The Newbie's Guide to Positive Parenting - Part 3: Punishments vs. Limit Enforcement

Tuesday, October 4, 2011 5 comments

We had an interesting discussion on PPTB today under a post about non-punitive discipline, and I'm hoping to clear up some of the confusion about enforcing limits versus doling out punishments or made-up consequences.

Let me preface this with a note about connection. I've said multiple times that a strong connection between parent and child is the most important factor in positive non-punitive parenting. Let me be clear, though. Having a strong connection does not mean that your child will never push limits, never do anything wrong, never defy you, and always be perfect. That is a perfection no one will ever achieve no matter what parenting style they use. Kids are people too. They have bad days. They get grouchy. They are influenced by television, friends, grandparents, etc. They have their own minds and their own wills, and so, as in any relationship, conflict will occasionally arise. What the strong connection does mean is that your influence is ultimately greater than the influence of others and that your child is much more likely to heed your advice and cooperate with you. It also makes repairing rifts easier, and of course, the biggest perk is that, well, you are connected. If you try to use your connection as another means of control, you've done gone and missed the point. You want to be connected for the sake of a good relationship, and the bonus of that connection is your greater influence on your child.

Limits are imperative. Do set them and enforce them. I realize that the lines between enforcing limits and giving consequences or punishments get blurry. If you look at anything hard enough, it can be viewed as a consequence. It is easy to over-think it and get caught up in the semantics. The key is your intent. Positive non-punitive parenting does not mean that our kids will never experience consequences for their actions. Actions have consequences; that is just life, and it's an important lesson to learn. Just because we don't punish doesn't mean we don't parent. The "entitled brats" some speak of come from homes that are permissive, where limits are not set on behavior and where parents are not teachers. Dr. Becky Bailey, in her book Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline, sums it up better than I can.
The Power of Intention reminds us to use moments of conflict as opportunities to teach, not punish. If you deliver consequences with the aim of making your child feel guilty, you will focus the child on his inadequacy. Two things are then likely: 1) your child may chastise himself and feel bad about himself, or 2) he may blame others for being mean in order to defend himself against feeling bad. Neither of these states will inspire him to reflect. To govern himself, a child needs to know what he feels, not what others think he should feel. Intention depends upon attention. If you are focused on what you want your child to feel and think (or not feel and think), your goal is control. To teach, you must focus on what actually happened, those aspects of your child that you want to highlight, what you want him to reflect upon, and what you want him to learn. More often than not, problem solving is the better approach to take.
Is it making more sense now? Let's ask the big question! What do I do when my kid breaks my limit if I don't punish? Here are some examples.

Limit: No throwing toys in the house.
Scenario: Your preschooler just hurled a truck clear across the room, narrowly missing brother's head. Pick up the truck and say "Whoa! You threw this truck really far! Remember, you may not throw toys in the house." Hand the child the toy back. Say "If you throw again, we'll have to put the toy up." If he plays nicely with it, great. If he throws it again, say "Oops, let's put this toy away for now. We'll try again later." *Smile* "Let's color!"

Taking the toy was not a punishment; you were enforcing your limit. You didn't take it in anger. You kept your tone kind. You didn't shame him or call him naughty. You engaged him in another activity. Your intention was not to make him feel guilty but to teach him what is appropriate. Now, if he gets mad that you put the toy up, you will empathize with his upset. "I see you're upset about the toy. We'll try that toy again later. When you're feeling better, we'll color!" *Hug*

Or, let's say it's a nice, warm day out. You could say "Whoa, you thew this truck really far! Remember, you may not throw toys in the house. Would you like to go outside and throw a ball?" If he says "yes," let him throw to his heart's desire out there. If he refuses to go out and you give him the toy again and he throws it again, repeat the above steps.

Mmm - spaghetti sauce and rice cake for dinner

Limit: Food stays on the table.
Scenario: Your toddler is at the table eating lunch. Suddenly, you are smacked right in the cheek with a carrot. You know what works sometimes? Silly songs. In a sing-songy voice, "Silly girl, I know you're able to keep your food on the table!" If nothing else, she'll giggle and forget to throw the food. If she throws it again, you might say, "You're throwing your food, you must not be hungry" and remove the plate. If she cries that she is hungry, I'm a believer in second chances. Sing it again! "Okay silly girl, now I know you're able to keep your food on the table! Eat it up!" If she starts throwing it again, take it back and try again in 30 minutes. The game will soon lose its appeal.

