Hear My Heart: A Case for Compassionate Discipline in Early Childhood

You’re desperately scrambling to get out the door in the morning. You’re helping one child with her shoe, changing the youngest’s diaper and putting on your mascara at the same time. Drenched in sweat with hair that is starting to frizz , you wistfully imagine that maybe today you’ll make it somewhere on time. All hope of that dissipates quickly, however, when three-year-old little Johnny, completely undone by a bump in the toe of his sock, unravels on the entryway floor. You try your best to appease him while zipping up jackets and carrying the baby on your hip, but you are tired, time is ticking, and his temper isn’t easily quelled. Before you know it, you are yelling, begging, bribing and threatening him to get out the door. He still won’t cooperate so you attempt to carry him but as you pick him up two tiny arms start flailing at your face. That. Is. It. He has crossed every line you’ve ever drawn and he is getting a spanking. You swat him firmly on the behind and finagle him into his carseat. Finally you are on your way. You arrive at your appointment just in time, but your heart is heavy and your children, despondent. This is not how you hoped the morning would go.

Before I go any further, I need to tell you that I know this story oh so well! When managing multiple little people, each of their individual moods and preferences over the smallest things can drive a parent or caregiver to insanity! From our perspective, the thing that’s troubling them is so trivial yet they refuse to reason! I mean, is it the singular goal of their little lives to make sure we never leave the house or finish another task?

We all struggle with responding well in these difficult moments. And we always will. Yet the culmination of our responses has the power to shape a tiny being’s personhood. A type of personhood, that despite our various parenting styles and methods, I suspect we all agree on. I mean, don’t we all desire that our children become respectful, contributing members of society who know we love them unconditionally? If so, then learning to parent with compassion through situations like the one above will aid all of us in our efforts at shaping them well.

So what exactly do I mean by parenting with compassion? Does parenting with compassion mean being permissive, or allowing our children to have whatever they want? Let me say this clearly once and for all. NOT. AT. ALL.! Parenting with compassion simply means formulating and communicating clear, appropriate expectations and showing empathy while we discipline. It means hearing the heart behind our children’s behavior and using effective techniques to help them see that they are valued and loved. In order to form appropriate expectations, however, we need to first become familiar with the basic brain anatomy of young children and how it effects their decision making, levels of socio-emotional intelligence and self-regulation.

So let’s take a peek at those growing little brains! Research shows that from the time of birth, brains develop sequentially. We can observe that sensory pathways (hearing, vision) are formed first, followed by those parts that aid in language development. However, the frontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for self control and decision making, is one of the last areas to develop in early childhood. Indeed it is not fully developed until the age of 25! [1] Within the frontal lobe of the brain, two compartments (called the vmPFC and the DLPFC) influence behavior dramatically. One of those parts (the vmPFC) forms decisions based on sensory input (sight, sound, touch). The other part (the DLPFC) is tasked with making decisions based on value systems and background. When people make good choices, specifically those that require will power, brain scans show that both of these sections of the brain ‘light up’. They are communicating with each other; one part relaying the sensory information and the other screening it through the lens of ethicality. [2] However, this complex communication is not happening in the brains of children younger than four years of age because these young brain areas have not yet developed pathways to one another. By the age of four years old, rudimentary pathways have begun to form but even then they lack much of the sophistication required to determine what choices are right, wrong or even beneficial. It makes sense then why children may behave impulsively, touching and grabbing and seemingly destroying everything in reach. When they continue to touch the same forbidden thing again and again, they are not always trying to challenge us. They are just trying explore the tactile environment and don’t understand the impact of their choices. With this in mind, we can adapt our ideas about what is normal behavior and guide them gently to better choices.

While immature frontal cortex development hinders a child’s behavioral choices, another part of the brain impacts their ability to manage emotions. The limbic system, the seat of all sentiments, is where our strong feelings arise. The ability to control one’s emotions is a skill called self-regulation. Self-regulation is attained when the limbic system in the brain fires up the (you guessed it) frontal cortex. It should come as no surprise when scans of young brains showcase radical activity in the limbic (emotional) system with very little activity in the frontal cortex (self control part of the brain). Again, the relationship between the two has not yet matured.[3] It is helpful to reflect on this insight when we see our children melting down over an activity they don’t want to leave or even a bump in the toe of a sock.

Our little people feel very big emotions, yet their ability to understand and manage them is very small.

Knowing this, we can indeed expect that they will tantrum on the regular until those little brains are more developed. And rather than demanding they act like adults when they are feeling intense emotions, we can use the opportunity to help them through it. Supporting and teaching them suitable skills to weather an explosion of emotion is an enormous part of being a compassionate parent.

