Children's Center Preschool


by Deborah Wyle

In my professional education, I have been blessed to have several remarkable mentors, beginning with Miki Holden (now head of  Family School in Los Olivos) and Eleanor Griffin at Eleanor’s Preschool in Berkeley ( I graduated from UCB).  The other major Berkeley influence was Dr. Thelma Harms, who was the Director of the UCB Child Development Center. She has become one of the giants in the field of early education. Many of my views about how to help children learn self-discipline and self-regulation started with her seminal ideas.

I have included below an edited version of an article she handed out to parents and teachers to give them some constructive ways of looking at discipline and some ideas to help children develop self-discipline.  I realize the writing is dated but the ideas are as good today as they were the day they were written. I hope you find wisdom in her words the way I have all of these years. It is a long article but I really believe that it is worth it.

Discipline- A Positive Approach

Dr. Thelma Harms

Edited, with occasional additions,  by Deborah Wyle

The very word “discipline” can carry with it a negative connotation.   I would like to attempt with you to re-define discipline in a positive way.  Discipline can be defined as the transformation of impulses into socially acceptable and communicable forms.  We need only think back to the vitality and the conviction that little babies show in every thing they do, whether it’s crying out of hunger, or smiling at a human face, to realize that every human being has tremendous impulses with him.  He has vitality and spontaneity and desires, but these need to be transformed into socially communicable, and I would say, socially acceptable forms in order for us to live constructively with one another.

In a way, discipline is a double-edged sword.  If we do away with the impulses in our children then we will end up with dull, dead, rigid people who know all the forms and practice all the forms, but who derive no satisfaction from any thing that they do.  They will be correct, but they will not be living human beings.  So, somehow we want to keep spontaneity, joy, and impulses alive in people.

Now the other edge of this sword is that if we have spontaneous, alive, impulses in our children whose behavior is not constructive, and does not add to society; if we let children grow up so that they cannot express themselves in way that are acceptable to other people, then we have the destructive side of impulsivity: we have children with severe behavior problems.

We parents have to devise a way of reaching our goals with our children so that we keep alive in them their impulsivity, but we also help them to develop socially acceptable forms of behavior. Now I am a mother and I know that you cannot possibly follow your best intentions all day, everyday ay. What I am going to suggest to you are ideas that I have found helpful myself in working with children, and I might say “in raising myself as a parent,” and I hope that some of these ideas also prove helpful to you.  I have  five ideas to share with you.

First of all, in the day to day living with a child, don’t underestimate your value as a behavior model. I think this is the main teaching tool that a parent has.  You are a behavior model.  Our children are watching us, they know what our feelings are, as well as what our intentions are and they are learning a great deal about how human beings behave from the way we behave, towards them, towards over selves, and towards other people.

If a mother comes in and finds her three year old annoying his baby brother and she says, “I told you not to do this,” and slaps his hand, she may think; “There, that will teach him not to hit his baby brother”. But is this mother really teaching her child; what has this child really learned about behavior?  He learned two things; my mother is bigger than I am, when she gets angry, she hits me.  Therefore, hitting is a perfectly good way to show that you are angry or that you disapprove of something.

The second thing he learned is; my mother does not want me to hit my baby brother.  He is learning this negative prohibition, but he is not learning what his mother really wants him to do with his baby brother, which is to like him; to be a human being with him.  He is not learning this because the mother herself has used physical punishment, she has been disapproving, and she has presented a model of behavior, which if followed by the child, would not be approved by the mother.

Even when we punish children, we are models of behavior and as we do unto them they will do unto others.  We want to be models of constructive ways of coping with life.  We all get angry. If the parent is a hostile parent, the child will likely be a hostile child.  We are models of behavior and sometimes we have to look into ourselves and find out whether we ourselves have to learn to cope with anger in constructive ways.

A second idea about the day-to-day living with children is that a parent re-enforces what the child does through giving it attention. Another very valuable teaching tool you have is your attention.  When a baby “coos” and “goos” there is something about this that delights us and we “coo” and “goo” back.  We don’t think about  it, but we are helping that child learn to speak.  We “coo” and “goo” to him, he “coos” and “goos” back to us, he says “dada” and immediately we say, “Dear, he called for you this morning, he said dada.”  Maybe in a few weeks the mother will have responded enough to this word so that when the child says “dada” he means a particular person.

