I am often asked about my view on punishments, and why we don’t use them. I hope this blog post sheds some light on why we choose not to use punishments and aim for a gentler, more respectful path when it comes to discipline.
Ten reasons why I don’t use punishments:
1. I choose to take a positive, whole person view of my daughter rather than a negative, behaviour focused one
I believe strongly that children are inherently good, and that “problematic” behaviour usually stems from a) unrealistic expectations from the caregiver (ie. the behaviour is actually totally developmentally normal!) or b) from a deeper feeling or need that the child needs to express or work through. I believe that you cannot separate a child’s behaviour from how they are feeling, or what they are going through, and to try to do so would be an error.
Children are often seen as inherently naughty, in need of being controlled, and punished for behaviour they can’t control. There is so little trust in these young souls. It’s true that young children have not yet developed the impulse control or emotional regulation needed to be able to intentionally control their behaviour – but how many adults can say that they feel 100% in control of their behaviour at all times? I certainly couldn’t.
I don’t believe that children need to be coerced to act in a way which pleases us through punishments; rather, I think that as parents we should model the behaviour we would like to see and trust in the goodness of our children. This is why we also choose not to use rewards or praise. When I look at how my daughter acts, I want to go deeper and consider why she is acting that way, how she is feeling, and what she is communicating by doing so. Those who choose a whole child approach to parenting believe that it’s the child who engages in parenting who matters, not the behaviour itself.
2. I want my parenting to reflect and communicate the unconditional love I feel for my daughter
If you’re reading this article, I’m going to assume that you love your children unconditionally. Whatever they do, you love them ferociously, right? But does your behaviour communicate that to them?
I believe that by punishing our children, especially when we ignore them, shout at them, or act coldly with them, their lived experience is that we are removing our love as a direct consequence of their behaviour – that when they act a certain way, we love them less. This is not what I want to communicate to my daughter – I want her to be absolutely certain that I always love her for who she is, no matter what she does, no strings attached. Children need unconditional love to flourish. Let’s make sure they are getting it.
3. I don’t want to raise my daughter based on a model of parental control
Simply put, I don’t think it’s my right as an adult to control my daughter, just as I don’t believe it’s my right as a wife to control my husband, or my right as a friend to control those around me. I don’t want my relationship with her to be based on power inequality and struggle – as much as possible, I want it to be based on mutual understanding, collaboration, respect, and love. As adults we know that a healthy relationship cannot be based on control. I invite you to consider extending that to children.
I find this quote from Alfie Kohn very poweful:
“A ‘good’ child is one who isn’t too much trouble to grown-ups. Over the last couple of generations, the strategies for trying to produce that result may have changed. Where kids were once routinely subjected to harsh corporal punishments, they may now be sentenced to time-outs or offered rewards when they obey us. But don’t mistake new means for new ends. The goal continues to be control, even if we achieve it with more modern methods. This isn’t because we don’t care about our kids. It has more to do with being overwhelmed by the countless prosaic pressures of family life, where the need to get children into and out of the bed, bathtub or car makes it hard to step back and evaluate what we’re doing.”
I believe that when we try to control our children – when we make them feel powerless – it isn’t good for anyone. Some children respond by becoming very compliant, afraid of authority figures and eager to please. Some children respond by becoming hostile and defiant, always wanting to prove that they do have some power. What is clear is that no one wins.
4. I don’t think unquestioning compliance is an attractive quality in people…
When I think about my daughter, both now and in the future, what are the qualities I would like to see her developing as she grows? Kindness? Yes. A sense of morality? Absolutely. Integrity to her convictions? A love of learning? An ability to find gratitude and joy in what she has? Yes, yes, yes. However, it probably won’t surprise you to hear that obedience and compliance are not on the list. If you heard an adult described as someone who just does what they are told, no questions asked, no answering back – what would you think about that person? Yet this is what we demand from children, highlighting our double standards and hypocrisy (and the fact that as a society we don’t really see or treat children as people in their own right).
