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January 30th, 2018

How to Discipline a Boy

Many parents say that the ‘masculine’ characteristics they admire and want to encourage in their boys are courage, strength, responsibility, single-mindedness, straightforwardness, a ‘can-do’ attitude, solution-orientedness, good humour and energy. But parents also often say they also want their sons to do what they’re asked!

It’s easy to get into power plays with boys, to go head to head with them as they assert themselves and we adults wield our power to subdue them. We talk about not ‘letting them get away’ with stuff and we feel we need to show them who’s boss. Boys are naturally drawn to hierarchy -they love lists and systems and leagues and they are naturally competitive. But if adults compete with their boys for power or get drawn into battles with their sons their discipline fails. It fails at its essential purpose, to educate and to encourage self-discipline.

Discipline means a body of knowledge or ‘to develop behaviour by instruction and practice’. But in common parlance discipline has become synonymous with punishment. When the lady on the underground glaring at your child swinging from the poles in the carriage hisses that “what that child needs is some discipline” she doesn’t mean coaching and encouragement. She means a good clip round the ear!

Discipline is different from punishment in several ways.



Involves problem-solving

Involves something that hurts

Delivered calmly

Delivered in anger

Purpose: to teach, to help the child behave differently next time

Goal is self-discipline

Purpose: to be right, the child is wrong, to get revenge

Goal is obedience

Based on respect

Based on fear, humiliation

Leads to improved behaviour and self-discipline

Results in resentment, rebelliousness,  furtiveness and loss of self-esteem

When we discipline we are teaching our children how to negotiate with the world. We may inadvertently teach our boys to be bullies if we use our greater power to coerce them into doing what we want. Do we want them to learn to get their way by using force or manipulation?  Instead don’t we want to teach them to try to understand, use their words to negotiate and to problem-solve?

We always say to parents ‘don’t pick your battles’. Don’t use the language of battles at all. Battles are between enemies and the outcome is a win/lose one. Change this to a win/win model. This is what you get when you teach your sons to problem-solve.

Adults do need to be in charge because we have greater experience, perspective and more mature frontal lobes. But if we are over controlling we will create resentment and resistance. We do need to teach them right from wrong, of course, but that can be done not through making use of our greater power, but by using the influence that comes from a really positive relationship.

Boys can be very physical, very active and very loud. Sometimes parents feel the need to shut this down. But actually all that wonderful energy can be redirected, channelled into healthy activities. If your son loves to be active, use that to connect with him. Play his games with him. Gail (mother of a boy and a girl) said “Frankly, I’d rather stick pins in my eyes than play football but he loves it so much. When I get dirty with him and am hopeless at it he really loves it. Not just because he’s better at it than I am but because I’m entering into his world and he feels valued. His behaviour is always excellent afterwards.”

Rough and tumble is a brilliant way of communicating through your son’s favourite medium –being active – and it provides a great opportunity to connect and have fun as well as teaching boundaries around physicality, such as stopping when anyone says ‘stop’. It also encourages laughter and is a great way to release tension. Gail recommends it as an alternative to family therapy!

When you spend positive time with your son doing things that he enjoys (not homework or cleaning his room) you find out more about him and build connections with him. Boys don’t usually love sitting, eyeball to eyeball, having deep and meaningful conversations. The best conversations usually happen organically when you’re engaged in an activity together. Steve Biddulph calls this ‘sideways talk’. The best conversations I’ve had with my two sons have been when we’ve been walking the dogs or doing the dishes.

It may seem a very soft or at least tangential approach to discipline to play with your son and chat to him. But this is where connections form and without connection and relationship he has no incentive to do what you ask of him. Then all you’re left with is a form of punishment based on fear and humiliation. No self-discipline arises that way.

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January 08th, 2018

4 things not to say to your kids this year

At The Parent Practice we usually like to focus on the positives. Not just because we’re a jolly little band but because it’s more effective for training. When we ask our kids to do things it’s more efficient to say what we want them to do rather than what we don’t want them to do. That’s because our brains conjure up images and they have a hard time processing negatives. So if I say ‘don’t think of pink elephants’ you will almost certainly be imagining a pink elephant. Likewise if you say to your child ‘don’t run inside’ he will be processing an image of himself running in the house. So instructions need to be positively framed. Instead say ‘walk inside’. Family rules also need to be positive for the added reason that lots of no’s feel very restrictive and may provoke rebellion. ‘Enjoy time on the computer after homework’  feels much less constraining than ‘No screen time unless homework is done.’

