Want to Stop Punishing Your Kids? Here’s How.

So, you’re on-board with Peaceful Parenting. You try to co-regulate with your kids, empathize, and collaborate with them toward solutions that are mutually beneficial. You’ve been cognizant of your attitude and you’ve been working toward remaining calm most of the time. But, then something happens and you snap. You yell or you spank or you threaten or otherwise forcibly control your child, even though this isn’t who you want to be.

I hope you’re not looking at me thinking that I’ve got it together. That I must never yell or spank or act out in a non-peaceful way. Nope. I’m working toward being a Peaceful Parent just like you are and stumbling all over myself along the way. Let me tell you a story.

This past week, circumstances got the better of me. I thought myself such an accomplished parent one day when I whipped out drawing pads and Crayons for the kids and got to work cleaning up. I even left the kids alone at the kitchen table for a while to draw while I cleaned other areas of the house. Soon enough, I heard Crayons hitting the floor. I returned to the dining room to see my son snapping Crayons in half and shoving them into his mouth to chew and spit on the floor. The anger welled in my chest. I kept it together and asked him to go ahead and sit down so he could keep drawing while I cleaned up the chewed pieces of waxy mess. Instead, he went tearing around the house, a bouquet of Crayons in his hand poised to be cleaved in twain. It was too much and… I started hollering. “SIT DOWN.” “DON’T BREAK ANYMORE CRAYONS!” “LET ME WORK.” “STAHHHHHP!” My reaction only served to fuel the flames and the situation quickly escalated.

I angrily swept and tossed the Crayons (which could have been used again even in their broken state), I ignored my son as he continued to dysregulate, and then, in a moment of fury, I started toward him to snatch away a toy he had in his hand so I could throw it away in front of him in a cruel and punitive move. But, before I got to him, I stopped. I stopped dead in my tracks as my own words echoed back at me. Would you devastate your child for a $1.50 box of crayons? Would you provoke tears for pocket change? And, there it is. Right there. The first step toward ending our reign of punishment. It’s a decision in the heat of the moment. A choice we’ve already committed to.

Punishment Rejection Action Steps

1. Start With a Choice. You have to decide before you ever get angry what your limits are. Yelling is my vice. It’s deeply ingrained from my childhood and it is the language of my hot temper. But, yelling is a punitive act. We use our adult voices to suppress and control our children, leaving them with unseen scars. It may not be as clearly punitive as time out or spanking, but it is undesirable as a tool in our Peaceful Parenting kit. What’s your go to? What punishment do you turn to when you feel you can’t bear anymore? Make a commitment right now to stop. Draw the line in your mind and say, “I will not fall back on this action.” Even if you do it again, reinforce your belief that your actions are unacceptable and then try again the next time.

2. Engage in Prevention. As you may know if you’ve been following my posts, I am a big advocate of the Three Rs: Regulate, Relate, Reason. When my children begin to dysregulate, I intervene then. I try not to wait for the situation to escalate. Most of the time, prevention also helps me avoid dysregulating myself. It gives me a chance to get a grip on my emotions and fully invest in the moment when my kids need me most.

3. Have a Game Plan. Decide, in advance, what it is you’re going to do when you’ve gotten to a point where you’re about to blow your top. The Learning Parent SG put together a fantastic series on what she does as she nears her breaking point. She calls her approach, “Reactive Distancing.”

During a calm moment, take some time to put your game plan together. Decide what it is you can commit to doing when your thinking mind begins to struggle.

4. Think Like a Child. Ever notice how small children go from huge emotions to giggling in no time flat? They aren’t weighed down by the self-judgment and mental turmoil that adults experience. A dear friend of mine told me she takes a cue from Daniel Tiger. When she starts to feel dysregulated, she says, “If you feel so mad that you have to roar take a deep breath and count to 4.” As she counts, her jaw and fists start to relax, and she finds she’s more able to breathe. Then, she makes an effort to speak to her children in a neutral way in an effort to de-escalate the situation. Sometimes neutral is the best she can do and sometimes she’s able to nurture. Either way, she and her children both benefit from her efforts. She shared that she’s learned how valuable things like hugs, cuddles, and tickles can be as she works toward co-regulating with her kids. Play is always called for when tensions are high.

5. Do the Hard Work on Yourself. Our reactions are not the fault of our children. They are the result of a lifetime of experiences and the neurotransmitter conditioning our brains have undergone. Many of us could improve our situation by shifting to a more positive outlook to build emotional resilience. “Thinking positively” is absolutely NOT the only answer to resolving our lifelong triggers, but it is one action we can take. We can also find a therapist, exercise regularly, reframe negative situations, and relinquish some control.

6. Never Stop Trying. Every time you choose to be gentle with your children, you are reinforcing to your own psyche that what you’re doing is good and it’s achievable. Even when you mess up, and oh will you mess up, brush yourself off and make a better choice at the next opportunity. Parenting is about relationship. When we push our kids away with our attitudes, we have to focus on reconciling and confirming to them that the issue is us not them. In the backs of our minds, we have to give ourselves grace enough to say, “I will do better next time” and really mean it.

