Maybe you've heard, spoken in hushed whispers, of parents who choose not to punish their children. But, if they don't want children who hurt themselves or wind up in hospital, what on earth do they do? In this post, I want to offer you five steps, more like five maxims, on what parents who don't punish can do instead.
1.) All parents need to set limits, but you don't need to punish children to do it.
Limits are essential; after all, life is full of non-negotiables. The road is dangerous. The hotplate could burn you. A trike plus a hill plus no helmet can hurt when you're 18 months old and uncoordinated. It's important to remember there is a difference between discipline and punishment; discipline is about teaching children to control themselves and make appropriate choices while punishment is about making children feel badly about themselves. We want the former, to have our children control themselves. The latter is unproductive. There's no need to punish a child for pushing limits, if we maintain our 'no', that is what stands. Saying no can be hard, especially if our child cries about the limit. Tears are okay, they are a legitimate release of frustration, but if the limit is important, it should still stand.
2.) There is usually something else you can do instead of punishing.
Because most of us were punished, it's hard to know what to do; after all we haven't had a model of not-punishing. It doesn't help that people who see us may look at us with a gaze that implies, "Gee, s/he should really have taken the toy away/smacked /threatened something when the child did [whatever the child did]". And that's a lot of pressure. I know it's annoying when, for example, the child won't just do the shopping because, convenience. But, why can't you leave the stuff in the trolley and step outside for a bit? We don't own what is in the trolley, the shop does, so it's okay to leave it while our child has their meltdown outside and come back to the trolley when they're feeling better. That time can be enough time to give your child a chance to calm down, eat or drink something and then you can get on with the job.
3.) It helps to understand how children develop and grow.
Maybe we ask too much of our children. Understanding the stages of children's brain development can help us avoid a lot of unnecessary angst and pain, for our children and ourselves. There are a lot of things we can do to help our children positively and competently achieve necessary tasks including sitting still, helping around the house and behaving in an appropriate manner
4.) The opposite of punishment is rewards and they don't necessarily work.
Many parents believe that extrinsic motivators, such as rewards and punishments, override a child's natural inclination to do what's right. It's very hard not to say, "good job!" when they do the 'right' (by which, I mean convenient) thing. But, why not say, "thank you"? It's clear, it's neutral and it models for our children the way we want them to behave, it also avoids the praise junkie we can make of our children when we constantly over-react, positively, to their behaviour. Similarly, with sticker charts and 'bribes' we may communicate that the task we've asked them to do is so unpleasant, there's no way they could want to do it by themselves. Is that the message we want to risk sending?
5.) It's okay to walk away
I read a piece on The Huffington Post recently suggesting that heavy metal music can diffuse anger and make people calmer. Sometimes, a good dose of metal makes me feel much better when the alternative is screaming at my children something I'll later regret. It's also useful sometimes to put the child somewhere safe and have a shower, swear into a pillow, play the drums, breathe, or just be alone for a few minutes while you calm down. Not that any of you would ever swear at your children. Taking steps to control our feelings models our ability to calm ourselves, especially when we explain why we're doing it. Putting them in their room without a discussion to 'think about what you've done' may imply that they need to go away because you're removing them, not yourself.
If you really want to, you too can choose not to use punishments and rewards without compromising your child's safety or your own needs for sanity and to get stuff done. Parenting without punishing is effective, it's practical and it may make parenting easier and more enjoyable.