I had started moving away from using punishments some time ago, for a combination of pragmatic and emotional reasons. Parenting-wise, 2013 was a difficult year for me, filled with intense sleep deprivation and a lot of mistakes (the two not being unrelated, obviously). It dawned on me slowly that time outs were not working to curb Miles’ aggressive behavior toward Julius, AND they were giving me intensely uncomfortable feelings, but I was really at a loss for what else to do. Still, I took one step in the direction of eliminating punishment: I quit using time outs.
That one step was the beginning of an ongoing journey toward a new way of parenting, and I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say a new way of being. I WILL spare you the lecture on why I have rejected behaviorism (or operant conditioning, or positive reinforcement) but if you happen to be interested in learning more about why I believe it’s ineffective and harmful, I highly recommend a couple of books by Alfie Kohn called Unconditional Parenting and Punished by Rewards. Both about the failures of rewards and punishments, the former book specifically talks about parenting and the latter about parenting, education, and workplace management. They are both great. Or you could just Google Alfie Kohn and probably read a few articles or essays to get the gist. This would be a decent place to start.
Not using principles of behaviorism to parent—i.e., punishments and rewards—is probably THE most countercultural practice in our house. “Pop behaviorism,” as author Kohn calls it, is so interwoven in our culture as to be practically invisible. Most parenting advice is all about getting kids to do what you want. Rewards, bribes, sticker charts, punishments, consequences, and “natural consequences” are all part of a behaviorist system of parenting. If you don’t do anything of those things, how do you get kids to do what you want them to do?
Well, the first step is to reframe it so you’re not trying to get them to do things. And yes, this is challenging, especially at first. I know that I tend to be a controlling person, especially when under stress, so NOT trying to control people/environments/everything is pretty much a lifelong project for me. But I don’t want my children to simply do what I say (I mean, you know, many times I DO but I’m trying to aim higher), I want them to make good decisions, and that means letting them actually make decisions, some of which I don’t like or find inconvenient or messy or annoying and so on.
That doesn’t mean that this is permissive parenting. I guess “permissive” is certainly in the eye of the beholder and some would probably see me that way, but I think just allowing your kids to do whatever they want to do is actually neglectful. That is not my goal at all. My kids give me plenty of opportunities to set limits! But I also give them considerable freedom and autonomy where that freedom is not going to hurt anyone, endanger themselves, ruin my house, or simply outstrip what they are developmentally capable of handling.
I am learning to trust them with freedom and control over themselves, freedom to spill and make messes, to fall down, to get angry and scream, to make mistakes and do things wrong. And I believe they are learning to trust me to make rules that matter and are not just controlling, to accept their feelings but also to keep them safe from aggression, to love them unconditionally whether they are behaving in ways I like, or not.
One of the odd quirks of my long term memory is that while I don’t remember a lot of specific things that happened when I was a kid, I do remember a lot of feelings that I had. I remember that being a kid who was told what to do and sometimes punished by adults made me feel desperately powerless, which in turn made me feel angry and sad. It didn’t make me want to be good, but just left me feeling misunderstood and alone. When I felt respected by adults, I was much more motivated to be kind, to succeed, and so on. Even without all the book learning, that memory fuels me to empower my kids instead of subduing them.
I trust that children do have a basic moral sense. I don’t believe people are born bad. I don’t believe that children want to “get away with” as much bad behavior as they possibly can; I believe they want to be loved and accepted, but they sometimes express their feelings in ways that are hurtful or unacceptable to us. I don’t allow my children to hit people but I don’t punish them for it either. Some time ago I learned to simply say, calmly but firmly, “I won’t let you do that” and physically block them from hitting or pushing. When the storm blows over, it’s over. This works so well! I wish I could undo months of time outs, which were at best ineffective, and in some instances deeply disturbing for all involved. But now that I know better, I do better.
There is also an element of trust in that I do have to sometimes watch my kids make bad choices or act in ways I don’t like and trust that my values are still coming through to them and they’re going to turn out to be pretty good people. I mean, all parents have to do that no matter what parenting style they employ, but in not using punishments or rewards, you do give up some control of the day-to-day and minute-by-minute behavior, or I think Alfie Kohn would probably say illusion of control.
The funny thing is, though, giving up on the idea that I have to control every little thing they do makes me a calmer person, and becoming a calmer person makes me a better role model and a more effective parent. I actually feel even less of a need to control them because they are more willing to follow my lead without being coerced (by either punishments or “positive reinforcements”) to do so. The more I move away from coercive parenting, the more positive changes I see in my two boys, so it’s less and less a leap of faith as I begin to see the real tangible benefits of trusting them, teaching them, and working together with them instead of trying to make them do what I want them to do.
I’ve leave you with a recent example of how I handle “misbehavior” without punishment. So recent, in fact, it was just last night. At the end of the long day when we were all tired and cranky, Miles wanted to eat a third bowl of post-dinner cereal. Since it was getting close to bedtime and since he hadn’t finished the bowl I’d given him a half hour earlier, I said no, but he could have a cup of almond milk, which I gave him. He got upset and angry and banged his glass, which I told him he shouldn’t do. He got angrier and poured his milk on the floor. I acknowledged that he was very upset and calmly but firmly told him he would need to clean up the milk. Truthfully I doubted he would since he was so angry, but I continued to calmly prompt him to clean it, keeping a bit of distance so he wouldn’t feel physically intimidated.
And then he picked up a napkin and, still angry, started cleaning up the milk. I then joined in and helped him. When it was cleaned up, he was calm enough to sit in my lap and continue to cry. I held him and just let him know that I was listening. Some people would see this as “reinforcing bad behavior,” but I know that he did not WANT to get angry and cry and make a big mess, he was just overwhelmed by his feelings. He didn’t get “his way.” I still maintained my firm limit that it was too late to have another bowl of cereal, but I didn’t punish him for having an angry reaction to that. An angry kid needs my love just as much as a sad kid does, so I gave him that.
It’s not always easy to dig deep and pour love into a child who is provoking you, but when I can do that, I always feel so much better, and the kids do too.
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