After the blowup with my son, I sat down with him and apologized. I told him that I was having a hard day and I had no right to yell at him. I told him that I loved him and gave him all the cuddles he was craving. As I was holding him, his little body released its tension and he drifted off to sleep. Turns out, that energy burst he’d had was his last ditch effort at alerting me that he was exhausted. I misread it and got angry when the answer was staring me right in the face. I will not absolve myself of the harm I caused him that day, but I will say that I make good choices more often than not and I am actively working on my temper. I yell less than I did a year ago and still less than I did a year before that. Things are improving over time and, before too long, I will consistently react neutrally when members of my family touch a raw nerve. That’s my commitment to them and to myself. What are you willing to commit to today?

Peaceful Parenting Won’t Work on My Child

Whether you’re having in-person conversations or online, someone somewhere has probably told you that peaceful parenting can’t work for every child. “Every child is different” they say, with the full force of unfortunate implications behind each word.

Every child is different. Some need to be punished.

Every child is different. Some need to be shamed.

Every child is different. Some need to be spanked.

Every child is different. Some need to be arrested.

It’s simply not true. None of it. While peaceful parenting can seem to be an unachievable ideal from the outside, it is an evidence-based approach that takes into account the advances in neuroscience we’ve made over the past century. It is a scientific marvel. And, once you dig into it, you see that it is appropriate for every. single. child.

Well, what about that kid screaming “NO!” in his mother’s face while she sits there unsure of what to do?

An authoritarian parents might lay down the law. “You will NOT treat your mother that way!” Punishment is the answer here!

A permissive parent might allow the behavior to happen and make excuses. “Oh, he just tired. It’s ok.”

A neglectful parent might completely ignore the child.

An authoritative, peaceful parent would address the issue head on. We’ve got a fantastic solution for overwrought children who have lost their ability to regulate: The 3Rs and a limit. As a reminder, the 3Rs are regulate, relate, and reason. This formula was developed by Dr. Bruce Perry, a psychiatrist who specializes in trauma-informed care, and it can be effective for all children.

Regulate

This one is why you should never, ever, ever ignore a child’s undesirable behavior. Children, especially young ones, aren’t very good at self-regulation. The human capacity to self-regulate is a matter of development more than it is a matter of skill. But, we can help our children learn techniques that promote self-regulation. We can be most useful in this educational process by co-regulating with our children. Co-regulation refers to the way a child in a well-attuned relationship with a caregiver can sync physiologically with the adult. The process is different depending on your child’s neurology and personality. Some children need to be hugged. Some just need to be present with the adult. Some children need verbal assurances, such as “I’m right here with you. I’ll be here as long as you need to feel better.” However it works for a particular child, the goal is for the adult to share calmness with the child through physiological accord (think deep breathing), emotional stabilization, and social proximity.

Relate

Relating involves the very human act of empathizing. Once your child’s body and mind have relaxed, the next step is to let your child know he isn’t alone in how he feels. Children’s emotions are human emotions. No matter how trivial their concerns may seem to us, we can understand them. My favorite way to relate is to affirm how my child is feeling. For instance, “You’re angry because I said we’re going to turn off the tv in 5 minutes. You want to watch more tv! I know watching tv is fun.” You could let your child know of an instance from your own childhood when you had a similarly upsetting experience. The goal here is to let your child know you see them. You feel their distress and you understand it.

Reason

Once your child’s body and mind are working in concert with your own, you can explain what’s happened. Using the tv example, I might say, “We need to turn off the tv, because it’s time to take a bath and read our book before bed. Once the tv goes off, we get to play in the bathwater!” The age of your child determines how you will reason. All children, including infants, deserve an explanation for the things that upset them. They understand more than we may give them credit for and, at the very least, they will grow up learning how reason and logic work. If your child begins to get upset again, start back from the first R. Make sure not to skip any of the Rs. They work in sequence. And, a critical note, if your child is dysregulated because of a physical need like sleepiness or hunger, please be sure to address that need in your reasoning.

Limit

Setting a gentle limit may be what upset your child in the first place. You do not need to ignore the limit during the 3Rs. I was recently asked by a friend what she should do in a bookstore where her daughter became dysregulated in an aisle upon being told it was time to go. She told me that her daughter didn’t want a hug and, while she attempted to co-regulate by sitting near the child without touching, her daughter continued to play around in the store. I told my friend, in this case, I would gently take the child’s hands and physically stop her. She said that would set off another meltdown. I told her that’s ok! That’s what the 3Rs are for. Often, we do need to cycle back through until our kids are feeling better.

Our goal can’t be for our child to be happy with our limits, because that’s just not reasonable. I remember being told, as a child, that it was my responsibility to be joyful in the face of admonition. No. Children are just learning how to deal with disappointment. We don’t need to place impossible expectations on them in the process. As an adult I have had to learn how to take criticism without exploding or shutting down, because I didn’t learn how to do it as a child.

Forget all that. Our goal is to ensure that our child feels loved and supported in the midst of their unhappiness and even when they’re expressing that unhappiness in ways we don’t like. So, if you have to scoop up your child and head out the door while she fusses at you because you’ve run out of time, sometimes that’s how it’s gotta be. The work you’re doing by engaging in the 3Rs, giving your child time to process their feelings, and being kind even as you are firm is to establish a pattern of empathy and support that your child can rely on. One that will continue to impact her positively.

