Child smirks as he peers over a couch - Why I stopped Punishing my kids: Replacing Punishment with Connection

Why I Stopped Punishing My Kids: Replacing Punishment with Connection

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By Bridget McNamara

“… 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.

A Child Punching at the camera - Why I stopped punishing my kids
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 http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2016/09/07/why-punishment-wont-stop-a-bully.html)

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.

You can buy this book on Amazon (This is a referral link. See disclosure policy for more info) or you can find an excerpt from the book here: http://www.alfiekohn.org/parenting/punishment.htm


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About the Author

Bridget McNamara

Bridget is a homeschooling mother of three energetic, curious, freethinking children. She has earned her Early Childhood Development Associate Credential, with over a decade of professional experience in the field. Above all, she considers herself a devoted advocate for the rights of children.

Featured Image by Zivile Arunas via Unsplash under CC License.

Comments

  1. That’s just what i needed to read today! One question though – how to deal with when they refuse to help clean up a mess they have made without some kind of punishment?

    1. Hannah, if you’re open to replacing punishment with connection, then you may be open to going the extra step and changing what you expect from your kids and what it is you really want (control? for them to do things the way you do? or to grow into people who cooperate?). See Robin’s post “Model Graciousness” on Visible Child. It really turns around the idea of what behaviors we expect from our kids — and why.

      https://visiblechild.wordpress.com/2015/09/02/model-graciousness/

      1. how do you say no to a child who always wants toys without hurting his feelings?

  2. I would love for you to post the results of your parenting choices when these children, you’re raising, are teenagers and adults…

  3. No Drama Discipline by Siegel is a remarkable resource for parents looking for a new approach – shows how to do this while training and shaping their brain to be a healthy, functioning adult.

  4. Hi, Love the Kohn information and have followed him for quite some time. Also love Conscious Discipline approach by Bailey. Same kinds of thoughts go into it! Another oldie but goody is Non-Violent Communication by Rosenberg. So great to find so many minds thinking alike!

  5. This is a great article! I suggest looking into ABA a little. In ABA the term “punishment” means something different than the traditional definition. It punishment means adding or taking away something from the environment that will make the behavior less likely to happen in the future. People always assume that yelling or scolding is going to make them not throw things or clean their room more. But the reality is that if you want them to clean their room and THEY want attention, NOT cleaning their room is getting them attention. So effectively, “If I don’t clean my room, mom will pay attention to me”. That idea was so MIND blowing the first time I heard it and changed how I treat my kid. Instead, when she throws something, I say “are you trying to get my attention?… Whats a better way?… Lets practice!… AWESOME job getting my attention in a calm way! Now, what did you want?”

  6. I firmly believe there is no “one size fits all” approach to discipline. My sister-in-law used “time out” with my niece when she was younger and now she is a strong, kind, capable, happy 23-year-old woman. For my niece, “time out” worked. With my own children – one positively responded to “time outs” while the other positively responded to “connection”, and they are both doing well as young adults. And although I am NOT a believer of spanking, and I’ve never spanked my own children, I knew an acquaintance who did. While I was wary and uncomfortable with her discipline methods when our children were young, and I’m not saying she was right (but it’s not my place to tell her how to discipline her children) they are all now happy, productive, contributing members of society (age range 18-25). One of my closest friends chose “connection” and her children are currently both in their late 20s. They are entitled, spoiled and can’t understand why mom and dad don’t want to pay for their car or cell phones anymore, while their own salaries go to tattoos, going out with friends and buying the latest video game system and online gaming. So I think we have to choose what we think is best for our particular child, even if the different approaches take place in the same family among siblings. (Again, I’m DO NOT advocate spanking…that is not the point of my post).

  7. In this era of information, I am really enjoying the new knowledge that there are better ways to parent.
    I had tried before because it does not feel right to punish, but hadn’t been successful. I heard my 4-yo telling my 2- yo, “If you don’t… I won’t…” and made me think they follow what I model.
    It is great to go to bed at night and have no regrets and feel connected to my children.
    Thank you for sharing.

  8. As a mom, my number one goal is connection with my children, but consequences are a fact of life I need to instill in my children. There’s the law of sowing and reaping that applies to everyone in life and if my children don’t understand that they are responsible for the decisions they make, they will be unsuccessful in all areas of life. In other words, if I don’t allow them to experience natural consequences, that means I’m rescuing them and they will expect me to continue rescuing them. As adults, there are rough consequences for not showing up to work, hurting someone, not taking care of my belongings, and disrespecting the people around me. While we shouldn’t inflict overly harsh consequences on our children, we should be teaching them how life works or when they get older, they will be in for quite a shock.

    In all that we do, we should always remain empathetic. We as parents are able to do this when the consequence is tied to the child’s actions, not our mood. If we react out of anger, annoyance, or stress, there’s no way we can show empathy. But when we can calmly allow the burden of a child’s decision to land on him or her (while, of course, offering help when necessary), it’s much easier to love and show empathy while not rescuing them from the consequences of their decision.

