Yesterday I posted on Instagram about why we have decided not to use punishments with our daughter (we don’t do praise or rewards either, you can read an old post about that here). A few of you commented something along the lines of “this is all well and good when you have just one child, but what happens when you have a bigger family and the kids are fighting? How do you keep everyone safe (and sane)?”.
So, I wanted to talk a bit today about what happens instead of punishments, because you can still keep everyone safe without punishments, time outs, or taking away tablet time.
The bad news? This isn’t as easy as just issuing a punishment, and requires more practice, reflection, and energy as a parent.
The good news though is that this way of parenting doesn’t just act as a sticking plaster solution, but supports your child and their developing brain for years to come (research has shown over & over that punishments don’t work & actually lead to an increase in “problem” behaviour and a decrease in pro-social behaviour, where you get trapped in cycle of punishments + challenging behaviour).
Parenting without punishments
“I don’t want to punish or bribe, I try my best to keep calm, and I have a strong connection with my children. When they act in a way that is unacceptable, I am loving but firm – we have healthy boundaries and my child is unconditionally loved. But despite all this, they still hit their siblings / push / throw food / bite / draw on the walls / don’t listen. Help! Gentle parenting isn’t working for my child – surely they need punishments to understand right from wrong?”
Does this sound familiar? If you feel like this, I can really empathise – I have had those feelings in the past too. It is hard when our children behave in a way that is difficult, embarrassing, or triggering for us as parents, especially when it puts a sibling at risk too. After all, it’s our job to be raising polite, helpful, kind children, the sort of children who would never grab a plastic stegosaurus and whack the toddler on the head with it. Right?
But can I tell you something? As a parent, your child’s behaviour is not something you really can – or even should – control. In fact most of the time your child’s “problematic” behaviour isn’t really an issue at all. Hear me out…
Children are more than their behaviour
People often talk about children’s behaviour as if it exists in isolation. This is so prevalent in mainstream parenting these days that it is rarely thought about or questioned. Behaviour and habits are seen as things that you can train children out of or into, through punishments or praise.
Once again, as I do often do, I turn to Alfie Kohn:
“When we constantly talk about a child’s behaviour, we’re acting as though nothing matters except the stuff on the surface. It’s not a question of who kids are, what they think, or feel, or need. Forget motives or values: the idea is just to change what they do.”
“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.”
And to Alison Gopnik:
“Our job as parents is not to make a particular kind of child. Instead, our job is to provide a protected space of love, safety, and stability in which children of many unpredictable kinds can flourish.”
When we understand that children’s behaviour is a form of communication, then suddenly we stop trying to fix it and start trying to understand our children’s needs.
When we understand that children are inherently good, we stop trying to control them and start looking for ways to connect instead.
When we understand that much “problematic” behaviour is actually developmentally appropriate, we stop worrying and feel compassion rather than annoyance, anger, embarrassment, or fear.
It is normal for young children to push against boundaries, to feel frustrated and to express that frustration in hitting or shoving, for their overwhelm to present as tantrums, for their lack of self-control to manifest as impatience or grabbing or running off when we’ve asked them to stay close. What they need from us is not for us to punish or bribe them to try and change their behaviour. They need us to hold their space (and hold to our boundaries), to advocate for them in front of the wider world who might not understand that their behaviour is developmentally normal, and to provide a constant backdrop of unconditional love and acceptance as we help them figure things out.
Easier said than done, right? So what does this actually look like?
If someone is actually at risk of getting hurt, you need to step in right away.
- Step in and keep everyone / everything safe. This might mean holding your child’s hand, holding them close, picking them up, removing the pen they are drawing with or ball they are throwing at their friend, or getting in-between two children. This should be done lovingly and gently – remember, the aim is not to punish but to help your child do what they need to do.
- Tell them why you are doing this, but you don’t need to go on at length. Just explain that you need to keep them and everyone else safe, or that you will not let them damage something. “Wow! I see you are really frustrated that Ellie took your truck, but I can’t let you hit her. I’ll hold your hands here until you feel able to keep everyone safe”.
- Empathise and connect with their feelings. “I know you were really enjoying drawing on that wall, and you’re angry that I stopped you. It’s OK to feel angry when you can’t do what you feel like doing. Would you like a hug?”
- Consider which of your child’s needs might not being met in that moment. Are they tired? Hungry? Overwhelmed? Needing space to play without interference?
- Once everyone is a little calmer, discuss how your child might want to make amends (“How shall we clean the wall?”) or what they could do next time they feel this way (“Next time he takes your toy, what could you do instead of hitting? Shall we decide on a special code word for you to shout when you need my help?”).
If there is no immediate danger to person or object, however, you might want to take a slightly less involved approach and give your children space to work things out (with your support if needed). This might look like “sportscasting”, or narrating the situation in a neutral way.