One of the criticisms leveled against peaceful parenting is that it just takes so long. It’s true. This approach is a long game and individual interactions can take a while (so build in extra time to make sure your kids get the full benefit of your attention). We are working on fostering the development of genuine human beings who embrace mistakes as learning opportunities, observe the world to see where they can help the most, and find healthy ways to overcome hardships. It’s so much quicker and easier to punish and you could very well do that. But, why? Why would you put off the work of growing up by controlling your kids? Punishment teaches nothing but not to misbehave around people who punish you. It does not teach accountability.

So you have a few choices. One, fall back on punishment and force your kids into compliance; two, let your kids spiral into dysregulation and make excuses for their behavior; three, neglect your kids altogether; or, four, support your child’s psychological and moral development by putting the work in from birth; no punishment required.

A Single Change Makes All the Difference

As you prepare to burst through the gate of a brand new year, your thoughts may center on firm resolutions or even just some loose plans for changes you’d like to see in your life. If being a kinder parent is on your list, I have some comforting news for you. One single change can make all the difference in your efforts to embrace peace and gentleness.

It’s so simple, yet so difficult. It takes intention. It may result in a worldview shift and will likely foster in a positive outlook that can carry you through the toughest parenting challenges. If you have limited time and energy; if you’re overwhelmed at the rigors of peaceful parenting; if you’d hoped you’d have more of a handle on becoming a gentler you but trials and tribulations made your path rockier than you’d ever imagined… if you need help but you don’t know what to help to ask for, I encourage you to do this one, precious, small thing: Reframe.

Reframing is a psychological technique wherein you mentally stand up and move to a different location to see your situation from another, more positive (or at least neutral) perspective. I urge you to watch this incredible 10-minute TED Talk before moving on:

When I talk about reframing in the context of parenthood, I mean choosing to see difficult situations in a new light. As peaceful parents, we know that children do well when they can and, when they can’t, they need our help. Not our wrath. It’s so incredibly hard to honor our own emotions around frustrating incidents while affirming our children’s emotions at the same time. But, that’s what they need from us. In those moments when it becomes too much to bear, taking a breather is always a good decision. It is not a failure. It is self-consideration. When you’re ready to gain new perspective in those tough moments, prioritize empathy.

A friend of mine recently shared with me a difficult interaction she had with her young teenage daughter. The pair were engaged in a mother-daughter clothing battle over cleanliness with the teen wanting to wear her favorite hoodies over the course of several days and her mother wanting to get those hoodies washed and in good order. As we talked, my friend recognized that her daughter was likely associating comfort and safety with her favorite hoodies, which helped reduce her anxiety. So, there was likely a genuine need for her to keep those items close at hand. My friend mentioned that she was planning to get some more hoodies to give to her daughter for Christmas, and I suggested getting two of each, which would make four as gifts and six hoodies in total including the existing pieces. Six hoodies would easily get her daughter through a school week with plenty of time for washing. Once she stepped beyond the conflict, the solution became clear.

When you’re under stress, reframing can feel impossible. It just takes practice and a little ingenuity. Your goal is to view your child in a positive rather than a negative light. With an open mind, you can peer into your child’s heart and see just what’s needed.

I asked friends to share with me some of the most stressful behaviors their children exhibit. You know, the ones that trigger something deep inside that could explode into rage at any moment? Whew! I know that feeling. Let me pause here to say that no one – not me, not you, not anyone – is a machine. Some triggers simply touch too deep, and we do end up exploding. That’s not a fail. We’re human. No way to get around that. We apologize and keep trying. And, that’s what makes us peaceful parents. With that said, I’ll note some of the behaviors that seem to really set folks off.

Aggression

Children, especially very young ones, seem to be prone to using their bodies to communicate displeasure. They may hit, bite, kick, spit, and scratch, all of which can be extremely upsetting to the adults receiving this inappropriate treatment. It’s especially infuriating when our children hurt each other, especially when it’s an older, larger sibling beating up on a smaller one. Those interactions feel an awful lot like bullying, and that’s something many of us cannot tolerate.

Children use aggression when they don’t have adequate words to express their emotions and when they’ve reached a breaking point. There are certainly cases where some children are violent due to physiological or psychological differences, but most children will lash out at one time or another. This form of communication typically peaks around age 2, but can be present throughout childhood as a child’s (including teens) brain is working primarily off emotion and not logic.

Destruction

It’s rough when “I won’t let you hit the dog” triggers a toypocalypse as your child slams all her toys onto the floor in a rage. As adults, we know the financial costs involved with destruction. Just walking through the doors of an emergency room costs several hundred dollars to start. That nice dollhouse Aunt Beverly gave your kids last Christmas? $150 down the drain as it becomes the object of a Godzilla-scale attack by a very angry little boy.

There are reasons not to get too caught up in the value of things when your child’s emotional health is on the line, but all the reasoning in the world won’t relieve the fire that burns in your gut when you see your child tearing up their belongings.

Defiance

As peaceful parents, we want to be countercultural… to view strong responses from our children as natural and healthy. But, there is just something unsettling about a child blatantly doing something we’ve said not to, refusing to eat, throwing food on the floor, and the like. It hits deep and activates our conditioning to view children as subservient and ourselves as singularly worth of respect. Even the calmest among us have a breaking point where we get so fed up, we lash out.

