Because hitting your friends isn't nice: how we're gently disciplining our daughter

March 8 | Guest post by Sarah Schlothan Christensen
Photo by Sarah Schlothan Christensen.
A few weeks ago, my daughter Charlotte hit her friend at the park. Twice. With a stick. I was mortified. I knelt down to her level, grabbed her hands, and asked her to look at my eyes, please. She looked at the sky, at the bushes, at her feet, but refused to look at me. "Charlotte," I repeated. "I need you to look at me please."

"No," she answered.

"I understand that you do not want to look at me," I said, "but I would like to talk to you about your behavior. Would it be better if we sat quietly together for a little while first?" Her lip quivered. Tears fell. She started wailing and threw her weight on the ground.

So I took her in my arms and I walked to a bench nearby. I explained that after we talked she could return to playing and I could return to chatting, but until then we were just going to sit here. So we sat.

Minutes ticked by and still we sat. I sang. Charlotte fussed. And still we sat. Until finally Charlotte said she was ready to talk. Then I held her hands and I looked her in the eye and I explained that WE do not hit. In our family, behavior is almost always 'we.'

I explained how hitting can be painful and how the stick she used could have injured her friend if it were to strike his eye or his throat. I reminded her of how she feels when other children hit her.

She didn't know what I was talking about. "What does, what does 'hitting' mean?" she asked me. So I explained what hitting was.

Then I gave her options. I listed off some phrases she could repeat to her friend if his behavior was frustrating her. I told her that if she could not find the words to convey her anger, she could call for me to help her. And then, I said, if she really just wanted to hit something, here were some things that she COULD hit: trees, the ground, and the big boulder at the edge of the playground.

I told her that I was not angry or disappointed. I empathized with her emotion. And I explained that although I did not want her to repeat the behavior, how she behaved had no influence on how much I love her. Then I explained that because her behavior could have hurt her friend, she needed to apologize to him. And I explained that because my behavior had caused him angst, I told her that I would apologize too. We could apologize together, I said.

So we went to her friend. I told her friend that I was very sorry to take Charlotte away so abruptly and for such a long time. He said it was okay. Then Charlotte whispered that she was sorry and they hugged each other. She needed a little reassurance from me that everything was okay and she could continue playing.

Then I went back to chatting with my buddies.

Four times that week, Charlotte hit someone. Four. Times. And each time took somewhere between five and twenty minutes for me to resolve. Each time I did the same thing: I removed Charlotte from the situation, gave her time to calm down, talked to her about her behavior, asked her about her feelings, gave her options, reminded her that I love her unconditionally, and helped her apologize. And each time I wondered: is this working? Am I being stern enough? Is she getting the message? Would something else be more effective?

Every few days, I receive an email from a reader asking me how my husband Donald and I discipline Charlotte. I almost never answer them because, quite frankly, I don't know how to talk about discipline. For starters, I have only one child. Taking twenty minutes out of my day to talk to my child about hitting in an age-appropriate way is 100% doable because I am not parenting any other children simultaneously and we rarely have restrictions on our time. Second, my child is only two. She cannot lie to me or take drugs or shoplift. Our gravest problem is that she likes to sample dinner while we're preparing it and that she isn't that keen on bedtime. It's not like there's much to discipline.

But for a couple of days, there was. And I followed my gut. And it worked. And I know that tooting your own horn on the Internet makes you a narcissistic jackass, but right now this narcissistic jackass is feeling very very proud of herself. The end.

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  1. Thank you for sharing! This is how I hope to be when my son needs correction. He is highly sensitive and more stern forms do not/will not work for him. He is only 16months so the reasoning part is a little too advanced for him just yet, but I do it anyway. I remove and redirect him while explaining why he shouldn't do what he did. Someday he will get it, I hope. I have been scared to research discipline methods because there is too much information out there. Your example is exactly what I hope to be when the time comes for real discipline/correction/teaching.

