When I was in college, a friend of mine said to me, “Remember when we were kids and we were punished, and then we had to say we were sorry for what we did? I said I’m sorry, but I never knew what I was sorry for.” At the time, I thought her comment was kind of funny and didn’t think about it much until I became a mom.
In my beginning days of being a mom, I think I watched a little “too much” Supernanny. I set up small quarantined area in the house for when my daughter did something I thought was time-out worthy. Once it was for eating a flower in the backyard when I told her to put it down. These were my “your choice/consequence days.” — “You can put the flower down or you can go into timeout. It’s your choice.” In my mind, I was justified. It could be poisonous, and I was protecting her.
Another time, when my daughter was around two or three, she pinched her little brother. I told her to go into her room to think about what she did. My sister burst out laughing and said, “Do you really think she’s going to go into her room and think about what she did and how she’s remorseful for it? She’s going to in there and think her brother is a jerk and think you are too!”
I started to question what I was doing and why. Part of that led me to question punishment in general. I went to lectures and read books by Alfie Kohn, Naomi Aldort, Harvey Karp, Pam Leo, Haim Ginott, Aletha Solter, and others and started to question my beliefs around punishment.
Many people, once they’ve become open to the idea that punishment doesn’t work or doesn’t fit into the paradigm of who they want to be as a parent, ask “Now what can I do? If I ‘can’t’ punish my kids, what can I do instead?” This post gives you a few answers.
Ten Gentle Alternatives to Punishment
by © Chaley-Ann Scott, author of The Shepherdess: A Guide to Mothering without Control
Many of us don’t feel comfortable using punishment with our children, but we don’t know what to do instead. We feel we have to punish bad behavior to ensure it doesn’t happen again, and to teach our kids a lesson. Without punishment, how will they learn right from wrong? The good news is that children can and do learn how to become kind, responsible and socially acceptable without us using punitive measures. Instead we can use the respectful alternatives shown below:
1. Look behind “bad” behavior and assume positive intent. We are encouraged by many parenting experts to either ignore or punish bad behavior, but this means we may miss out on an opportunity to listen to what our child is trying to communicate to us. If we see a tantrum or bad behavior as “naughtiness,” then ignoring or punishing our child will make sense. If we see it as a loud emotion that our child is trying to communicate to us the only way they know how, then ignoring or punishing doesn’t make any sense at all. All it does is encourage our child to stop trying to communicate their needs to us because we aren’t listening.
Also, what constitutes “bad” or “‘good” behavior is very subjective. Looking deeper at the behavior often makes us understand it more. Behavior that appears naughty or destructive most often through a child’s eyes is just innocent exploration and a quest for further knowledge. Sometimes it is just their way of communicating an unmet need. That can be hard for us to grasp, having been conditioned into believing children are naturally manipulative, sneaky, lazy and greedy. However, if we see our children through a more positive lens, where we trust that they are doing the best they can, we find it easier to accept that they are still learning and figuring out their way in the world.
- Imagine the world from our child’s point of view. We often forget how it feels to be a child, thereby judging their actions and words through an adult lens. If we see the world from our children’s point of view, it will help us understand their actions and remind us of who our children truly are, by understanding what they face in this world. It is also important to remember that they aren’t us—they have their own interests, views, desires and personality that we need to honor. Imagine how you appear and sound from your children’s point of view. Are you empathetic? Are you on their side? Are you respectful to them? Do you validate their feelings? Do you take them seriously? Are you someone who adds to their joy or hinders it? Are you a controller out to ruin their fun, or are you someone who enriches their lives? Do you really consider their feelings and viewpoints on family issues? Being mindful of who our children are and “where” they are right now in the world will help us to parent more gently.
- Identify and respond to needs. Children don’t always communicate with words; they often communicate with actions. If they are getting fidgety, grumpy or displaying “bad” behavior, it may be that they need to get outside or jump around. They may need quiet time or time alone or a hot bath. They may be feeling sad or upset about something and need to talk. They may need more of you—so get down on the floor and play with them, take them outside for a ball game, or share a book and a snuggle together. Often “naughty” behavior is just a child’s way of expressing an unmet need, so if you remain fully connected and present with your child you should be able to identify way in advance when they are out of sorts and respond accordingly.
