Peaceful Toddler Discipline: You say it Best…When You Say Nothing at All

When Paul Overstreet and Don Schlitz wrote “You Say it Best When You say Nothing at All”, I’m sure they never thought it would be as big a hit as it turned out to be (can’t you feel yourself swaying to the crooning tune right now?) … and they sure as heck didn’t think that it would end up as an analogy for a peaceful parenting technique. But it is so true. Sometimes, as parents, we can make the biggest impact on a child’s moral formation by staying silent. Traditional discipline would have us scold consistently for misbehavior, but this type of technique only leads to feelings of shame and failure, and if it is accompanied with a swat on the behind or a forceful removal from the situation, it can cause physical and psychiatric harm, too.

The other day, my friend’s 4 year old was playing with his 3 year old sister and my 2 year old in their carport. His mom and I were chatting away about our husbands’ work life, when suddenly, the little boy came up to us and threw a dustpan full of leaves and dirt straight in his mom’s face, covering her chest and filling her cowl neck and eyes and mouth with leaf dust. Her eyes threw a hurt look his way, but she said nothing. I could tell she was upset, but she didn’t do anything to punish her child. I think she was actually in a bit of a shock. She shook the dirt and leaves off as best she could, and asked me . . . “well, what would you do about that?” – She is always curious about my peaceful discipline techniques because, though we have agreed to disagree about the way we discipline our kids, she tries to understand my methods since our children play often together.

I told her that I wasn’t sure exactly what I would do, or what gentle parenting philosophy would have me do… but that I was pretty sure she did an effective thing by letting her son know that she was not happy about the “leaf attack” without scolding with words.

“I would think that the main idea to convey to him is that actions like throwing things in people’s faces is inappropriate and hurtful – and you already did that clearly with your expression. He’s not even 5. . . he hasn’t formed in his mind what right and wrong are yet, so to punish him for doing what he saw as play would be useless and hurtful. Maybe you can talk to him later about what the dust pan is and isn’t used for. But he didn’t mean to hurt you.” My friend seemed satisfied with my answer. . . but if she reads this post, I hope she’s more satisfied now that I’ve typed it out and followed up with a bit of research.

Jan Hunt writes in her article “22 Alternatives to Punishment” on the Natural Child Project webpage that one of the most important things to remember is to “give your child time, and give yourself time.” In my friend’s situation with her four-year-old’s random leaf blitz, that’s just what she did by staying silent and not yelling or reacting with punishment. Many other parents would have grabbed the child in anger, spanked him for disrespect, and scolded him for being bad. Traditional discipline would have us at least do something immediately, because if we wait a while to scold, the child will have forgotten what he is being scolded for. But the healthiest option for both parent and child is to take time, even if is only a few seconds, to stay silent, calm down and think of how to approach the situation appropriately.

Peaceful Toddler Discipline Technique #6
You Say it Best When You Say Nothing at All

Don’t feel like you need to react immediately when your child does something inappropriate or challenging. Unless there is imminent danger, take a few seconds to stay silent and approach the situation appropriately. Your children learn from the way that you conduct yourself under stress. Give them a good model, and lessen your stress level along the way.

This afternoon, Abbey (2), refused to take a nap. Again, as usual, she requested to nurse, but popped straight up after a few seconds and ran off to find daddy. As she was already totally nap-less and exhausted after dinner, it was a challenge getting her to focus to go upstairs for bath time. Around and around and around she ran, in circles through the living room to the kitchen through the dining room and playroom, to the living room again- ignoring my direction to go up the stairs to daddy, awaiting her arrival with a bath full of bubbles. It’s possible that she didn’t even hear me. She was totally immersed in her marathon around the house. I could have grabbed her, spanked her, and carried her up the stairs to her bath. . . I was frustrated enough, and tired enough myself that if I didn’t know better, I might have. But instead, I kept silent, and motioned to my husband just to wait a minute while I got her situated to come up stairs.

I cornered her coming into the kitchen and hugged her. I told her that I could tell she was having fun running, but that it was time for her bath. She struggled to get out of my embrace, and I released her, but held her hand and walked her to the stairs. Despite her initial “No!”s, I was able to get her to ascend to her bathroom by giving her the choice of doing it herself or accepting help from me. “Baby do!” she asserted, as she started up the stairs. A “thank you” from me and a little coaching from daddy, and she was into the bathtub, happy as a lark.

Was it appropriate for her to run around playing keep away with me before bath time? No. But was I able to solve the situation in a timely manner without shame and punishment? YES! By taking a minute to say nothing to her instead of yelling or scolding, I created a peaceful environment in which to guide her to her bath, and in the appropriate method of getting there (going up the stairs on her own, without a fight). If I had yelled at her to stop running or to “come here this instant!” it would have been a virulent and stressful conflict for Abbey, who would have ended up being dragged or carried up the stairs, kicking and screaming, and feeling shamed and let down by my actions. Instead, it was a learning moment. Bath time follows dinner time, and it’s not appropriate to run around avoiding mommy. She also learned more about how to go up the stairs on her own, to follow directions, and had a positive and empowering experience by being allowed to make the decision whether she wanted help up the stairs or not.

Remember, even if you don’t consider yourself a “convert” to the peaceful parenting mindset. . . compassion, empathy, and calm direction work much better than shaming, punishment, and a demand for “good” behavior. When your parenting skills are called into action, take a second to be silent and choose the best reaction. Saying nothing won’t hurt. In fact, “You Say it Best When You Say Nothing at All.”

The links in the text above go to specific articles from The Natural Child Project, a great resource for learning about the gentle parenting philosophy, and a wonderful guide for parents to understanding how to insert respect and empathy into their parenting.


  1. […] said, instead of instantly responding without considering the reaction. I have written about using minimal reactions before, when my little girl was a toddler, but doing nothing when possible really is a useful […]

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