    I think we get the most frustrated as parents when we continue to take the brunt of our children’s actions–if we’re constantly cleaning our son’s bedroom, if we’re making an extra trip to school several days a week because our daughter forgot her lunch again, if our kids don’t take good care of their toys and clothes are we’re constantly buying them new stuff, etc. Kids learn that there are no consequences in life and someone will always be there to rescue them. And, worst of all, they take these people for granted and are never truly grateful.

  9. Bravo, Dani! I couldn’t have said it better myself. “As adults, there are rough consequences for not showing up to work, hurting someone, not taking care of my belongings, and disrespecting the people around me” and “But when we can calmly allow the burden of a child’s decision to land on him or her (while, of course, offering help when necessary), it’s much easier to love and show empathy while not rescuing them from the consequences of their decision.” Absolutely. Consequences and revenge are two completely different concepts.

  10. Please, you are taking this too far. Life is replete with consequences and children need to learn this. Misbehavior is not always a cry for connection. However reflecting underlying feelings and teaching skills to mange feelings and behavior can be done empathetically while still holding children accountable for misbehavior.

  11. It’s really sad to see how many negative comments you’ve received for this piece. As a blogger, I know how that feels. As a mom: I 100% agree with what you’ve said here, and I think you are brave and wonderful for saying it!!!

  12. My parents spanked me, disciplined me and at 63 I have outside of a couple of speeding tickets, never been in trouble with the law. I have a good job which I know it is my responsibility to do the right things for the outcomes I desire. I have all of my children got spankings at one time or another. Did they make mistakes in their teens and faced consequences yes, are they productive adults with high expectations of the people around them, yes. Did I punish them and later discussed why the punishment, yes. This worked for us. It isn’t just about the immediate but the long term effect.

  13. This is a brilliant, research-based post, one overwhelmingly supported by developmental psychology. Thank you so much for sharing it!!
    Any negative response to this piece is coming from adults who either need to refute it out of a need to justify their own behaviour or who do not yet have the necessary skillset to change the way they respond to challenging behaviour. Whenever I hear people say “I was spanked as a child and turned out just fine!” my response is always “No you obviously did not because you’ve grown up to be an adult who advocates hitting children. There is nothing ‘fine’ about that!”

    1. Kristena, that’s a perfect example of the dishonesty behind this movement. First off, there is literally no research in this post. This is nothing more than a book report with some anecdotes. The only reference was to an unresearched article on something different than she was using it for. Then you purposely use hedge words to make a statement that can be anything from close to completely inaccurate. You question others, but your willlingness to mislead speaks volumes.

  14. This article kind of rubbed me the wrong way. Here are some thoughts.

    “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.”

    No, they weren’t stopping. Children misbehave. They are learning the limits of what other people will tolerate and sometimes it takes a long time. The point of time outs and losing privileges is to illustrate the natural consequences of actions. If you “act out of sorts” (i.e., treat people badly), they don’t want to be around you. If the child feels sad and lonely, then good. They need to learn how to deal with sadness and loneliness, especially when it is a result of their own actions. That’s what growing up is all about: learning to A) regulate your own behaviour and B) deal with the impact of other people’s behaviour. Children need to be resilient, not fragile.

    “That’s do what I say, or lose.”

    Welcome to the world of work. Welcome to the world of household chores. Welcome to real life. Coddling them when they are young is counterproductive. They don’t ever learn that sometimes you just have to shut up and do stuff. If you get pulled over for speeding, you had best provide the officer with information when she asks for it or you will most definitely lose. Again, let’s not teach kids to be fragile.

    “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.”

    This bit I totally agree with. If you are interacting with them, then do them the courtesy of giving them your full attention. Ignoring them all day is definitely going to provoke all kinds of unpleasant reactions. Being aware of your own interactions with kids is very important, and I wish the article had focused more on this than preaching about what kinds of disciplinary actions are morally permissible.

    Granted, kids are all unique to a certain extent and respond differently to different reactions, but as a general rule, never forcing children to deal with disappointment, never letting the natural consequences of social interactions happen, never letting them be in situations where they actually have to work through and deal with the anger they feel, is not helping them develop into autonomous adults. It makes them fragile.

    16 years of teaching has taught me that if kids know on a deep level that you care about them, they don’t get bent out of shape over a lot of what the author calls “punishment.” Most of them recognize that they were out of line and that being sent out of the room to calm down or being told that they had to finish their work before joining the class party was entirely appropriate. The empathy part *always* came after the consequences, but it never removed the consequences. Funnily enough, this proved to be very effective. Relationships are the key.

    1. Amen Dani and Matthew. It always amazes how many people have no understanding on consequences. Children rely on their parents to educate them, but in this case, it looks like Mom falls for their flawed reasoning and loses the opportunity to teach. Her six year old daughter had it right on. The reason we teach dogs that way is because they learn that way. The correct answer to her daughter should have been “yes, that’s correct. The dog needs to learn as well.” And to her 5 year old the answer is that it’s not his job to punish his sibling, and that he isn’t old enough to teach lessons yet. It’s not that hard, it just requires reasoning skills beyond that of your child.
      When a child plays in the street, the oncoming car is really not interested in what need is being unmet. The 100 small children killed by electrocution from sticking something into a power outlet didn’t get their unmet needs addressed either. Often, the unmet need is for the parent to teach them correctly.
      The Illusion of Choice discussion was over the top. It’s always about choice. More often than not, our poor choice will result in losing most choices altogether.

