Parents: Discipline and the Power of Silence

(Apologies, another long one.)

I recently watched my first episode of ‘The World’s Strictest Parents’ and it was fascinating. The girl who was sent away was still pretty dreadful to her mother on her return. The boy, who had been smoking since he was 11 and was downright ghastly to his Mum prior to his week away, changed completely. Many people would say, that’s just the way it is – others might say – see some things (in this case non-wavering boundaries) work for some children and not for others. Both of these comments miss the big picture.

Children need lots of ands not lots of ors. They need nurturing and boundaries and structure and freedom and playtime and quiet time etc NOT… they need nurturing or boundaries…structure or freedom…playtime or quiet time… And that was the difference between these two young people – he had been well nurtured, she had not. Once the boundary piece of the jigsaw was put in place, he thrived. She did better once the boundary setting had been established, but she was never going to thrive in the same way because she hadn’t had the extreme (by modern western standards) nurturing she also needed. One thing was very clear, though, without the non-wavering and non-negotiable boundaries both teens were a mess.

So what do we, personally in our house, do?

Well to answer that question, we need to remember that our brains learn best when there is either a small amount of stress for a long time – as in when children are playing (non-electronic) and other times when we are so fully engaged in an activity that we lose track of time. The other time we learn effectively is when there is an intense amount of stress for a short time. Like when we cut ourselves with a knife or bang our thumb with a hammer. Human brains also work well with anchor points or mini-rituals throughout the day.

And finally, we need time and space to process things for ourselves, if we are to learn for ourselves.

Details: 1. Chores (Mini-Rituals): All the boys have chores to do each morning and afternoon. They are few and are mostly around personal cares, caring for our animals and being a citizen of the house. They are also age appropriate – Mr Hare dries 10 dishes morning and night because he is 10 years old; Mr Owl does six because he is six; and this week Mr Butterfly began drying two – he’s two and a half years old. No point doing any chores before this age. Incidentally, getting rid of the microwave and dishwasher have been two of my best ever moves – certainly wouldn’t have done so when I had babies, but now…

2. Consequences (Short term stress – as intense as they want to make it): We have time-limits on when chores have to be done. This stops the boys faffing about, OK, it stops Mr Owl faffing about and Mr Hare is learning that there is something to be said for getting on with things. Call that, differences in temperament. The consequences are practical (real jobs that are repetitive), boring and non-negotiable. Before we brought this in, the consequences were explained, I haven’t reasoned or explained why since – they know, they process for themselves while weeding (or whatever).

3. We don’t back down. If I had a really tired child, I would help them to accomplish their chores, but the chores still have to be completed on time. When Mr B told me he didn’t feel like doing his two dishes this morning – I handed him the tea-towel and two dishes and turned my back – but said nothing. He did them, including putting them away. In the early days, the others missed out on doing lovely things because they hadn’t gotten around to completing consequence-tasks. They know that I won’t back down – not that I’m mean about it – just quietly matter of fact, and constant. They get on with it – or they miss out on a treat-event. (Trip to the hardware shop with Dad; visit to play with the neighbours’ kid; swim in the nearby river.)  And, if I think I’ve over-reacted, I change things the NEXT time.

4. We use a Diane Levy strategy – ASK, TELL and ACT. (ASK in a normal tone- wait to see if they’re moving; TELL them again, right next to them – yes involves getting off one’s backside and moving over to them- spoken with a firm tone – wait to see if they’re moving; ACT…see below…)

5. We emotionally disconnect for a short period of time – this involves intense stress for a short time for them – just separation can do it for some children. (People could spank on a round little bottom at this stage – but that is a personal decision and not a discussion I ever get involved in.) Plomping a small child against the wall could be your emotional disconnection. Plomping them in their room could be your disconnection. Sometimes just breaking eye-contact or turning one’s body away can be disconnection. These events have to be taken on their own merits. The important thing is that they KNOW that you disapprove of their behaviour and you keep the learning with them – by not talking.

6. The VERY important thing about this process is that it is NOT a Time Out. As soon as the child is willing to do what you have (reasonably and age appropriately) asked – they can come and complete the task and carry on with their day. This reconnection stage is vital – they have to be in control of it and you need to reconnect with them, through eye-contact and/or touch – as soon as they are ready to comply. If you don’t, they stay in a heightened state of stress and that’s detrimental. We want them to process and learn for themselves. If it’s an old lesson, they really can process very quickly.

Our talking takes away from them thinking.

