The Democratic Approach

Effective limit setting requires a balance between firmness and respect. The punitive approach is firm but not respectful. The permissive approach is respectful but not firm.

These approaches are based on win lose methods of problem solving, on faulty beliefs about learning and they fail to accomplish basic training goals.

They don’t stop misbehaviour.

They don’t teach children the skills they need to solve problems on their own.

They don’t teach the lessons we intend about responsibility, communication or respectful problem solving.

These approaches invite testing and rebellion and are poorly attached to temperaments and learning styles of strong willed children.


Is there a better alternative? Fortunately, there is. The democratic approach is a win-win method of problem solving that combines firmness with respect and accomplishes all of our basic training goals. It stops misbehaviour. It teaches responsibility and it conveys in the clearest way the lessons we want to teach about responsibility, problem solving and respectful communication. The approach gets the jobs done in less time, with less energy and without injured feelings, damaging relationships or provoking power struggles in the process.

Please don’t be confused by the term “democratic”. I am not suggesting decision making by consensus or problem solving by compromise, nor that you abdicate your parental authority. The term “democratic” is used to illustrate how boundaries are established.


The punitive approach provides limits without much freedom or choice. The permissive approach provides freedom and choice without clearly defined limits. The democratic approach is simply the balance between the two extremes. It’s not too broad and it’s not too restrictive. It provides children with freedom and choice within clearly defined boundaries.

The democratic approach is a healthy, balanced blueprint for guidance and development. It provides opportunities for healthy testing and exploration but within clearly defined boundaries to guide their choices and learning.

The democratic approach succeeds where others fail because its clear. Children hear our words and experience the action that supports them without all the anger, drama, strong emotion and power struggles that interfere with good communication and learning. The message is clear and so is the rule behind it.


The underlying belief is that children learn best when encouraged and allowed to experience the consequences of their own choices and behaviour. Children are encouraged to make choices, experience the outcomes of their own choices and learn from their experiences.

The teaching and learning process is cooperative, not adversarial. Parents don’t act like broken records trying to wear kids down with words and they don’t act like police detectives, judges, referees or probation officers trying to force or coerce kids into cooperation. Instead parents take a teaching role and guide a natural learning process.

They give clear messages with their words, encourage cooperation, teach skills and follow through with instructive consequences that are logically related to the behaviour.

Let us return to our now familiar sibling conflict and see how this problem is handled from the democratic approach.

Mom: (In a matter of fact voice) Guys stop the yelling and arguing. I am sure we can find a way to share the couch without fighting, but do you guys need a little time to cool off before we talk?

Brother: I can talk.

Sister: I’m ready too.

Mom: What’s another way to handle this problem without yelling and fighting about it?

Brother: I don’t know but I was sitting on my side and she kicked me.

Sister: No, he put his feet on my side. When I tried to make him move, he kicked me.

Mom: We can set the timer and each of you can have the couch for 15 mins or you can share the couch and keep your feet on your own side. What would you like to do?

Brother: I’ll share.

Sister: So will I.

Mom: Good choice. I knew you guys could work it out, but if there is any more fighting over the couch you will both have to sit on the floor.

Unlike the other examples, this parent succeeds at stopping her children’s misbehaviour and teaching the lessons she intends. She accomplishes all this without conflicts and power struggles.

Let’s examine a diagram of the interaction.

Parent Behaviour Child Behaviour
Siblings Quarrel
Communicates a firm limit
Expresses confidence in the children’s problem solving abilities
Offers a “cooling down” period
Squabbling stops with control restored
Explores behavioural choices
Blame and accuse each other
Gives limited choices
Children choose cooperation and sharing
Acknowledges cooperation and explains logical consequences

Effective Guidance

Notice how short the diagram is. Effective guidance takes less time and energy and yields better results. This parent is working a plan. She knows what she is going to do and she is prepared for whatever she might encounter. No time is wasted on ineffective lobbying or detective work.

Her first step is to give a clear message about the behaviour she wants to stop. In a matter of fact voice she asks them to stop yelling and fighting. Then she gets right to work creating a climate for cooperating by expressing confidence in their ability to work things out. Her words are encouraging. Her message is clear and direct. In two brief sentences she creates a climate of cooperation and respect.

This parent understands that successful problem solving rarely occurs in an atmosphere of anger and upset so she provides her children with the skills they need to manage their angry feelings. She asks if they need a cool down period before talking.

The cool down period, in this instance, is presented as a choice and the exercise of that choice teaches children to be responsible for managing their angry feelings. If the frustration level had been greater the cool down would have been presented as mandatory rather than optional.

When the parent is sure emotional control has been restored, she checks in with her children to determine whether they have the skills to resolve the problem on their own. Their responses indicate they don’t so she presents several solutions in the form of a choice. By choosing the solution themselves the children learn responsibility for their own problem solving.

The guidance lesson ends the way it began-in an atmosphere of cooperation and mutual respectful communication and taught the skills her children needed to solve problems on their own. No arguments or power struggles. No one was blamed or singled out. She was so effective that consequences were not even needed but she was equally prepared to make the kids sit apart on the floor had they decided to continue fighting over the couch. Either way they would have learned the rule she intended to teach.

The Democratic Approach

Parents Beliefs

  • Children are capable of solving problems on their own
  • Children should be given choices and allowed to learn from their choices.
  • Encouragement is an effective way to motivate cooperation

Power and Control

  • Children are given only as much power and control as they can handle responsibly

Problem Solving Process

  • Cooperative, win-win, based on mutual respect as children are active participants in the problem solving process.

What Children Learn

  • Responsibility, cooperation, independence, respect for rules, authority and self-control.

How Children Respond

  • More cooperation, less limit testing, resolve problems on their own. Regard parents words seriously