and forth when one will say “Go get your coat” the other says “What do you need to take with you to make sure you don’t get cold?” And then ask the person playing the child what they are thinking, feeling, and deciding when they go to the controlling parent who is telling what to do, when to do it, and how to do it. They feel resistant, they feel rebellious, and they want to tune them out. But when they go to the asking parent they feel empowered…they think hey I can do that, I can think of that, it is so much more inviting to cooperation. The asking parent is teaching them responsibility instead of just making them accept responsibility and parents that are controlling are the ones “taking” the responsibility and then they wonder why their children don’t “learn” responsibility.
Tiffany: Oh yes! Exactly you can’t take charge and make their decisions for them and expect them to magically learn the underlying concept themselves. Would you say that prevention and planning to avoid issues is a big part of positive discipline? I personally do but I have family members who love to tell me that setting my kids up for success is somehow gaming the system and not teaching them how to cope with failures. But I am very big on preventing problems and not setting them up to fail. What do you think?
Jane Nelsen: Oh yes…that is why in Positive Discipline from A to Z there is a lot of info on how to avoid these problems. And I do think that planning is a very good idea. For one thing if you have a behavior problem and you only have it once…that is not a problem. If you have a pattern of behavior then you need to look at what you’re doing to help create it and then look at what you can do to prevent it by having a plan…I think that is an excellent idea. However, when children do make mistakes I think it is important to let them experience the consequences of their choices most times. With empathy and validation of their feelings but then let them find out that they can survive and work through it. It develops resiliency when they find out they can handle it. Do you have an example of what you would do to prevent something?
Tiffany: Well, uhm…sure. In my house I don’t really have a lot of personal items or treasures low to the ground where kids can get to them and break them. I take the preventative measure of putting them away so we won’t have the strife of them choosing to touch and then accidentally breaking and then me being upset. But my mom feels that this is wrong of me to do. She has the opposite stance that I should have all of things within their line of vision or easily accessible and then take on the task of controlling my kids and making them not touch these things to teach them I guess that they can’t touch other people’s stuff. And I disagree with that…A LOT.
Jane Nelsen: I totally disagree with that too. You see this is someone, bless your mother, who does not understand child development. This is why children grow up with so much guilt, and doubt, and shame. Why we all feel we are not good enough because of this old belief that children are supposed to be able to control themselves. And that would be such a hassle to feel as though you have to sit and control everything they do.
Tiffany: I agree! LOL.
Jane Nelsen: According to normal child development they cannot control themselves…they don’t have the emotional maturity or judgment to be able to control themselves so to me having to walk around and say don’t touch that, don’t touch that just creates doubt and shame and that is sad. So good for you!
Tiffany: Well, thanks. :) I know you work with a lot of parents so what are the issues that parents struggle with the most do you think?
Jane Nelsen: One that is so prevalent is the comment that “My children don’t listen”. And I always want to say to them, “Well. You talk too much”. They learn to tune you out and it is one way to protect themselves because many parents lecture, lecture, lecture, control, control, control…way too much. I often have these wind up chattering teeth that I hold up during my lectures to show them what I am talking about. It just shows that that we just don’t listen enough to our kids and so they don’t learn to listen. I also hear that they don’t like it when their children talk back. And I tell them about an article I have called Don’t Back Talk Back because that is exactly what parents do…they say “Don’t talk to ME like that young lady” And here they are doing the exact thing they don’t want their kids to do.
Tiffany: This is one of my biggest failings that I get sucked into that same pattern with my oldest son. I really have to watch myself. He likes to talk back and then we get into a big back and forth and I have to take a step back and say “Whoa, hold on…I am doing exactly what I told him not to do. I am trying to teach him NOT to do something by demonstrating and modeling for him I how I do it too.”
Jane Nelsen: We really do need to understand then when we are in reaction mode we need to step back and see that we want children to control their behavior but we don’t control our own. Sometimes when a child is talking back it is okay to say “Wow, I can see they you are upset right now. I know we love each other so let’s talk about this later.” And then the parent can decide what they are going to do and do it with dignity and respect. If your child is whining for example, they aren’t able to hear how that sounds, so just say “I love you and I want to talk to you but you need to come find me when you can use your words.” And then leave. You can’t teach a child at times when they are upset and that goes into another important aspect of Positive Discipline…connection. Connection before correction. You really need to create that feeling of connection, belonging, and significance so that you are speaking to the rational brain and not the brain in a fight or flight state. Too many parents try to teach in that fight or flight stage when everyone is upset. That is why positive time out is a good idea. After they are around 3-4 you can teach them to create a special place where they can self soothe….an area in the house that you can fix up to help them feel better, maybe with cushions and teach them that when they are upset they can go to their feel good place, their happy place…my grand-daughter calls her sparkles. When they are upset ask them to go to their feel good place and if they say no then tell them “Well, I think I will go to mine.” And you’ve then modeled going to your own as you say I love you and I will talk to you later.
Tiffany: This was actually one of the things I discussed on my blog when I was talking about your book Positive Discipline for Preschoolers….I mentioned a story you had in there about a teacher who created and Antarctica Room with fluffy pillows and stuffed animals, where the kids would go if they needed to cool off or just whenever they felt they needed to and I got so many wonderful responses that this idea was just wonderful. I thought so too, which is why I posted about. It is such a fun, unique way to teach children how to self soothe as you said.
Jane Nelsen: Well, we need to remember the criteria that healthy children feel capable and teaching them to self soothe is a great life skill… that they can wait until they calm down so they don’t react. Another issue goes that to preventing things like the parents who struggle with bed times and waking up…if they would take the time to get their children involved from the time they are about two and a half and helping them to create a bedtime and morning routine and parents should not do this for them and they should not have rewards. You could make a chart with all the things they have to do…bath, brushing teeth, picking out clothes to wear tomorrow, bed time, etc. and take pictures of them doing these activities with your digital camera and have them paste these pictures under each task on their routine chart. The children helped to create it, they see pictures of themselves doing it, and instead of saying “go brush your teeth” ask them what is next on their routine chart. It helps them feel capable and empowered.
I also used to teach logical consequences but I don’t anymore; and the reason for that is that parents often try to disguise punishment by calling it logical consequences. Instead focus on solutions. If your kids aren’t old enough to grasp solutions then they are definitely not old enough to understand punishment. So at 3-4 years old start asking them for help in finding solutions and start having family meetings…when you have a problem you put it on the agenda which allows for a cooling off time and then you brainstorm for solutions that are respectful to everybody and you teach them all kinds of life skills. That is one of my favorite tips…family meetings.
Tiffany: And I am loving these tips. I love the idea of family meetings. Thanks for taking the time to meet with me and answer some questions. I appreciate it greatly.
Jane has MANY books published on this topic but these are the books I have that I recommend:
Jane also has a web site at www.positivediscipline.com
Tuesday, September 30th, 2008