We also need to focus on the positives of what our children do because we get more of what we pay attention to. So if we notice and point out when they forget to hang up their towel or are mean to their sister but we don’t say anything when they put their book bag away or help unload the dishwasher then we can be sure to get more meanness and uncooperative behaviour. Children have evolved to do what gets their parents’ attention so we need to be careful what we prioritise with our words.

Another reason for positivity is that a positive connection between parent and child is the very best basis for discipline. Positive discipline teaches a child how to behave well rather than just not to get caught doing something wrong. It encourages self-discipline and the adoption of a set of values. Spending time with your kids doing fun things and letting them know how much you value them builds self-esteem and gives them a very strong incentive for accepting your influence.

But have you noticed that at this time of year with all the talk of resolutions how much they focus on negatives? How to get rid of excess pounds or drink less or spend less etc. While it’s not generally very motivating to focus on what we need to do less of there may be some merit in looking at some of the negative things we say in parenting so that we recognise them and can change. So many of the things that slip out of our mouths do so so automatically that we don’t even realise that we’re doing it.

So here are 4 things we shouldn’t say to our kids, what they sound like and why they kill connection: (before you read any further do realise that all parents have said these things –we’re human and we make mistakes but we’re trying to limit the number of mistakes we continue to make.)

  1. Criticism “Josh, you’ve forgotten your homework diary again! That’s the second time this week.” What we are trying to do as parents is use our words to encourage good behaviours and to build up a strong sense of self-worth. Criticism gives attention for the wrong things. Repeated criticism paints a picture of the child as not lovable, capable or worthwhile. It’s very easy to criticise without meaning to so we need positive practices to help us focus on positive behaviour. Keeping a pasta jar (in which we drop a pasta piece for every good behaviour) is a very useful tool. Notice when Josh remembers anything and acknowledge that as well as setting up systems to help him remember. 
  1. Personal attack “I am so DISAPPOINTED in you - I should have known better than to trust you.” This killer statement clearly communicates that the child does not have the approval that they crave. This is likely to lead to diminished self-worth and poor behaviour in future.  Some children grow up always seeking approval, sometimes by succumbing to peer pressure or getting involved in inappropriate sexual relationships. Even as adults some people seek approval through people -pleasing behaviours or in relentlessly pursuing qualifications or positions. Instead talk about how the behaviour, not the child, is disappointing and why. Explore how it happened non-judgmentally and what the child can do to rectify it. 
  1. Labels “You’re so mean! How could you say such things to Jake when you know he’s having a hard time settling in to his new school?” While teaching our children to be kind is part of our job as parents these labels only serve to paint a picture of the child as a mean person. Your child believes what you say and is very likely to act in accordance with this portrait. Instead explore what prompted the mean words since this will demonstrate the empathy you expect of your child. “When you say something like that it makes me wonder if you’re having a hard time with something yourself. Sometimes our pain comes out against those we care about….. What you said hurt Jake’s feelings. Now that you’re calmer perhaps you can think of something to make it up to him.” 
  1. Dismissing feelings “You’ll be fine, you’ll love it at camp.” “Don’t be such baby. You’re too old for this carry on now.” “You don’t hate your sister. That’s a terrible thing to say!” These statements tell our children that they cannot trust their own judgments about their emotions or that they shouldn’t have those emotions at all. This teaches kids to suppress their feelings. But feelings will come out. And they will usually be expressed in behaviour in the moment or later. Sometimes suppressed feelings can come out in physical symptoms such as eczema or stomach aches or headaches. A habit of suppressing feelings makes it difficult for adults to communicate their own needs or understand those of others and makes it unlikely that they will seek support when they need it. Dismissing your child’s feelings tells them that feelings don’t matter and that they don’t matter.

