I’m a “specialty” nanny. But I don’t use fancy curricula, I’m not up on the latest potty training craze and I don’t have the secret to making your child sleep through the night. In fact, I don’t specialize in teaching the children at all. My specialty is respectful parenting. I support parents as they learn to leave traditional approaches to discipline and caregiving behind and embrace a novel approach: the practice of viewing your child as a partner, a collaborator, and a whole human being.
A Respectful Approach
My approach has many names (Positive, Peaceful, or Gentle Parenting), but I prefer the term “Respectful.” Before I discovered Magda Gerber and R.I.E.™ (Resources for Infant Educarers), it never really occurred to me that infants and young children were deserving of respect. Loving care, yes, but respect?
Well, respect means to hold someone in high regard. I hold children in high regard because I view them as worthy human beings who are capable of communicating their needs and participating in a relationship with me. This approach dictates everything from how I pick up a baby (never without letting them know my intentions first) to how I change a diaper (with as much participation from the child as they are able) to how I speak to children (authentically, calmly, warmly) and especially to how I handle discipline.
As a nanny, the most common inquiries I get from parents and non-parents alike have to do with “tricks.”
- What’s your best potty training trick?
- What tricks do you use to get them to nap or eat their vegetables?
I respectfully explain that I have no tricks: I have relationships with children. They do these things when they’re ready, and I’m there to support them when they do.
But what about when they won’t?
Adults often require a “lens change”:
1) children do not know how to “be good”
2) it’s our job as adults to teach them proper behavior
3) when they misbehave, we must use punishments and rewards to incentivize desired behavior is outdated and misguided in my opinion. There is more and more research-based evidence that what children actually need from adults is empathy, trust, and calm, confident limit-setting.
Connect with the Child
The foundation of discipline should be connection: understanding the child’s point of view, trusting in their ability to problem-solve, and respecting their unique needs and preferences. This begins at birth. Babies can communicate their needs if we just take the time to understand them. And when we begin a collaborative relationship with an infant, they develop self-confidence and a sense of autonomy.
When a toddler begins to individuate – to understand that they are separate from the adults that care for them, they will begin to test limits. But because I have seen and treated them this way from the beginning, there is no sudden need to implement discipline. There is a foundation of security and trust. If something in the environment or the daily routine becomes problematic, I look at how it could be modified rather than trying to change the child’s behavior.
I provide the following:
- Modeling how to be gentle and calm.
- Safe opportunities to explore physically (banging, throwing, climbing, biting, etc.) as an alternative to hurting oneself/others or destroying items.
- A prepared environment which maximizes independent play and minimizes the need for adult direction/intervention.
- Opportunities for autonomy: utilizing low shelves, small tables/chairs, step stools and appropriate access to food, drinks, cleaning supplies, and other “adult items” as they are ready.
- Trust in the child’s ability to problem-solve (only stepping in when absolutely necessary).
- A predictable routine that the child can rely on, avoiding chaotic environments and overstimulation.
- Consistent, engaged caregiving routines that “refuel” the child before returning to play.
With all of this in place, calm, confident limit-setting comes naturally.
So, here are some examples of how I handle discipline in a few different scenarios:
12 month old is throwing food/dishes off of high chair tray at mealtime: I place a very small amount of food in front of the child (1-2 pieces at a time). I sit very close to the child and model mealtime behaviors. I prevent the very first urges to pick up the plate, calmly and consistently reminding “The plate stays down. You can pick up the food.” I remove the food as soon as it becomes apparent that the child is more interested in dropping than eating. I provide a dropping activity elsewhere and try mealtime again later. As soon as the child is physically ready, I use a low, sturdy table and chair for meals, increasing his/her autonomy and decreasing the urge to test limits when confined in a high chair.
16-month-old is taking toys from other children during play and becoming upset: First of all, I assess whether I need to intervene at all as toy-taking is completely developmentally appropriate at this age and often the children can work it out if I don’t interfere. If my help does seem necessary, I stay nearby and closely observe. I calmly say what I see and offer support as needed: “You both want the boat. Simon is upset that you have it. I hear you, Simon. It’s hard.” I wait to see whether they can work it out with me close by to prevent injury and offer support. If needed, I block hitting/biting and say, “I won’t let you hurt them.” I avoid imposing my adult notion of who should or shouldn’t have the toy and allow things to work themselves out.
2-year-old is resisting holding my hand when crossing the street/walking in a parking lot: This is a safety issue and walking alone is not negotiable. The only thing that is negotiable is whether the child would like to hold my hand or be carried (or ride in a stroller or cart, if available). I always try to give children choices within the limits I set so that they may participate in the process.
I never follow a “formula” for correcting behavior. Instead, I observe and empathize with whatever difficulty they are having. So many upsets can be addressed by letting them know that you understand what they’re going through. Reflect what is happening and what you think they may be feeling back to them and the problem will often resolve itself.
In the end, all any of us really wants is to be heard and understood.
So to sum up, I view discipline as something that children learn as their brains mature, not as something I need to teach them. I am mainly there to keep them safe, offer comfort when needed, and model kind and gentle interactions. When I need to set a limit, the child has a foundation of respect that sets them up to succeed. Ultimately, I believe in children’s ability to figure out the world and how to get along in it.