Many of us grew up in households where the word of a parent was law… or else. We were expected to do what we were told, when we were told, and without complaining. Many heard the familiar words of “get over it” and “life’s not fair” when they did air their grievances about the way they were treated.
When we are raised this way, it can feel impossible to even consider the option of raising our kids in a completely different way. And for a lot of us, it is exactly why we choose to raise our kids a different way. Because we don’t want our kids to feel the way that we did at certain points during our childhood.
Or maybe you are in the camp that believes that an authoritarian way of parenting is the only way that works. That we need to control our children. That we need to impart logical consequences on our children because that is the only way to show them that the “real world” has consequences too. Many that follow an authoritarian style say that parenting without punishment “just doesn’t work” for their kids. Maybe that when they empathize with their child during a tantrum, that the child laughs at them or continues to tantrum instead of stopping.
Let’s take a deeper look at this parenting without punishment philosophy. Even if you think it could never work, please read this. It might change your mind.
How to Parent Without Punishment: A Step-by-Step Guide
Step 1. This step is crucial to understanding and embracing this type of parenting.
When we want to pursue a career in life, we research. We learn skills. We absorb everything we can about our future job.
When we are pregnant, we get pregnancy books. We research what we should eat. We get weekly emails talking about how our child is developing, what is in the range of normal, and what isn’t. We nourish our bodies and listen to our intuition when it says, “your feet hurt; you need to sit down and rest for a minute.”
But when it comes to the actual act of parenting there is a shocking amount of resistance. Many parents say they just plan to wing it. Or they take it as an insult that they might not know how to do something that they’ve never done in their life. Many parents just go in planning to do what was done to them, or what their friends are doing, or what their potentially ignorant pediatrician says is best. They stop researching. And that is detrimental to this whole raising people thing. If any of these “jobs” need researching, I think raising a future generation would be absolute top priority.
A large portion of us have zero knowledge about normal child development. We may not know what emotional intelligence is. We may never have seen research on the detrimental effects of violence, punishments, rewards, cry it out, and so on. We may not know that “tantrums” are not manipulation. We may not know that crying is GOOD for people. We may not know that a child’s brain can hold onto memories that they don’t even consciously remember, and that those brain stamps can be carried with them and affect them for the rest of their lives.
We need to understand emotional literacy, mental health, and real life honest-to-goodness child development. Not the stuff of behaviorists or so-called experts with outdated knowledge who believe children should learn to be independent the second they take their first breath. That they should be sleeping through the night while they are still babies. That they should be able to control their emotions or have impulse control as young toddlers.
Do your research. It doesn’t mean you are incompetent. It means you care.
Step 2. Once you have understanding of how a child grows, thinks, and thrives as a whole person, then move onto breaking away from antiquated ideas.
If you go into it with the mindset of control, then, of course, empathizing won’t “work” because the ultimate goal is different. A goal of stopping a behavior, emotion, or meltdown or a goal of making a behavior happen can only occur with force, coercion, or manipulation.
In reality, we can’t make someone stop feeling something. We can only make them be quiet about it. And sometimes, even that is impossible. At least without increasing the force or punishment.
We need a perspective shift. Rather than viewing it as an us-versus-them scenario, we need to take ourselves out of most equations and ask ourselves a few questions.
For a perspective shift to happen, we must first understand child development, and then we must abandon the idea that parents need to control the children or impart logical consequences on them for them to become successful contributing members of society. We need to shift words like “defiance” “obedience” “punishments” “rewards” “tantrums” into words like “empathy” “connection” “boundaries” “meltdowns” and trust. Our goal isn’t to control our children. Controlled people resist. Our goal isn’t to teach kids that life isn’t fair.
Many arguments come in the form of “children need to learn that there are real world consequences for their actions.” Yes, they do. And they can learn that by observing the world. They don’t need to learn that by being taught “life isn’t fair” in their homes. Part of being human is that life will be filled to the brim with no’s and pain and unfairness. We can equip them with the tools to cope with the consequences of life by being their lighthouse; their safety.
Which carries us to step 3.
Step 3: Setting them up to succeed.
We all want our kids to succeed. Across the board of all ways of parenting, the majority of parents are hoping their kids succeed in life. Getting there is the tough part to figure out.
Setting our kids up for success is an essential component of fostering self-confidence and independence. We can set them up for success from the moment their wants start to diverge from their needs. First, we can create a yes environment. What is a yes environment? A yes environment is essentially setting your home and space up so that your child can freely explore without a constant barrage of “don’t touch that” and “no.” Many question if this method sets a child up to fail because they never hear no. But if we step back and look at that never, we realize how unfounded it is. Our kids are berated with no. From us. From the world. From the capabilities of their own bodies. There will be no shortage of no’s in their lifetime. Hearing yes is empowering. Hearing yes gives them confidence that they can succeed because they know what they can do.