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  2. This is basically how we would handle physical conflicts when I worked in child care. The only difference is that we often asked the children questions in order to let them come to the conclusion that 'hitting hurts when someone does it to me, so I shouldn't do it to them.' We encouraged them to talk about what's frustrating them and we also recommended, like you did, that they try to use their words first or come tell an adult. We had an area designated with pillows for whenever a child got angry enough to need to hit and encouraged them to use it instead of hitting their friends (possible at home, but obviously not at the park so the trees and ground were a great alternative). The most important thing for parents of young children (5 and under is all I have experience with, although it may be true for older children, too) to remember is that a child who is too angry or frustrated or upset to use their words, is also going to be too angry to hear yours. So sitting with them until they're ready to talk is the best way to handle it. Well done, Mom!

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    • I love all I learn from day care providers that take the time to educate the rest of us. Thank you!

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  3. Thank you for this! I'm not a parent, but I am a Sunday school teacher. The kids I supervise not being kids of my own that I could discipline in my own way, I have challenges trying to figure out how to address things when they are acting out. Removing the child and then waiting until s/he is ready to discuss is something I hadn't tried, but I think I may!

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  4. I think it is a good idea to remember that (like the poster says) having 20 minutes to correct a single bad behaviour is a real luxury. My mom was a working, single mother of two. If my sister or I messed up, we got a sharp "Don't do that!" and a threatening look. End of story. Mom did not reason with you. You just listened to Mom. Time was short. Decisive action had to be taken so to speak 😉 And just for the record both my sis and I turned out fine. Compassionate, sucessful, don't hit strangers. 🙂

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    • Yup, while my parents are still together, there were four of us, my dad worked full time, and my mother worked part time. You simply do not have that amount of time when there are 4 kids – especially with a set of twins in the mix!

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    • I really appreciate this comment. I enjoyed reading the post, but the older the child gets/circumstance/lack of time all tend to lead to less time being able to do this. Plus, as a child gets older, you stepping away to spend time on discipline, especially if you were doing something else (like talking to another adult) can become a manipulative tool for children to get more attention. I don't like to give my daughter too much attention for discipline, I try to reverse it and praise her for good behavior (not always easy).

      I do really like your self praise though. Every parent has to find what works for their kid and it can often be exhausting feeling like you are not patient enough, are not attentive enough, are not ANYTHING enough to be a good parent. Giving yourself some self love and praise is awesome! If it works for you and yours, keep it up!

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      • My sister and I always got lots of time devoted to "discipline". My mom is a fan of conflict resolution, and I can tell you that sitting down to discuss how everyone felt about a situation was more than enough incentive to behave. Now I can appreciate it, but it was torturous.

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      • I second your comment ashlee… it is exhausting to feel not patient enough, attentive enough… etc. Self love is a crucial step to being a loving parent 🙂

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    • I've been thinking about this comment for a couple hours and I just wanted to clarify that although I firmly believe in gentle discipline, I also understand that there are certain circumstances wherein specific disciplinary choices are not an option.

      We chose gentle discipline for our family for several reasons. First of all, this is how I was parented – my mother worked part-time until my youngest sibling was school-age and then she returned to full-time employment (my father was employed full-time the duration of my childhood) and there were three of us. Still, my parents always made time to deal with our behavior with patience, consistency, and time-ins like the one I described above. Familiarity goes a long way in recommending a parenting choice.

      Second, my husband and I are involved in the foster care system and in the process of becoming adoptive parents. As part of this, we were required to sign a paper stating that we will not ever discipline a child in our home – biological, foster, or adoptive – using corporal punishment.

      And third, and really this is very important which is why I mentioned it in the post, because I only have one child and I am a stay-at-home mother, my husband and I have the time to give it a whirl and see if it works. Furthermore, we live four houses away from my parents on the same street I've lived on my whole life and only a stone's throw away from my husband's siblings. If I need a break or some help, I can get it in a heartbeat. Making time to focus on a single negative behavior is much more manageable when you have a strong support system willing to lend you a hand or discipline as you do in your stead.