- Give information and reasons, and find acceptable alternatives. If your child requests something that isn’t agreeable to you (for non-arbitrary reasons), then rather than providing an outright “no”, try and find the “yes”, and offer acceptable alternatives to both of you. For example, if your child wants to color on the walls, then an alternative to reprimand is to first explain that this would damage the house and that you like it nice, and then to explore why he wants to color on the walls and suggest an acceptable alternative. You may find out that he likes standing up to draw; or he likes drawing big pictures, but paper is too small. He may then be just as happy to do chalk drawings in the yard, to draw on the garage wall or on the fence, or to draw in the kitchen on a large piece of butcher’s paper. Showing him you are always on his side trying to find ways for him to get to do what he wants will strengthen his trust in you and set you up as partners rather than adversaries.
- Model how you want them to behave. We need to treat our children with the same respect, courtesy and kindness we would an adult and behave in the way we would like them to. How often have you seen parents demand manners from their child that they don’t use themselves? How often have you heard parents behave in ways they would reprimand their child for? Children are always learning, most of which they do from observation. Progressive parenting means allowing them to develop these skills in their own time and in their own way, while modeling the behavior that we would like to see in our children.
- Accept “No” for an answer. If “no” is an acceptable answer for adults, then why not for children? Making “no” an acceptable answer for our children shows them how much we respect them. Conventional parenting tells us it is rude and disrespectful for a child to say no to a request from a parent, or to any adult for that matter. However, isn’t it more disrespectful of adults to not accept a “no” just because she is a child? The more we accept “no” as an acceptable answer, the more likely our child is to say yes intrinsically, rather than out of fear, duty or compliance.
- Apologize. Apologies are immensely healing and cleansing. We are conditioned into believing we should never apologize to our children, as that shows weakness or a lack of authority, and our children won’t trust us anymore. The opposite is true. If we apologize to our children, we show them we are human and capable of making and owning up to our mistakes, an attribute many of us hope our children will acquire.
- Drop expectations and value judgments. We need to start seeing our children as the unique human beings that they are—each one not an age, a gender or a label, but a person. Children can have intense feelings and needs, and some are at times loud, curious, messy, willful, impatient, demanding, creative, shy, confident and full of energy. We must try not to judge their interests, passions or personalities. If we don’t expect them to be doing certain things, in a certain way, on a certain schedule, we can begin to accept them as they are at that moment.
- Be their hero. So often I hear parents saying negative things about their children—sometimes right in front of them. How often do you hear parents throwing around comments like, “Oh, I can’t wait until the holidays are over,” or “They are driving me nuts,” or “They are so lazy/stupid/rude,” or even “I love him, but I don’t like him”? We shouldn’t get drawn into verbal kid-bashing, either in their presence or not. When we consider how we would feel if someone we loved was talking that way about us, it can make us see how painful this is for a child. Saying nice things to and about our children, and standing up for them to others, will make our children feel truly respected, loved and protected.
- Be positive—it’s contagious. Have you ever noticed that the more cranky you are with the kids, the more cranky they get—and the vicious circle begins! Many of us have been brought up with authoritarian parents, so it can feel like an impossible task to move from control to connection in our worst moments. It is important to remind ourselves that loving our children right now is something we really want to do. It is something we choose, and many people aren’t lucky enough to have what we do. That’s the kind of voice to add in and listen to any moment we feel frustrated and are getting wrapped up in the hassle of parenting. Rather than focus on changing them, teaching them a lesson or getting away, we can focus on changing our perspective. Not once-and-for-all forever, as that’s too overwhelming, but a small step, just right now. Really being with our children—looking at them, smelling their hair, getting down on the floor and playing with them, following their interests and sharing ours with them—all help us to be able to put ourselves in a more positive frame of mind and restore peace.
Do you try to raise your kids without punishment? If yes, why and what do you do instead? How is it working for you and your family?
Chaley-Ann Scott is a sociologist, parenting counselor, writer, and the mother of four unschooled children. Parents from around the globe seek Scott’s advice by phone and email, and her articles appear in parenting and education publications worldwide. For free newsletters, articles and information on consultations and products: www.asktheshepherdess.com.”
Thank you Chaley for giving us permission to republish your article. I feel grateful for your insight and your willingness to contribute because it meets my need for knowledge, competence, and community.