Parenting Tip of the Month: Rethinking Discipline with Three Questions

by | May 8, 2017

Parenting can be one of the most fulfilling and rewarding times of your life and it can also be the most triggering, confusing, and frustrating. As parents, whether we like to admit it or not, we have all faced situations where our kids have pushed our hot buttons and we have reacted in ways that we are not the proudest of. We are human after all.

As a parent and a therapist, I am often reminded of the significant tasks of parenting. We are, after all, responsible for the raising and shaping of young hearts and minds. No pressure, right? As such, I am often in search of resources that focus on ways to be the best supporter, disciplinarian, and guide that I can be. One resource that I have found extremely helpful, not only for my own parenting, but also the parents that I work with, is Dan Siegel and Tina Bryson’s No-Drama Discipline: The Whole-Brain Way to Calm the Chaos and Nurture your Child’s Developing Mind. If you haven’t read this book, I highly recommend getting it. In this blog, I am going to share one of the basic tools discussed in their book regarding the rethinking the discipline, the why-what-how questions.

The why-what-how questions are designed to help you go from reactive to responsive parenting with the goal of being more thoughtful and intentional in the ways that you intervene. Siegel and Bryson break down the meaning of those questions as follows:

  •  Why did my child act this way? By asking this question you are approaching the situation and your child with curiosity instead of assumptions. While it is often human nature to assume the worst, it is those assumptions that often drive our reactive and unhealthy responses. By asking why, we also take a moment to try and understand what may be behind the behavior and whether or not it is developmentally appropriate. Remember when I said that we, as parents, are human and make mistakes? Well, kids are human too and they too make mistakes, many of which are developmentally appropriate and should be treated accordingly.
  • What lesson do I want to teach in this moment? When we think about the what question, we want to remember that the fundamental goal of discipline is not consequences but rather based on teaching our children life lessons to help shape their mind and help them to be successful. Therefore, think about what life-skills might need to be strengthened in any given problem situation (i.e. self-control, the importance of sharing, taking responsibility for actions, emotion regulation etc.).
  • How can I best teach this lesson? When thinking about how to teach the lesson, consider your child’s age and developmental stage as well as the context of the situation. Don’t assume that the lesson needs to be taught immediately, but rather assess both your and your child’s emotional states and determine whether or not learning can take place right away. Also, keep in mind the benefits of collaborative problem solving. As a therapist, I find that my role is to support my clients in finding their own voice and in developing skills that best suit their needs, wants and abilities. Like the old proverb, give a man a fish and feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime, children need the opportunity to build their own skills. Help explore how they think about the situation and what they think might be helpful in solving their own problems.

So, here is a helpful example of how you might apply the three questions tool.

Situation: As a parent, you are struggling to get your 9 year old child to regularly complete their chores.

  • Why? Maybe the chores are too difficult or are not developmentally appropriate for my child to complete. Maybe my expectations are too great. Maybe my child is tired, hungry, or sick. Maybe my child had a bad day today. Maybe my child is overwhelmed by all of their personal, familial, and academic responsibilities.
  • What? Do I want to teach effective time management, responsibility, emotion regulation?
  • How? Am I in the right frame of mind to teach these lessons? Is my child in the right frame of mind to learn these lessons? Should I soothe or meet some basic need first? How can I help my child come up with her own solutions to her chore struggles?

So, next time you are faced with a challenging situation with your child, think about the three questions, why-what-how, before you respond. And, allow them to guide you to a response that not only addresses the problematic behavior, but also teaches your child some important life-skills as well.



Siegel, D. J., & Bryson, T. P. (2016). No-Drama discipline: The whole-brain way to calm the chaos and nurture your child’s developing mind. New York, NY: Bantam Books.

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