Limit: No hitting.
Scenario: Brother and sister are playing. Things go awry, and brother bops sister on the head. Sister comes crying. First you tend to sister. Give her cuddles and make sure she's okay. Go to brother, but not with an Army commander attitude. He might be the aggressor, but he has feelings too. Kids who do bad feel bad. Get down on his level, maybe scoop him up in your lap. "You hit your sister, and she's hurt. Remember, we don't hit. What happened?" At this point, he may either explain his side or break down crying. If he cries, show him empathy. Yep, empathy. Bad feelings can make you do bad things. Get rid of the bad feelings and feel good again, and you do better. Once, he's regulated, it's time to problem-solve. If he told you what happened to cause the thump, you have a good starting point. "Hitting hurts. How can you make your sister feel better? What can you do next time so that you don't hit her?" If he's old enough, let him come up with solutions, like draw her a picture and walk away when he's angry. If he doesn't come up with a solution, offer him ideas. This whole process of him on your lap or close to you could be called a "time-in." You're showing him the behavior is not allowed, and you're helping him to come up with tools to handle it better next time. You're not turning him away or shaming him. Your intention was not to make him feel guilty or bad but to teach. Win-win.

Child Playing Video Games (Animal Crossing)

Limit: No video games until homework is done.
Scenario: Your 8-year-old has math homework, but he asks if he can play a short game and then do it. You say politely "You know the rule, sweetheart. You may play when your homework is finished." "But mom!!!!" "I can see you really want to play that game. It is fun, isn't it? I bet you're close to beating the game now, aren't you?!" "Yes! And I really want to get started on playing!" "I know you do. How about you get started on your homework while I put some cookies in the oven, then when you're finished, we'll have some cookies and I'll watch you play?" "Aw. OK, then."

It may not go that smoothly, obviously. Don't get involved in a power struggle. State the limit, keep your attitude kind, and stick to it. If he storms off or says you stink, tell him that was hurtful and you'd appreciate it if he didn't talk to you like that, and let him go storming off. He's not getting to play his game, so there's no need to add something to that. That would be retaliation, or punishment. Your intent then would be to make him feel guilty or bad. Right now, you're being calm, kind, and simply enforcing your limit. When he's calmed down, you can go in and talk to him about the reason for the rule and empathize with his upset about it. He'll eventually decide it's best to get it done so he can play. Once he's done, let him play his game, sit with him, and enjoy each other's company. This is repairing the rift.

Let's do one final scenario. You're visiting relatives, and your 11-year-old is being rowdy with his cousins. They engage in a game of chase inside the house, and your child bumps into a table and breaks a vase. Which route would you take:

A. Say to him, "Oh, that's okay sweetie. You didn't mean to do it. I'll give Aunt Ruth the money to replace the vase. Just be careful from now on, okay?"

B. "Young man! You get in here this instant! You apologize to your aunt right now!! I'm taking the money out of your allowance to pay for that vase, and you're grounded for the weekend!"

C. "Uh-oh. You accidentally broke Aunt Ruth's vase. I know you didn't mean to break it. It's best to run outside where there is more room. What can you do to fix this?"

If you guessed C, you're right! Option A is permissive. Option B is punishment. Option C is problem-solving. You're allowing your child to experience the consequences of his actions by holding him accountable, but you're not trying to make him feel bad or guilty.

Here's the difference.

Punishment is a retaliation. The intention of punishment is to make the child feel bad for what he did. It is usually not related at all to the "misbehavior," like grounding him for breaking the vase, and it does not teach alternatives. In scenario #1, if you'd have yelled at the child and taken the toy away for the rest of the day saying "Fine! You just lost that toy!" then that would have been a punishment. You'd be mad, he'd be feeling crummy. The intention would have been different. If in #2, you'd have said "If you can't do better than that, you don't get lunch!!!" that would have been a punishment. You'd have been mad, she'd have felt bad. In #3, if you'd spanked him or sent him to his room for hitting his sister, that would have been a punishment. In #4, if you'd taken the game away for the day or a week, that would have been a punishment. Punishment leaves the child feeling bad about himself and you feeling mad, usually. It causes a disconnect and doesn't teach.