The Reframe

Here’s how it works. When your child does something that sends you right over the proverbial cliff, stop for a moment and recognize that there is an answer. You CAN find a solution! Breathe. Slow down. Look at your child. What’s really happening? If your child is acting in a way that disconnects them from their social group – which is totally contrary to who we are as humans – recognize that there’s a barrier your child can’t overcome no matter how disciplined they might or might not be. Your task is to figure out what that barrier is and guide your child to the solution.

Give reframing a go! Make this your New Year’s Resolution. Once you start to see through the behavior to the need, gentleness will naturally follow. And, if you need guidance to figure out how to support your child through particularly challenging behaviors, I’ll be here all year to help.

That friend I mentioned earlier graciously previewed this post for me. Coincidentally, at the same time, her young son was experiencing a crisis. He had been playing a video game, when he began crying and saying he hated everything. Initially, his father considered taking video games away altogether, but my friend read this post to him and encouraged him to wait. While their son took a breather, they brainstormed why he was acting that way.

Once they put it all together, they realized he had gotten upset when he couldn’t progress past a certain point in the game. My friend’s husband checked the settings and realized they were at a level that was far too difficult for a little boy. After adjusting the difficulty to a more age-appropriate level, he invited his son back in to enjoy a fun father-son game together. The solution was there all along! There is always an answer. You’ve just got to find it.

Would You Devastate Your Child for $100?

How about $50? Less? I’m a numbers person and money motivates me. Not that I seek to hoard it, but that I’m careful to value it appropriately so that my family can stay afloat. I handle the family finances, so money is always on my mind.

This afternoon, my kids were having popcorn as a snack. It’s a choking hazard, but they love it, so I try to make sure they remain seated and calm so they can focus on chewing and swallowing. LL asked me for a treat that we didn’t have, and I tried to explain that to her. She flew into a rage (she’s so my child!) and knocked both her popcorn and her juice onto the floor. I ran into our adjoining kitchen to get cleaning supplies, all the way speaking empathetically to her. She really wanted that treat. She was tired. She lashed out.

In the 20 seconds I was gone, she managed to get onto the table, scurry across it, and toss her brother’s popcorn on the floor too. I came back and he looked shocked. I could see how far gone she was. She needed help. But, to be honest, I was irritated. My instinct was to snatch her up a little too hard and growl through gritted teeth. Something about wasting the food I prepared in this way seemed to touch something deep in me.

I angrily began cleaning up – normally, I’d have her help, but I was upset and I didn’t want to accidentally hurt her in my frustration. As I wiped up the juice on my hands and knees, I thought to myself, we have such a small food budget! This is such a waste. All for what exactly?? A little voice in my mind piped up, how much waste are we really talking here?

Well, let’s see:

  • Vegan Butter: $.14
  • Juice: $.15
  • Popcorn: $.10
  • Paper Towel: $.01
  • Salt: $.004
  • Cleaning Solution: $.003

Forty-one cents. For $.41, I had to hold myself back from yelling or being physically rough with a little one-year-old toddler who is less than 1/10 my size. It’s toxic. Plain and simple. A result of my culture, my upbringing, my inability to use the same logic center in my own mind that some part of me expects my kids to be able to use flawlessly.

This isn’t the first time I’ve sat down and worked out how much something cost that my kids wasted or broke, and whenever I find that number, it’s always heartbreaking. Earlier this year, my son accidentally broke a $200 TV when he was releasing after-school energy. I was in a great mental space that day, and I wasn’t angry with him at all.

I’ve been thinking about the difference between these two incidents. Why was I angrier over $.41 cents of popcorn, juice, and cleaning supplies than I was over a $200 TV? This is why.

Deep down, it felt like she was disrespecting the effort I had put into getting them cleaned up to eat, preparing their snack, serving it to them, treating them gently, and empathetically letting LL know why she couldn’t have the treat she wanted. Even though my logic tells me she’s not old enough to have any concept of what I was going through, those primal reactions still welled up in my chest.

In the end, I recovered without incident and sat down to cuddle with her. She was having a hard time and she needed me to help her regulate herself. It didn’t take long before she was ready to run off and play as though nothing had happened. Meanwhile, I was still reeling and working through what had just washed over me.

Maybe this technique will help you as it’s helped me in the past. When your child’s actions end up in a loss and you’re out some money, calculate the amount. Then, ask yourself, is the value of this thing worth devastating my child by yelling or hitting. I’d say 10/10 times, the answer is no.

If you need help figuring out what to do instead, please check out the two-part series, Punishments, Consequences, and Limits. Or, just have a cuddle with your little love.

6 Reasons to Stop Spanking Right Now

#1 Spanking Makes Minor Concerns Worse

Spanking carries serious risks of injury to children. Not only can it slow developmental growth, but there is no study demonstrating that it enhances developmental health. And, sadly, harsh spanking has been correlated with a physical decrease in gray matter within children’s brains. This year, the American Psychological Association issued a strongly worded statement about corporal punishment warning of the danger of “increases in children’s behavior problems, even after controlling for race, gender and family socioeconomic status.” The American Academy of Pediatrics also strongly recommends against spanking.

#2 Spanking Amounts to Bullying

StopBullying.gov defines bullying as “unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time.” With the exception of the qualification that bullying involves only school aged children, this definition fits. Not only that, but there is evidence that spanked children are at a higher risk of becoming bullies themselves as a result of their treatment by adults.

