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Why You Must Change the Way You Think, to Change the Way Your Child Behaves

gentle discipline book

Discipline tends to focus on changing children: teaching them to have more respect and self-control and punishing wrongdoings so that the negative behavior is extinguished. Which is why it often fails. Great discipline focusses on changing parents, not fixing kids.

Many parents hold beliefs that undermine their parenting and the behavior of their kids. For most, these limiting beliefs go unnoticed. They wonder why their kid is so unruly, no matter what approach to discipline they take. This only strengthens their subconscious limiting beliefs, meaning that the more perplexed, stressed, anxious and angry about their discipline failings they get, the more the kid is going to misbehave. To see the sort of change they want to see, they must change the way they think, before they can begin to change the way their kid behaves.
These are the most common limiting beliefs parents hold about kids, and how to break them:

1. Viewing Kids as Naughty

When kids do something wrong; yelling at a teacher, swearing at their parents, or lashing out at their sibling, they are labelled as “naughty”. The fact is, all negative behavior signals an unmet need, or difficulty navigating emotional turmoil. Kids don’t deliberately seek to hurt others. They do it because something is wrong. A happy kid is a well-behaved kid. When adults misbehave, we don’t call them naughty, we invariably look for the reason why: “they’re stressed”, “he’s having trouble at work”, “she didn’t mean it, she’s not feeling well”. Kids are no different. There is always a ‘why’, we should resist the temptation to label and instead look for the trigger. Labelling kids doesn’t solve anything, but it does make us predisposed to look for the bad, not the cause. When we think badly of kids, they pick up on it and that discomfort triggers more bad behavior in an uncomfortable self-fulfilling prophetic action.

2. Expecting Kids to Behave Better Than Adults

We all have bad days. Days when our temper is short, days when we don’t feel cooperative. As adults, we can take a ‘mental health day’ and shut ourselves away for a short-time. Kids don’t get that luxury. We expect them to be perfect all the time. In fact, we expect them to be better than us. We expect them to never lose their cool, always stay respectful and helpful, to always be happy to share or follow instructions. A standard we could never hope to achieve as an adult. Lowering the bar, a little is necessary. Realise that kids are humans too, humans have off days and they mess up. Adult or kid.

3. Expecting Kids to be Able to Change

Most discipline methods focus on changing the ways kids behave by motivating them to do better. That motivation is either positive – rewards, stickers, praise etc, or negative – punishment, shaming, exclusion etc. The problem here, is that these motivation-based discipline methods presume that kids can do better. They presume that the kid has the neurological and emotional ability to change the way they behave. Only in often, they can’t. Kids are frequently punished for not being able to do better. Whether that punishment is negative, yelling or spanking, or positive, like the loss of a reward that was on offer. We must reset our expectations of the abilities of kids. Understanding what kids are capable of, at each age, is vital for effective discipline. So is working with kids to help them to achieve better behavior, when we know they struggle to change on their own.

4. Doubting Our Own Parenting Abilities

Parents are too quick to blame their kids’ behavior on their own inadequacies. They think “I’m not cut out for this”, “I’m not calm enough”, “It’s all my fault” and they are right, but not in the way they think. Having a fixed mindset about parenting ability, i.e.: believing that you’re no good, is likely to produce the very outcome that you believe, but only because you believe it! The truth is, all parents can do better, they can all be the inspirational parent they wish they could, but only if they believe they can be! Having a growth mindset about our own parenting abilities is key. The best way to get there is to change your own internal dialogue “I don’t feel like I’m cut out for this right now, because I have a lot going on, but I can change that”, “I’m not calm enough right now, but I know that’s something I need to work on – and I will”, “I feel like it’s all my fault, I’m not setting a good example, but I know that, it’s something I can rectify”.

5. Not Giving New Approaches Enough Time

Growing, nurturing and shaping takes time, whether that’s sowing vegetable seeds and tending them to fruition, slowly pruning a bonsai tree, or carefully training a new puppy. Raising and changing little humans is no different. We wouldn’t be angry at a tomato seedling for not growing and producing fruit quickly enough, so why are we angry at a child for not displaying mature behavior? Effective discipline is about sowing the seeds for the future, rather than controlling, forcing and coercing today. It takes time to come to fruition. That time doesn’t mean your efforts are failing.
Discipline must always start with self-discipline. Change yourself, change your child!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Sarah Ockwell-Smith is the mother of four children and a highly regarded parenting expert whose work and expertise has been featured in major media including BBC News Magazine, WebMD, Buzzfeed, as well as national television and radio. She has a BSc in Psychology and has also undertaken training in Hypnotherapy and Psychotherapy. A member of the British Sleep Society, Sarah specializes in gentle parenting methods as well as the science and psychology of parenting. She is co-founder of the GentleParenting website ( and writes a popular parenting blog at

To buy Sarah Ockwell-Smith's new book from Amazon, click here: Gentle Discipline: Using Emotional Connection--Not Punishment--to Raise Confident, Capable Kids