Enforcing limits can and should be done nicely and with empathy. In #1, you were kind and gave your child an acceptable alternative (throwing outside), and you engaged with him in another activity, quickly repairing the rift. The limit was enforced, you stayed connected, you both felt good. The same is true for the other scenarios. In enforcing limits, you remain connected, teach, and everyone is left feeling good, their dignities intact.

See also:

The Newbie's Guide to Positive Parenting - Part 1

The Newbie's Guide to Positive Parenting - Part 2

What's the Deal with Consequences?

Also for your reading pleasure:

What's Wrong with Strict Parenting?

What's Wrong with Permissive Parenting?

The Newbie's Guide to Positive Parenting, Part 2

Sunday, October 2, 2011 No comments
Totem Pole

In Part 1, we discussed why the traditional paradigm of parenting is faulty and why non-punitive positive parenting is healthier for children and family dynamics.

In this post, we'll look at how to handle common situations using non-punitive parenting so you can see how it looks in action. I've already covered 3 areas in other posts.

Positive Parenting in Action: Exploration/Danger

Positive Parenting in Action: Tantrums

Positive Parenting in Action: Aggressive Behavior

Before we get into that,though,I have some points I meant to make in the first post but got cut short on time.

The first point I want to make is that tantrums are not bad behavior. Tantrums are an expression of emotion that became too much for the child to bear. No "discipline" is required. What your child needs is compassion and safe, loving arms to unload in. Yes, it may be inconvenient or even embarrassing in the grocery store, but your child is your first priority, not the judgments of onlookers. Show them how it's done.

The second point I want to make is that so often, children are punished for being human. Children are not allowed to have grumpy moods, bad days, disrespectful tones, or bad attitudes, yet we adults have them all the time! We think if we don't "nip it in the bud" that it will escalate and we will lose control. Let go of that unfounded fear and give your child permission to be human. We all have days like that. None of us are perfect, and we must stop holding our children to a higher standard of perfection than we can attain ourselves. Of course you should teach your child appropriate ways to speak to people and how to handle emotions, but this again is done primarily through your relationship (which is where they learn how to navigate the ups and downs and repair rifts in personal relationships) and also through your example, how you handle your frustration and moods. All of the punishments you could throw at them will not stamp out their humanity, for to err is human, and we all do it sometimes. Give them a break and a hug.

I love this post about misbehavior versus mistaken behavior.

In regard to non-punitive parenting,I want to address a couple more common questions and misconceptions and just reiterate some things from the first post.

If I don't spank, use time-out, or take away toys, what tools do I have to discipline with? Your most valuable tools are your relationship and your example. I cannot stress this enough because it truly is the foundation for positive non-punitive parenting. The closeness of your relationship equals the amount of your influence. If your child feels connected to you, and if you have built that foundation of trust and respect, your child, by nature, will not want to disappoint you, and more importantly, because of that connection and the values instilled through that connection, he will hold himself accountable and not want to undermine his own self-concept. Your example is also a powerful tool. Children are mirrors. They imitate everything we say and do. So here is where your accountability comes in. If you swear in front of your children, leave messes everywhere, yell or smack your kids, lie to them or others, or talk disrespectfully to your child or to your spouse, you can expect your child to swear, not tidy his room, yell when he's mad, be aggressive, lie, and talk disrespectfully, and it is not fair to punish him for being like you. The old "do as I say, not as I do" bit is a bunch of bologna, and kids know it.

What about accountability? How does positive parenting teach my child to be accountable? Genuine accountability comes from within, not an outside force. You cannot control and manipulate your child into being accountable for her actions. She will learn to be accountable through life's natural consequences, with your empathetic limits, and with your loving guidance. If she leaves her bike out and it gets ruined, the consequence is she has no bike. If he throws his favorite toy and breaks it, his favorite toy is broken. That is the consequence. If you rush out and buy a new bike or toy, the lesson may be lost. On the other hand, if you punish your child for leaving her bike out or breaking the toy, you're just adding insult to injury. Allow your child to learn the natural lessons, and this will teach accountability.