#3 Spanking is Domestic Violence

In nearly every state in the U.S., spanking (i.e. corporal punishment) is specifically excluded from state laws against domestic violence and child abuse. If spanking weren’t violence against children, there would be no need to affirm a parent’s right to hit. Only one state, Delaware, has effectively banned spanking and, even there, lawmakers made a point to say that they were not limiting parents’ ability to physically punish their children. It then stands to reason that spanking may lead children to commit domestic violence themselves later in life and, in fact, there’s evidence that this may well be the case. In 2006, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child reported that “Legalized violence against children in one context risks tolerance of violence against children generally” and a study out of Canada found that most child abuse occurs during physical punishment.

#4 Spanking is an ACE

A study published in Child Abuse & Neglect, the official journal of the International Society for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect, lays out the case for spanking being designated an Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE). ACEs are linked to myriad regulatory complications for children that are then expressed as undesirable behaviors. Watch this interview with Dr. George Davis, who served as the lead psychiatric clinician for New Mexico’s Juvenile Justice System for 20 years, in which he explains the connection between ACEs and interaction with the justice system. Almost all the children studied as part of the New Mexico Juvenile Justice program had experienced corporal punishment at the hands of caregivers. Spanking does not prevent incarceration and may, in fact, contribute to it.

#5 Spanking Affirms White Supremacy

Dr. Stacey Patton, child advocate, is a woman who understands the risks of spanking first-hand. She is an adoptee, child abuse survivor, and former foster youth who has become an impassioned voice against the ritualistic practices around spanking as punishment. In her research, she has discovered that “Europeans brutalized their own children for thousands of years” before colonizing the Americas and Africa; and therefore, that spanking is not intrinsic to every culture around the world. Instead, it is far more likely a practice with deep ties to colonialism and white supremacy.

#6 You Already Know It’s Wrong

Despite the very high levels of support for spanking in the U.S., many parents express regret at feeling compelled to engage in the practice. The widely identifiable sentiment, “This hurts me more than it hurts you,” reveals the emotional burden parents experience when they physically harm their children in pursuit of good parenting. A quick Google search of “spanking regret” reveals just how widespread the discomfort is.

The Good News

You do not have to spank. Period. You do not have to do it. There are effective alternatives. Even though Peaceful Dad and I don’t employ time-outs or any punitive measures, I have no qualms telling you that research shows time-outs work in the short and long run. Science has effectively proven that time-outs are more effective and less harmful than spanking. So, if you must punish, please use time-outs. If you are looking to move past punishments, I invite you to continue following this blog and/or check out the Resources section for more ideas.

The Bad News

Efforts are underway nationwide to ban spanking in the U.S. That, in and of itself, isn’t a negative thing. If spanking were made illegal, hundreds of thousands of children would be spared the negative long-term consequences of physical violence. If we took this step, we’d be joining 54 other countries worldwide, nearly 30% of the globe, in leaping forward into a new era.

But – and this is a massive caveat – given the racial disparities in our legal system, parents of color would be disproportionately affected by these bans. Black parents, in particular, spank at rates nearly double that of white and Latinx parents. Black people are also far more likely to be arrested, charged, and sentenced than any other group, and their sentences are substantially more extreme.

Furthermore, Black children are more likely to be removed from their homes and placed in state care than other groups, even for relatively minor offenses. It would be utterly irresponsible of us to advocate for blanket spanking bans knowing that people of color would be drastically impacted. If we do move to ban spanking, we must keep families out of the court system and away from child services. 

I admit that I don’t have the answers here. I don’t know what to do. I know we have to protect kids, but I also know we have to protect their parents. And, this is a key reason I am so adamant about giving people alternatives and showing, through the experiences of my family, that gentle methods really do work.

Curious for more on the topic of punishment? Check out Punishments, Consequences, and Limits.

Punishments, Consequences, and Limits: Part 2 of 2

Continuing from Part 1

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.

Restorative Practices

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.

  1. Give the aggrieved parties space to communicate their perspectives. If you are the aggrieved party, bring in a neutral arbiter to help.
  2. 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.
  3. Enunciate the harm that has been caused, both tangible and intangible.
  4. Confirm the resolution with all parties and establish an accountability plan with your child.
  5. 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.

Punishments, Consequences, and Limits: Part 1 of 2

Are they different words for the same thing? Does it even matter as long as children behave the way they’re supposed to? Let’s dive into this hotly debated topic and see if we can parse out the differences, the benefits, and the downsides.

First, I’d like to talk a bit about discipline. This term originated in Latin as “disciplina” and it simply meant instruction. Give a word a few centuries of cultural influence and you end up with a word that came to mean things like suffering, scourging, and chastisement in the late Middle Ages. If you don’t know what scourging means, beware because it’s nasty. It was used as a form of corporal punishment centuries ago (and, unfortunately, it’s still used in some areas of the world). A whip would be fashioned with knots or barbs to inflict the most damage possible on a person’s flesh and then the lashing would begin, mostly across the back, until the perpetrator was left bloodied and exhausted. Many people succumbed to their wounds, because they lacked the medicines they needed to treat and repair the torn flesh.

Given that trajectory, it makes sense that discipline is used today primarily to refer to physical punishment, in the context of child rearing. The steps we took to get from the intellectual pursuits of ancient Romans to the dark and brutal torture of the Middle Ages would be an interesting study. For our purposes at the moment, what I want you to know is that there is a spectrum of understanding when it comes to the word discipline and that Peaceful Dad and I land way over on the side of “instruction.”