Phew! Now go hug your child and tell them why you love them!

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September 13th, 2015

Don’t Pick Your Battles

As the children go back to school you may be thinking of all the areas associated with school where you end up battling with your kids. Often we're told to pick our battles but I say don't pick battles with your children. Battles are between enemies and result in a win/lose situation. If you win, your child loses. We often forget this when we talk about not letting our children ‘get away with things’ and not letting them win.

Parents do need to provide discipline for children because their frontal lobes are not yet fully developed (and won’t be until their 20s). So we have to lend them our higher brains with their greater capacity for rational thought and impulse control. We are not our children’s enemy –we are their teacher. The purpose of discipline is not to win, or to get revenge, but to teach. Effective discipline comes from influence over time rather than the exercise of power in the moment.

We need to make sure we avoid the terminology of battles even in our own minds because language shapes our experience and the more we talk or even think about battling with our kids the more that will happen. That’s how our brains work.

What makes you want to go into battle with your child? Is it when you’ve asked them nicely to do something several times and they ignore you? And then you calmly and reasonably give them a gentle warning that they won’t get their TV time or stories… and they ignore you. And then you shout… but they still ignore you. And then you take away the TV or story… and then they react. They act as if that came straight out of the blue and is the most unreasonable thing ever and you are the meanest mummy/daddy in the world.

Generally when people suggest picking your battles it means choosing which things you’re going to get into a lather about and ignoring the rest. At The Parent Practice we say don’t ignore behaviours that you’re not happy about and don’t battle over them. Don’t ignore but take small actions before the behaviour escalates too far and while you’re still calm enough to deal with it.

Take action sooner with take 2s –Get your child to do it again correctly. This works well for little things like saying please and thank you or speaking in a polite tone of voice or asking to get down from the table.

Here’s how you can teach rather than engaging in battles:

  • Understand your child. Is what you’re asking them to do reasonable given his temperament and stage of development? Does he need time to transition from what he’s doing to what you’re asking him to do? As soon as parents start thinking about why kids aren’t cooperating and what their needs are then they can be more compassionate and more effective.
  • Don’t give too many instructions. Young children are likely to forget parts of what you’ve asked them to do and they may feel nagged and tune you out. Reduce the number of instructions you give by having some written rules and routines and by asking the children what they need to do. They usually know.
  • Children have their own set of priorities and their agenda is just as important to them as ours is to us. They will give up on what they’re doing and submit to your control when there is the greater priority of pleasing you. That means they have to know that they can earn your approval.
  • Give lots of approval with descriptive praise. This means that kids want to cooperate. And spend time with them doing fun things.
  • Connect with your child. Acknowledge that he doesn’t want to do his homework, have a bath or stop playing and come to dinner. When we recognise how they feel about the situation children feel understood and are more likely to comply. Once feelings are heard much resistance disappears. 

If something has gone wrong and you’re heading into battle mode:

  1. Take time to cool down - essential to avoid saying or doing something you’ll later regret.
  2. Connect –acknowledge the feelings driving the behaviour.
  3. Take constructive steps –have a problem-solving conversation without anger, blame or judgment (hence the need for the cool down) to help your child see why their actions were a mistake and what they can do about it. Use natural consequences (if they don’t get out of the bath promptly there’s no time for the story) or fixing consequences (clean up a mess or mend someone’s hurt feelings). Teach your child what to do differently next time –practice it.

Kids will get things wrong because they’re learning but the way we teach them how to behave will have long term ramifications for how they deal with disagreements in their lives. Instead of teaching them to get into battles don’t we want to teach them to try to understand, use words to negotiate and compromise?

For more on Positive discipline techniques see

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August 24th, 2015

“My parents smacked me and I turned out all right!”

We have all heard that sentence uttered as a way of condoning what our own parents may have done or what we may also have done to our own children.  

I was revisiting an interesting discussion about smacking that appeared on BBC Women’s Hour over 5 years ago.  The post is still available at and is still worth listening to. 

Five years on, the debate about smacking children still shows how polarised the opinions are on this subject.  For over 15 years now, all of us at the Parent Practice have become familiar with the different views about smacking children. 

