So, what do you do when you encounter an undesired behavior after your child has already stepped beyond a limit? If not punishment, then what?
I’ll let you in on a secret. Here’s what you do: Say, “I love you no matter what you do.” Let those be the first words out of your mouth. Communicate to your child first and foremost that their behavior does not define your relationship. It doesn’t matter what the child has done. Say “I love you” regardless. Children tend to be binary thinkers. It can be difficult for them not to regard themselves as either good or bad without much gray area in between. They need to know that they are loved, no matter what.
After your child understands that your relationship with them is secure regardless of the outcome, the work begins. If their actions have resulted in harm, they need to be given an opportunity to rectify what’s happened. And, whether or not their actions have resulted in harm, they need the chance to create and implement a plan for the future. No punishment needed.
Children do not inherently know how to be in relationship with other people. They learn and they stumble… often. If your child has done something that has caused any sort of harm, incorporating restorative justice principles can help begin the healing process.
- Give the aggrieved parties space to communicate their perspectives. If you are the aggrieved party, bring in a neutral arbiter to help.
- Employ the CLAIM method to guide your child through this process.
- C: Center Yourself. Draw in your fears of judgement and be brave.
- L: Listen. Pay attention to what’s being said rather than preparing a rebuttal.
- A: Acknowledge. Take responsibility for your actions (and apologize and/or make restitution if necessary).
- I: Inquire. Ask how you can do better in the future. Keep in mind that this involves labor. The other party has a right to decline.
- M: Move Forward. Change your behavior and teach others to do the same.
- Enunciate the harm that has been caused, both tangible and intangible.
- Confirm the resolution with all parties and establish an accountability plan with your child.
- Support your child through their inevitable feelings of ostracization from those they harmed. Encourage them to give it time and to be kind.
Children of all ages and neurologies can benefit from modified versions of this process. BB is 4-years-old and minimally verbal, so our communication is largely through behavior, gestures, and facial expressions when he’s under stress. I assume competence as everyone should with every child. I don’t baby talk my kids. Instead, I follow these same recommendations with my children, knowing that they understand something of what I’m saying and will understand fully in the future.
The skills you impart through this process will provide your child with the tools necessary to become versed in conflict management and active listening, both of which are critical relationship skills.
Setting New Limits
Peaceful Parents try to get ahead of challenges and take proactive steps to avoid them. When challenges occur despite our best efforts, we regroup and work with our kids on resolving remaining issues and on solving the underlying difficulty before it happens again in the future. Our philosophy is that children do well when they can, and that we can equip them to do better by addressing their unmet needs and building skills.
When you learn about a challenge after the fact, try to resist the urge to punish. It can be extremely unnerving to feel like you aren’t doing anything, but I assure you, what you do instead will send ripples of goodness into your child’s future.
It’s important to talk with your child about what’s happened, opting for open-ended, non-accusatory questions like “What were you hoping would happen?” that garner a more developed response than “What happened?” Again, age will determine how far you can go.
Unfortunately, more often than we’d like, we learn disappointing truths about our kids. This can be hard for us and for them. Protecting your relationship in the face of missteps means choosing your approach carefully. Remember that children instinctively react when they are afraid. In order to reason with your child, you’ll need to keep them in a cognitive space by reassuring them that they’re safe with you.
Let’s consider a pretty common (and developmentally appropriate) difficulty for children: lying. If your child lies, you’ll be less inclined to believe what they say in the future. However, rather than undermining your relationship by saying, “I don’t trust you,” you can instead try to frame the situation in a way that can be solved. Speak factually and coach your child toward a resolution using “I” phrases to express your feelings. “I’m sad that you didn’t tell me the truth. I want to be someone you can always talk to. What can we do in the future to make sure you don’t ever feel you have to lie to me?”
In this reconciliatory space, you can help your child determine their own solutions for what to do, giving them ownership and power over their choices. Knowing that children aren’t hardwired yet for wise, measured decision-making, you can ask questions to better understand what your role will be in making sure limits are observed as part of a renewed plan for the future.
If it happens again, walk with your child through the exact same process. And, if that sounds too much like kids “getting away with bad behavior,” think about how many times parents have to turn to punishment over and over again because there is insufficient behavioral change. We’re working on moral development here. Not obedience.