How To Discipline Without Punishing

Lessons in Parenthood: Week 15

I don’t believe in punishing children. I don’t believe in making them feel bad about themselves or what they’ve done. I believe in construction. I believe that punishment only serves as a way for me to vent my anger and frustration while I tamper with my child’s ability to use her intellect over her emotions. Maybe it’s just my own personal style of parenting, maybe it’s my personality, but I always want that my child, in all circumstances, can use her brains. If she’s ruled by her emotions she’s less likely to make the best decisions. Punishment tends to do just that. The biggest crime of punishment is that it nurtures fear. That’s really the essence of why I don’t like punishment:

It is intended to make a child fear the punishment enough that they will behave according to the adult’s wishes  

rather than, teaching and showing them how better behavior is better for life’s journey. Discipline, on the other hand, should be a constructive way to disagree with something that’s wrong while encouraging good values and actions.

It’s not easy.

Know that if you choose this parenting style, it’s not easy. It’s much easier to simply punish your child for everything they do that you don’t like. Also, it probably gets a faster reaction and compliance, which makes your life temporarily easier. I really understand this. Parenting can be so utterly exhausting at times that we would give anything for some peace. However, I really believe that parenting is also an investment. You don’t get a good ROI when you put less into your investment.

Remember their developmental abilities.

I’ve often said that children are brilliant and intelligent. From a very young age they understand more than we give them credit for. Don’t underestimate that. BUT, do not expect them to be able to reason and react beyond their age. At earlier than one-year-old Olivia could understand me when I said, “You may not throw your cup on the ground,” but she did it anyway. Instead of slapping her hand or shouting or giving her a stern word or two, I would simply remove the cup out of her reaching distance. Then I make sure to give her my full attention for as long as it takes. This is especially important when she throws a tantrum. No matter where they are or who’s watching, you should calmly address them without trying to force them to change their behavior. It can be embarrassing when this happens in public, but I try to remind myself that it’s a special gift children have that they temporarily don’t care what anybody thinks of them. Again, I don’t expect her to know better than to throw a tantrum, she’s a two-year-old. I just expect her to understand me when I disagree with it.

Use correct and appropriate language.

From newborn on, Luka and I talked to our babies as if they understand every word. We never talked baby talk to them. We were never silly or exaggerated our tones. We simply spoke to them as we spoke to everyone else. This included using correct terms and language. When Olivia wants to take the dishes out and I don’t want her to, I tell her she “may not” rather than she “can’t.” Of course she “can,” because, of course, she has the ability to do it. There is a big difference between the two. “You may not” and “you are not allowed” and “that’s not permitted” are all very different from “you can’t,” which really means you are not at all able, which is nonsense.

Don’t use blanket statements to justify your parenting decisions.

“Because I said so” and “I don’t care” are probably among my most hated phrases ever. I remember vividly being a child and hearing those words and feeling so completely frustrated and demoralized. Being a mother to a toddler, I get how easy it is to fall into using these phrases when you’ve repeated yourself 7,438,024 times in one morning. At one point you are just sick of explaining and sick of giving reasons. They aren’t working anyway! I really get it. But words are meaningful. I remember hearing, “I don’t care,” and feeling that really meant, “I don’t care about you.” It said to me that my cares and concerns were not important or cared about and that meant that they didn’t care about me. After an explanation, think about what you are really trying to communicate to your child and find the best simplified statement for that. It’s ok to repeat yourself. Olivia’s going through a phase where her go-to reply for everything is, “but I don’t want to!” After giving her 1,001 answers to this I eventually just stated kindly, “I know, that’s ok,” and if (when) she repeated herself, I did too.

Don’t bargain. Stick to your word.

I think this is the most common mistake parents make. The classic example I think of is when you’re trying to get your child to come with you and they won’t and then you threaten them, “Okaaaaay, I’m leaving! BYE!” This may work once or twice, but kids aren’t stupid and they realize real quick that you won’t actually leave them and that means that nothing you say needs to be taken seriously. The other side of this is the parent who says, “If you come right now/pick up that toy/stop crying then you can watch a movie/have a treat/etc.” It removes you as the authority and decision-maker. The child is running the show, but the real downfall is that they have lost their trust in you and your word. Your word should be solid. Now, we all have those “survival days” when we bribe our kids in order to preserve our dwindling sanity. Ice cream, movies, whatever it takes to get through the day. And THANK GOD for those things that come to the rescue. Every other day, regularly, your word should be trustworthy. Your child should know that when you say something, you really mean it. Not just in disciplining, but in general, it makes you a credible source in life. When you say, “If you don’t pick this up then there will be no movie tonight,” give them appropriate time to think and act and if they run away or don’t do then simply, calmly say, “Ok then you’ve made your decision that there will be no movie tonight.”

Don’t threaten.

Rolling from the last one, when you do act on their consequences, don’t sound angry or threatening. Do your best not to take this personally. They are just a feral human trying to exercise their will. That’s normal. You’ll gain much more respect from your child if you remain in control of your tone and your emotions.

Set few boundaries.

Because parenting is such a wild ride, I think it’s better to be mostly flexible. However, what few rules there are should be respected and observed. For instance, we have a strict no hitting rule. It’s a boundary that has no leeway. I don’t accept that she’s upset and allow her to hit me. I don’t tolerate it for one second. To me, it’s violence and it’s hurting others and that is never acceptable. Now, I react strongly to that, but I don’t react the same way if she sticks her tongue out. When she sticks her tongue out at me, I would rather make it into a silly game than make it a big no-no. I think kids take you more seriously when you are strict to only a few things. Is it really such a big deal? Will it matter when they’re a teenager? Adult? If not, then make it into a game. If it’s something that is really important then make sure you give it weight every time.

If you noticed, none of these are absolutes. None of these are things like, “send your child to the room for 5 minutes at a time” sort of discipline. That’s because I don’t believe there’s any one-size-fits-all action for parenting. Every child is different and we all have different parenting styles. You may have a way of communicating with your first child that works very well and then the second one doesn’t respond at all to that way of communication and you have to adjust. I really don’t see the sense in treating every child exactly the same. They’re different! The best thing you can do is read a lot, get ideas, find what works for you and your child, do what feels right, go with your gut. You could read this and agree with some things and think that others are ridiculous. Great! The key is that you are working on finding new ideas for parenting.

Raising kids is like a science experiment. You try one thing, see what kind of reaction it gets, if it’s good you keep it up, if it’s not you try something else.

What are some things that work for you and your child?