Rethinking Child Discipline

In his new parenting book, the child psychologist Ross Greene outlines his environmentally focused method for remedying misbehavior.

Two young children sit on the floor of a bathroom surrounded by packing peanuts. One child looks clearly alarmed and perhaps guilty of misbehavior.
Blair Colby Photography / Getty

Many adult assumptions and practices related to children take for granted that when kids misbehave, the reason is that they’re not sufficiently motivated to follow the rules. The solution, therefore, seems obvious: Ramp up the incentives or consequences tied to the desired behavior.

The child psychologist Ross Greene upends this conventional wisdom. He disputes the notion that, as he puts it, “Kids do well if they wanna.” Instead, he maintains: “Kids do well if they can.” When adults see a misbehaving child, they should, he suggests, look for a problem in the environment or with the child’s skills that is thwarting the expected behavior. This simple but dramatic shift in mindset underpins the discipline model that he developed in child psychiatric wards, moved into the juvenile-justice system, and implemented in schools. In each setting, his model dramatically reduced both discipline problems and punishments for the most challenging children and adolescents.

Last year, when I wrote about his work for Mother Jones, my social-media world exploded. Over and over, parents asked how they could duplicate the model’s success in their homes. At that time, Greene had written two books focusing on the most difficult children to discipline, often those diagnosed with conditions such as oppositional defiant disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Now, his latest book Raising Human Beings: Creating a Collaborative Partnership with Your Child answers those parents and educators eager to apply his teachings to children whose development is more typical. The book is easy to follow, a parenting manual of sorts, stuffed with examples and mock adult-child conversations. Having spent more than three years repeatedly interviewing Greene, I recognize his ideas and his voice in this book instantly—it’s like an extended, one-on-one training session. Personally, I am relieved that I can stop trying to explain his method succinctly to my friends and neighbors, and simply recommend that they read it.

Another Greene concept that challenges preconceptions is “incompatibility”—that is, the idea that when children misbehave, what’s going on is that their skills are incompatible with the expectations they’re under or the environment they’re in. But rather than viewing incompatibility as a problem, he sees it as an opportunity—indeed, struggling with a crisis is what helps people cement their identities and leads to the most growth. In that moment, adults can help the child identify the root of the incompatibility and find a solution.

Of course, that’s easier said than done. When I first started reporting on Greene, I was struck by how effective he is in talking with kids, perhaps even better than he is with adults. Watching him—and the educators he trained—discuss a problem with a child made me realize how reflective listening is truly a skill. Whereas I would give up on a conversation after my child’s first “I don’t know,” Greene and his trainees persisted, took guesses, offered empathy, and eventually uncovered issues that pointed the way to an enduring solution. (My children can attest that I quickly adopted some of these techniques at home.)

Greene’s model, wonkily known as “collaborative and proactive solutions,” involves three steps. First, the adult raises an issue—such as dawdling over homework or running out of the classroom—with a goal of understanding the child’s perspective. Second, the adult shares his or her concern about the issue. Third, the adult invites the child to brainstorm solutions that could work, and picks one to try.

So many adult-child conflicts ultimately boil down to a power struggle. The child is doing something the adult doesn’t like and resists attempts to make him change. By shifting the goal from power to collaboration, Greene opens a whole new world of possibilities. Instead of trying to be in charge, parents simply seek to influence their children. In so many ways, it’s a relief to admit that I’m not truly in control and to stop feeling that I should be.

Under this relaxed approach, Greene categorizes the adult’s response to problematic behavior into three buckets. Plan A involves unilateral adult actions that are to be reserved for emergency situations—like yanking a child out of the way of a speeding car. Plan B is his collaborative model. Plan C applies to problems that have yet to be solved. I love the freedom to focus on just one problem at a time. When I tolerate a child making faces at me, because I’m dealing with hitting first, it’s not that I accept the faces as proper behavior. It’s just that nasty face-making has yet to make it to the top of the list. This measured approach even applies to how adults mentally frame misbehavior. Rather than viewing certain behavior as bad, they can dispassionately note that the child has trouble meeting the expectations for a certain situation, and take steps to help the child get to the point.

In a break with the tradition common in parenting books, Greene spends no time in his book touting his results or invoking scientific research to support his claims. This surprised me. When I first interviewed him in 2013, I grew interested in his approach because of his track record—not to mention his commitment to the model, in giving up his post at Harvard Medical School and moving his wife and teen children to Maine to oversee implementation there. Then I spoke with school principals and juvenile-justice wardens who raved about the model decreasing discipline problems by 70 percent, 80 percent, and even 100 percent—powerful testimony that is absent from this book. Perhaps he believes that people in the command-and-control parenting camp will be impossible to convince; just take a look at the online comments section to find the detractors.

This oversight undermines the book’s appeal to someone who might pick it up having no familiarity with his work. He assumes that readers are pretty much on board and just need to understand the mechanics of implementing his approach. This is a flaw in the book. He relies entirely on a Socratic-style dialogue in which he raises questions or objections readers may have, and then answers them. A few proof points—when he has so many available—would win over more skeptical readers.

For example, he asserts that parents’ job is “to figure out who your child is, get comfortable with it, and then help her live a life that is congruent with it.” It’s a beautiful vision that I personally endorse. But there are many parents who disagree, who are intent on changing their children, who likely will need more convincing. Another limitation of the book is the composite characters Greene creates to illustrate his model. Perhaps it’s because I know the dialogue and scenarios are made up, but they sometimes ring false. One mom accidentally offers her son dog food instead of cereal? These kind of dramatic flourishes are merely distracting.

Overall, the book makes a powerful case for rethinking typical approaches to parenting and disciplining children. While most of the techniques and scenarios in Raising Human Beings relate to school-age children and older, the fundamental principles apply to all adult-child interactions. It’s not just about solving problem behavior, it’s about building a relationship with your child that will endure a lifetime. Parents’ job is not to shape children into a particular mold, it’s to see the children they have—with their strengths and challenges—and become their partner on the road to adulthood.