7. We say, No. The first 10 or so times a toddler throws books on the ground we might tell them why that’s not OK. After that we just say, No, firmly and move to the ACT stage of the above process. After several repetitions, certainly from the age of around two and a half, they *know* they’re doing something they shouldn’t. Again reconnection is vital and so is a sensible consequence – in the above example helping return the books to their correct spot would be the best consequence.

8. For violence or other nasties we just move straight to ACT. Again – anything you know you have already explained or stated as a rule – they k.n.o.w.

9. We don’t praise or bribe our children for good behaviour. That’s just expected. We do say, Thank-you, especially at the end of an ACT when they’ve complied. And we do constantly tell them that we are proud of their hard-work; kindness; manners; etc and that we love them and are proud to be their parents.

10. We don’t reason with them. We explain why the rule is there – at a time when there are no temper tantrums. Sometimes they question the details, and if necessary we’ll iron out misunderstandings or make changes. This is part of the teaching we do regularly as part of our normal routine and just as things come up. We never ever, ever do this during an ASK TELL ACT process. Their emotions are too inflamed to listen, and sometimes ours’ are too inflamed to explain kindly.

11. We use our body language – rather than talk. We hand them coats on cold days. We point to their bare-feet if they are going to school. We turn off the tele if they’ve snuck it on Saturday morning while we’re still asleep. shows a great way to implement silent discipline – I am intrigued by it and can see that it would work well – but it is time consuming, and dependent on another adult being able to look after other children while you ‘walk’ with the child concerned. Looking at it from a purely biological standpoint, you could say that the child imposes their own stress to evoke the realisation or change in behaviour. It’s a great example of silence working well.

In the silence the real learning begins.

12. We insist on manners, and keep adding to the list. Mr B knows, please, thank-you and is working on ‘showing his pretty eyes’ when he talks to people. The bigger boys are working on table manners and not telling me fart jokes. Tone of voice is also key and rephrasing things can make a big difference…

13. We’re the calm (mostly) authority in the boys’ lives. We’re the people they can really count on to show them how the world really works, not how we wished it worked – so they can negotiate it when we’re not around. But we also give them lots of time to think and process for themselves.

Of course, intense nurturing is vital and hours spent in personal exploration – but children must be able to function effectively within ‘the rules’ of their society. We don’t live with the Yequana in South America in some sort of long lost paradise, we live in a modern western world – where people stay up late and are over-exposed to electricity, have access to rubbish food and where life is stress for many of us. Manners are key to our survival. Knowing that the world isn’t all about us is useful. Having strategies to fix things when we’ve done wrong is essential.

Be big and brave. Stick to your guns and ignore their mean comments when you get tough – we say, that’s a shame – and no more. Your children will thank you for it…once they’re adults.


About Karyn @ kloppenmum

kloppenmum is me, Karyn Van Der Zwet, mother of three and ex-teacher. I'm part of a revolution in parenting, with the aim to raise mature (not sophisticated) and self-assured children. I also know some stuff about adults. I have also had articles printed in The Journal for The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (Children and Young People) and the US parenting magazine, Pathways to Family Wellness, as well I regularly write for World Moms Blog (named as one of the Forbes 100 most useful blogs for women 2012 &2013). You can follow me on facebook (kloppenmum) pinterest (Karyn at Kloppenmum) and twitter (@kloppenmum). I'm also vaguely on LinkedIn (Karyn Van Der Zwet). Thanks to Joe (Mr Hare) for taking the photo. Cheers, son: xxxx.
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32 Responses to Parents: Discipline and the Power of Silence

  1. Eleanor Patrick says:

    This is excellent, as usual, Karyn. I’m going to post a link to it on my blog because it’s really useful stuff to offer to parents to read when we’re working with families as counsellors – all your posts are, in fact! Thanks, and good wishes, as ever. I keep trying to contact you in my role as editor but it doesn’t work.

  2. Pingback: If you work with parents who struggle « Child Therapy and Mental Health

  3. Elena says:

    There is so much to comment on that I feel silly making remarks about one little part, but the part that really rang a bell for me was about there not being an arbitrary “time out” time limit. I’ve never used time outs for just that reason, and it is such a relief to have that validated. It seems so random. A person’s experience of time is so subjective. I much prefer to impose some sort of isolation consequence until they are ready to interact in an appropriate way. For example, if Hank is mad and is calling his sister stupid and trying to hit her, I put him in his room and explain that if he’s going to be hurtful he can’t be around others. He can come out when he’s calmed down and is ready to interact in a kind way. It may take a minute or it may take 20, but essentially it is on his timetable.