  15. I think that the way we deal with our own decisions is to make them right.
    Ultimately we know that violence or threat of violence is a short term fix with a long term impact of emotional or mental health issues. I think we adults need to get that a child’s brain is not functioning in the way our brains are. And that likely we are not functioning optimally due to our ‘super nanny’ ideas. I always reflect on my actions and see if they improved or worsened the situation. If I screwed up I apologise to my children. Then at least they know we are all doing our best and we sometimes get it wrong.

  16. Hmmm..When I saw the article headline..I thought it was annoying. But..I do agree with the concept in theory. I have a 20 and 22 year old. After my kids went to college I ran a high end children’s clothing boutique in Santa Monica, CA. I feel like I could have ran a psychological study. I am sure I witnessed some of this parenting style. Yes..these Mom’s actually had a parenting coach. The best part.. was learning that the “coach” was not a Mother herself. Sometimes this style works, and sometimes it does not. It all depends on the child’s temperament and the personality of the parent. It’s not fun to watch when this technique goes awry. I saw many cringe-worthy episodes. 100% of the time I could see it was the parent’s fault. The best bet is to pull the kid out of a situation and talk to them..I agree. It took everything I had not to be that Mother who offered advice..but wow. I was a stay at home Mom, and I used time outs, punishments and yes ..omg..sometimes screaming after losing it. My young adults are kind, compassionate and well-mannered and on track to be self sufficient adults in caring relationships.

  17. This is awesome. Thankful for writing and posting this article.

    Our culture makes no sense to me.

    A small child melting down emotionally is considered unacceptable, but a parent physically harming a small child (who is not mentally capable of self control) for a loss of self control is acceptable? Seriously?

    I guess in Chinese culture, babies and toddlers are- well- babied and pampered. And when they get old enough to think and act rationally, they are obedient without ever havimg been beaten or repremanded.

    These terrible ideas are specific to us. Entire civilizations get along just fine without them.

  18. Hi! I’m the author of this article. I appreciate all the feedback both positive and negative. I don’t claim to know it all but this is what works for my family. My children are wonderful, resilient, thoughtful humans with an innate sense of right and wrong. I’m really proud of them and I love our life. I wouldn’t change a thing. Best to all! Thanks for reading.

  19. I totally agree with several other comments suppprting the idea that you can have both…consequences appropriate to the misbehavior, AND connection time to find out your child’s feelings and time to learn and grow. Lots of great points in the article, but life without cause and effect, both positive and negative outcomes based on behavior, is not real life.

  20. I agree that connecti g is important, but its also important to teach your child that there are consequences to their actions. Its not always fun, its not always rainbows and butterflies. Crying wont get you what yoj want, and hurti g someone else can come with serious consequences. Life can be painful sometimes. We all get hurt. That is something better learned early so they can also learn to be happy regardless. Raising a child isnt about keeping them happy, its to teach them, and yes, connecting is a very big part of it, but so is discipline, and knowing society and the world wont just hand yoj everythi g if you bat your eyelashes and cry. Consequences of an action are very important, and disappointingly many children now adays have no idea what that even means.

  21. Hey all,
    I just wanted to weigh in with my thoughts on this.
    I was spanked, given time outs, and grounded.
    But you know what’s funny?
    As much as I did not perhaps enjoy it in the moment, I actually look back on it with fond memories. Because, my parents always went straight to the heart.
    “I’m doing this because I love you, and so I need you to understand……”
    “I love you, and I don’t want you to act like this, because I want everyone else to enjoy you as much as I do…..”
    “I love you, and it hurts me when you treat your brother like that……”
    “I love you. But when you are ungrateful, people don’t want to do things for you anymore…..”
    So on and so forth.
    Punishments ALWAYS ended with hugs and wonderful discussion. I NEVER felt that I was being treated as a dog in any way.
    And just for clarification; I don’t remember spankings ever hurting. I just felt ashamed of myself for persisting in my behavior in spite of knowing it needed to stop and getting myself to this point.
    As a frequent babysitter, I have seen parents who don’t discipline their children, and honestly, I don’t like watching their kids one bit. They are rude, uncaring, and expect me to clean up their messes and babysit their every passing emotion. Nothing I do is good enough for them. And you know why I can’t do a single thing about it? Why I have to put up with their behavior? I can’t discipline,
    Not how I want my children to be.
    And like one commenter was saying, childhood is the training ground for life. Teaching your children that their actions don’t have consequences them will mess them up in the long run. And you know what their boss will say someday? “I don’t care that you’re feeling (such and such emotion)”!
    However, I will say this—know your child’s personality. If your child’s love language comes through words, then be careful what you say. With this child, it is often true that a small reprimand is all that’s needed, because each word goes straight to the heart. So be careful not to wound with words. But you may have another child with a tougher shell, and in that case, more may be required.
    Sorry this is getting so long, I still have so much to say! But I will stop here.
    No disrespect meant to anyone.
    —a 17 year old who LOVED her childhood

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