      Under other circumstances – if I were unfamiliar with gentle discipline, if my attention were divided by other children or my time were devoted to a job, if my family had not signed a legal document attesting to the fact that we will only engage in gentle discipline, if we didn't have as much help available to us as we do…we might have made a different decision. I felt very worried when I read your comment because I was under the impression that you felt that I was being unrealistic about the demands of your family upon your mother and negatively judging her decision. Nothing could be further from the truth; I don't think that your mother's sharp tone and look were any less effective than my time-in with my daughter; they're just different methods for different families operating under different circumstances. Who knows where I'll be in six months, much less in twenty years, when it comes to discipline!

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      • Oh, I sensed no judgement at all! Don't even think that for a second. I merely said what I said because (as the child of a working, single 1st generation American mom) I am very sensitive to the ways in which class, ethnicity, etc play into parenting choices. I just think it is important to bring them up. I don't like it when people with a lot of privelege judge the choices of those with less–but I DO NOT think that's what you were doing at all!

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        • Oh, and one more thing. Despite many a threat, I was only actually ever hit once by my mother. When I was 13. And let's just say, if you were ever thinking of calling my mother a bitch–even under your breath after she refused to let you go to the movies unsupervised with a boy you REALLY liked—don't do it. 😉

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    • "If my sister or I messed up, we got a sharp 'Don't do that!' and a threatening look. End of story. Mom did not reason with you. You just listened to Mom."

      Ha ha! My mom would glare at us with her finger on her nose (the "you guessed it" signal from charades). That look stopped us cold. When I was in my 20s I made a snarky comment and she did that once. I said, "Mom, why is it that when you put your finger on your nose it strikes terror in my very bones?" She burst out laughing and said, "I don't know, but it seemed to work so I kept doing it!"

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  5. My mom was notorious for giving lengthy guilt inducing lectures for every misbehavior. My brother once asked her, mid-lecture, if she could please just hit him instead.
    Generally speaking, I agree with the philosophies in Becoming the Parent You Want to Be but ages 1-3 (especially 1-2) seem especially tricky because the kid's attention span is very short. By the time the time out or lecture is over, they've often long since moved on. I fear that when I pull my 2 year old aside, to talk about what happened, she's more about the fact that I pulled her away from what she wanted to do than she is about questioning her behavior. I've had more success talking to her about what happened in a calm quiet time later (like in the car) but I'm not certain if she's just being a yes man ("Yes, hitting hurts. Yes, we should be gentle with our friends.") or if she really remembers and cares. It's a mystery to me!

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  6. I appreciate this post, because my son (just about three) has gotten to the point that he argues when we ask him to stop doing something. He laughs at things that used to work before, and the longer this goes on, the less patience I have. It's led to more spankings than I'm comfortable with.

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    • I would suggest "1, 2, 3 magic" (it's pretty much card 1, card 2, card 3". I don't suggest getting into a power struggle with a 3 year old. Nobody wins!

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      • Oh man, nobody wins. It's a just a matter of finding out what works and what triggers his behavior. Right now it's just random, because he clearly as so many feelings that he can't quite sort them out.

        Thanks! 😀

  7. The part where Charlotte asked what "hitting" meant caught my attention. How many caregivers (myself included) would have said something like, "No! No hitting. We don't hit people." without knowing that the child didn't even understand what they were talking about? What a good opportunity to understand what she's thinking!

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    • Oh man, I agree with this one. I went through a horrible phase with my daughter because she kept using a bad word. I finally figured out that she didn't know what word I was talking about when I said, "don't say that."

