Raising Children without Violence: Part 2 by Joan Durrant

October 17, 2016

In this series of feature articles, we are presenting the principles of positive discipline for parents, future parents, and those who work with children. These principles are taken from the parenting manual “Positive Discipline in Everyday Parenting”, published by Save the Children Sweden and the Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children and authored by Joan Durrant PhD of the University of Manitoba in Canada.

This week’s feature: Providing Warmth and Structure

Last week’s article focused on identifying your long-term parenting goals. Knowing your goals helps you to use challenging situations to show your children how to handle frustration, manage stress, resolve conflict and act without hurting others physically or emotionally.

This week, we will look at two powerful tools that will help you to achieve your goals: warmth and structure. Both are absolutely necessary to reaching your long-term goals. Together, warmth and structure provide an environment in which children want to learn – and want to be like you.

What is warmth? Imagine that you are learning a new language. You need to learn thousands of new words, figure out the grammar, and find out which expressions are polite and which ones are rude. You have to learn how to pronounce each word, as well as how to spell it. You are eager to learn and you want your teacher to be happy with your progress.

Will you learn better if you feel safe with your teacher or if you are afraid that she will hit you if you make a mistake? Will you be more motivated to learn if your teacher tells you how capable you are or tells you that you’re stupid? Will you want to tell your teacher when you’re having problems if you expect that he will listen and help or if you expect that he will get angry and punish you?

Most people will easily understand that they will learn better, be more highly motivated, and be more successful if their teacher is understanding, helpful, supportive, patient and kind. Most people will also understand that they will lose confidence if the teacher is critical and negative, and that they will be afraid to go to the teacher for help if they expect to be punished or hit. Children are no different.

Did you know that “discipline” actually means “teaching”? Many people believe that “discipline” means “punishment”, but this is not the case. Discipline involves creating an environment in which children feel safe to learn, so that they will gradually acquire their own self-discipline. To create this environment, parents need to provide a great deal of warmth.

How can parents provide warmth? Parents give warmth to their children when they: express love and affection, are sensitive to their children’s feelings and needs, show respect for their child’s stage of development, and are able to see the situation from the child’s point of view. Warmth provides emotional security. In a warm family climate, children want to please their parents.

Warmth helps the child feel safe. Children cannot learn when they are afraid, worried or anxious that they could lose their parents’ love. When children feel safe, their minds are free to learn. There are many ways to give warmth to children. Here are just a few:

  • playing with them
  • saying “I love you”
  • reading to them
  • hugging them
  • comforting them when they are hurt or afraid
  • listening to them
  • laughing with them
  • telling them that you believe in them
  • recognizing their efforts
  • trusting them

Do you remember your long-term goals? They might include security, confidence, kindness, patience, non-violence, and happy relationships. The first steps to achieving those goals lie in providing warmth to your child and building a strong trusting relationship.

What is structure?  Imagine again that you are trying to learn a new language. Will you learn better if your teacher shows you how to spell new words – or expects you to figure it out and punishes you for making mistakes? Will you want to please a teacher who discusses your mistakes with you and shows you how to improve – or hits you when you make mistakes? Will you be more highly motivated to learn if your teacher recognizes and builds on your small successes – or threatens to punish you if you make a mistake?

As adults, most of us would learn better with a teacher who actually teaches us instead of punishing us. Teaching means giving the information that is needed to succeed. Most of us learn best when we can see what we have done right and are given a chance to improve upon our mistakes. We can learn much more easily if we are given the information that we need and if we feel safe to try, than if we feel afraid of making mistakes.

How can parents provide structure? Parents provide structure when they give their children clear guidelines for behavior, state their expectations clearly, explain the reasons for their rules, and encourage their children to think things through. Structure helps children recognize their successes, and to understand their mistakes and what to do to fix them. It also helps your child solve problems when you’re not there. “Structure” is information.

Here are a few ways that parents provide structure to their children:

  • preparing them for difficult situations by telling them what to expect and how they can cope
  • discussing rules with them and hearing their point of view
  • helping them find ways to fix their mistakes in a constructive way
  • being fair and flexible
  • controlling anger
  • explaining their own point of view in a way that helps the child understand
  • explaining the effects of their actions on other people
  • giving them the information they need to make good decisions
  • talking with them often
  • avoiding threats
  • acting as a positive role model and a guide

Think again about your long-term goals. Did they include good problem-solving, motivation to master tough challenges, an ability to think independently, and taking responsibility?   These characteristics develop when children are taught – not punished, but taught. When children have good information on which to base their decisions, they are much more likely to make good decisions.   When children understand the reasons for your rules, they are much more likely to follow them.

Punishment teaches children to obey out of fear. It can lead to dishonesty and manipulation to avoid the punishment. Structure, on the other hand, gives children the information they need to do the right thing even when you’re not there.

 Warmth and Structure: The Tools of Effective Discipline

Children need both warmth and structure virtually all the time. They need to know that they are safe and loved – and they need to have information in order to learn. If you keep your long-term goals uppermost in your mind, you will begin to see how the pairing of warmth and structure will get you where you want to go.

The manual can be downloaded for free from this site.


Next week: We will get a better understanding of how to provide warmth and structure by exploring how children think and feel at different ages.


About Joan Durrant

Joan E. Durrant, Ph.D. is a child-clinical psychologist and professor of family social sciences at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada. She conducts research on the factors that lead parents to strike their children, as well as on the impact of laws that prohibit physical punishment. She was the principal researcher and co-author of the Canadian Joint Statement on Physical Punishment of Children and Youth; a member of the Research Advisory Committee of the United Nations Secretary-General’s Study on Violence against Children; and a co-editor of Eliminating Corporal Punishment: The Way Forward to Constructive Discipline (UNESCO). She has written parenting materials for the Canadian government, and has given speeches and workshops in many countries on the topics of physical punishment and positive parenting.