The last crucial aspect I’d like to examine as we go about setting standards for our kids is their capacity for socio-emotional intelligence. Early childhood exists in a cognitive stage called pre-operational, a stage where thinking conceptually is an impossibility. This means young children (particularly those under eight years old) are paralyzed in their interpretation of abstract information; especially when it comes to deciphering another person’s desires, feelings or abilities. [4] When we are distressed by dressing our family for a looming doctors appointment, the last thing to cross a child’s mind is how we are feeling about that. When they throw a toy, hit, bite, or misbehave in general, they are reacting to their own emotional upset, not attempting to harm another individual whose feelings that cannot imagine. Yet how often do we assume that the emotional behavior we see from them is calculated by their determination to aggravate us?

When we stop imagining that our children have ill intent, we align our discipline choices with reality and open another door to parenting with kindness.

Now that we understand more about our children’s levels of development and we’re able to envision fair and appropriate expectations, how then can we go about disciplining with compassion? I am so glad you asked! Because this topic is vast, I’ll be creating a whole post on that alone. But to get started, I will leave a list here of my top five ways to discipline with compassion:

  • Validate a Child’s Feelings– verbalize what you hear them saying and tell them you understand
  • Communicate Expectations and Consequences – whenever possible, let them know ahead of time what you expect and what will happen if they don’t comply
  • Let Consequences Be Logical– as much as possible, connect the behavior with the consequence in a natural way (i.e. you hit with the stick, now you lost the stick)
  • Let them Feel– give them space to cry, scream, and process all the big emotions. If they are being loud or disruptive, give them a separate space where they can do this
  • Apologize when you know you’ve messed up (as we all will), don’t hesitate to apologize and start over

These are just a few ways that we can show our children empathy in our parenting. I find I must confess, however, that despite having studied development and trained classrooms full of children, I’m a prime example of how we will never accomplish any of this perfectly. Thankfully, we don’t have to shame ourselves into better parenting…apologizing is just one more opportunity to show them that we care!

What are your thoughts about compassionate parenting? Have you ever experienced a time when gentleness impacted your child in an unexpected way? I’d love to hear from you!

[1] California Institute of Technology. “Mechanisms Of Self-control Pinpointed In Brain.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 1 May 2009. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/04/090430144543.htm>.

[2] Leisman, Gerry & Melillo, Robert. (2013). The Development of the Frontal Lobes in Infancy and Childhood: Asymmetry and the Nature of Temperament and Affect. 10.13140/RG.2.1.4461.7041.

[3] Rintoul, Betty Ph. D “Early Brain Development and Self-Regulation” <https://nceln.fpg.unc.edu/sites/nceln.fpg.unc.edu/files/resources/1-Brain.pdf>

[4] Selman, R.L. (1971a). “Taking another’s perspective: Role-taking development in early childhood”. Child Development.

2 thoughts on “Hear My Heart: A Case for Compassionate Discipline in Early Childhood

  1. Of all the ages in a childs life, I found 12 -15 to be the hardest. Yes, even worse than the terrible 2’s 3’s and 4’s.

    I was a “permissive” parent, and my daughter once said that during her teenage years she was fairly good at home because she didn’t have anything to rebel against. That’s only partly true. I was permissive, but had my limits.
    When her brother was 13, and she turned 13 (22 month later), they both did something that required immediate action. We were living on base and my son tried to steal a carton of cigarettes from the commissary at the behest of his friend. He was so bad at it that he was caught by the janitor and did 40 hours of community service. My daughter took my debit card and had managed to spend $1400 in a month before I found out (it was linked to a savings account during a time you couldn’t just go to the computer and check your balance). She was given a tour of the inside of a jail by a deputy (I requested it so that she would have some understanding as to where she was going to go if she stole from someone else), and she had to take her stolen goods back to each store and tell them exactly why she was returning them. Then, she had to get a paper route to pay back the checking and savings that she had withdrawn the money from. But it was the tour of the jail that made the biggest impression on her.

    When your kids are that age, you have to come down on them hard when they fail the “ethics” test. The worst thing to do is to dismiss it. 13 is like a crossroads and denying their rebellions sends them along the wrong path.


    1. Wow that sounds so difficult!! I bet it was heartbreaking that they made those choices but it sounds like you handled it VERY well! That’s a very good example of compassionate discipline because you chose logical consequences! Thanks for reading and commenting!

      Liked by 1 person

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