Attention re-enforces behavior, it gives children a reason for doing the same thing again.  Now whether the attention is positive attention (like appreciation or interest), or whether it is negative attention (like spanking or an angry face), doesn’t make much difference.  Any kind of attention that we give the child re-enforces his behavior.  If you want behavior to disappear, you ignore it or you remove the child from your attention.

Occasionally we see children in school who have learned that the only sure way to get attention from people is by doing annoying things.  I had a little boy in my school, several years ago, who was considered quite a problem at home. This child had found the one sure-fire way in his family to get love and attention.  When he was a good boy, nobody noticed him, but when he was a bad boy everything stopped, all eyes were on him, he got the full attention of his mother. He really could feel how involved she was with him when she scolded or spanked him, and then, of course, she felt terrible about it.  He was ignored for a few seconds, but soon he could come back and get all the love and attention that he really was looking for in the first place.

What this suggests to me is that we must give our children attention for the positive things that they do.  Put yourself in your child’s place.  We all crave recognition for the positive things that we do, even if they are only commonplace.  These are the things that are ignored by most people.  The only time many children get attention is when they are obstreperous and annoying.

Here is a simple thing that you can put into effect right away.  Notice the good things, the specifically good things that your children do.  Give them positive attention; a smile, praise, the reward of being notices. Give them the reward of your attention and appreciation.  This will help tremendously in building up a positive relationship between you and your child.

Now, let’s take a closer look at praise, because praise itself has been shown to be rather difficult to use.  There are two different kinds of praise; general praise and specific praise.

Let me illustrate for you.  A child has been taking a car trip with his parents and he has been quiet and cooperative.  They are just about reaching their destination when the mother turns to the child and announces to everyone in the care, “You have been such a marvelous boy, you really are such a lovely boy, you are always so good and I appreciate this.”  And then suddenly the child goes berserk.  He knocks the crayons down on the floor and overturns the ashtray in the care, and the mother says, “What have I done?  Mrs. Harms said to praise him, I praised him and now he’s gone to pieces.” Why?

This was the kind of praise that puts a great deal of strain on a child, it was general praise; “You’re a wonderful boy.”  This is terribly scary; because it means that you have to continue to be so good you can’t imagine how good you have to be.  It is easier to be a little bit bad or a lot bad right now and break that halo.  It is just like telling a beautiful woman. “You’re exquisite, I love you because you’re so beautiful.”  Well then she starts to think, “ Oh my gosh, wrinkles, age, what am I going to do?”  This is praise, which cannot allow you to fail, and this kind of praise is terribly threatening.

Avoid global praise; rather give praise for specific things.  An example of this: a child cleans up the yard; when he comes in the first thing the mother does is she goes out and looks at the yard.  This is reward.  You have to look at what the person does, that’s the first reward.  Simply saying, “Oh, I appreciate that much, you are a marvelous boy.  All right, now get to the next job,” this is not reward.  The first reward is going out and letting your child show you what he has done, and then you can make specific mention of things that impress you.  “You did a good job on raking up those leaves.  That’s a hard job to do, to get under the bushes this way.”  This is specific praise.  It does not mean that this child has to feel the burden of perfection, which is a tremendous burden.

I am convinced that more budding musicians are destroyed by the pressure of having to get better and better.  Perfection is something that a person has to put upon himself as a goal.  We cannot desire perfection for someone else; we have to do this for ourselves.  The dancer or musician who seeks perfection is a person who has dedicated his life to this goal.

Yet often, without knowing it, we say, “You’re a good boy,” with the implication—you’re so much better than your brother.  And then suddenly the child feels this is too much: he feels guilty because he knows that he really isn’t better than his brother, in fact, he has just been thinking mean thoughts about his mommy, and controlling himself, and his mother turns to him and says, “You’re such a good boy, you’re always a good boy.”  Now what is he going to do? He either has to feel guilty or he has to feel, “Stupid mommy, she doesn’t really know me,” or he has to do something to show mommy that he can’t always be perfect.  So even with praise and reward we must keep it specific and keep it honest; go out and look at what the child has done, praise him for what he has really done.

