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How to correct a child’s ‘bad’ behavior with positive parenting

When my son was four years old, he was sweet, funny and quite mischievous. Just a moment unsupervised and something was likely to get opened, spilled or broken. Most days my son was content to play with his toys in the garden or to make an art project. Other days, it seemed like he was set on pushing every boundary and breaking every rule.

If you have a young and energetic child at home I’m sure you know what this is like.

One time, I found him in the bathroom with several open containers of shampoo and soap. The shower doors completely white with suds. “Beau-full” art he told me very excited. Another time he cracked open magic markers and ran them under water to “catch colors.”

Each time we caught him bending a rule or breaking something we had to do something about it. But that something wasn’t your usual discipline. There was no sitting in the corner. No making him feel bad.

Instead, we tried something else: connection before correction.

Whenever we noticed off-track behaviors, we tried to look for solutions or alternatives to what my son was doing. Even before we did that, we actually just sat with him, played and talked. Often we hugged and chatted a bit. Then, we gave him opportunities to fix mistakes and to think about what he was doing.

Sometimes there were consequences, but not made-up ones—only ones that were directly related to what had happened. Washing up the soap or gluing together a broken vase for example. This wasn’t even presented as a consequence but as an opportunity to make amends or fix a mistake.

Maybe you are thinking this isn’t even discipline. That it can’t possibly work.

I totally get that, because I worried about that too. In fact, there was a time when I was skeptical about positive discipline and wondered if this was the right choice. And then I started to notice how much my son was growing and feeling capable.

The more opportunities we gave him to play and make mistakes freely the more he started asking before taking something that didn’t belong to him. When he made a mistake he came to tell us or to ask for help.

Positive discipline specifically aims to involve children in respectful ways and encourages parents to remember that children are capable of doing better.

Young children are often curious and very much into pushing boundaries. Connecting with your child before making any corrections is a surefire way to better behavior. Jane Nelsen of Positive Discipline says, “We cannot influence children in a positive way until we create a connection with them.”

Each time your child pushes a limit, breaks a rule or a bottle of shampoo, before you correct the behavior, try to slow down first. Create a deliberate moment of connection. A moment when you can confidently provide safety and understanding for your child.

Enter into your child’s world. Look beyond the naughty mess and notice the learning and discoveries taking place.

Remind them you are their ally, you are on their side. Even when you are saying no or stopping unhelpful behaviors.

Of course it’s not always easy to stay calm and pretend that spilled soap is no big deal.

The thing is, your child really needs your confident and calm guidance when they make mistakes. Having realistic expectations about childhood behaviors can help you make connected and positive discipline choices.

These early interactions matter because how to choose to discipline shapes your child. Siegel and Payne write, “The moments when discipline is called for are actually some of the most important moments of parenting, times when we have the opportunity to shape our children most powerfully.”

Back when my son was making all those mischievous mistakes, I didn’t assume he was being bad or disrespectful. Instead these moments were treated as opportunities for offering guidance. I tried to calm the need to lecture and correct, and instead simply joined my child in his world. I realized he was curious and playful. He was also open to suggestions and often happy to have some guidance.

Connecting before making corrections helps children trust you. It helps you see your child. Really see your child, in that moment and what they need.

Connecting lets you create a meaningful moment to listen, validate and acknowledge your child.

How connection before correction might work for you:

  • Calm your own expectations or fears (remember your child is imperfect just like you)
  • Enter into your child’s world, think about the experience from their point of view.
  • Listen to what your child might have to say.
  • Focus on solutions and possibilities.
  • Use gentle physical touch to engage with your child.
  • Speak kindly and clearly—say what you really mean.
  • Make eye contact and get down to your child’s level.
  • Offer corrections that are encouraging and respectful.
  • Believe that when you work together, your child can learn to make a new, better choice.

Discipline that comes from a place of love and care teaches. When you connect first, you speak to your child’s heart and mind at the same time.

That is powerful. That is discipline. That is the surefire path to better behavior.

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