When the topic of punishment comes up in my counseling office, I ask parents
“Why do we punish and what are we trying to accomplish by punishing?
Some common responses are:
“If I don’t punish them, kids will try to get away with murder.”
“How will they learn what they did was wrong and not to do it again if I don’t punish them?”
These are very valid concerns.
Learning Life Lessons
It is important that children understand what is right and wrong and it is parents’ job to ensure children understand and learn these lessons. Especially since we want them to be successful and productive members of society.
Think back to a time you were growing up and you were punished. What feelings do you remember having? Maybe you felt angry towards your parents and then later felt guilty for thinking of all the things you wanted to do to express that anger towards them. Maybe you reflected inwardly and started to believe you were a bad child because you believed that only bad children misbehaved.
A lot of times feelings that follow punishments are hatred, revenge, defiance, guilt, unworthiness, and self-pity. Why is this? When we are punished, we rarely feel sorry for what we have done and think about how to make amends because we are preoccupied and distracted with the emotions of the punishment. In other words, by punishing a child, we deprive him of the very important inner process of facing his own misbehavior. So how can we enforce rules and teach lessons to our children without punishment?
Alternatives to Punishment
Here are six alternatives to punishment that can communicate limits, express feelings of disapproval, and help children understand acceptable and unacceptable behaviors.
Express your feelings strongly-without attacking character.
“I’m furious that my new saw was left outside to rust in the rain!”
Children need to know how we are feeling. They need to understand that their actions can affect the way people feel. By expressing your feelings after your child has done something that you do not approve of, you provide them with an opportunity to understand other people’s feelings. It is very important to avoid any attacks on the child’s character. The words you choose when addressing your child will become their inner dialogue so be careful the next time you are tempted to call your child anything negative.
State your expectations.
“I expect my tools to be returned after they’ve been borrowed.”
Children are constantly learning. Sometimes we think that things are obvious, and children should just know what we expect of them. A reminder of your expectations is helpful in situations when there is undesired behavior. Reminders can get exhausting, so limits are important. We will talk more about those later.
Show the child how to make amends.
“What this saw needs now is a little steel wool and a lot of elbow grease.”
Children will make mistakes and when this happens, over time they learn what they can do to fix those mistakes by having loving examples shown to them. Sometimes guilty feelings come after mistakes are made. Normalizing mistakes and focusing on how to make amends is not only a healthy mindset but also causes less anxiety. Most of the time we cannot change mistakes that happen in the past so dwelling on them does not help anyone. Parents can model how to correct mistakes after they have been made so the child can understand that mistakes will happen, but we all have the power to do something about our actions when we have done wrong.
Give the child a choice.
“You can borrow my tools and return them, or you can give up the privilege of using them. You decide.”
Choices are powerful. Giving children choices and allowing them the control to choose is empowering and teaches children responsibility. Dr. Garry Landreth, an internationally known speaker for his writings and work in promoting the development of child-centered play therapy, talks about how to teach your child self-control and self-discipline using choices. Clear choices outline with whom the responsibility lies. When little Timmy forgets to return the tools, he was already presented with the consequence before he selected his choice. He chose not to return the tool, therefore, he chose to give up the privilege of using them. That way the next time Timmy tries to pull a “Well, you won’t let me use the tools”. You can kindly remind him of the choice he made by not returning them.
Child: “Why is the toolbox locked?”
Parent: “You tell me why.”
Remember earlier when we talked about limits? Taking action is following through on the limits you set for your child. The two choices were given, the child’s choice has been made, and it is time to hand down the natural consequence of that choice. Following through on the choice you have provided the child with is an important part of having children understand their actions have natural consequences. Notice how I used the words ‘natural consequence’ and not punishment. Let me explain the difference. A consequence is something that is going to happen when you do something. Example, if you, parent, borrow something from your neighbor and forget to return it, the next time you need something from your neighbor do you think he will be willing to loan you anything? Probably not. Because the natural consequence of not returning something that does not belong to you is no longer being able to borrow things. Teaching children these important lessons through natural consequences instead of punishments is much more effective.
“What can we work out so that you can use my tools when you need them, and so that I’ll be sure they’re there when I need them?”
There will be times when having an open dialog with your child is the best way to get to the bottom of what is causing the misbehavior. We can read every parenting book in the world, attempt every strategy given, and it might not work for your child. Believe it or not that’s a good thing. As people, we are not always one-size-fits all and every situation will not always fit inside one of these boxes. Be open to having a discussion with your child, remaining mindful of their feelings, and you will be surprised how many problems can be solved.
For more information about teaching children responsibility through choices check out Dr. Landreth’s video called Choices, Cookies, and Kids: A Creative Approach to Discipline.
Lauren Klosterboer, M.A., LPC
Faber, Adele et al. How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk. Simon & Schuster Audio, 1987.
Choices, cookies, and kids: A creative approach to discipline. Speaking by Dr. Garry Landreth, Produced and copyrighted by Play Therapy Institute.