A third idea is that in order to help children develop acceptable behavior; we must communicate clearly what we want our children to do. I am convinced that many children do not really know what is expected of them, because they have not been given a clear pattern and a positive direction to follow.

One thing that we do in the nursery school that’s quite effective is that we tell a child what we want him to do, not what we do not want him to do. If you would be away for a whole day of the number of times you say,  “stop,” “don’t,” “no,” you would be amazed.  It seems that most of our lives we go around disapproving of things.  Every time you think “don’t,” “stop,” “no,” take the second step and ask yourself, “what do I want the child to do?” then verbalize what you want him to do.

Most times we give children only the negative prohibition, but not the indication for positive action.  We say, “Don’t touch that,” what we really mean is “Look at this with your eyes.”  Little children love to look at things, but looking to them means touching; this is part of experiencing things.  We have to help them learn that some things need to be looked at only with one’s eyes. A positive way of relating this to young children is saying “Put your hands here and lean over and look at this with your eyes.”  They are very happy to try this.  This doesn’t mean that the next time they will automatically do this; it takes a long time to learn.  But if you say, “ No don’t touch that,” you are not helping the child to satisfy his impulse to see this new thing in a socially acceptable way, and this is what we are trying to do through discipline.

The impulse to see and experience new things is great, we want her to keep this the whole of her life, but we want her to know a way of doing this that is appropriate.  Now, if you’ve got some lovely things on the table, and a young child comes over, you have two choices: either you put the things away so that he doesn’t break them or you show him how to look at these things, how to touch them gently.  What you choose will depend on the age of the child and the length of time you have to work with her.

It seems to me that all of us along the way need to learn to give positive directions.  We can’t keep avoiding issues all the time.  We need to start to show children acceptable patterns when they are ready for them; so keep in mind that you are going to try to verbalize to your child or show the young child what you want him to do rather than what you don’t want him to do in order to give the child a more exact picture of how we want him to behave.  It seems to me that the adult’s role is to help children find acceptable ways for doing the things that they want to do.  If you tax yourself a little and imagine what it is they want to do and find a way for them to do it in your home, you’re doing a great deal towards helping a child retain his spontaneity and yet find socially acceptable forms.

When you make more abstract limits, I think that it is terribly important that children know what the limits are and why you have set these limits.  I’m going to mention a study by Robert Hess of Chicago, in which he asked mothers to teach their children various little tasks.  He watched the way the mothers controlled the children and he found that there are three main ways that mothers had of verbally controlling their children.

The first group of mothers merely told the children what was expected of them and that was that.  When the child asked why, the mother’s reason was “I told you, girls are supposed to do this, and you do it.”  In other words the child was simply told what to do and when he asked for a reason he was given no reason except that he was supposed to conform.

In the second group when the mothers asked the children to behave in a certain way they would say, “do this for me, I want you to do this, or do this because the teacher likes it,” in other words the mother used the control of people’s affection or people’s concern being the reason for doing things.

In the third group the mother gave logical reason.  “You do this because it’s safer than doing that, or you do this because if you don’t hold the plate carefully it will break.”

Now when these children got to kindergarten you might hazard a guess as to which group was able to think best logically, which group did best in school?  Yes, the third group, because they were from the very youngest age taught to think in a cause and effect way.  These children were being brought up to think logically, not to do things out of fear or conformity or out of seeking affection from other people.  There is some indication that the way we discipline our children has an effect on their intellectual approach and I think that this study is very interesting because it gives us a hint about how this tie-up occurs.

However, suppose a child gets so darn reasonable that he argues with you at every turn, what about that?  You can’t allow this either, because children are very bright and they can start to manipulate us through reasoning.  You do have to protect yourself; you do have to make decisions about whether things have gone far enough and whether the end of the discussion has arrived.  I’m not suggesting endless reasoning and arguing, nor am I suggestion that you become the tools of your children.  I am suggesting that giving reasons and giving positives directions helps a child to behave the way you want him to because he has a clear understanding of what you want him to.

