If you are like most parents, at some point you have probably thrown your hands up in the air, tried a “miracle parenting approach,” and perhaps even wondered if your child’s bad behavior is intentional.

Take heart. Parenting expert Kim John Payne — author of the bestselling Simplicity Parenting — has written a new book. The Soul of Discipline: The Simplicity Parenting Approach to Warm, Firm, and Calm Guidance — From Toddlers to Teens includes everything a parent needs to know to adopt the kind of approach that meets children at the developmental stage they are in and provides them exactly what they need at the time they need it most.

“I have never met a genuinely disobedient teen,” Payne writes. “What I have met are myriad disoriented kids.” The first step to addressing any disoriented behavior, then, is to adjust how we perceive and approach the misbehavior.

Kids, according to Payne, will often “push against the outside world” — in what Payne calls the “pinging principle” for the way it resembles a submarine navigator sending out sonic pings to gain his navigational bearings — for many reasons, such as feeling overscheduled, experiencing anxiety, or going through major life changes.

Parents, however, can help “reorient their children” by returning to core family values, like the need for safety and security, centeredness and orientation, equilibrium and balance, as well as by helping their children avoid becoming “flooded” and to instead respond with resiliency.

Payne then breaks discipline into specific phases and roles: the governor, the gardner, and the guide. While the governor sets and maintains the rules and boundaries, the gardner observes and harvests a child’s emotional needs, and the guide balances a child’s emerging need for autonomy with wise counsel.

Payne then offers specific tips for each developmental phase, from young children to teens. For example, he encourages us to think of each phase as a basket where we allocate energy. In early years, the governor basket is fuller, whereas in tween years, the gardener basket outweighs the other two. Lastly, in the teen years, we do more guiding than governing or gardening.

But where we must start is with solid limits and boundaries. In the governor role, Payne reminds us that the goal is not “blind obedience,” but rather compliance to a firm yet loving authority. And understanding how to comply is how children learn the inner flexibility that allows them to consider others’ perspectives, and move beyond self-centeredness and entitlement.

To get there, Payne presents steps parents can follow: pause and picture the desired result, start small, stay close to your child and stay calm, don’t negotiate, insist, and follow through.

For many parents, it’s the difference between threatening to take away toys when a child won’t clean up their room, and stepping in closer and saying, “Let’s pack the dolly clothes up first and we’ll deal with the furniture later.”

Payne also offers numerous practical strategies to build healthy compliance, such as avoiding “attention wars,” breaking up screen distraction, spending doable quality time, proving rhythm and predictability, going on a “no suggestions, no requests diet,” and using instruction to create inner structure.

As kids enter their tween years, parents shift to the role of the gardener, with the major task of “weeding out” the many outside influences children face — especially from marketers. When children do become flooded with outside influences, Payne writes, two major problems arise: kids can suffer from overexposure (too much grown-up stuff), and they are highly vulnerable and easily impressionable.

A few sad effects of all this marketing, Payne tells us, is the eighty percent of kids who value being rich (over any other life aims, such as helping others), and the fourteen percent of eighth graders who have had at least one drink at a party in the last thirty days.

The role of the gardener then is not just to “root out invasive species,” but to fertilize good ideas. This includes things like asking your tween, “Who are you being true to?” Payne offers guidance on how to teach kids to adapt how they act to where they are, to understand that their perspective is only one of many, and to develop the ability to accept feedback.

And the hope is that the work of the governor and the gardener will prepare a child for the teen years, which Payne describes as a “second birth” where kids are strong, yet vulnerable.

Payne reveals his own experience as a teen tempted to get a car filled with friends who had been drinking. The ride, he writes, later ended tragically.

He describes precisely the crux many parents find themselves in: the birth of a full-blown teen rattling the walls of family life to their very foundations. But here again, Payne offers clear-headed, practical advice. For example, he suggests helping teens differentiate between friends to be less swayed by a single peer group, establishing a counterbalance to the inevitable mood swings of teen life, balancing idealistic ideas with rational insights, and “stepping in while stepping back.”

And should Payne’s well-researched and tested advice not work, he devotes the entire last section of the book to what he calls the “rescue package,” which acts like a troubleshooting guide for the many ways parenting can go awry. Tackling everything from kids who are given too many choices to teens who are making risky decisions, Payne offers a counterpoint to the many parenting fads available today. By returning to the four pillars of discipline — simplifying the amount of stuff, establishing rhythm and predictability, avoiding overscheduling, and filtering out adult conversation and information — parents can learn to guide their children with more open minds and more responsive hearts.

The Soul of Discipline: The Simplicity Parenting Approach to Warm, Firm, and Calm Guidance — From Toddlers to Teens
Ballantine Books, June 2015
Hardcover, 336 pages
$26

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