    • Well done you. We tried traditional time-outs with our experiment (you know, number one child!) and found them to be horrible. I can remember crying with him and saying, “This isn’t right, it just isn’t right!”
      This approach came from Diane Levy, a family therapist here in NZ. I felt as if I wasn’t doing enough to begin with – like I wasn’t doing my job as a mother.

      He too sometimes took 20 minutes or longer or was ready within seconds. Sometimes I had to put him back because he was saying the words but hadn’t yet truly calmed. It keeps the learning with the child in such a powerful way, though. Great to hear from you. 🙂

    • Eleanor Patrick says:

      I thought that was an excellent point too, Elena. I’ve never understood punishing after the need for it was over. Its unintended consequence is that the parent models the wrong sort of behaviour!

      • The worst (calculated) approach I ever heard was putting the child in their bedroom for a time out – on the parents’ timeline – then going in, telling them what they’ve done wrong and then spanking them. This was advised for children as young as 18 months. Imagine the amount of cortisol swamping those kids!

  4. hakea says:

    One of my favourite sayings is “no talking, no emotion” from the 1-2-3 Magic programme. I also advise the parents I work with to become “kid-whisperers” – they say it works.

    The volume in modern life just keeps getting louder. Sometimes I feel like the world is screaming at me. We’ve reduced the noise from electronics at our place, and it makes such a difference. I love the ‘slow family’ movement,

    • It’s amazing how everyone’s volume increasing with the radio or tele on. I love the idea of child-whispering, Narelle. I think I might be part of the slow-family movement already!

      • hakea says:

        Hmmm… I’m just a little bit perplexed by the emotional disconnect you describe. It sounds like it might be perceived as passive aggressive.

        All parent-child interactions come down to parent state of mind (Dozier, van IJzendoorn, Fonagy), and your state of mind at that time may be calm and open, but the talk these days is all about connection. Dr Laura Markham and Scott Noelle are huge advocates for this.

        Also time-out is copping a beating (pun intended) in parent education circles. Here, foster carers are not allowed to use time-out any more due to the big disconnect, and the rejection felt by the child.

        You are already using lots of connection and belonging strategies, are there more positive alternatives for the emotional disconnect and time-out.

        Sorry, I just had to ask.

        • Ask away!
          I don’t like traditional time-outs either – (wish I could think of a name to descibe these which are more indicative to the process), and would imagine for many children in fostercare they would be highly detrimental.The thought behind this approach is that a clear message is being sent to the children that a specific behaviour is not acceptable, and they can repair that at any given time. I know when we were reparenting Mr Hare, the boundary had to be quite firm and addressed first, and then we could address the underlying factors.

          So not passive-aggressive as far as I can see – more assertive, and giving the children a sense of the ‘edges’ of the world and that they can fix things when they make mistakes. The disconnection in our house is sometimes is simply raised eye-brows – a indicator to stop and consciously process what just happened or is happening. The neurology (you know me!) is analogous to building muscle – where a small break in the tissue (therefore, you have to have the small shot of cortisol) causes the muscle to reform stronger. …discuss… 😉

          • hakea says:

            All of the talk about brain development at the moment is that children don’t have the capacity to organise their own feelings and it is better that they do so in the company of a bigger, stronger, wiser, and kind person (Circle of Security). The more “being with” you can do when they are young the better they manage as they grow older.

            We are discussing tin tacks now.

            I was talking to a young mum recently and she said she uses a Warning, Redirect, Time-Out plan. So, first she gives her child a warning, then she tries to redirect him playfully to some other activity, and if that fails and things are getting heated she gives a time-out. Her idea of time-out was actually Quiet-Time because the child sat on a chair in the same room for one minute. She said that she could not manage Time-In, she got too angry herself. She has two children under 2 years and is the bread-winner for the family. She knows what she can manage, she sets clear limits, she has a plan, and she follows through every time. She also has loads of connection time with her children. She knows about Time-In and the benefits of it, and maybe she’ll be able to organise herself to gradually move towards it. Can’t ask for more than that really.

            • Indeed that is all we can ask of ourselves and others.
              And I have no problem discussing brass (OZ/Kiwi difference?) tacks with you. It’s great to get the feedback and it helps me clarify my message. 🙂

              I agree that children don’t have the capacity to organise their own feelings – hence my focus on the importance of reconnection and taking every instance on a case-by-case basis. In the end though, children can’t learn to manage their big feelings unless they have experienced them. I talk about this often with my mate who’s a psychotherapist – unless we have experienced small bits of stress at home and that relationships aren’t always attuned, and learn to manage our cortisol etc and learn skills to ‘repair’ the relationship in an, ideally, mostly nurturing environment – we cannot manage adult relationships (of every kind) in the big wide world. I appreciate you are often dealing with less than ideal situations, too.