Now, the fourth point is that all of us have feelings, children as well as, adults, and that feelings are facts, and they are real. We can always accept feelings, but we can’t always accept overt behavior.  When dealing with children it seems fair to say to the child, “I know you’re angry with me, I know what I did made you angry because you wanted to do that, but I can’t let you go because…”  this doesn’t mean that right away all the angry feelings are going to be dissipated, but it does mean that mother and father understand this child.  Actually having a person with you who can communicate, someone who understand you, makes it possible to put restrictions on yourself.  The child might continue to be angry, but at least he knows that there is a basis for communication.

Even with the very young child I find it helpful to say, “I know something made you angry.”  This admission lends credibility to the feelings.  If I see Johnny hit jimmy I don’t sail in and say, “Don’t do that you are a naughty boy, you’re bothering him, you know we don’t hit in nursery school,” because this just means to the little fellow who has done the hitting that I am really not on his side, I’m against him, I’ve seen his behavior and I’m going to do something about that, but I really don’t care about him.  What I do as I’m separating the two antagonists is say to the aggressor, “Something really made you mad, what made you mad?”  That’s all you really have to say.  A four year old will tell you what it was that made him mad.  And sometimes, surprisingly enough, you find that three unpleasant m things have happened to him before the one negative thing that you saw him do.  When you start to look at feelings as facts, your sympathy very often goes equally to the aggressor.

What I am suggesting here is that we tell the child that we know that he is angry and although we cannot accept his way of showing it, we still accept his feelings. We must not only accept his feelings, but we must accept our own feelings.  We may not accept much of the undesirable behavior, either in the child or in ourselves and if we parents start to be able to express our feelings and let our children express their feelings, verbally or in other acceptable outlets (like painting an angry pictures or playing with clay or kneading some bread dough), then we will find that our children have much less need for violence and we have much less need for violence too.

In contrast , power oriented discipline, with shouting, withholding of parental love and esteem, ignoring of children’s feelings, and any physical discipline seems to cause children to become  more aggressive towards other children, and we can see why.  The parent himself has been a model of aggressivity and the need for a more a stronger response goes up.

Now, my fifth and last point is that there can be no freedom without discipline. Martha Graham, the greatest dancer and teacher, in her film “The Dancer’s World,” gives a perfect example of this.  Martha Graham tells us that there can be no freedom of expression in the arts without a great deal of discipline, but the discipline under which an artist lives is a self-imposing discipline.  He is competing with only one image, the image of the person the he feels he can be.  This is very different from the kind of outwardly imposed discipline that many of us have been put under at various times of our life.  If only we could help children arrive at a positive image of the person they feel they can be, and give them hope that they can become this person, then we have the possibility of self-discipline.

Now, freedom is often mistaken for license and irresponsibility; I don’t’ feel this way.  I think you can only be free within very clear and realistic limits.   Martha Graham has made this clear when she says that the dancer goes back to the studio to practice the most difficult exercises so that when he is on the stage he can be free in his way of expressing what he feels is important.

We want this kind of freedom for our children. Good self- discipline coupled with enthusiasm, a creative spirit, a desire to learn, and good self-esteem. Positive guidance has the best chance of achieving this goal.


  • Comment by jessica — October 26, 2010 @ 9:28 pm

    This is great. I was just discussing these issues with another CCP Mom. Sometimes we are just at a loss with the three-year-olds’ new found sense of self. And I find my daughter mimicking my “aggressive” discipline voice. Yikes.
    I especially liked the following advice, “We can always accept feelings, but we can’t always accept overt behavior.” Our Emma’s outbursts are so HUGE. It is important to acknowledge her frustration and anger. Ask her why she is angry, before diving into why she cannot behave with hitting, etc.
    As usual, THANK YOU Deborah.

  • Comment by Trisha — November 16, 2010 @ 2:41 pm

    I finally gave myself time to sit and really read this thoroughly. Hopefully I’ll get better at telling my children what I want them to do rather than what I DON’T want them to do-and why. Practice, practice, practice.
    And I am sure I’ll be revisiting this post often. Thank you!

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