While I can’t hope to encapsulate the entire meaning of these words in such brief statements, these self-penned working definitions will help you understand the distinctions I’ll be making later on.

  • Punishment: A negative, arbitrary ramification determined by a parent/caregiver and applied in an effort to correct unwanted behavior.
  • Consequence: A negative ramification stemming from a child’s action that occurs either without the influence of a parent/caregiver (i.e. “natural” consequence) or with the influence of a parent/caregiver in direct connection to the infraction (i.e. “logical” consequence).
  • Limit: A boundary defined by culture and/or family in the interest of safety, socialization, or education.

Punishments

Parents punish because it works. It stops the behavior in the moment and shuts the child down, so the nuisance is gone. However, punishment doesn’t work the way most people think it does.

We know that the logic center in human brains doesn’t fully form until around age 25 and that regularly coaching kids on how to reason through problems is a crucial part of teaching their brains how to think logically. However, punishment does not rely on logic. It relies on fear and control to coerce children into compliance. Children may run away, fight back, shut down, submit, cry, or become overwhelmingly exhausted when faced with punishment, especially physical punishment. You might find it interesting that these are all instinctive survival responses to stress that we all have, children and adults alike. And, if these children are not reasoning through their experiences, they may be falling back on innate self-preservation measures.

Punishment is effective beyond the immediate moment of infraction only when the enforcer is present and the punishment is severe enough to elicit strong fear. This is why, sadly, punishment can slip easily into abuse when the diminishing returns lead to escalation. Punishment is demoralizing and hurtful from the child’s perspective.

Consequences

Many parents shun punishments but desire a method of demonstrating to children that their behavior is unacceptable. Natural consequences can be a fantastic teacher. Pull the cat’s tail and you’ll get scratched. It doesn’t take a parent intervening to make that happen. Natural consequences are automatic and often unavoidable.

Children learn a great deal from natural consequences as they form relationships. When children are mean to their friends, their friends may not want to play with them anymore. That’s a natural consequence that leaves space for the child to learn how to repair a friendship. Natural consequences can be very useful, but they can also act as punishments.

Sometimes parents let natural consequences happen, knowing their child will be hurt. They want to “teach the child a lesson” (which is a surefire sign that indirect punishment is taking place). If you tell your child not to touch a hot burner on the stove and the child reaches for it, you have two choices: let the child be burned or intervene. One is cruel and the other is educational. Natural consequences don’t have to take full effect for a child to learn.

Logical consequences are selected by parents and may involve input from the child. In that sense, they are preferable to punishment. They are intended to be directly related to the unwanted behavior. For instance, a logical consequence for breaking a rule about running through the house and destroying a family heirloom might be helping to clean up the pieces and then having a time out to sit and chill.

Consequences can be effective and they can also be abused. To complicate matters further, you run into the trouble of children not recognizing the difference between a punishment and a consequence, which defeats the purpose of making the distinction in the first place.

Limits

Limits are respectful boundaries that allow all parties to be in relationship with each other and know what the guidelines are. It is possible to enforce a limit without adding on a punishment or a consequence. Limits define expectations and parents can then walk their children through how to appreciate and abide by that expectation.

The difficulty remains in terms of the child’s interpretation of a limit or a consequence. It may feel very much like a punishment to be reminded of a limit. That’s why it’s important to give the child power over the situation. Giving children power can feel foreign in a culture that diminishes the autonomy of kids, but hear me out.

Dr. Laura Markham has an absolutely fantastic primer on limit setting that I refer to often. I will try to do her justice in my explanation. For a limit to be most effective, it must:

  • be reasonable to the mind of the child (“When we throw dirt, it can get into people’s eyes and hurt them.”)
  • be explained to the child beforehand (“When we get to the park, please remember that dirt must stay on the ground and not be thrown at other kids.”)
  • be enforced consistently and with gentle firmness (“I see you’re having trouble not throwing dirt. Would you like to swing or go down the slide instead?”)
  • be under the authority of the child (“Looks like you’re still having trouble not throwing dirt. Let’s head home for now and come back tomorrow when you’re feeling calmer.”)

At any point in the exchange, the child may feel angry or coerced. Remember to remind your child of the expectations they affirmed and avoid using their behavior to assign a punishment or consequence. Your child doesn’t reason the way you do, especially if your child is under the age of six. Young children do not reliably have the ability to apply episodic memories to their future decision-making. Your young child is not considering the possibility that a consequence or punishment could result from their behavior.

What Do These Disciplinary Techniques Look Like in Real Life?

Imagine a boy called Caleb. He wants to walk to the park with his mom and his siblings to get some fresh air and play a bit. It’s a little chilly outside, but he’s all warm from being cozy in his house. He doesn’t realize that he’s going to get very chilly while on the walk and he will be unbearably cold by the time they reach the park. His mom checks her weather app and realizes it’s too cold to go without a jacket, but Caleb really doesn’t want to wear one and he tells her just that. What should mom do?

Punishment: Mom chastises Caleb for talking back and not obeying and declares that they won’t be going to the park now OR for the rest of the week.