              • Marcy says:

                This exchange is very interesting to me, as I’ve been reading in Hand in Hand Parenting, and Laura Markham, and other similar folks. One thing I realized with the emotional disconnect with my child (5) is that she would just turn off — or shut down — or try to, anyway — the negative feelings, in order to get back to connection. I am finding that holding the boundary or limit while staying to listen to her upset about it, is helping both of us a lot more. When it works — when she feels safe enough to go ahead and cry or otherwise express her upset, and I feel strong and calm enough to listen without being threatened or triggered — then the next part of the day goes so much more warmly and smoothly. WIth the emotional disconnect approach, the upset would come up again and again in little niggling ways. I still have to use it sometimes, mostly when I am not in a strong and calm frame of mind, but it doesn’t work as well for us. In in between times — not so volatile, nor so strong — I can take a time out for myself, and she handles that pretty well.

                • That’s interesting Marcy and I appreciate your adding your voice to the discussion.

                  • hakea says:

                    I’ve been reading up on Hand in Hand, listening to their audios, and viewing the discussions on their Yahoo Group.

                    The stay listening and play listening is very interesting.

                    I did some stay listening yesterday during a disagreement my boys were having, and it was quite effective. Although you do have to have patience, remain calm, and stay firm.

                    My husband is great at play listening but not so great at stay listening, he gets too frustrated. So between us we’ve got it sorted.

                    Great techniques if you have the emotional capacity.

                    • Always good to have more tools in the parenting kit!

                    • Just had a look at playlistening and staylistening…and admittedly it was a very brief look – but my initial response is that stay-listening sounds very like Boring Cuddles or the ‘walk’ in hakea’s post. Playlistening sounds dreadful as a core approach. I have inadvertently done this with our kids before and had three different responses. 1. They giggle at themselves and then do as asked – which is what is intended. 2. Reptition of the inappropriate behaviour to the extent that they wind themselves up into a state because they don’t know when to stop – Have I done a post on funny/silly/naughty? 3. If the kids were in the middle of a high emotional state, they have found this to be rude and I have been under no illusion that they are feeling underminded by my making light of something they see as really serious. Love to have some feedback…

  5. hakea says:

    Hi Karyn

    Re: stay listening and play listening from Hand in Hand.

    I think to get a good handle on what they are you need to listen to the audios which cost $7 each. There is also a set of booklets which costs about $24.

    A really good one is “play that builds resilient kids” by Patty Wipfler and Janet Lansbury. Patty explains it beautifully. From my understanding, stay listening is very different to silence, it’s more reflective listening and hands-on management of the situation until the emotion subsides.

    Dr Laura Markham also explains redirecting playfully on her blog on the Aha! Parenting website. It’s probably not your cup of tea – it does seem a bit cheesey how she explains it. It works with some kids. My husband has a silly sense of humour and can change kids around very quickly through mucking about. I think the key is to use it as soon as the behaviour occurs.

    Hand in Hand has a very good reputation amongst Steiner/Waldorf circles in the US and positive parenting advocates in the US. They also set up listening partnerships for parents to reduce the isolation.

    • Thanks for that. The information on the website didn’t thrill me, I have to say – but it was a very quick look. 🙂

    • Marcy says:

      The stay-listening does seem similar to the “walk with” or the “boring cuddle” — there is some reflective active listening, but not a lot — it’s more attentive than the boring cuddle.

      The play-listening is challenging for me, too. Sometimes it is good — sometimes something silly does change the mood, especially when the upset is really a bid for attention and not really that upsetting in and of itself. Sometimes, when it makes her more upset instead, it is a window into emotional release through crying, and turns into stay-listening. It seems important to be observant, and press on or back off depending on how it’s being perceived. Same with stay-listening — sometimes I need to push forward and engage her physically more (restraining kicking feet, for example) and sometimes I need to give her a little more space.

      My biggest issue with play-listening is your number 2, Karyn — when the behavior that prompted my play-listening response is repeated in order to get the response again. They say that is the time to set the limit — say not going to do that behavior again, but we can play the game again — just ask for it.

