Teachable Moments

Trust and Responsibility: The Missing Pieces of Disciplining Your Child

Strong parent-child relationships are built on reciprocal trust which sets the framework for positive discipline. From birth you teach your child to trust you as their caregiver. This sense of trust is the foundation for a successful life. Often though, “good parenting” defines that trust is a one-way street. Children are expected to trust their parent, but the same level of trust is not afforded to them. To children, this feels unfair and it is. A truly trusting relationship is one where the trust is awarded equally.

Empowered children have a strong sense of independence and self-confidence. Children develop these skills through interacting with the world and having opportunities to succeed. They believe that they are capable of handling the world around them. They desire opportunities to express their budding independence. A great way to provide children with opportunities to succeed is to trust them to be responsible for things you know they can handle or can learn to handle with a bit of initial guidance. This instills a sense of autonomy and gives children an opportunity to experience the power of taking responsibility for self. It encourages children to take action over their own behaviors.

This knowledge can be a blessing when approaching disciplinary practices with your child. When you trust your child to be responsible for following the rules and to be independent in their own actions they feel empowered to do so. When you communicate trust, you are showing a deep level of respect that will be reciprocated. The result is a win-win situation, your child’s sense of independence and self-confidence is bolstered all while they are following the rules.

Now…how do you do all this?

Adding Trust into Discipline 

First, make sure your child understands what trust and responsibility are. You can have a conversation about these topics and you can also point out examples in the real world. This works really well when children begin showing an interest in asserting their independence. This will be apparent when your child wants to start doing things for themselves.

Anytime you are offering positive discipline to a child you want to make it as brief and understandable as possible. You do not need to lecture your child in order for them to understand. They will understand best if your message is clear and concise.

The following is a general outline of what you can say to communicate a rule and trust to your child….

  • Here is the rule. This does not have to be a long description or even a full sentence. I also find it helpful to include “We” in the rule as it demonstrates the rule applies to the whole family. For example, “We do not run in the street.”
  • This is why we have this rule. “Running in the street is not safe.”
  • I trust you to follow this rule and I know that you can.
  • Here is the consequence if you don’t follow this rule. “You will be carried or pushed in a stroller when we are near a street if I can’t trust you to be safe near the street.”

*After you communicate this with your child, you do not need to ask your child if they understand you or say, “Okay?” at the end of your communication. This undermines your position and your power. This opens up space for your child to debate the rules, which I am guessing is not your goal. Your rules are non-negotiable (and aptly so). There is no need to give your child the false idea that there is any wiggle room. It also adds on extra words that are unnecessary and can confuse your meaning.

*This does not mean that you are no longer paying attention to their safety. You still need to be vigilant of their safety and follow through consistently on the consequences you gave if necessary.

Barriers to True Trust 

Trusting your child to take control of their actions can feel a bit scary. As a parent, all you want is for your child to succeed in the world. Our culture teaches that “good parents” know what is best for their child and children do not inherently know what is best for themselves. This places parents in a powerful role, where parents have high expectations for their children’s behavior without considering their needs for nurturance and empowerment. In such a relationship, the parent has all the power and the child is seen as an empty vessel needing to be filled and taught.

“We parent by the misconception that our job is to teach our children how to act and perform in the world, and if they don’t do it right (according to whom?) then they must be forced with some kind of manipulative, punitive tactic to get them on track. What track? Whose track? What if your child is meant to establish a new track or a track you don’t approve of? What if it’s a track that public schools don’t teach?”Trust Your Children More; Teach Them Less by Bonnie Harris 

Trusting your child requires that you let go of your need for complete control. Parenting should not be a power-play, you do not need to exert power over your child. Yes, your child needs to respect you but that will come naturally when you have a relationship built on mutual respect, trust, and love. Within this framework you can apply positive discipline as you nurture and empower your child. And remember that trusting your child also means that you recognize their innate wisdom.