The evidence is that overwhelmingly when parents smack their children they do so, not in a controlled way to discipline them, but because the parent is overwhelmed by their own emotions.  Perhaps they are so overcome with fear - as in the example given in the programme - when a child runs into the street, or out of anger or frustration. Often it’s because in the moment they don’t know what else to do –they feel powerless. 

Here’s the thing, though.  A child that has been smacked knows full well (even if they can’t articulate it) that his or her parent has lost control.  One of the fastest ways to lose your children’s respect is through using smacking as a means of discipline. 

There is no doubt at all that discipline is necessary but the point of any method of discipline is to teach and smacking is the least effective of all the tools at our disposal if teaching is our goal. Children are not so open to learning if they are shocked and hurting. We are in danger of teaching them something we don’t intend if we use smacking - that when you are an adult you can use your power to hurt, that you can resolve conflict or get your way by hurting. That is not what parents intend when they smack and I would never judge a parent for smacking but it is clear that parents need to be supported in the difficult job of raising children by giving them tools other than smacking. 

In the five years since this segment appeared on Women’s Hour, the movement towards Positive Discipline has thankfully gathered speed and support.  We now know – through brain science - that positive discipline brings with it so many benefits.  In his book, No Drama Discipline, Dan Siegel outlines the benefits as: “foster[ing] development that builds good relationship skills and improves your children’s ability to make good decisions, think[ing] about others, and act[ing] in ways that prepare them for lifelong success and happiness.” Positive discipline is a way to build a healthier brain through teaching children appropriate behaviours. 

Whenever the discussion about smacking arises, Haim Ginott’s much quoted comment is essential to share.  

“When a child hits a child, we call it aggression.
When a child hits an adult, we call it hostility.
When an adult hits an adult, we call it assault.
When an adult hits a child, we call it discipline.” 

Haim G. Ginott 

Did those parents who were smacked as children (many of us) turn out all right? Maybe not if they advocate smacking as form of discipline. 

To find out more about how to effectively use positive discipline, sign up for our newsletter at and we’ll send you a free copy of our Positive Discipline parenting insight.

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August 17th, 2015

What my Puppy taught me about Parenting

My only child has just turned 12.  For the last 6 years she has been repeatedly asking for a sibling - in the form of a dog.  After years of promises and procrastination we finally adopted Ozzie, a Cavapoo puppy, and I feel like I have a new baby in the house!  

Just as the parents of a new baby would stock up on all the necessities, I headed down to the local pet shop!  I bought chew toys, special organic puppy food and treats … and, on the recommendation of the owner, a book called The Art of Raising a Puppy, written by The Monks of New Skete, who in addition to living a monastic life, also run a well-regarded dog training facility in upstate New York.   A few pages in – with my Parent Practice facilitator hat on – I did a double take!  Was I reading a puppy-training book or a parenting book?  Many of the things I read were looking awfully reminiscent of things that I had read in parenting books and were equally applicable.   I suddenly had a surge of confidence that I can adapt the positive parenting skills I use with my daughter in order to bring out the very best in our puppy as well!  

Here are some of the lessons: 

  1. Children thrive on routine 

Once I hit page 145, I was right back at the beginning of my daughter’s life, nursing in the rocking chair, with my head in a parenting book!  Puppies, like babies … and growing children, thrive on structure and routine.  While following a schedule may not have had my daughter sleeping through the night until she was well over a year old, the Monks of New Skete have made it possible for Ozzie to sleep through the night from the very first day!  

  1. You have the Power to Bring out the Best in your Children 

“Part of training means that you become a student of your dog and employ an approach that brings out the best in him.” 

This is true for raising children as well.  Over time, we become the experts in our children – we start to know what triggers their upsets, what drives them, what makes them happy, and we get really good at reading their cues.  While being the expert doesn’t always mean that we consistently do the right thing, it puts us in the position to choose our approach.  As Goethe wrote:

 “It is my personal approach that creates the climate.

It is my daily mood that makes the weather.

I possess tremendous power to make life miserable or joyous.

I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration.” 

