Parenting Without Punishment in a Punishing World
By Judy Arnall (Mom of 5 children who grew up without punishments)
I will admit it. I’m a bit of a control freak. Actually, I need a lot of control, because I am “Type-A”, “Judgement,” “Gold color” or whatever those personality tests use to describe me. I need people to do things when I ask them to do it and I feel frustrated when they don’t listen to me. It’s often hard for me to remember that my partner and children are not trying to drive me crazy when they don’t listen to what I ask of them. It’s simply that my needs are just not on their radar for that moment.
Like many others who grew up in the 70’s, my parents used bribery and punishment to control their children. In spite of changing societal views on spanking, they did what their parents did and hung a wooden board in the kitchen called “The Board of Education.” We were regularly spanked as small children and as we got older, we were given “lines to write” in a type of home detention. We were also grounded, and had important outings and possessions taken away from us. I still remember the Halloween that I was grounded and watched my siblings eating their stash, while I had none.
Punishment kept some of us in line, like me, but with the lifelong effect of being afraid of my parents. They were the last people on earth I would come to with a problem, or to share my feelings with. I could never relax or have fun with them, because they had an authority fueled by my anger and fear. Punishment also served to egg on the more spirited children I knew, such as my brother. The challenge for him was to keep on doing what he wanted and just not get caught. It became a game. He had no fear of my parents, but he didn’t respect them either. He just didn’t care what they thought. No punishment was severe enough to deter his drive and persistence. My parents’ goal was to raise obedient children, not to build relationships, and they halfway succeeded.
In the 70’s, the trend of spanking was decreasing. Physical punishment was considered not very “positive” in parenting. Parents became widely permissive until the 1980’s when the pendulum swung back again. The move from authoritarian parenting to authoritative parenting really took hold in that decade with a plethora of parenting programs that told parents physical punishments were bad, but emotional and social punishments were “positive discipline.” 75% of parents spanked, and the non-spanking parents felt they really needed to do something when they were angry, so the concept of time-out, or jail-time, became immensely popular as the discipline tool of choice for young children. For older children, the biggest form of punishment was taking away privacy, telephone privileges and grounding all issued under the guise of “logical consequences.” Today, 85% of parents punish their children emotionally while only 65% use physical punishments. And we wonder why teens dismiss their parents in the last years of childhood? The simple answer is because they can. They can withhold emotional and social involvement.
We don’t pick one style of parenting and stay there. We move toward our parenting goal in meandering ways. In the 90’s I had three children under the age of four, and like many parents, felt anger when they wouldn’t listen to me. My parenting goal was to build strong relationships with my children. I vowed never to spank, and only did once (as I confessed in my first book, Discipline Without Distress.) My four year-old son, looked me in the eye, and said with his saddest voice, “Mommy, you tell us that hitting hurts people. You hurt me.” I never used physical punishment ever again.
However, I did do the jail time-outs and logical consequences. Sticking a child in a room and telling them to “think about what they did,” served one purpose – to give me enough space to calm down. This worked well with my two older boys, but then the spirited firecracker of a daughter came along and kicked, screamed and wrecked her room when I put her in time-out. I realized that time-out, as a “calming tool” was not really fun for her or me. I was tired of holding the door closed and her throwing things at it from the other side while no one was calming down. I still believed in “authoritative” parenting, and still considered parents the supreme rulers of the family that would allow input from the children, but parents still made all the rules. However, children have a way of challenging your assumptions and changing your parenting! I gave up the time-outs.
When my children were ten, nine, seven, four, and one, I did it. I gave up the last piece of punishment that I was holding on to from my authoritative parenting view: “logical consequences.” Again, out of the mouths of babes comes wisdom. When I issued a consequence, my nine year-old son said to me, “No, I’m not choosing this consequence! You are imposing it on me!” After much thought, I concluded he was correct. I already had decided the outcome to the situation and it was painful, in order to teach him a lesson. He would have chosen to fix the situation differently, had I let him. When I issued consequences that were “related”, “reasonable” (or so I had thought) and “respectful,” (but it wasn’t respectful enough, that I would do it to my partner, or friend, or neighbor), he decided that it was definitely a punishment and stopped talking to me. I decided to never again use logical consequences on my loved ones. I didn’t take away cell phones, video games, bedroom doors, or car privileges.