Snatching and grabbing is very, very common in young children, and is usually a developmental phase that eases off as they get older. My preference is, as far as possible, to let the children work it out together whilst providing emotional support and staying very close by to prevent escalation. The balance between respecting the children involved in the squabble and giving them time and space to reach a solution, and ensuring boundaries are enforced and everyone stays safe, is a difficult one, but it is important for children to be given the space to try and work these things out for themselves without an adult always stepping in. A great took to support children in this situation is sportscasting” (“I can see that you both want to play with that toy, but Jane is playing with it and it doesn’t look like she is finished with it.” or “You were playing with the doll and now Milly has it, I can see how sad you are feeling”) and encouraging the children to come up with a solution themselves (“Ok so you both want to play with the pink ball. What can we do?”) or offering some options (“Shall we see if we can find any other balls? How about Peter tells you when he’s finished and then you can have a turn?”).
And if you want to further boost sibling relationships?
As a parent, you cannot guarantee how well your kids will get on. There are so many variables including age gaps and personalities which will affect their relationship at different times. You can’t stop your kids from ever fighting, but there are things you can do to encourage positive sibling relationships.
- Trust in their goodness. Even when things are really, really hard. Remember that they are doing their best right now, and how small they are.
- Stay away from comparison.The comparisons that parents make between siblings can harm not just the relationship with their child, but they can undermine sibling relationships too. It’s natural to compare your children – wasn’t Ella sleeping through the night at this age? I’m sure James was sitting up by now? – but try not to let this spill out into your parenting. If you hear yourself about to make a comparison take a deep breath and count to ten. If you were constantly being compared to someone negatively.
- Allow all feelings. It might be hard to hear that your firstborn hates their new brother and wants to send him away, but rather than saying “you don’t really mean that, you love him really” give them a safe space to express themselves. Although having siblings can be wonderful, it can also be hard on children who feel they have rivals for their parents affection. Accept that all feelings are valid, and that seemingly hurtful expressions are just expressing a need (in this case, perhaps “I feel lonely” or “I need reassurance”).
- Notice moments of warmth & connection between siblings. It can be easy to focus on the challenging moments, but take time to soak up the moments of kindness, however short!
- Listen to everyone fairly. Sometimes it can be easy to jump to your own conclusions before you’ve heard the full story. When there is an argument or someone has hurt someone else, take a deep breath, pause for a moment, and then listen to what each child has to say, keeping neutral and repeating back what you hear,
- Give siblings space to work things out… or at least space to try, within reason! Show them that you trust them to forge the relationship that works for them. Rather than immediately jumping in to arbitrate or put an argument to an end, wait and see if your children will be able to solve the problem themselves, perhaps whilst you sportscast. Sometimes the resolution reached may not be what you would have chosen, but try and respect the decision your children have reached.
- …but don’t be afraid to step in, especially if one sibling is bullying the other or someone is at risk of getting hurt. Early experiences have an impact on brain development, and being the victim of bullying in the home can lead to poorer mental health outcomes later on in life. If someone does get hurt, try apologising “Sorry I didn’t step in sooner, I didn’t realise quite how upset / angry you were feeling”. This removes some of the guilt and shame from the child who was aggressive in this instance (as we know from when we looked at empathy, shame can stop empathy from developing).
And if you have a bigger family and would like some beautiful parenting inspiration, you could try here, here, here and here. There are so many others, but these are four families I have been following for a long time!
And in the medium term, no matter what your family looks like…
- Make an effort to understand what expectations are reasonable for your child’s age and stage of development – read books, search blog posts, seek out research (like taking a wonderful parenting course!), or reach out to friends with similar values for support and advice. Understanding what is going on developmentally for your child can lift a huge weight from your mind and help you to relax in the knowledge that they are not “misbehaving”, they are just doing what children their age do.
- Following this, take a fresh look at your child’s behaviour and what it could be communicating; for example, regular tantrums could be a sign of overwhelm. Are there any unmet needs you can identify? Does your connection need topping up? Is your environment a yes space which supports your child’s independence?
- Check in with your boundaries – are they appropriate still? When children are young, some boundaries need frequent reevaluation to ensure they are still suitable. Are you holding these boundaries confidently, firmly, and lovingly – or does your child feel the need to test them, or test your loving response?
- Model the behaviour you would like to see in your children. If you want a tidy child, tidy joyfully in front of them. If you’d like a polite child, be polite to them. If you want a child who doesn’t shout or boss other children, don’t shout or boss your child about. I could go on, but you get the idea.
Remember that parenting is not a short-term game, which needs to resort to short-term fixes. I have no doubt that in the short-term it is entirely possible to bribe a child into acting a certain way, or to threaten them through punishments into dropping a behaviour you find annoying. But in the long term, this actually works against our parenting goals.
Want to know more?
Want to dive deeper into what parenting without punishments could look like for your family? There are just two more days to book onto Beautiful Parenting, my brand new peaceful parenting course.
When I was designing Beautiful Parenting, I decided to take the topics which I felt to be the most foundational to creating a peaceful home – exploring consent and control, communication, parenting without punishments, playfulness, inner work, and self care – and create a non-judgemental course filled with practical ideas, tips, and solid research to give you the tools to put it all into practice.