5. … and I believe in my daughter developing intrinsic motivation rather than learning to act through fear of someone more powerful
I want my daughter to make choices in life based on her needs and, as she grows, what she believes is right. I don’t want her to do things she doesn’t want to do because she fears punishment or retribution from someone more powerful than her. The idea of raising a child who will do things they don’t believe in just because they are scared of the consequences – or who will see that as an acceptable way to get the behaviour they want from others – is a troubling one.
6. Punishments make no logical sense
Punishments usually make no sense. Your child speaks to you rudely? You take away their gameboy. Your toddler won’t eat the green beans they dislike? No ice cream. How can your child possibly learn from this? Allowing children to learn from the natural consequences of their behaviour (see further down for more on natural consequences) allows far more room for growth than arbitrary punishments.
I believe that if a child is too young to understand reasoning, then surely they are too young to understand the abstract reasoning behind punishments; conversely, if they are old enough to understand reasoning, then you can just use reasoning. There is simply no reason or justification to use punishments.
Punishments often have far more to do with our own frustration and anger than wanting to help our children grow and learn. It is OK to feel frustrated, triggered, upset, and even angry at our children’s behaviour – especially by behaviours that we ourselves were punished or shamed for as children. But it is not OK to take these emotions out on our children as punishments.
7. Punishments encourage children to think about the impact their actions have on themselves, rather than reflecting on how their actions might affect other people.
Regardless of what the punishment is – confiscating a toy, banning screen-time, being placed in “time out”, telling them “that’s naughty” or a smack on the backside* – all it does is focus the child on the wrong that is being done to them. The child who has been punished will feel (rightly) angry and upset at the adult dishing it out. All their thoughts will be about the unfairness and misery of the situation. There is no space or support for reflection on how their actions may have affected others.
Do you remember being punished as a child? I do. And I can assure you that it did not make me reflect on whatever actions had caused me to be punished. Instead it made me feel angry, frustrated, and sad. By placing ourselves in opposition to our children, dishing out punishments at random, we deny our children the opportunity to reflect on what has happened and instead create a gulf between us.
*I want to make it clear that although I feel all punishments are inherently unhelpful and fundamentally wrong, I feel especially strongly that physical punishments and violence have NO PLACE in the family (or our society, or our world). If you hit your kids, stop it. End of.
8. I don’t want my parenting to come from a place of fear.
I believe that for so many parents, punishing children comes from a place of fear. What if my child grows up unable to tell right from wrong? What if other people judge my child and my parenting skills? What if my child never stops pushing other children? What if they never eat vegetables?** But why should our children be punished by our own fears? When we stop listening to that fear and learn to trust our children, life becomes so much easier. This is hard in a society which tells us children need to be controlled or there’ll be hell to pay (ever heard the charming phrase “You’re making a rod for your own back?”) but it’s easier if you surround yourself with like-minded people who will reassure you that no, your three year old is not going to grow up to be a delinquent just because they threw a toy at their sister, but that actually it’s perfectly normal from a developmental perspective.
**Chances are your child will eat vegetables at some point!
9. I choose collaboration and connection over conflict whenever possible.
When there is a problem, rather than immediately establishing a dynamic where there is conflict and unequal power (“I, the stronger adult, am punishing you, the weaker child”) we can instead use it as an opportunity for collaboration, creativity, and connection (“I asked you not to play with that vase but you kept on playing with it and now it is smashed. What do you think we could do about that?”) Children will often surprise us with their thoughtfulness and ingenuity.
10. I want to future proof my relationship with my daughter.
As I have said, often it is our own expectations which need adjusting, not our children’s behaviour. But sometimes our children will really need our help and guidance to get them through a hard time. By reinforcing from a young age that we are on their side and that we love them unconditionally no matter what they do, and that we will help them work though their problems, we open the door for open communication and support for years to come. Trusting in our children is the surest way for our children to trust us in return.
A word on “time outs”
Many families who don’t consider themselves punitive still use “time outs”. But are these any better or more effective than seemingly harsher punishments? A psychologist called Martin Hoffman wrote: “Although it poses no immediate physical or material threat to the child [putting your child in time out] may be more devastating emotionally than power assertion because it poses the ultimate threat of abandonment or separation.”