In retrospect, I realized parents can’t give up some bad habits without filling the space with good habits. To tell parents not to do something, you have to give them something to do instead. Managing parental anger and stress was the biggest challenge of non-punitive parenting. At the same time that I let go of authoritative parenting, I took a Train-the-Trainer course and practiced the three “must have” relationship communication skills. I became very practiced in 1)acknowledging people’s feelings, 2)asserting my needs through I-statements, and 3)managing conflicts with win-win collaborative problem-solving. Every person needs these skills for every relationship that they value. Married couples do it. Bosses and subordinates do it. Neighbors who want to stay amicable do it. Why not parents and their children? Parents don’t have to choose between the three traditional parenting styles titled authoritarian, authoritative and permissive. More and more, I believed that parents can be a fourth style: collaborative. Problem-solving can replace punishment. After teaching years of classes, I’ve seen parents change over time in accordance with their goal of building a lifelong relationship.
Current research indicates that children need nurturing and structure. They don’t need punishment. Many “positive” discipline programs and books still incorporate emotional punishment such as jail time-outs, logical consequences, and taking away possessions. For children, there is nothing positive about them. If these techniques are things you wouldn’t do to your partner, why would you do them to your kids? Many times, I would have liked to soak some towels and leave them on my partner’s side of the bed, for all the times he leaves his wet shower towel on my side. Hey, it’s reasonable, related, but respectful? Most of what we do to kids in the form of punishment is not respectful. If we wouldn’t want it done to ourselves, why would we do it to them? As much as we like to tell the kids that consequences are positive discipline, ultimately, children will decide what kind of relationship they will have with you, and you can influence that by focusing on your goal in parenting-respect.
Research also shows that although punishment sometimes works in order to get obedience, it does nothing for the relationship. Fear and anger enter the parent-child relationship, and that effects communication, trust, respect and the simple joy of being together. So why do parents keep clinging to it in spite of the research? We do it to relieve our anger. It takes practice, but when we separate our anger from our discipline, we make much better decisions.
How to tell if consequences are punitive or solving a problem? If there is only one solution and its coming just from you, it might be punitive. If you are soliciting ideas from your child and you both choose win-win solutions together, then it is problem-solving.
There is help. We are now seeing new parenting programs teaching collaborative, relationship-building, non-punitive parenting such as Terrific Toddlers, Joan Durrant’s Positive Discipline, The Growing Brain, as well as updated old standbys such as Non-Violent Communication, and Parent Effectiveness Training.
My kids now range in age of 17 to 28 and I’m happy that our relationships are engulfed in mutual respect. When we have disagreements or problems, we negotiate. Negotiation makes me human with real needs and the rights to get my needs met, just as the kids have the right to get their needs met. We are very influential to each other.
I met with a lot of resistance from society about my non-punitive parenting throughout the years. Relatives questioned my stance. My parents felt I was judging their ways and friends agreed that the topic was off the table if we wanted to remain friends. Now that my oldest children are young adults, and pretty decent human beings, the comments have lessened.
When I teach parents about dropping punishments, I can see the look of surprise and skepticism on their faces. No parent ever goes home after a class and drops all punishments. It’s a process. We let go of punishments one at a time. We see how much harder they are to implement and how much effort it takes from us to continue them. We also see how much it effects our children’s relationship with us.
A common question I hear is, “The world is full of consequences. They have to learn them sometime!” My response is to let the rest of the world punish. You don’t have to. You are building a lifelong love relationship with your child (which the rest of the world is not doing) and don’t have to punish. Just provide nurturing (love) and structure (teaching). You will raise a caring, responsible and good citizen. No fear and no anger towards parents yield high communication, less rebellion, less stress and much less attitude from the child. You can be close and trusted enough that they will come to you with their problems. You can enjoy activities with your teen because they want to spend time with you.
So every day, take a little baby step closer to non-punitive parenting. Young children get better self-control with increased age. It’s a brain development issue; not a discipline issue. You will have many, many, moments to teach your child in the school-aged years. Don’t project ahead. A child who hits at three will not be hitting at 13. Even if your kids are teens, start today. First, work on trying to try to curb your anger. Go outside and take a few deep breaths, go yell in the toilet, or drink a glass of water to calm-down. Once everyone’s calm, then take action. If your child is under three years, teach and redirect. If your child is older than three, help them to problem-solve possible outcomes with you. Aim for win-win solutions that meet their needs and your needs. You have my guarantee; you will enjoy the teen years!