The Art of Gentle Discipline with Sarah Ockwell-Smith 

If you’re on the journey to embracing a gentler way of parenting your little ones, Sarah Ockwell-Smith is a woman who will deeply inspire you (like she does us). 

Author of The Gentle Discipline Book: How to Raise Co-operative, Polite and Helpful Children, Sarah is a mother, child psychology and development researcher, hypnotherapist, trained doula, and teacher of wisdom that always seems to leave us speechless. 

She fearlessly advocates for a gentler, more intuitive approach to parenting our children and being compassionate with ourselves in the process. 

We recently had the opportunity to chat with Sarah about her book and learn about some practical guidance for shifting our connection skills based on leading cognitive science and attachment theories. 

Sarah has authored 11 books translated into over 30 languages including The Gentle Sleep book, which has sold thousands of copies in the UK alone. She consistently presents new, enlightened ways of helping children grow and shares compelling alternatives to the mainstream methods of parenting so our children can thrive. 

She makes raising confident, capable children feel so much easier, and we just love that about her. 

Listen to Abi’s Conversation with Sara Ockwell-Smith:

Here are a few of Sarah’s wonderful insights from our time together. 

Could you describe a little bit about what gentle discipline is in general? 

Time and time again, I come across people who think that anything gentle means letting kids rule the roost with the parents having no boundaries, no discipline, no limits, kids in charge. Gentle Discipline is none of that. It’s not permissive. It’s not negligent, but it’s also not harsh. 

It’s about teaching our children how to be safe, how to keep others safe, how to understand the rules of society, and how to learn it better so they can be happy members of society. 

For me, the best way to teach a child is through the “authoritative” style rather than authoritarian or permissive. In order to teach them best, it’s all about the relationship that you have with them. It’s all about earning respect so that there’s mutual respect, rather than commanding it through fear.

There are boundaries, limits, definitely not letting kids get away with anything and everything, but it’s more of a balance of a dance of control. Sometimes the child’s in control, sometimes the parent’s in control, and parents very much learn from their children, so there’s humility there as well. 

Ultimately, it’s about empathy, connection, and most importantly having realistic expectations of what a child is capable of. It’s about asking yourself, how does my child learn best? They learn best when they’re well connected and respected by their teachers.

To sum it up, it’s how we ourselves would like to be treated. 

What makes discipline effective? 

What I always tell parents is to think about your favorite teacher. Why were they your favorite? Why did you love them so much? What was it about them that inspired you? 

The words that always come up: they had a good sense of humor, they were a good listener, they respected me, and if they got things wrong, they would admit it. Essentially, everything that makes a teacher effective. 

Take everything else out of the equation, and you’ll see it’s us. Who we mirror, who we model. If we want to raise calm, kind, and considerate children, there’s nothing better than if we ourselves are calm, kind, and considerate. 

Can you help describe some of the mainstream techniques that aren’t quite as helpful for children that are a bit more pervasive? 

I’d say that they’re: 

  • Time out - Sending a child away because of bad behavior.
  • Naughty spot - Sending them to a certain spot or place where they must see you but are not able to connect with you.
  • Taking something away - These are the consequences: taking your toy away, canceling your birthday, telling Santa you’ve been bad, just using threats to try to inform behavior. 
  • Praising and rewarding - Every time they do something good, praise them, and then when they do something bad, ignore them. Awards, gold stars, etc. 
  • Exclusion/Isolation (in school) - Detention, lunch alone, or a place where a child is sent for a couple of hours where a child will not be allowed to mix with their peers. 

Unfortunately, the motivating and demotivating becomes like a Band-Aid on a wound rather than a healing salve. They cannot ever resolve the problem. All this does is punish a child for having a problem without helping them to solve it. When they’re “good” and you resolve it, you’re basically teaching them that you like them better when they don’t have any problems. It can be really damaging as they get older. 

For me, this is what discipline is about. It’s about modeling for our children, helping them, being the best investigators, and thinking, why is this happening? What are they feeling and how can I help them through this? 

What can most parents do if they are struggling with their child’s behavior? 

On one of my book covers, there’s a picture of a tree. 

The trunk is you. It’s about you making space for your child, your groundedness. Then you have one branch that’s short-term discipline. And one branch that’s long-term discipline. The biggest mistake many parents make is that they think about the short term, but they aren’t thinking about the long term and the expectations that go along with that.

Make sure you have realistic expectations. You really need to understand what your child’s brain is capable of at any specific age. You cannot force a toddler to act like a 10-year-old and you cannot keep babies from crying at night. It’s an acceptance of what’s age-appropriate for both the short and long term. 

How can we respond better? 

Picture yourself at that age with a similar behavior. How did you want your parents to respond? Just to give you a hug or listen or to understand, right? I like to call it Mind-Minded Parenting. 

Just put yourself in their shoes, and do what you would have wanted someone to do for you. 

Here’s a really helpful 20-second framework called PETER: 

  • P - Pause. If you feel you’re going to lose it, just take a breath. Hold your reaction for a moment.
  • E - Empathize. What do they need, how are they feeling? 
  • T - Think. What do you ultimately want to achieve? 
  • E - Exhale. Be sure to breathe.
  • R - Respond. Just respond with a mindful, intentional response. 

When we yell or lose our patience…what can we do? 

Get most of the parental guilt out of the way! 

We all lose it, and comparison is really dangerous. We all have unique flaws, and we don’t need to compare them to the glossy facade of what everyone else is doing. Start by knowing you’re not alone, and that it’s about self-kindness. It’s about realizing I slipped up there. I’m human. I had a bad day. I also realize that messing up is one of the most valuable things you can do as a parent. 

If you never mess up, your children will never learn how to make things right themselves. Simply and genuinely apologize when this happens. The best way we can teach our children is by being human ourselves. If it keeps happening, you may want to take a break, have better boundaries, stop people-pleasing, dig into your past. Go easy on yourself.

If you lower yourself to a place where you apologize to your children, they feel valued and worthy of an apology and will model these same behaviors as they get older.

For more of Sarah’s knowledge and expertise, please visit her at

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