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  8. Thank you so much for this post. My son is an avid hitter at this point. He doesn't seem to do it when I'm not around that I've heard of. (He goes to the day care service at our gym and that is the only time he is really away from me.) I have had lots of trouble trying not to get frustrated because a lot of the time he is hitting me or his father. He hits HARD too. I know it is because he is frustrated and he is not talking yet (just turned two) so that just makes him more frustrated when we don't understand him. It's hard to remain calm for me when he is trying to claw my eyes out in an effort for me to put him down for instance. I get why he is acting out in those instances, but reasoning with him is nearly impossible at this point. I've attempted time out, but putting him in a chair doesn't work since he doesn't sit still. Holding him for a time out is down right painful because unless I have him in a death grip he is trying to escape. My mom once used duct tape on my sister when she was particularly difficult. (She was an extraordinarily difficult child and my mom was a single mother working full time with a three hour commute both ways. We laugh about the instance now and I swear my sister is completely awesome as an adult.) Thank you for the encouraging words that at some point patient reasoning may actually work!

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    • I don't know if this would help for your son, but one of the things I've read suggested in situations like this, is to redirect your kid to hit something else. "I can see that you are very angry, but I can't let you hurt me or yourself. Here is a pillow you can hit." There are also special holds you can use on an out of control child that keep both of you safe. Good luck Mama!

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  9. Ok, I have both Offbeat Mama and Sarah's blog on my reader, and when I read this I was all "I've read this post already! And no one points it out in the comments? This so strange…"
    Then I went back up to check the date it was posted and I saw it: "Guest post by…"

    Anyway, I LOVED this post in her blog and I love it here, it opened my eyes a lot in terms of discipline. I'm only 11 weeks pregnant, but I'm already reading on the subject (right now, unconditional parenting). Any of you can recommend other books?

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    • Gracia, if you enjoy Alfie Kohn's theories in Unconditional Parenting, you might also like his book Punished by Rewards. Those books are like two sides of the same coin. He also has a book called Beyond Discipline, but I've never read it so I can't say whether it's worth the read or not.

      Other discipline-related books (or books with discipline sections) that my family has appreciated include: Connection Parenting by Pam Leo, The Natural Child by Jan Hunt, Playful Parenting by Lawrence Cohen, and Positive Discipline for Preschoolers by Jane Nelson (there are a few books in this series if you like what you read).

      Good luck. I don't think there's any one cookie-cutter answer, but I'll bet two or three years from now when your little one reaches this stage you'll be surprised to find how much of what you decide to do will come naturally. The discipline you have to work at or feel uncomfortable with doesn't stick.

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      • Thanks a lot, Sarah!
        My husband just asked me to tell you how I refer to something I've read on your blog (because I just told him you suggested we check out these books). You are "the blogger with the super cute funny Charlotte". Now you know.

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    • Ha! I had the same response to Alyssa's post the other day about "being a bad mother".

  10. I don't think you're jackassy at all for tooting your horn over moments of parental success. Every moment of parental success is worth celebrating! However, I've learned that sometimes these moments, lovely as they are, give way to other less encouraging moments. While I hope this tactic continues to work for you, it may not. And you shouldn't beat yourself up about it if you have to try something a little less gentle, like time outs, down the line.

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  11. I'm a teacher in a primary/elementary school. In my early years of teaching I tried, and failed with lots of different styles of behaviour management. At my current school we work on it from a welfare approach – what motivated the behaviour, what were you feeling at the time, how do you think the other person felt and feels now, how do YOU feel now, what different thoughts and actions could you have followed? We talk about strategies for managing anger, frustration, loneliness etc. This helps the children build an emotional language, or as it is often known Emotional Intelligence. It is time consuming, but I have found the more we do it, the less time is needed and the more effective it is. Angry kids will sometimes now come to their teacher and say 'I feel frustrated because X happened, I need to move myself away from so and so, is that ok?' before the urge to punch or hit strikes. I think you're doing a really good job, keep talking about emotions and choices and you'll raise a very aware and considerate child. I wish the parents of my students took the time to do this instead of some of the scary and damaging things they do.

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  12. As a now grown up former child frequently beaten to pulp by my father, reading about parents who actually do it right moved me to tears. Thanks for sharing!

