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The Trouble With Punishment

Today’s guest post is submitted by Clara Mitchell.  Clara has combined her decade of parenting experience with her professional background in psychology and education to found The Parent Company. While experiencing the challenging (though wonderful!) roller coaster ride of raising children, she was inspired to seek positive solutions to everyday family issues. She is passionate about sharing her knowledge and skills through classes and workshops that focus on creating healthy, connected, and grounded families. Her goal is for children to have high self-esteem, to be self motivated and respectful of themselves and others, and for parents to be happy and confident with their parenting.  Clara earned her BA in Psychology, her M.Ed. in Educational Psychology and has trained extensively in the positive parenting field.  

clara mitchellPunishment works!  No doubt about it.  It usually stops the negative behavior immediately, but at a cost to the child and to your relationship. This may be a difficult concept to embrace when many of us were raised with time-outs, groundings, spankings, and shame. You might be thinking that parents must teach their kids a lesson, right?  But whoever said that children need to feel bad to do better?  There are ways to discipline, to be kind and firm, yet teach children limits and lessons all at the same time.

So is punishment worth it?   I say NO.  Hang in there, and hear me out! I will discuss why children misbehave and the results of punishment, and will leave you with an assortment of new and improved ways to interact with your kids.  I guarantee you’ll find a compassionate way to respond starting today.

Why children misbehave

Children misbehave for a variety reasons.  The obvious is that they’re hungry and tired.    They also misbehave because they haven’t learned the proper skills for the situation or they may actually be acting age appropriately but we may expect too much from them and interpret it as misbehavior.  For example, taking our two year old child to a sit down restaurant is asking for him or her to misbehave.  Children aren’t capable of sitting for long periods and they certainly don’t have the understanding of proper restaurant manners.  Daniel J Siegel, MD and clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine explains this type of occurrence as can’t vs won’t.  It’s not that your child won’t do or act the way you’d like, he or she can’t.  Yes, sometimes they can, but at this instance they can’t.   Your son can’t stop the whining and crying while you’re shopping at the store today because he didn’t get to sleep early enough last night. Since he didn’t get the hours of sleep he needed, the school day was long and difficult.   And now, you’ve taken him to the store right at dinner time.  He just isn’t able to behave.  He is hungry and he is exhausted and his behavior is communicating that to you.  The same goes for us adults.  When we’re up with the baby all night or working long days on a big project, we can’t control ourselves as well as we’d like, and so we’re much quicker to anger and misbehave under those circumstances.

Kids have many needs.  Most importantly they have a need for belonging and significance according to Dr. Alfred Adler, psychotherapist.  When children misbehave, they essentially are letting you know that those needs for belonging and significance are not being met.  Dr. Jane Nelson, Positive Discipline author and educator, provides a wonderful example in her book.  If your son or daughter comes to you and says, “I am a child and I want to belong.”  You wouldn’t get angry and put that child down.  Although your child is not saying those exact words, the misbehavior is speaking for him or her.  As parents we need to ask ourselves what we can do to help our child feel significant, important, and like they belong in the family.

The results of punishment

The research on the long term effects of punishment shows that it teaches sneakiness, dishonesty, and low self-esteem.  Not only that but punishment damages the relationship between you and your child which is critical for the development of a child’s healthy self-esteem.   Instead of learning from mistakes, a child is learning how not to get caught next time.

When we punish or threaten, a child goes into a fight or flight response and the rational part of their brain turns off.  Children cannot learn under stress or fear!  Let’s think about that for a minute. Children aren’t able to think clearly and thoughtfully about the misbehavior when parents are yelling or lecturing.  Never do they think, “Thank you Mom and Dad for your feedback.  I now understand my mistake!”  They’re thinking “how unfair this treatment is, “how my parents don’t understand”, or “that’s not what happened”.  But seldom do they think about their behavior and how they should alter it next time.

Ultimately, we want children to understand their mistakes, learn from them and make amends if necessary.  But only in a safe environment.  These mistakes children make create the most wonderful opportunities for them to learn.

Do you see how punishment does nothing to help children learn and grow from their mistakes?   Can you look back and see the times when you’ve been full of rage and have taken it out by punishing your child?  Wouldn’t you agree it’s more about you and your current mood (maybe your needs aren’t being met) than what your child has actually done?

New ways to interact

Next time you feel the need to punish, think again and try these positive approaches that evoke connection, understanding, problem solving, and love.

1. Pause:  Take a deep breath.  There is no rule stating that you need to respond to a challenge immediately.  Respond in 5 minutes, 24 hours, or a week. Maybe you’ll decide that it’s not even worth your attention.
2. Hug:  Remember that a child is misbehaving because some need is not being met. A simple hug is often just what a child needs to know that you’re there unconditionally loving them.
3. Problem Solve:  So your child made a mistake.  This is a perfect opportunity to brainstorm possible solutions with your child.  Not only is this a positive way to respond, but your child is also learning valuable life skills about making amends and learning from mistakes.
4. Be Honest:  Tell your child, “I’m really upset right now. Can we talk about this tomorrow?”  That is excellent modeling for a child to see.
5. Listen:  Kids need to feel like you understand them.  And if you truly are listening and hearing them, you’ll be able to walk in their shoes and understand how they might be hurting, scared, or frustrated.  Take the time to encourage them to talk more with a simple statement like, “Tell me more.”
6. Connect, connect, connect.  A loving relationship full of unconditional love can be the greatest gift your child ever receives.  A child who feels that sense of connection and acceptance at home is less likely to look outside the family towards dangerous behaviors to join like drugs, early sex, cutting or wherever else she feels that sense of belonging.  Robin Berman, MD and psychiatrist counsels many adults who suffer from low self-esteem with well intentioned parents.  Her message on connection is  this: “A strong parent-child connection is the most crucial ingredient to self-esteem.  How you feel loved as a child has a huge impact on how you see yourself, relate to the world, and give and receive love.”  Need help connecting with your child?  Try The Tiny, Little Connection Book

Children are doing their very best with the skills that they have.  Take the time to safely teach them in an environment free of punishment. You’ll then be on your way to a more positive and conscious parenting style with children willing to cooperate and learn from their mistakes. Implementing these positive and safe strategies to your parenting repertoire, will create a family full of love and connection with children who feel a sense of belonging and significance.  This will lead to a much happier family with an abundance of cooperation.


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One comment

  1. Interesting article. Its tough as a parent, but punishment is effective in getting most children to change their behavior. We can call punishment “consequences” or any other cute name we want too, but the idea is to impose some pain or misfortune on a child to get them to comply with our desires as parents.

    As much I hate to admit it, it worked for me as a child too. I was about twelve when another girl talked me into smoking a cigarette with her in a neighbor’s garage. We were caught and later I learned there was gasoline in the garage and it could have potentially set the place on fire and burned us up!

    I ended up being turned over my father’s knee and being spanked on the seat of my panties. At twelve that was just mortifying for me. However, I never did that again!

    The trick as a parent is to motivate our children to do right through communication and positive messages. If we must use “punishment”, we need to find something that fits the actions and doesn’t humiliate the child in the process. Parenting is a tough job. Thanks for your article!

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