Natural Consequence: Caleb and his family go to the park and he is absolutely miserable. He huddles down shivering while his siblings play.

Logical Consequence: Caleb and his family go to the park and he is absolutely miserable. Mom gives him a picnic blanket and instructs him to wrap up and sit on a bench while his siblings play.

Limit: At the house, Mom says, “I understand you don’t want to wear a jacket. However, I’m not willing to let you be cold. Would you like to carry a jacket or put it in a backpack to take along?” Mom won’t leave the house until she knows Caleb will be safe and warm at the park. The power to leave the house is in Caleb’s hands and the need for a punishment or consequence is avoided entirely.

Which of these techniques would you prefer to employ? What successes have you had with each? Have you run into any difficulties?

Continue to Part 2

Inherited Frustration: How One Family Found Peace After Crisis

Following my post yesterday, I received an extraordinary message from a mom who had a story to tell about her family’s journey from authoritarianism to foster parenting to Peaceful Parenting. With her permission, I am so grateful to be able to share her story here.

I have enjoyed reading these posts on positive parenting and today’s post really resonates with me and within my family dynamics. My husband and I are both in our later 40s, and when we met, I was divorced and had a two-year-old daughter. By this time, I was co-parenting quite nicely with my ex-husband. (There was certainly an adjustment period to that though). 😬 And I had also been doing Foster Care with “High Risk” teens for 6 years at the time. (I hate that term. Always have. But the reasoning for that is because most…not all…had come into foster care due to some kind of neglect/abuse parental death or other forms of trauma). In order for my husband to move in and join our Family (anyone living in the household had to do the same) a background check, several interviews with workers along with parenting classes needed to be taken through our state.

He was in the military, had never been married or lived with anyone and had no Children of his own. He knew from the beginning (once we were serious) that my ex-husband was a very active father. The two of them had many conversations about our daughter. Although he was about to become a very important part in her life, they wanted to work together in helping raise her and they both made a conscience effort to do so. (The same happened with our daughter’s new step momma. So, she ended up with 4 parents that love her).

In Foster Parenting classes they give many conflict resolution techniques, teach about the importance of respecting and fostering the needs of each individual child, working alongside their parents (if they were trying to reintegrate…most teens were in independent living, so reintegration wasn’t common) in partnership parenting in order to help that process, and help the family and children succeed when they went back to their family or eventually moved out on their own. We were taught what normal age appropriate behavior looked like, and were encouraged to have honest and open dialogue with the children about their thoughts, feelings, emotions and needs. There was absolutely NO corporal punishment of any kind allowed or involved by state law. (As it should be). Since I was a foster parent before we had a child of our own, that’s also how we raised our child. “Peaceful Parenting” probably before the term was even coined. Lol

Anyway, our families live in different states, and I knew the first time I met his family that my daughter and I were valued and loved. This started even before we met them actually! They included us and my foster children in every aspect they could! He and I had both been raised in the Christian Faith, and many other aspects of our childhood were the same. Going to church every Sunday (or anytime there was a function) and our families socialized with other families in our Churches. It was just part of our daily lives growing up. The one difference there was that his parents were fundamentalist (meaning “old school” or law oriented) and mine were not and were/are very grace (new testament) oriented. That’s rather important in this long story. Lol.

In the 70s it was a very common “idea” that children were to be seen and not heard. Spanking (or BEYOND spanking) was never questioned. It was usually the “go-to” form of discipline. Spank first…ask questions or talk about it later (if at all). And for those of us who were involved in church (remember…that’s who all the families socialized with so it’s really all we knew) “spare the rod, spoil the child” was preached. Without any further advice or explanation that the term was actually about the shepherd and his sheep. The shepherd’s staff (rod) was used to GUIDE the sheep in the right direction in order to keep them safe…not to physically punish the sheep for “misbehaving”.

In my family, I recall being spanked as a child a few times. My mom was the “disciplinarian” of the family, but neither of them were “yellers” and she usually just talked to us if there were issues. The few times I did get spanked, she still talked and validated our feelings…but AFTER the spanking. Lol. I never have felt any anger or resentment towards her, and in truth I probably would have been the same way with my children if it hadn’t been for the parenting classes I took. It’s just how I thought it was “done”.

In my husband’s family, (he also went to private schools his entire life) getting spanked with a paddle both at home and even through high school IN the school with family members present sometimes to watch…is just how it was “done”. Not only was it acceptable…it was encouraged. The last paddling my husband remembers was at 17. (It’s called a paddling because it’s a literal paddle board). In both cases our parents absolutely believed they were doing the right thing both socially, and in the eyes of “God”. Who was and continues to be a major part in all of our lives. (My husband and I are now both Grace oriented). 😮

And in both of our cases, our parents absolutely love their children with everything in them. And that love is returned.

My husband was medically discharged shortly after we got together, and we soon found out that he has PTSD. He’s always been one to “react” to stress or certain situations in a negative way. It’s usually by yelling, “demanding” that one “complies without question” (that was partially because of the military) and generally the “just do as I say” without questioning why that certain behavior or situation was even happening. “I’m the boss…you will listen” type thing.

