Book Review: Positive Discipline by Jane Nelsen

Positive Discipline – Jane Nelson (Ballantine Books, 2006)

Our local school district runs an early childhood education program for parents of children 5 and under. Once a season we can sign up for a class on parenting, appropriate for our child’s age. Positive Discipline is one of the books they frequently recommend so I thought I’d finally check it out.

There is a lot of good and helpful information in this book. A lot of it is geared toward teachers but Nelsen does a pretty good job of balancing her advice for both parents and teachers. Nelsen approaches dealing with children from a position of “firm kindness”. As she describes it, a misbehaving child is a discouraged child. Therefore, rather than punishing the symptom (the misbehaviour) find out what the root of the problem is. Why, she asks, do we believe that children need to feel bad through punishment before they can act better. At the same time, she isn’t advocating a loose or wishy-washy style of parenting or teaching. This is where the firmness comes in.

I liked a lot of what Nelsen has to say and it matches quite a bit of how Peter and I have parented our girls so far. There was also a lot of new idea for me and the book is filled with practical ideas on dealing with specific problems. I thought I’d share some of my favourite tips and ideas:

  • Positive Time-Outs. This is one of Nelsen’s big ideas. She advocates for the idea of not punishing children. (Don’t make your kid feel bad, hoping that they’ll do better.) Another parenting book I read spoke about the idea of not punishing your child by depriving them of your presence. Especially with little children, they look to you for comfort so making them be by themselves can be unnecessarily harsh. Nelsen talks a lot instead about taking breaks, ie: Positive Time-Outs. She suggests even parents can take this time if needed to calm down. You don’t have to find a solution to a problem immediately, especially in the heat of the moment. Take a time-out, calm down, then approach it again. This is a life skill that children need to learn.
  • Don’t do anything for your children that they can do themselves. I am definitely guilty of this. At the stage my kids are in, it’s always fast for me to do things for them. But this doesn’t serve them, or me, well. Pearl is old enough to do a lot of things on her own now and I’m old enough to work on my patience. Things we’re getting used to having Pearl do include: clearing her place at the table after a meal, getting dressed all by herself, carrying her own backpack with her own things when we go out.
  • Natural consequences vs. Logical consequences. Nelsen goes into this in great detail and it was very helpful for me. When you begin to move away from punishing, it’s easy to move into “consequences”. Which quickly start to look like punishments. These are what Nelsen calls “logical consequences” and they are usually enacted by the adult in the situation. Natural consequences, on the other hand, happen without our intervention. Refuse to wear your coat? A logical consequence might be a parent taking away your favourite coat and making you wear a sweater you hate. A natural consequence would be getting cold on your walk and maybe agreeing to wearing your coat next time. Natural consequences give children greater agency and help them actually learn.
  • Give choices. I do this A LOT. “Do you want to leave the park in 2 minutes or 5 minutes?” “Do you want to wear your running shoes or your sandals?” “Do you want to have cereal with milk or without?” The key is to give choices that are acceptable. Ask a four-year-old what she wants for breakfast and she might say cookies. Give her 2 or 3 reasonable choices and she will choose a reasonable breakfast. (Most of the time.) Again, this gives a child a sense of control over their own life while still placing necessary boundaries around them.
  • Stay out of children’s fights. Nelsen argues that most fights between kids are done for an adult’s benefit. I don’t necessarily agree with this because I can remember a lot of fights, especially at an older age, done in secret, hoping parents or teachers don’t find out. However, I am currently working on stepping back from my girls’ fights and giving them a minute to see if they can figure it out. Even at 20 months and 4 years, I’m surprised at how often it resolves itself. That said, just the other day I stepped in on a fight to find Rose with a very clear bite mark on her arm.

As a parent, I think it’s always helpful to have new ideas and to be evaluating how and why you parent. A lot of what we do as parents is simply done in reaction, in the minute, because that’s how our parents did it. Every family is different, every kids is different and some things will work for one that don’t work for another, even within the same family. There’s a lot of good stuff in Positive Discipline and I’ve already found it helpful to look at how I’m parenting as my kids get older.

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11 thoughts on “Book Review: Positive Discipline by Jane Nelsen”

  1. My childhood is a castle of lies constructed of bricks made up of “don’t tell mom”s and “if you tell mom I did X, I’ll tell her you did Y!”s. I mean, my brother and I looked like strangers on the opposite sides of the room when we were around our parents, and were nightmares when they were not around. The problem, to be honest, is that most of the time they were not around…

    1. Yes, I definitely question her on that. My brother and I fought both in front of my parents and away from them and I remember him being really mean, even when they weren’t around. There was a lot of physical violence followed by, “I’ll do this if you don’t tattle”. So I don’t buy that kids are only fighting with each other to get adult attention.

  2. I reckon – and I say this as someone who spent years working with kids suffering from everything from inadequate to terrible parenting – I reckon parents who think about how they parent are already successful parents! Every child and every family is different as you say, so while there are some general rules that tend to work, adaptability is undoubtedly the key skill. This book sounds as if it provides useful, achievable advice.

    1. Without wishing to be too soppy about it, I also wanted to say that often when I read your posts I find myself thinking of my poor boys and wishing that they could have had parents like you and Peter. Your girls are as lucky to have you as you are to have them… 😀

    2. Oh, thank you! I probably show my best parenting face on here but I do also genuinely enjoy my girls and being with them.

    3. The book is quite practical and has actual, specific advice and I liked that a lot. Some of it I hope to implement and some I feel fine to ignore. I’m fortunate because I think I have pretty easy kids – and we’re not dealing with any behavioural issues or complication beyond typical toddlers/preschoolers. I think if you were, this book would be less helpful.

  3. This sounds like a good book! I haven’t ready too many parenting books about behaviour per se, but I’m always willing and eager to, I’d like to take a little from each theory and apply it to my own kids that way. A bunch of theories mashed together seems to be the way I parent in general haha

    1. Maybe your kids don’t need help in the behaviour department, haha! I’m the same – I pick and choose and mash stuff together from multiple theories. Every kid and every family is different and no one parenting theory is going to work for everyone but there is some helpful stuff in this one.

  4. This is a helpful review, thank you! I had actually just picked up a different book by Jane Nelsen – same foundational work though (looking at the intro she has quite a few with different target audiences). I like that she has more practical application advice. I have read some other popular books in the ‘positive parenting’ realm but for me, they presented good theory but not enough on how things unfold in the real-world. Fortunately we’re not having any major behavioural issues right now but I like to have some tools in my back pocket when the moments arise.

    1. Did you get the 123 version? There are tons, for all different circumstances but I think this is the original/overview one. I like the practical application aspect too. And I agree – I like having some ideas and tools before the moment of conflict/ misbehaviour arises!

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