Why I Stopped Punishing My Kids

“… To punish kids, very simply, is to make something unpleasant happen to them — or prevent them from experiencing something pleasant – usually with the goal of changing their future behavior. The punisher makes them suffer, in other words, to teach them a lesson” Alfi Kohn

Definition of revenge: To inflict punishment in return for (injury or insult)

So punishment and revenge… are the same thing?

When this idea was first presented to me, I was floored. I had to take a long hard look at the way I was teaching my children. Time outs, losing privileges, having to leave the park, were all my ways of being a gentle parent because I wasn’t spanking them or screaming at them (very often). But I was still inflicting harm. They felt sad and hurt by my consequences which actually led me to believe I was getting through to them although, truthfully, the misbehaviors weren’t stopping.

The illusion of choice.

At the same time I was ruminating over this whole idea of punishments being harmful at worst and ineffective at best, my then six year old daughter said to me, “Grown-ups get their kids to do what they want the same way people train dogs. The treats are just different.” It hit me like a ton of bricks—my six year old was hip to my jive. She understood that the consequences were just a form of manipulation and control that, more often than not, was meant to give the child the illusion of choice. “You can either get into the car right now or you won’t have a cookie when we get home.”

That’s not a choice at all. That’s do what I say, or lose. Either way, you do what I want you to do.

Then I got the biggest gut punch of all. My youngest was two years old and he knocked over his five year old brother’s block tower. My five year old yelled at his two year old brother, picked him up and carried him into another room, causing him to cry. I came over and scolded my five year old. I said, “He’s so much littler than you and you scared him by yelling at him and putting him in there all alone!”

He responded, “But I’m so much littler than you and you scare me when you put me in a room all alone.”

I quit cold turkey. I started by apologizing to my kids and told them I wasn’t going to punish them anymore—that we were going to work through everything together. No more timeouts and no more losing things that belong to you as punishment. If it sounds too radical, think about how many times you have put your child in time out and ask yourself, “Is this effective?” And what is the lesson? If you act out of sorts, you need to be isolated. You are unlovable and unwanted.

It is always interesting to me how the parents that are shocked we don’t use punishments are the same parents that seem to struggle with unending battles with their children. Timeout after timeout and still the behavior continues. I am not claiming, by any stretch, that empathy and calm discussions will stop undesirable behaviors in their tracks. However, neither do the punitive methods. At the root of punishment is the underlying and glaring message of you hurt me, I hurt you.

The difference between responding with punishment and responding with connection is that with the latter, you stay connected. You foster a deep and unconditional love that will carry into a lifelong relationship with your child. You say to your child every day, in the way you respond to their behavior, I love you no matter what. You always have a voice. You are safe.

My new mantra became:

Every undesirable behavior is a cry for an unmet need.

Every undesirable behavior is a cry for an unmet need.

Every undesirable behavior is a cry for an unmet need.

Almost every single time, that unmet need is connection.

When you really get into the nitty gritty of it, what we’re actually doing when we send our kids to their room and into timeouts, or away from the dinner table, is withholding affection and connection. In order for that to truly modify the behavior, they must crave that connection enough to do whatever it takes to have it back. They have to be deprived of it. It’s a bit heartbreaking when you think of it that way.

On the days when my kids are fighting and crying the most, I can almost always look in the mirror and realize I haven’t stopped and sat down and looked them in the face while they talk to me. I haven’t put my arm around them and sniffed their heads while they tell me their dream from the night before in every detail from start to finish. All day I’ve been saying, “Just a minute” or only half listening to what they’re saying while I’m checking Facebook, answering emails, or loading the dishwasher without even looking at them.

In those most difficult, blood-pressure raising, infuriating moments when I want to yell and send them to their rooms, showing empathy is the most difficult thing to do. I know in my heart I can make it all go away if I just walk across the room and wrap my arms around them and say, “I’m sorry you are having a hard time right now.”

You have to try it. It really, really works.

If they did something after you asked them not to, it’s because they lack impulse control. If they jump on the couch, they need to get outside and run. If they spread mashed potato all over the wall, they need sensory play. If they throw a tantrum, they most likely need a snack or a nap or they are overstimulated. If they’re hitting, they need practice with conflict resolution which they will not get sitting in the corner. If you have no idea what they need, a hug is almost always the right answer. If they won’t leave the park, they need a race to the car or 3 more times down the slide or, heck, a trip to the ice cream shop on the way home.