This sounds great, but life is not free of punishments and consequences. If he breaks the law, they won't problem-solve with him, they'll throw him in jail. This is true, but laws and jails were made for adults who have fully developed brains and the full frontal lobe function of sequential thought and logic. Children are not developmentally there yet. Your toddler, preschooler, and even young children do not have this ability and therefore should not be subjected to punishments for wrongdoings they either didn't know was wrong or didn't have the full mental ability to stop and think it through before acting. You don't teach someone to drive by wrecking them first so they'll know what not to do.

Okay, on to the action. Here are some concrete examples of how to handle common situations without resorting to punishment. Again, I've already covered exploration, tantrums, and aggressive behavior. (See above)

1. Disrespect/backtalk/rudeness. If this is an occasional occurrence, remember we all have off days. A simple "When you speak to me that way, I feel disrespected" is sufficient. Avoid "you" statements, like "you're being very disrespectful" and use "I" statements, like "I feel hurt when you use that tone of voice with me." If this is a common occurrence, this suggests a disconnect in the relationship that needs repair. You should also investigate where he has learned such behavior. Home? School? Friends? Generally, though, a child who is feeling connected is very unlikely to be disrespectful or rude to you.

2. Lying. Lying is actually a developmentally appropriate stage that some kids go through. The link will be very informative about this, and makes suggestions of how to handle this non-punitively. This usually begins around age 4, and is really more fantasy and pretend than manipulative lying. For an older child, communication is very important. Have a discussion with her about why lying is wrong, what consequences could come from lying (like breech of trust, damage to your relationship, hurting a friend, etc.) and just open up. Explain a time in your life when you told a lie and it turned out badly. Dr. Markham says this, "I want to let you know what the research says about lying. Many, if not most, kids lie. However, kids whose parents don't punish do not lie. They have no reason to." This is another perk of non-punitive parenting. Kids usually lie to avoid punishment. When that fear is not in the equation, lying is extremely unlikely.

3. Refusing to cooperate. Let's say your son has a messy room and doesn't want to clean it up. You have 2 options here. You could say, "Wow, your room is a mess. Would you like me help you tidy up?" You ask for their help sometimes, right? You'd offer a helping hand to a friend. It's okay to extend that same courtesy to your child. There are days I don't feel like tidying up either. If he refuses to help, leave it a mess. He'll get tired of it eventually, when he can't find things. What about teaching him to be accountable? Ultimately, it's his room and his mess. You won't be in his college dorm. He will learn that it is his responsibility if you just give him responsibility for it. Here's the good news though.
When children feel their needs really matter to their parents, they can meet their parents with cooperation." -- Sura Hart
When you have that connected relationship, kids are naturally more cooperative. Read The Fool-Proof Way to Get Your Kids Cooperating. For very young children, choices will help to elicit cooperation. A responsibility chart, like the one found here, which is purely a visual reminder, might prove helpful for your child.

4. Out and About: Talk to your child about where you will be going and why, and what you will be doing while your out. Get your child involved with the shopping, helping to look for items and placing them in the cart. Bring along a "happy pack" with a doodling pad or snacks, whatever your child likes. Make sure her needs are met (she's not hungry or tired) before you go. If you're at the playground, give your child notice that time will be up soon. If she refuses to leave, say "I know you want to stay. You're having so much fun! But we have to go now" and gently scoop her up and carry her to the car. Empathize with her upset.

5. Homework struggles and school problems: Let's face it, homework is no fun. Yes, it might have to be done, but we wouldn't want to work an 8 hour day and then have to bring more work home with us either. Talk with your child about what would make getting it done easier and more pleasant? Perhaps some music playing softly would lighten the mood or doing the homework outside in the fresh air. Discuss the importance of it, but leave the responsibility on him. The natural consequence, of course, is an upset teacher or a lower grade. Of course we don't want that for our child, but if you rescue him all the time, he won't learn the natural consequences of his actions.

Positive non-punitive parenting, I believe, is the best way to raise happy, confident, secure, capable kids. Will it produce perfect children? Of course not. Does anything? Do I promise you'll never have rough patches or trials? No. That's life, and we're all just human beings. What I do promise is that you'll have a much more joyful home overall and a connected, close relationship with your child that will last through all the bumps of life. Nothing is sweeter than that.