When we choose to use the positive parenting perspective, we are choosing an approach that ultimately makes our parenting life more joyful and inspiring … and better yet, it helps us instill in our children the values, qualities, habits and behaviours that they will carry with them throughout their lives. 

  1. You are in charge … in the best possible way

 “Being a benevolent leader is learning the characteristics of good training: patience, fairness, consistency, attentiveness and intelligence.  Good trainers may feel impatient with a dog, but they always do their best to avoid showing it.  They take a long view of the training process and don’t try to do too much too quickly, building one step at a time.  They keep their anger in check when things aren’t going as planned and realize that a calm and quiet approach vis-à-vis their pup is more helpful.  With that sort of self possession, a trainer can be flexible, responding to what the dog needs, instead of reacting to mistakes.” 

In our Being in Charge class, we ask our clients to come up with qualities and characteristics they believe inspiring leaders posses.  The common responses are things like: motivating, kind, trusting, patient, charismatic, visionary, and calm. 

When we are calm we are able to access all our positive parenting skills.  We are able to use positive rules to consistently reaffirm our family values; we are able to use descriptive praise to build motivation, cooperation and confidence; we are able to be emotion coaches to help our children handle upsets and disappointments; and we are able to use positive discipline so that our children can make mistakes and learn how to fix them. 

  1. Parenting requires a long-term focus

Another thing parenting and raising a puppy have in common is that it is most effective to take the long-term approach to training our children in the habits and behaviours that will last a lifetime.  We can get our children to do things out of fear of punishment, but this doesn’t teach them to do the right thing because it is the ‘right’ thing to do.  When we can look upon our children’s mistakes as opportunities for teaching and learning rather than as deeply rooted deficits, we can approach them in a whole other way – with compassion, kindness and a focus on solutions rather than blame, anger and judgment. 

One of the benefits of positive parenting is the constant creation of meaningful relationships with our children.  As our new addition has his mid-morning nap (lunch is in 20 minutes!), I know that he will teach us all a thing or two as well!!

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April 21st, 2015

Improving your Child's Attention Span

Does the fruit of your loins whom you love to death sometimes seem to have the attention span of a gnat? Does your darling child forget what you’ve asked him to do on the way to do it? Are you worried about their future at school?

My boys used to fidget, get up and down, need the loo, stare out the window or chase imaginary rubbers (erasures) around the floor rather than focus on homework.

Instead of concluding that lack of focus is hereditary (as you get distracted by incoming emails and Face book messages) consider first what is realistic to expect for your child’s age (and gender). Under 8s generally fidget and wriggle around a lot and it isn’t always an indicator that they’re not paying attention. Boys generally move around a lot more than girls do. They are impulsive and they forget things. All of this is normal. Research gives us a rough rule of thumb for how long children should be able to focus on a learning task.

Attention span for learning = chronological age + 1

This means that a 6 year old should be able to focus for about 7 minutes on a task that is a learning activity. He can focus for a lot longer on a game that he’s engaged in. So motivation is a key factor. This is a clue for adults trying to get kids to focus –try to make the task interesting or fun!

Other things that will help expand on your child’s ability to focus that you might like to try in the holidays:

  1. limit time spent on electronic games and TV

Most children’s games and TV are designed to be very fast-moving –they flick from one image and idea to the next very quickly, discouraging sustained thought and puzzling out solutions. Several US studies have found that too much time in front of a screen can affect development of the pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for planning, attention and self-control.

  1. encourage activities involving sustained thought and listening 

Get children interested in construction toys, craft and jigsaw puzzles and give them mysteries to solve such as on  Play games that involve careful listening like Simple Simon. 

  1. provide opportunities for physical release of energy and enough sleep 
  1. make sure kids are getting enough ‘down time’

Kids need down time to just think and be creative. Make sure they have some non-scheduled time where they can just gaze out the window and come up with some brilliant scheme.

  1. use descriptive praise

When we praise our children descriptively and specifically it really focuses their attention on what they’re doing in a much more effective way than by pointing out what they get wrong. Comment when they’re focused on a task and they’ll do it more.