I’ve always been really good at setting boundaries and bringing issues up as they were happening, and I stick to those boundaries while trying to figure out the reasoning behind “it” whatever it is. I was the one that helped our older children with any major issues. If there was a high stress situation happening, I took care of it, while he would exit the room and entered again when things calmed down. I was the “defense” person trying to stop escalation before it happened. In those times of stress, many times things would escalate very quickly and extremely irrationally. Sometimes on the verge of emotional/verbal abuse towards me. For those of you who are familiar with PTSD, this is a fairly common thing. That said, PTSD is a reason…not an excuse (There’s a difference). Nobody is responsible for trauma that’s been inflicted onto them or mental illness. NOBODY. (I suffer with depression and anxiety). But it is our “responsibility” to recognize, take responsibility for and to learn to change patterns of behavior that are harmful to others.

After our second child came unexpectedly in our 40s, (we had been out of FC for several years at this point. Our last children went to college, and had started families of their own) and things went really well until our son started becoming an independent little human. When he started getting into things, walking, talking and all that comes with growing up (Our son is high needs. He has ADHD, sensory issues and is in the evaluation process for autism. Life with a high needs child can be challenging on top of typical everyday growing up that all children go through) so those “high stress” incidents started happening more and more out of frustration.

One day in a high stress situation, he snapped. There was screaming and no rational thinking process in sight. And this happened in front of our son. It was one thing for me…an adult who can speak for myself and has extensive knowledge in how to de-escalate/manage certain behaviors…but it’s entirely different when a child is subjected to that kind of behavior…if its intentional or not. So, I made the decision that day and told him that if this behavior continued, I would divorce him and would do WHATEVER it took to protect our son. Protect him from thinking this was “normal”. Protect him from thinking that this is how we treat those that we love etc. Abuse is abuse…if its intentional or not.

My husband knew that wasn’t a threat. It wasn’t just some kind of manipulation to get him to stop. He knew I was absolutely serious because of my boundary setting and following through. Thankfully he took me seriously and chose to do whatever it took to LEARN different behavior.

So, for the past several years I’ve witnessed him researching developmental stages and age appropriate behavior in children. I’ve seen him take charge of his mental health and seek out different strategies on how to unpack issues in his own life, and learn how to cope in productive ways. I had bought an extensive online course on Positive Parenting, and he took the time to go through all of it. (Sometimes more than once). I’ve witnessed our family becoming a cohesive unit that tackles challenges together. There’s no more “running defense” on my end. I’ve witnessed the relationship between son and father go from frustration and overwhelming…to a relationship of understanding and peace. Naturally there are still challenges and high stress situations…there always will be. That’s life. But life looks and IS so much better for all of us now.

So, I completely understood what was written here in this post. Going against what we knew as “normal” and learning a different way to handle issues within the family unit…and hopefully our children won’t have to “reprogram” themselves later in life like we’ve done. Has it been easy? Absolutely 100% no. Was it worth it? Absolutely 100% yes!! ♡ So thank you for sharing this with us so we don’t feel so alone in our parenting journey.

BB Just Bolted Into the Road!

We were at the supermarket when it happened. LL is home with Peaceful Dad, and I had BB with me. It was an ideal opportunity to let him participate in the shopping process.

I had him holding onto the cart handle with me as we cruised through the store. I pointed out the groceries we needed and told him how many to pick up. He counted along as he picked up each item, “one, two,” which is pretty incredible considering he was barely speaking just one year ago. We arrived at self-checkout where he scanned the items and slipped them into bags (almost entirely) by himself.

Uh oh. There was a twinkle in his eye. My body instinctively started toward him even before I registered what was happening. He ran. When autistic kids do it, professionals call it elopement. Whatever you call it, it’s terrifying watching your child run toward danger.

I knew I had left behind all my groceries, my phone (with credit cards), and my car keys, but I didn’t care in that moment. It was all replaceable. I ran. I yelled, “stop!” I clapped my hands to get him attention. All to no avail. Everyone at the store entrance stared at me with surprised expressions. They were frozen. A store employee yelled “hey!” and a man in the crosswalk area spun around and grabbed BB, letting his own cart continue careening through the lot. I caught up a moment later and took BB’s hand. I thanked the man and calmly started back as he looked on with a stunned expression. He had enforced a limit and, in the process, showed BB that bolting is not acceptable.

I saw everyone watching me and I knew they were waiting to see what I would do. Would I be a proper southern mom and whoop him right there in front of God and everyone or would I be “that mom” who didn’t know how to discipline her child? I could have explained loudly, “He’s autistic and he bolts sometimes!” But, I make an effort not to reveal aspects of his identity he hasn’t consented to me sharing, and I’m actively working to destigmatize autism. Neurotypical kids bolt too. It’s kid behavior and I want folks to be understanding of children. I didn’t explain anything. I simply let the “thank you” stand.

We walked back into the store and completed our transaction while I told BB that running into the street is dangerous and that he’d scared me. I told him that I’d keep him safe next time by using our wrist tether. Prevention is key when it comes to childlike behavior.

But that doesn’t mean it’ll be this way forever. We’ll try again and he may still bolt. It’s ok. These instances are decreasing in frequency as he gets older. If you have a bolter too, I get it. Gentleness is for runners just like it’s for kids who reliably stick right next to you.

I will continue to teach my son how to walk safely next to me with and without the tether. I’ll ignore all the moms online who crassly liken tethers and harnesses to dogs on leashes. I’ll thank the strangers who step in to help when we need it. And, I’ll know I’m doing my best.

You are too.