Also read:
Is Your Discipline Raising the Kid You Want

22 Alternatives to Punishment

Thoughts on Punishment

Misbehavior and punishment are not opposites that cancel each other; on the contrary, they breed and reinforce each other." - Haim Ginott

The Newbie's Guide to Positive Parenting

Our goal as a parent is to give life to our children's learning—to instruct, to teach, to help them develop self-discipline—an ordering of the self from the inside, not imposition from the outside. Any technique that does not give life to a child's learning and leave a child's dignity intact cannot be called discipline—it is punishment, no matter what language it is clothed in. - Barbara Coloroso

Cullen No4

Part 1: An Introduction to Positive Non-punitive Parenting

When I first came across this philosophy of non-punitive parenting, I admit I was unsure about it. I had the same fears and thoughts many of you may be having. Don't children need to be punished for misbehavior? Isn't that how they learn? Is non-punitive parenting permissive? Won't my children take over the house and become unruly tyrants who have no manners, no respect, and no boundaries? The answer, of course, to all of those questions is no!

Traditional behaviour management processes like time out, removal of toys, sticker charts and rewards for ‘good’ behaviour stem from the behaviourist movement based on the work of B. F. Skinner. His theory asserts that children will behave in certain ways if they receive rewards (positive reinforcement) and that undesirable behaviour can be diminished by withholding the rewards or invoking pain (both of which are termed ‘punishment’). I believe this theory may be suitable for training animals, but not so much for raising children. The major flaw here, of course, is that we cannot change or control the behavior of any human being other than ourselves, at least not in the long-term.

Since B.F. Skinner, we have made strides in understanding child development and the importance of secure attachment between parent and child, which encourages healthy development. Secure attachment builds resilience, paves the way for how well your child will function as an adult in a relationship, and has a positive impact on brain development.

What we now know to be true is that punishment, in fact, actually increases misbehavior in children, fosters resentment and disconnection, and, very importantly, does not teach the child a better way to behave. How can children subjected to this model, be expected to learn major concepts about relationships, feelings, choices, etc when receiving an unnatural consequence inflicted on them by an adult? Punishment simply misses the opportunity for a child to learn an important concept about themselves or others. On the contrary, children who feel empowered, respected, and connected will behave better and internalize values.

If you've been parenting using this traditional model and want to make the change to positive, non-punitive parenting, where do you begin? The first big step is a complete paradigm shift in the way you think about raising children. The second step is to understand that relationships, not punishments, influence behavior. While it is true that we cannot control the behavior of another human being, we certainly can have an influence on it, but we can only have that influence through relationship. Relationship is the heart of positive parenting.

How do you foster a connected relationship, especially if you've previously used punishment?

1. Build a foundation of trust. At first, your child might think "is this for real?" If your child is used to going to time out or getting things taken away, there may be a period where your child tests the waters of your new parenting philosophy. Don't give up quickly. Once your child realizes that she is accepted and loved without conditions, you will see her behavior start to improve. All good relationships take work. Take the time to build that foundation of trust, and you will reap the rewards with a connected parent-child relationship that lasts for a lifetime.

2. Respect is mutual. Show your child the same respect you want him to show you and others. Example is the best teacher.

3. Prioritize time with your child. Dr. Laura Markham says, "In relationships, without quantity, there’s no quality. You can’t expect a good relationship with your daughter if you spend all your time at work and she spends all her time with her friends. So as hard as it is with the pressures of job and daily life, if we want a better relationship with our kids, we have to free up the time to make that happen."

4. Resist the urge to be punitive. It is hard not to fall back on old habits when your buttons get pushed. Take a deep breath and focus on the goal. Remember that problem-solving, not consequences or time-outs, will teach your child.

5. Don't let little rifts build up. Every difficulty is an opportunity to get closer or create distance.

For more on building a strong connection, see Dr. Markham's post here.

"While criticism or fear of punishment may restrain us from doing wrong, it does not make us wish to do right. Disregarding this simple fact is the great error into which parents and educators fall when they rely on these negative means of correction. The only effective discipline is self-discipline, motivated by the inner desire to act meritoriously in order to do well in one's own eyes, according to one's own values, so that one may feel good about oneself may "have a good conscience." -Bruno Bettelheim

Part 2 will be Non-punitive Parenting In Action.

Part 3 is Punishments versus Limit Enforcement

Until then, you may be interested to read the following posts:

Nonpunitive Discipline ≠ Lazy Parenting

Positive Parenting is NOT Permissive Parenting

10 Things That Are More Important Than Discipline