      Sounds good in theory, and when I’m up for it, it is fun and effective. I can see their point that the repetition is sometimes a way to continue working through the original feelings some more. But sometimes I don’t want to keep playing that game. I think mostly that’s MY issue — something I need to work on overcoming. But even when I say no to repeating the game, it can be an opportunity to stay-listen.

      HiH also recommends lots of physical connection and play — wrestling, pillow fights, and the like. I find sometimes that if we’re doing enough of that, that I am not asked as often to repeat play-listening games.

      I have joined their yahoo group, but I haven’t yet bought the booklets — will be ordering them soon.

      • Hi Marcy,
        I am always a bit cautious of ‘active-listening’ when children are upset – especially those who are younger than nine or 10 – it’s a brain thing, but I am also aware of some of your journey and don’t want to take your confidence away with an approach you are confident with using.
        Boring Cuddles (and I’m thinking ‘Walk With’ too) give the child the work/processing to do, and many parents feel they are not doing enough or being attentive enough. Sometimes the child takes a while to get used to the process and sometimes the parents don’t trust the ease of the outcome. I will definitely have to look at this playlistening business too – again it sounds like the parents are doing all the work and the children aren’t doing a lot at all, but I can’t really tell without reading it myself.
        I love rough and tumble and those games are great for releasing stress hormone and creating a connection between parent and child. I would think that if you were feeling like trying the disconnection process again, with the addition of a rough and tumble session to reconnect at the end, you wouldn’t get the ‘jittery’ reaction you initially found with Amy. Lovely to hear from you – hope I am being helpful. Have a great day.

        • Marcy says:

          It is certainly a sort of ebb-and-flow process — I am working on being aware of when I am pushing too much, too active, when I need to step back and be present and warm… and I still separate / disconnect at times when I am unable to be present and warm…

          Remind me of the brain issue? I am guessing it has to do with interrupting or distracting the work the kid is doing — which is the same response I got through HiH recently, basically that using too many words, trying to name the feelings or call attention to them, causes a move away from emotional release or emotional metabolism, into intellectualization.

          It is interesting to see how things coalesce and diverge, and to gain a little more confidence in my intuitions and observations, while still engaging with what folks are saying and learning and researching.

          • Sounds like an evolving parent, Marcy – I did much of the same thing while I was researching – I do less of it now, but still…
            Yes, it’s any intellectualisation of the process which I am very much against. Boring Cuddles work because we butt out intellectually but are there emotionally for support. And I would guess that hakea’s ‘Walk With’ works in much the same way.
            I really am impressed with your ability to make sense of what is going on with you while you are parenting – it is often a very difficult part of the job and you seem to have a great sense of your emotional states.

            Ebb and flow is a great way to describe it – I’ve heard it called breathing in (busy/intense times) and breathing out (relaxed/connective times) too.

            • Marcy says:

              Perhaps my emotional awareness is due in part to the deep intense therapy I did several years before having a child, along with having always been a reflective and introspective person. I wish my therapist was still alive to work through stuff again as it is restimulated by parenting, but I muddle along with what I learned before (skills and insights) and what I learn elsewhere.

              Awareness is great… reflection is great… and I hope with continuing practice to be better able to apply stuff in the moment, and not just realize that I’m doing it wrong or that it would be better to do x, and that sort of thing, but feeling helpless or unwilling or both, to make the change.

              I guess I hadn’t thought of the Boring Cuddle as emotionally present — physically present, and connected, yes; I could see harmonizing the stay-listening, boring cuddle, walk-with, ideas as all sharing this emotional connecting presence but not doing the work FOR the child. I said it before, that it reminds me of what enzymes do — they hold the other things together in an atmosphere that allows a reaction to take place. So whatever you call the method, you’re being an enzyme for your child and the emotional work they need to do.

              Ebb and flow — breathing in and out — are good broad terms as you suggest. In my comment I was thinking about them in a more micro way — in a single stay-listening session, for example, moving closer, reaching out to restrain a hand that’s about to hit me, stepping back, releasing, and so on. Listening is a living thing, a process, a journey, even in a single moment. And that reminds me of yoga, and how even while holding a single pose, it can be dynamic — it changes with the breath, holds tension from stretching in both directions, etc.

              • You’ve got it all working for you by the sounds of things. I like your analogy of the enzyme, and yoga (which I failed due to driving through red-lights afterwards sessions, I was so relaxed!). I couldn’t agree more about parenting restimulating all our baggage – it amazes me how intensely I had/have that experience with our boys. It is really hard for parents not to do the work for our children, we want to help them so much. Thanks for another great comment. 🙂

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