[Photo credit: Sam Milam]
Does it feel like your relationship with your child is teetering on the brink of full-on hostility and chaos? You try over and over to connect with them, but are met with anger, frustration, and a seemingly bad attitude which results in your own anger and outbursts. Maybe dinner time is a struggle, when all you want is for them to eat their food. They refuse, so you threaten them with no dessert, or no other food for the rest of the night. Maybe you asked them to clean their room and they said no. “Don’t you tell me no,” might slip from your lips. They stomp off. You fume. It’s an endless cycle of negative interaction after negative interaction. Where did you go wrong? How can you turn this around?
There is one strategy that is proven to be effective at fostering a healthy and strong relationship with your child: eliminating punishment and the threat of it.
Now hear me out for a minute, especially those of you that have never heard of such an outrageous idea: Punishment crumbles trust.
It causes resentment, anger, anxiety, indignation, humiliation, fear, guilt, shame, depression. And, believe it or not (but, really, believe it!), punishment actually increases the chances that the specific behavior will happen again. You child will just be more secretive the next time it happens. They will feel the need to lie to protect themselves. They may feel like they can’t trust you, so they won’t come to you for help, for fear of punishment.
Many often say, “But children need to learn that life’s not fair!” Don’t worry, they will. At every turn. Life is jam packed full of no’s. It is full to the brim of unfair, unjust experiences. We, as parents, need to be their safe space; a safe space to screw up and still be embraced. We need to be a refuge for them when they know they’ve made a poor choice, and they just need a shoulder to cry on. Saying, “I love you so I’m going to punish you” makes zero sense to a child. These are two contradictory messages that mix just as well as water and oil. Actions speak louder than words, so the punishment as well as its side effects are what they remember.
Connection and empathy are a buoy amidst the powerful tide of emotions and experiences that children go through and grow through on a daily basis. When a child can experience any emotion (and I mean any!) without fear of punishment or retribution, they are allowed the space to grow emotionally, increasing their emotional intelligence. What we are really doing is holding space for our children. Heather Plett accurately described this method, “It means that we are willing to walk alongside another person in whatever journey they’re on without judging them, making them feel inadequate, trying to fix them, or trying to impact the outcome. When we hold space for other people, we open our hearts, offer unconditional support, and let go of judgement and control.”
How will my child learn boundaries without punishment?
Learning comes through practice. Allowing kids to experience the full range of emotions doesn’t mean they can act out that rage in the form of violence, but it does mean they can be angry. An angry child doesn’t mean the parent needs to be angry, and it doesn’t mean they should be left alone with their anger until they can calm down. A child that is struggling, whether they are sad, angry, or crying all over the place for some unknown reason, is a child that is having a hard time. Unwanted behaviors are the result of unmet needs. Maybe those needs are hunger, tiredness, illness, or deeper issues like sorrow, anxiety, disappointment, or feeling powerless in a world where children already have very little power or control over their lives. You can set boundaries with your child through empathy, and a gentle, yet firm resolve. “You look really angry. I saw you hit your brother. You didn’t like him playing with your tower. I can’t let you hit him because hitting hurts, but I’ll stay here and help you build your tower.” If the child is younger, you can usually distract them. If they are raging and unable to calm down, you can go to a different space with them and be there with them through their emotions. That rage will melt into sadness, and you will be ready to step in for that healing to happen.
Parenting without punishment doesn’t mean there are no boundaries. No punishment doesn’t mean giving a child everything they’ve ever wanted. No punishment doesn’t mean no respect or manners. The difference is that a child who makes choices because they want to rather than choices based on fear of consequences, is a child that is building the foundation where integrity and dignity are formed.
All children can thrive in a home that has no punishment. If that is all you’ve ever known, it might be a rough transition, but the transition to connecting instead of correcting will reap lifelong benefits for you, your child, and your relationship.
Let’s say I want to try this newfangled idea, how the heck do I start?
- Self-care and education. It all starts with us, as parents. We need to shift our perspective away from viewing children as beings that need to be controlled. We need to learn tools to cope with our own emotions (like meditation and self-care).
- Get playful. Just yesterday I was irritated that my 3-year-old was taking foreeeeeever to walk home from the park. My 6-year-old is well-practiced in cooperation skills and decided to get playful. “Oh no, a PacMan is going to eat us, RUN!” And they both ran all the way home laughing.
- Empathize. Empathize with the child when you feel they are being “dramatic” or “over-reacting” to a situation. “You really wanted to go to dance class with your brother. You are so sad.” And let the little one sob on your shoulder. She’ll feel better once those emotions are out of her body. Their tears and meltdowns are caused by something that is a big deal to them, even if it doesn’t feel like a big deal to us. Empathizing builds trust and safety.
- Forgiveness. A lot of it. For yourself and for your child. They mess up. You mess up. We are all humans with real human emotions, trauma, triggers, needs, and wants, and sometimes those things will clash. Allowing room for mistakes will make this journey much more enjoyable and productive.
A relationship won’t change overnight, because trust isn’t built in a day. Our job as parents is to be a constant for our children (albeit a human constant that has real emotions and needs, too), a beacon of light that sends a warm, fuzzy feeling throughout their body whenever they see it, because they know they are home and safe. Parenting without punishment is the first step for building a future generation of emotionally intelligent and resilient children.
Sam Milam is a freelance writer, mother of two, and attachment parenting advocate who enjoys running her blog, Pocketful of Pebbles. When she isn’t writing, she is exploring the Pacific Northwest and homeschooling her kids.