  1. build your child’s emotional intelligence

Research shows that parents can influence the development of the pre-frontal cortex and encourage emotional intelligence in their children by recognising and validating their children’s feelings. When they do this children can process their feelings and move on. This greatly assists focus. Kids can’t pay attention to learning tasks when they’re consumed by emotions.

  1. when you ask them to do something just get them to do one thing.

Children under 8 can’t retain more than 2-3 pieces of information at one time.

If you use these 7 fun, easy ideas your child’s ability to focus will definitely improve.

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September 10th, 2014

Do you use the Naughty Step? Quick tips for a more positive approach to discipline

What parent has not heard of the ‘naughty Step’? It is one of the main sound bites from the Super Nanny program with Jo Frost and indeed if I earnt money for every one of my clients who mentions discipline and the naughty  step in the same sentence I would be a millionaire!

If you are one of many parents who has used it and feels a failure for not being able to make it work, either because your child will not stay there and you end up physically manhandling or he thinks it’s a game and starts laughing at you and blowing raspberries in your face or it has no impact on changing the behaviour – you are not alone! Join the posse of parents who have had the same experience.

Don’t blame yourself if you have experienced this, as the idea of the naughty step is fundamentally flawed.

The naughty step and other punitive and shaming forms of dealing with misbehaviour seem to work in a fashion  - i.e. they can quell a particular behaviour in the moment, but the unintended results are often:

  • resentment and rebelliousness
  • reduced self-worth
  • naughty identity –i.e. the child has a picture of himself as a ‘bad’ person and bad people go on to do bad things, as that is who they think they are
  • he may learn to toe the line in the moment due to fear
  • he does not learn about self-discipline nor understand how to clear up his mistakes

Do you recall the incident last Christmas when a little girl broke a bauble whilst shopping with her Mummy in John Lewis’s and John Lewis then used Face Book to show the world how this little girl had cleared up her mistake?

How effectively you react in the moment depends on your ability to see all misbehaviour as a teachable moment and an opportunity to allow your child to clear up her mistakes.


Clearly this little girl’s parents had established a system of positive discipline so she had an opportunity to put right her mistake and will no doubt have felt better for it. I wonder how she would have felt if her parents had punished her by placing her on the naughty step?

A more positive approach to discipline doesn’t amount to permissiveness and it really works. Our experience is that telling off kids or pointing out what they are doing wrong just DOES NOT WORK and often results in the same misbehaviour at a later date.

 So here’s a step by step guide to what to do and say when your child misbehaves:

  1. Approach the matter without anger or judgment. (This may necessitate leaving it until you’re calm).


  1. Encourage the child to admit what happened and that it was a mistake. Why was it a mistake?

If child says ‘I didn’t mean to’ don’t lecture her on how that doesn’t matter and that the harm is still done. Descriptively praise the child for not meaning to.

 “I’m so glad that you didn’t mean to. It means a lot to me. It shows me that you know it wasn’t the right thing to do and that maybe you wouldn’t have done it if you’d thought about it.”

Explore with the child (without judgment) how the behaviour happened. Don’t just ask why did you do that? This is so that everyone can learn from the episode –maybe something needs to be altered for the future.

  1. Make amends – set wrongs to rights. Fix someone’s upset feelings. This might include an apology but not unless the child is ready.

 “You’re probably sorry inside your head –when you’re ready you’ll also need to apologise out loud. You’re probably wishing you hadn’t done this.”

Sometimes just clearing up the mess (eg washing the ink off the walls) is enough to help them alter their behaviour ….but shouting at them would not!

  1. Alter behaviour- What can you learn from this? /what can you do differently? What would help you not to do this again? Maybe we need a rule about where you can use your coloured pens?


  1. Acceptance - forgive self. We want to teach our children to think ‘when I make a mistake I know how to clear it up.’

Go on  - next time your child gets something wrong try this Mistakes Process and see the results – we guarantee they’ll be much more effective than the naughty step. Let us know what your experiences of using the naughty step have been. What consequences have you used that you think really taught your child something.

Happy parenting!                                

Elaine and Melissa

PS You too should use the Mistakes Process if you feel you got something wrong. This would be very powerful modelling that cleaning up mistakes does not diminish one but is what a good person does.

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