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  13. I think you're doing very well! I do wonder, though, what your explanation that "how she behaved had no influence on how much I love her" is like–the actual words you say to her every time she misbehaves. It sounds like something wordy and possibly confusing! I'm thinking about how several people have told me that Mister Rogers's reassurance that you can never fall down the bathtub drain created a whole new fear they otherwise wouldn't have considered–saying, "Even though you hit him, I still love you," could for some kids bring up the idea, "Is there something I could do that would make her NOT love me?" But if you are simply saying and showing that you love her, I think that's fine and important.

    Gracia, Adventures in Gentle Discipline by Hilary Flower is an excellent book with advice mainly about toddlers and preschoolers.

    • Becca – A few months ago, we were at the park with a friend of mine who spanked her kid and said "Why are you so bad all the time? Why don't you listen?" when she threw wood chips at my daughter.

      After that, every time my daughter did something she knew she should not have done, she asked me "Am I bad all the time? Do I listen?" and my answer was always "You listen just the right amount. It's good to listen sometimes and it's also good to have a mind of your own. And you are never a bad person, never. Sometimes you make choices that upset me, but I still love you and you're still a good person."

      This has evolved with time, but when she's very upset Charlotte still references that incident at the park (she also asks about the kid all the time – even though we've seen her since, she still worries that her bottom hurts from being hit and things like that) and asks if I think she's bad and I tell her that no, she's not bad, she's very good, and I love her and dote on her no matter what she does, etc. Therefore when I have to be proactive with discipline, I always jump right in so that she doesn't need to ask. Over time as she asks less frequently then I probably will start to wait until she indicates that she needs reassurance before I pipe up, and hopefully with time this problem will evaporate entirely.

      1 agrees
      • Ah, I see! In that case it's definitely important to reassure her.

        My son (now 7) sometimes responds to correction by snapping, "I never do anything right!" I say, "There are lots of things you do right. Here, you made a bad choice. Next time you'll remember to [specific way to do it right]." When he seems particularly discouraged, I mention some things he did right very recently. I don't want him to label himself as someone who's always wrong because then, why try to do right?

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  14. Gentle discipline really can work wonders (My son is a wonderfully behaved boy who has never had a physical conflict with another child) But remember, with gentle discipline it's all in the tone of voice! You need an "I mean business" tone so that they understand that you are serious and you will be disappointed if they don't listen! It's all in the way you speak to them.

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  15. I love this post. I do an abbreviated version of this and today my son said "I choose the first thing" (which was keeping his hands on his own body). You know, to toot my own horn.

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  16. My parents spanked me as a child, now, in their defense I was a difficult child and I have turned into a responsible, well-behaved adult. But because of this, and the confusion it did cause me as a child I have decided that NO ONE will ever lay a hand on my child. I appreciate posts like this because I affirms my choice to take a different approach to parenting than the way that I was raised.

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  17. I am so feeling this right now… I've got a four year old who has just started school and discovered a penchant for punching people who make him angry. I feel like we've done the explaining thing to death with minimal improvements. If he can catch himself in time, no punching. But if we are out of the room or he loses it… blamo. He'll say sorry but it's an empty 'can we just move on now?' apology. Someone please tell me it's a phase and they get over it eventually!!!

  18. I am not a parent yet, and still I learnt so much for the future from this post, so first thing: Thank you.
    Second thing… I have come here in defense of the trees: don't hit them 🙁 . They are important, they are part of Earth's flora and they are alive so they deserve our respect. It is not ok that we discharge our negative emotions in them or other living beings (even if they look resilient as trees, big plants, horses, big dogs, etc)
    I think the message we send if we tell children that is *not* ok to hit trees is to take care and love this planet that is our home and to be careful of living creatures that can't talk like us.
    Just adding my two cents, as an Earth scientist who has seen much unnecessary damage done to our planet, on reflecting what could mean to our Earth and what could change in the long term if our children (without us wanting to) get the message that it is ok to not think flora and fauna as having a place that deserves their consideration.

    1 agrees

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