Before you say I’m rewarding them for their bad behavior, I counter that with the awareness that bad behavior is a symptom of an underlying issue. It is because they literally, developmentally do not have control of their emotions or healthy coping skills to deal with big feelings. Shoot, I’m forty one years old and I’m still learning healthy coping skills when I’m dealing with big emotions. I hope so much better for my kids, that they won’t still be struggling at my age.

These are all developmentally appropriate behaviors of a child whose brain functions are not fully developed. These are all opportunities for the adults to model good coping skills like communication, empathy, kindness, connection. Show them; this is how it’s done. This is how we take care of each other. This is real life.

The trouble with punishment is that it speaks to the selfish nature of humans. If I am stopping myself from a behavior just to avoid getting in trouble, this is a self-serving action. There is no intrinsic motivation to be a good person and do the right thing. If a child stops a tantrum by threat of losing their iPad, this doesn’t teach the child healthy ways to express themselves. There is no motivation for the child to think of how their behavior affects others. When we muddle a child’s brain with fear of punishment and feelings of shame, we take away from them the opportunity to truly understand how their actions impact others. Punishment makes children feel angry, ashamed, and out of control. They aren’t thinking about how the other person feels, I promise you that. Punishment hurts. What do hurt people do? They hurt people.

Studies show that punishment actually increases aggression in children:

“Decades’ worth of research shows that punishment—even when it doesn’t include physical force—promotes aggression. But studies conducted in the United States and in Sweden revealed another layer to that reality: Bullies in particular are more likely to have been raised by authoritarian parents who rely on punishment.”

(Alfie Kohn: September 7, 2016, Bullying the Bully: Why Punishment Doesn’t Work 

The alternative?

We should be sitting with our child and quietly connecting, teaching, and empathizing. Help them to put words onto their feelings and the feelings of the people around them. When your child takes a toy from a friend or sibling, “I know you want that toy. It is hard to wait when something looks so fun! Right now we have to find something different to play with.” Remember that it’s perfectly normal child development for a young child to see something and assume that because they want it, they should have it. “Look at Zoe’s face. She is sad that you took her toy.”

How about for an older child?

Can we follow these same guidelines? Let’s say your child is caught watching something on YouTube that you do not approve of. The first instinct is to ban YouTube and lock away every electronic in the house. The harsh truth is that the most likely result of this type of reaction is that your child figures out how to watch YouTube behind closed doors and erase their internet history. I can tell you from my real life experience as an adolescent that my feelings from being punished ranged from complete shame to rampant lying to avoid the reaction that brought me that shame.

So what if you don’t ban YouTube? What if instead, you watched the content with your child and explained why it’s problematic? What if you approached it from a place of love and said, “As your mom/dad, it is my job to keep you safe and protect you from things that you might not be ready for.” Ask them questions about what it is they like about the channel they are viewing and how they personally feel about the points you find offensive. I would be willing to bet that if it’s content you don’t approve of, there are probably things happening that your child doesn’t fully understand and wish they could ask you about without having the ax fall. You can set limits without shaming them. You can assure them that they won’t have their privileges ripped away from them if they ask you what “douchebag” means. In this way, you are keeping them safer than you could when they start hiding things from you.

Speaking of hiding things from you, what if you catch your child lying to you? Isn’t a lie most often a way to avoid punishment? If you remove the threat of punishment, you also remove the need to lie.

For clarification, it’s important to have very clear expectations and set limits to protect everyone in the house. It’s okay to tell your child you are angry and hurt by what they’ve said or done. We have rules. We don’t hurt each other, not physically or emotionally. We ask before using something that doesn’t belong to us. We clean up our own messes. One of the most important rules of all; no revenge. “You hurt me so I hurt you” doesn’t fly around here and my 6 year old will tell you that—adults and children alike. We are firm on these rules. We all screw up and break these rules sometimes. We cry. We stomp. We yell. We forgive. That’s real life.

If you would like more information on how to parent without punishments, I highly recommend the book, Unconditional Parenting, by Alfi Kohn. Reading this book changed my life and my relationship with my children.

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