Another way to set kids up for success is to tell them what they can do instead of what they can’t. Usually a child that hears, “Don’t hit,” will hit. They will hear that last word echoing in their minds. Instead, use positive phrases. Gentle hands. Walk slowly. You can play with these things. Anything you don’t want your child to have, put away. It’s not forever, but it is for right now. This will also eliminate a lot of avoidable meltdowns.
Step 4: Self-care.
It’s difficult to parent without punishment if you are running on fumes. Take care of yourself as much as possible. Be a priority. Get sleep. Do activities that you enjoy. Eat when you can.
Another aspect of self-care is taking care of your mind. Many of us have traumatizing childhood experiences. Sometimes we carry those tactics into our own parenting. We are triggered by certain behaviors. Maybe crying, screaming, harsh words, etc. It is up to us to dig into our own experiences, identify our triggers, and learn the tools necessary to cope with our own internal reactions. We don’t have to yell. We don’t have to hit. We don’t have to implement punishments, time outs, taking toys away, threatening, guilting, and all of that painful stuff. We really don’t have to do it.
But it takes work to overcome those tendencies. It takes a lot of falling down, apologizing, and putting in the time and effort to do better. We can’t just snap, say “I’m sorry; I’ll do better,” and expect next time to be any different. It takes practice. Practice meditation. Practice mindfulness. Practice breathing. Practice identifying when you are getting worked up. Practice taking a step back. Practice closing your mouth when you want to shout a diatribe at your kid for dumping all the toy bins all over the floor after you just cleaned up. Practice, practice, practice.
Headspace is a great app to teach meditation in bite-sized chunks for those of us with little kid-free time. Books by Alice Miller are great. Brene Brown. What Happy People Know by Dan Baker is great. Read. Grow. Breathe.
A run-through of how to apply this to everyday life.
- Set your house up to be as child-friendly as possible. They will learn to respect property as they grow. But they don’t have the impulse control to treat precious objects with the tenderness that an adult does. If you don’t want them to touch it or play with it or stick their fingers in it, cover it or put it away out of sight until they are older.
- Tell them what they can do. Instead of filling your child with no’s, find ways to say yes. Yes, you can pour your own drink. Yes, you can pick your favorite cup. Yes, we can go to the library after lunch. Sure, we can have lunch out in the yard for a picnic. Yes, I will hold you a little bit longer.
- Empathy. Empathy is a huge part of this way of parenting. If you and your child are new to exchanging empathy with each other, it could take some time to “work.” By showing empathy to your kids, they will learn to show it to others. When they have a huge meltdown, instead of threatening them to be quiet or stop, empathize like this, “You really wanted that candy bar.” And hug them. Be present and calm for them. It’s that simple. “You are so sad that we have to leave the park. You wish we could stay forever.” Empathizing is simply acknowledging their upset without any form of explanation of why they shouldn’t feel that way. Try not to inject a “but.” “You really wanted that candy bar BUT we can’t get any candy today.” They already know this. It’s why they are crying. It might seem like a silly thing to cry about for us, but it isn’t for them.
- Lower expectations. Expectations are a doozy. It sucks to feel disappointed. Expecting a child to act in a way that isn’t appropriate for their development is a recipe for failed expectations. When we stop expecting our kids to act like mature human beings, it takes a lot of the pressure off. We are more willing to step in and gently guide them when they are struggling to treat others with kindness. A toddler hitting another toddler is normal. It’s up to the adults to recognize when a child is feeling frustrated or overwhelmed and step in. We can then empathize with our own child and the hurt child. To our own child we can say, “You really wanted that toy. You are so frustrated.” They will probably melt down in your arms. That is good and ok. They feel heard and validated. Hug them and support them even though they were the “offender.” To the hurt child, “You got hit. That must have hurt/hurt your feelings. Are you ok?” Both children will witness the exchange and learn from it.
- Take care of yourself. Take steps to grow from your own experiences. Take care of your body. Sleep, exercise, eat.
Hugs, validation, and acceptance really do go a long way with growing compassionate human beings. When kids feel accepted, no matter how loud and messy their feelings are, they feel valued. Their self-worth blossoms. A solid foundation is being poured. They are learning how to communicate in a healthy and positive way. Children don’t need punishment to learn consequences. They need compassion and forgiveness to learn consequences. If we forgive them and embrace them when they mess up, they will feel much more inclined to do the same for us and others. It can be hard to break habits, especially ones that were ingrained into our psyche from an early age. But the benefits are too huge to ignore.
We have a weekly column called Dear Attachment Parent. You can go here to submit your specific parenting questions!