How to Use Gentle Discipline: Advice from a Child Development Expert


Kids won't listen? Get them to behave by adapting an approach of gentle discipline. Child development expert Wendy Ludlow, LSCW, offers parents advice.


gentle discipline; blonde mother and daughter

Parents often come to my office wanting to know how to get their child to behave. "He just won't listen to me. No matter how many times I ask him not to take his sister's things, it just gets worse and worse. I GIVE UP! I've tried everything!" But when asked by me, a therapist specializing in play and cognitive behavioral therapy for children, what the parents might be doing to strengthen their child's listening skills, I am often met with a stare of disbelief and confusion. 

A critical mistake made by many parents is this: They are focusing their attention on the wrong kinds of behavior, not the right ones. In an effort to stop the unwanted, maladaptive behavior (not listening!), many parents will employ discipline tactics such as yelling, spanking, or humiliation - and the result is not a well-behaved child, but a parent and child who both, well, just feel generally bad. To make matters worse (and this is key), the child is hearing over and over again how he doesn't listen, all the while steadily - and more strongly - developing his skills as a non-listener.

The trick, as you've surmised by now, is to focus your attention instead on the desired, pro-social behavior (good listening). The research is very clear that all behaviors are developed due to reinforcement, whether through verbal or physical attention, or the lack thereof, from one's caregivers. Any professional in the field of child development will agree that attention is one of the most powerful tools in your parenting toolbox. That means that the more attention you can give your child when she is doing something good - keeping her hands to herself, doing a kind act, listening attentively-the more likely she'll be to behave. You'll be raising a child who listens!

Sing Their Praises

When it comes to matters of discipline, I can say with confidence that giving attention to the good behaviors (no matter how minute they are in the beginning) will in the long run elicit the behaviors you want. I can't say the same about punishment.

Try saying these sentences to your child several times a day - and watch the new behavior blossom!

 • What a great job you are doing of ______________ (ex: listening to me right now).

 • Wow, I am so impressed with how you are _____________ (ex: looking at me and listening to me talk).

 • I am really noticing what a good __________________ (ex: listener you are becoming).

 • Does everyone in this room see how Johnny is doing such a good job of _______________ (ex: listening right now)?

 • You are an amazing __________________ (ex: listener).



Wendy Ludlow, LCSW, is a child development expert, psychotherapist and Registered Play Therapist-Supervisor who practices in New York City's Greenwich Village and the Bronx.