He pointed out that this type of discipline still communicates to children that if they do something we don’t like, we’ll make them suffer to change their behaviour. I am not comfortable with this way of treating other people. My daughter does not deserve to be treated in this way, and I hope that she grows up to think it would be unacceptable for her to treat others in this way too. It is certainly not how I would wish to be treated.
By withdrawing our interaction and affection from our children, we send the very clear message that they must earn it by doing as we say. I strongly feel that when our children are acting in a challenging manner, it is then that they need our love and connection the most. To withdraw our presence (and, in our child’s lived experience, our love) at precisely that time feels counter-intuitive.
Some children may choose to move away from others or go to their room for some space or to calm down, and some families have a dedicated calm corner with cushions, stress relievers, calming music, or other sensory items. These are a wonderful idea – the key is that the child chooses for him or herself to go and take a moment alone, and can also choose when to return, rather than being forced into isolation as a punishment.
A word on “natural consequences”
There is some discussion in gentle parenting circles of “natural consequences”, but these are often misunderstood. For example:
Problem: Child draws on the wall.
A natural consequence would be: Either (a) the wall looks messy, or (b) mum or dad have less time to play with the child because they are cleaning up the wall.
A punishment (sometimes called a logical consequence) would be: The child is forced to help clean up the wall before they can do anything else.
A natural consequence is just that – what would naturally happen following an action. So the natural consequence of being bossy or rude to a friend is that the friend no longer wants to play, or the natural consequence of not eating lunch is that you are hungry again sooner. Natural consequences are not punishments which are linked to the child’s behaviour.
So if I don’t use punishments (or rewards, or praise) how do I discipline my daughter?
I love her. I hold her, hug her, tell her she is loved. When her behaviour is indicating she is finding something difficult, I do my best to support her through it.
I keep everyone safe. That may mean removing her from the situation if she is likely to cause harm to someone or something. It does not mean isolating her, shaming her, or disconnecting from her.
I stay connected. I listen to her, and ask her what’s going on for her. I invite her to participate in coming up with solutions.
I avoid arbitrary rules and limits, and enforce a small number of well-thought through boundaries with love, consistency, and understanding (namely, hurting no one and harming no thing).
I create an environment where we can say “yes” as much as possible.
I do my best to meet her needs and create an environment where she has the time and freedom to thrive.
I work hard to model respectful, polite, kind, considerate behaviour.
I look after myself. Having a child who is going through a period of boundary pushing or challenging behaviour can be really hard on us as parents. So I take care of myself so that I can be the adult my daughter needs me to be – and I try to let go of guilt when I inevitably get it wrong sometimes.
I trust that she is a good person, and that she will continue to grow into goodness.
Where can I find out more?
Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason is as close as it gets to my parenting bible. It is the one book I would tell any parent to read, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. It is a challenging read at times – at least it was for me! – but I feel that makes it all the more valuable.
No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame I love Janet Lansbury’s practical, gentle, sensible advice. This book is wonderful for parents of toddlers and young children.
How To Talk So Little Kids Will Listen is a brilliant, gentle book packed with practical suggestions and easy to implement ideas. It belongs on every parent’s bookshelves!
If you are struggling with peaceful discipline and would like to get some non-judgemental, personalised support I offer one to one mentoring calls. I still have a small number of mentoring calls available as a special offer together with a place on A Beautiful Childhood course this summer, which will be packed full of information and ideas on everything from discipline to play.
This article is part of a mini-series called “The Peaceful Home” where I will be sharing tips help you to increase the ease and joy with which you parent, and reduce the conflict in your home. We’ve already had posts about stepping away from using “no” so much, creating “Yes Spaces” in your home, reducing stress around food and mealtimes and coping with tantrums. Next time I’ll be talking about the power of play when it comes to navigating difficult moments and transitions, so check back soon.
If you want support from other like-minded parents, why not join A Beautiful Childhood? It’s a free Facebook community – a space for us to discuss raising our children and forging for them a childhood that is gentle, slow, and beautiful. Come and join us!