Rana Awkal
Rana Awkal with her son Image Credit: Supplied

“If my son doesn't want to get dressed, I make it a bit of a game,” says Dubai-based Lebanese expat Rana Awkal. “Instead of telling him you have to get dressed, yelling or shouting, I do things like, I’ll put his shorts on my head and say, ‘So this is where this goes, yes?’ And he’ll laugh and start explaining the correct way to put the shorts on,” she adds.

This way – of redirecting a child in a given situation – falls under empowering umbrella of positive disciplining.

Positive disciplining is a programme developed by Dr Jane Nelsen, a US-based family therapist, which aims to teach children responsibility without relying on fear for compliance. The behaviour – introduced, validated and reinforced by both parents and teachers - is a product of conviction and empowerment, say proponents.


The criteria

There are five criteria of positive disciplining, writes Dr Nelsen on her website. These are:

  • Be respectful and encouraging: Be kind and firm at the same time.
  • Connection is key: Help children feel a sense of belonging and significance.
  • No punishments: Punishment works short term, but has negative long-term results.
  • Teach valuable social and life skills through demonstration: Respect, concern for others, problem-solving, accountability, contribution and cooperation
  • Exploration of identity: Invite children to discover how capable they are and to use their power in constructive ways.

Headmistress of a Dubai-based private school Narinder Kaur Anand recalls a period four years ago when teachers would go into the basement to get their cars out only to find them vandalised. “The kids, aged between 11 and 14, were naughty; they would break windshields and write graffiti on the walls. There was also a lot of bullying.”

Since punishments seemed to have little effect, the school decided to try a different method – using introspection as a teaching tool. “If they did something that breached the school’s rules, they would need to write a paragraph on why they did it and what they were feeling,” she explains. When there were incidents of bullying, the children who were being aggressive were asked to research the impact of such behaviour and give presentations on why it was a bad idea. We saw change within a year – there were no more aggressive incidents,” she says.

If they did something that breached the school’s rules, they would need to write a paragraph on why they did it and what they were feeling

- Narinder Kaur Anand

Human connection

This method of disciplining works on the deep-seated need of everyone to feel recognised, accepted and acknowledged. American psychologist Abraham Maslow’s ‘A Theory of Human Motivation’ puts belonging and feeling of connection right above the need for food, shelter, and routine. And this is perhaps the reason praise works better than punishment; introspection works better than imposed rules.

It’s also a different world, say proponents – and parenting must reflect that. Egyptian mum of one Hanan Ezzeldin, who holds workshops about positive discipline in Dubai, says: “Now that the kids have access to the internet, to all the social media apps at a young age, they get to see what other kids are doing internationally. When we were young, it was just our parents’ word [and we had to accept it]. But now, that’s not the only form of exposure, they are getting it everywhere.

“So, when you have a bad relationship with your kid, they do what they want to do – they just do it behind your back and get away with it. Their level of tech maturity is so much higher than ours will ever be. You have kids who have fake Instagram profiles, so their parents don’t know what they are doing; they go to proms wearing dresses that their mums bought for them but then they go in, change and wear something else,” she says.

“It’s all because the kids are scared of their parents,” she adds.

This doesn’t mean permissive parenting; it’s more a question of explaining the need for the boundaries being set. Ezzeldin explains: “[As a positive disciplinarian] you are raising independent children who are caring but they follow the rules because they’ve been trained since their childhood to have that choice and make that choice. It means leading by example – creating that kind but firm principle where you draw your boundaries and you are very clear about them, but you don’t hit, you don’t chain, you don’t scold. But there are boundaries and consequences to those actions when they cross those boundaries.”

Punishment doesn’t work

Nathalie Barsoumian, UAE-based Educational Consultant, and mum of three, says most people – especially educators – are aware of the detrimental impact of punishment. “When I started teaching [18 years ago], I saw that with my own students when I was connecting instead of correcting, the results were much more long term,” she says.

“Both at home and in school, the database is the same - a solid relationship based on respect and on trust with students or with any child. Once you have this, the child will be pre-disposed to listen to you,” says Barsoumian.

In a classroom setting, this will mean greater participation – and by involving them in setting the rules, you enforce a feeling of community and help the kids find their voice. “And most of all, when you model in front of your child or in front of the students the behaviour that you want them to adopt, they will imbibe those values,” she adds.

Strategies to employ

Positive disciplining uses the following strategies to educate without punishments.

Redirection: Children are notorious for short attention spans and that’s where redirection comes in. Barsoumian explains: “For example, when they play on the tablet for too much time, I’ll say, ‘Come help me in the kitchen’. I try to choose the stuff that they like to do to direct their attention.”

Time-in: Forget the naughty step. This bit really depends on you taking some time to invest in your child. “The difference is that you will be with the child, listen and understand him or her,” says Barsoumian. If the child is agitated, she adds, wait with him or her until they are calm and then in this space speak to them about the reason behind their behaviour. Then you will start to reflect on what happened, you will let the child identify the problem and come up with a solution. "For example, if he broke a Lego model, for example, he could maybe build another one,” she adds.

Research shows that when you praise a child for something they are more likely to behave the same way again, so you can take this opportunity and you can use natural rewards like giving these extra few minutes when they are playing, for example

- Nathalie Barsoumian

Positive reinforcement: Validation and praise proved to be more effective than punishment. “Research shows that when you praise a child for something they are more likely to behave the same way again, so you can take this opportunity and you can use natural rewards like giving these extra few minutes when they are playing, for example,” she suggests.

Single-word reminders: There is no point in explaining the reasons for an instruction over and over. When a child has absorbed all the rules, a single word will act as a mnemonic.

It’s important to remember, say the proponents of this sort of disciplining that there is no such thing as a bad child, only bad behaviour. Focusing on that will help you re-channel their energies.

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