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Compassionate Parenting

Still having Tiger Mom nightmares?

It wasn't the media hype about Tiger Mom that prompted this post. (I make a point of avoiding media hype. Besides, I went to a Catholic school run by Tiger Nuns, so I wasn't exactly shocked.) What incited the posting of these lists from our Compassionate Parenting program were the emails from readers wanting to know if I still believed in a compassionate approach to parenting.

You bet I do. What follows are the general skills of compassionate parenting and discipline.

  • Listen to your children. (In all stages of development, children complain that their parents yell too much and listen too little.)
  • As much as possible, let solutions to their problems come from the children. (As they mature, your job is to give fewer answers and ask more questions that lead them to solutions.)
  • Choose toys that have something beneath the surface to deepen their interest. (Young children cannot sustain interest for long, but they can develop awareness that interest is better when there's something beneath the surface.)
  • Understand that change stimulates emotion. (You and your children will have emotional responses to change, irrespective of the content. Negative emotions are more likely to occur during transitions - when you want them to stop doing one thing and start doing another. Make transitions as smooth as possible.)
  • Respond to positive emotions as well as negative. (Attention to expressions of interest and enjoyment are opportunities to reinforce positive emotional response.)
  • Openly express affection to your children and to other adults in the family.
  • Enjoy them. (Fun strengthens bonds.)
  • Learn from them. (Their brains are miracles of organic development, unparalleled in the known universe.)


Like all human beings, children need discipline to help them function at their best. They actually want it. Those who receive little discipline tend to feel unloved, isolated, and unprotected. Many adolescents from low-discipline homes lie to their peers, making up limits that they attribute to neglectful parents.

Compassionate parents set firm limits about important issues of safety, health, learning, education, money management, and morality. With everything else, they encourage cooperation. The key to cooperation for children and adults is showing value. The valued self cooperates; the devalued self resists.

Many behavior problems rise from physical discomfort, such as hunger or sleep-deprivation. Take care that your children's physical needs, as well as your own, are met.

Emotional discomfort caused by nervous energy and anxiety accounts for a great deal of misbehavior. Discipline that increases anxiety, such as yelling or shaming, will likely cause more emotional discomfort and produce more of the undesired behavior in the long run.

"The long run" is key. Discipline is never just about a specific behavior. It's a long-term project whose purpose is to establish general guides for behavior over time. The regulation of behavior must be established in the child, not in you as policeman.

General Rules of Effective Discipline

  • Discipline does not mean punishment. It's a regimen of behavior that helps us do better. It should focus on how children can do better, not on what they did wrong.
  • Be sure your children know the real reason you are disciplining them: You care enough about them to want them to succeed.
  • Be mindful of your motivation. Discipline must be implemented with positive parental motivation to protect, nurture, encourage, influence, guide, and set limits.
  • Keep the focus on the child's behavior, not on your emotional state. Never discipline in anger. (When you do, the child learns more about your moods than his/her behavior.)
  • Help children understand that their behavior is a choice. They always have the power to choose more successful behavior.
  • Ask questions that will help them think through the consequences of their behavior choices, especially the response their choices invoke in other people.
  • Help them think of ways in which their long-term best interests are served by cooperation.
  • Solicit solutions and sanctions from them. ("What do you think will help you remember to do your chores tomorrow?" "What do you think is a fair sanction for your mistake that will help you to be truthful in the future?")
  • Focus on what you want, not what you don't want. ("Put your feet on the floor," works better than "Don't put your feet on the sofa." Behavior follows attention, as we should have learned from the forbidden fruit saga of Genesis.)
  • Fit the discipline to the temperament of the child. Discipline that works well for an outgoing, high-energy child can be damaging to a sensitive, inward child.

This last point needs explanation - I can hear disgruntled parents gasping as they read.

When forced to apologize, children perceive apology as submission or humiliation rather than reconciliation. Adults who have trouble apologizing were usually forced to apologize as children.

The most important social skill for children to acquire is sensitivity to the effects of their behavior on other people. When focused on their own shame and humiliation, they are less likely to understand and more likely to resent the offended child whose hurt has gotten them into trouble.

Have the offending child take a time out until he/she can describe what the behavior was like for the hurt child and what they could have done differently to avoid the mistake. After a few iterations of this process, most children get the importance of sensitivity and will begin to apologize on their own. They will learn that apology is not punishment but an effort to reinstate relationship bonds.

If some of these points seem strange to you, don't buy them. Rent them with an option to buy - try them for a minimum of three weeks.

Tiger Mom and her girls would have been pleasantly surprised, had she tried the techniques of Compassionate Parenting.

More from Steven Stosny, Ph.D.
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