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?

The Brutality of the “I Turned Out Fine” Argument

A couple years back, The New York Times published an article called “The Fallacy of the ‘I Turned Out Fine’ Argument.” In the interest of specificity, I will simply quote the key logical problems with this argument, as explicated in that piece:

It’s what’s known as an anecdotal fallacy. This fallacy, in simple terms, states that “I’m not negatively affected (as far as I can tell), so it must be O.K. for everyone.” As an example: “I wasn’t vaccinated, and I turned out fine. Therefore, vaccination is unnecessary.” We are relying on a sample size of one. Ourselves, or someone we know. And we are applying that result to everyone.

It relies on a decision-making shortcut known as the availability heuristic. Related to the anecdotal fallacy, it’s where we draw on information that is immediately available to us when we make a judgment call. In this case, autobiographical information is easily accessible — it’s already in your head. We were smacked as kids and turned out fine, so smacking doesn’t hurt anyone. But studies show that the availability heuristic is a cognitive bias that can cloud us from making accurate decisions utilizing all the information available. It blinds us to our own prejudices.

It dismisses well-substantiated, scientific evidence. To say “I turned out fine” is an arrogant dismissal of an alternative evidence-based view. It requires no perspective and no engagement with an alternative perspective. The statement closes off discourse and promotes a single perspective that is oblivious to alternatives that may be more enlightened. Anecdotal evidence often undermines scientific results, to our detriment.

It leads to entrenched attitudes. When views inconsistent with our own are shared we make an assumption that whoever holds those views is not fine, refusing to engage, explore or grow. Perhaps an inability to engage with views that run counter to our own suggests that we did not turn out quite so “fine.”

Where is the threshold for what constitutes having turned out fine? If it means we avoided prison, we may be setting the bar too low. Gainfully employed and have a family of our own? Still a pretty basic standard. It is as reasonable to say “I turned out fine because of this” as it is to say “I turned out fine in spite of this.”

Recently, I participated in a large 1,000+ comment discussion about spanking. Nearly every commenter supported spanking and many made the “I turned out fine” claim. Anywhere you see adults treating children in a violent manner, you are bound to also find people making complimentary comments to the effect that they received the same treatment themselves as children and it taught them to respect their elders. Respect? I’d be curious to know what that means to them, since so many people cannot believe that giving respect to children engenders respectfulness from children.

I was discussing that heartbreaking thread with a friend who remarked:

I was ruminating on statements of erasure like that. And I wondered if it exists because it’s too painful to consider that they themselves were also mistreated.

Because to acknowledge someone’s pain means realizing you were maimed too.

Statements of erasure. She took my breath away. That’s exactly what people do when they suggest that the often unbearable pain one person experiences can’t be that bad if others survive it without obvious scars. What about the deep scars? The ones they deny. The ones they can’t accept. The ones that offer points of empathy and connection to others who shared the same experience?

Adults who defend spanking, and were spanked as children, openly admit that they tried to avoid being spanked. They know it hurt. Yet, they inflict the same uncomfortable experience on their kids. Not only that, they also vehemently defend their parents’ decision to spank them. Consider the following description:

[Children who will become adults who condone spanking] are placed in a situation where they feel intense fear of physical harm and believe all control is in the hands of their tormentor. The psychological response follows after a period of time and is a survival strategy for the victims. It includes sympathy and support for their [parents’] plight and may even manifest in negative feelings toward [advocates] who are trying to help [spanked children].

I admit I tweaked the wording with my own edits. This is actually a description of Stockholm Syndrome, a survival mechanism that manifests when people cannot escape their tormentors and find themselves becoming psychologically attached as a means of protection from harm. It is a form of trauma bonding and it is frighteningly similar to what happens to spanked children who become spankers as adults. These adults demand their “right” to hit their children in order to make them behave despite the fact that spanking not only doesn’t make children behave, it also increases the risk of negative behavioral, cognitive, psychosocial, and emotional outcomes for children. Spankers will say that can’t be true, because their children are wonderfully behaved. If spanking works, though, why do you have to spank a child more than once? Moreover, is the child really well behaved, or are they experiencing an instinctive survival response that makes them passive?

The evidence is clear that harsh treatment does maim kids. For instance, a 2009 study found reduced prefrontal cortical gray matter volume in young adults who had been exposed, as children, to occasional spanking with a paddle on the buttocks that neither resulted in injury nor was conducted in anger. To be clear, the area of their brains that was affected manages the abilities to 1) distinguish oneself from others, 2) see oneself in others, 3) empathize with others, 4) predict behavior in others, and 5) use logical judgment in interpreting behavior in others. You can imagine how incredibly detrimental such brain changes would be. And, there are millions upon millions of people who have been affected and may not even realize it. And, the scariest part for me is that there is no way to predict the effects spanking will have on a child. Why take the risk?

When a commenter in that spanking discussion I mentioned earlier was asked what spanking offered that other forms of punishment didn’t, she responded “immediacy.” People are willing to permanently damage their children’s brains to achieve immediate compliance even when they know what the evidence says. And, if you’re thinking that perhaps spanking without the use of an object is a better option, think again. The evidence is staggering that physical (e.g. spanking, calisthenics, etc.) and emotional (e.g. public shaming, belittling, etc.) violence harms kids.

Years ago, when Adrian Peterson was being tried for abusing his toddler son, Cris Carter had this to say about right and wrong when it comes to parenting:

The harsh treatment we felt was unfair as children was unfair. We didn’t deserve it and our parents were wrong for it. The fact that we (me included) have ever felt any different is the result of the gaslighting our culture does to kids. We’re all left believing a lie. Consider times your bad experiences have been minimized. Think back to those frustrating moments when you’ve been made to believe you were overreacting when you weren’t. That’s what our culture does to children every day. Our entire culture is childist, so it’s no surprise that so many of us are convinced that it’s normal to yell at and hit kids. After all, they can be irrational and we adults have to assert our authority over them… just like men did to women not that long ago and just like white people have long done to people of color. We’ve seen this kind of discrimination carried out before. It’s not new, but kids simply don’t have enough social capital to effect change on their own.

Who would we be if our parents had been gentle and respectful with us? What would society be as a whole? Here’s the saddest part. No one can possibly know who they might have been had their parents been gentle and respectful with them. What we do know is that respectful, responsive parenting approaches are evidence-based. They succeed with all children, because they account for eventualities. They succeed across neurotypes and other differences. Even kids with Oppositional Defiant Disorder find relief with peaceful techniques.

I have great empathy for parents. I know how stressful it is to be a mom with a unique set of challenges and others have so many more challenges. What some may see as judging parents, I see as protecting kids since kids are the ones affected by childism. I’m always speaking for the child’s perspective. The unfortunate truth is that no one who experiences violence in any form, be it yelling or spanking or whatever, comes out ok on the other side. We survive and can flourish, but we still carry those scars with us and they come out in unexpected ways, like losing patience with our own children. We fall back into the patterns we knew as children and those often become our parenting vices.

If you were treated harshly like me, you did not turn out fine. You survived… with scars. But, humans are extraordinary and resilient. We can turn challenge into promise through force of will and support by people who want to see us succeed. Now that you know, here’s the inevitable choice: continue the generational trauma, or choose a completely different path. The path I chose was Peaceful Parenting. You have to find your own path, though I do hope you find your way back to this blog! I would love to support you in your efforts to improve the lives of your kids.

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.

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