Unconditional Parenting: 5 Things We Do Instead Of Punishment
Today’s post about punishment, the research behind it, and our thoughts on it as parents.
To start, a quick definition of punishment: “to inflict loss or suffering as retribution.”
Punishments inflicted by parents on children include but are not limited to: cross or harsh words, shouting, shaming, name calling, hitting, taking away the child’s property, stopping the child from attending social events, taking away the child’s money, going back on something previously promised to the child. It removes the loving aspects of parenting and communicates to the child that love is conditional on their behaviour- we aim for unconditional parenting, whereby the child always feels supported to work through behaviour in a loving environment and with real-life boundaries.
Parenting and punishment are often toted as going hand in hand. Even more so, discipline and punishment are often used interchangeably, as if they are the same thing (“how do you discipline them? What discipline do you use?”)
Parents often think that in order to get their children to do what they want them to do, they must punish them when met with resistance or refusal. There is an unspoken assumption that if parents don’t inflict a punishment of some kind, the child ‘won’t learn’ and will carry on behaving in the same manner forever.
This is a great shame. I believe that punishment is a barrier to parental relationship and is not unconditional parenting; the relationship that is most likely to help the child develop good character and adaptive behaviour for their future. Rather than helping the child learn, punishment actually hinders the full learning process, damages the relationship and inflicts suffering on the child and perhaps the adult in the process.
Doesn’t sound great, does it?
Some parents will say, “oh but punishment works.” Punishment might sometimes get your children to do what you want them to do, when you want them to do it, but is that really our priority? Is manipulating the behaviour of our child really more important than maintaining a relationship built on trust and mutual respect- two things that are far more powerful than any temporary, superficial penalty.
The research behind punishment does not hold it in a favourable light.
Studies by Mitterer and Coon found that punishment only actually “works” to change behaviour patterns if the punishment met three conditions: immediate, severe and consistent. I don’t know about you but I don’t know any parents that can say they meet these criteria when punishing their kids (and frankly I wouldn’t want to.) It also found that punishment increased aggressive behaviour.
What is even more interesting is that the behaviour patterns were found to only change as much as the child wanted to avoid punishment- so, to put that into context, a child who had been punished after being caught stealing, would only change their behaviour enough to ensure they were less likely to get caught. Punishment does not actually help children learn morally- one of the reasons why prisons are full of second and third time offenders.
Punishment is not a good educational tool. It does not help children learn about good and harmful behaviours, or social and anti-social ones, or anything else. When a child is punished their focus moves from thinking about their moral behaviour, to simply avoiding punishment (escape behaviour).
A classic example of this, and one that is seen a lot, is parents of young children who have hit another child. It is rare to see a parent stand with their child while they observe the natural consequences of their actions- other children moving away from/ not wanting to play with them, the crying third party, an upset parent, their own parent having to help and soothe the offended and hurt parties.
What usually happens is that the parent comes over, moves the hitter to the other side of them room or outside, and talks angrily up close to their face. Often they will blackmail the child into saying “sorry”, which teaches the child to a) blackmail and b) lie to get out of situations quickly.
This also does not give the child a chance to see and experience the natural, unpleasant consequences of their actions. Guilt is a powerful thing, and parents should let it work in children’s lives; not hijack it to cobble together an artificial, faux-solution.
Another thing that I would highlight when thinking about punishment is: Do we really want or need our child to comply with our every request? Is that a healthy relationship? Don’t we want to raise people who question when things don’t make sense, and who can debate and articulate when they disagree?
“But children should be obedient”, people say. Hmm, ok. I don’t think that the unwavering, unquestioning following of orders is healthy for children or adults. It sets children up for poor critical thinking and communication skills, and it inflates the parent’s ego.
Crucially, obedience is NOT the unwavering following of orders that most people think it is. That is compliance, which is a completely different thing, and something I actively hope my children won’t do. Obedience comes from a relationship of trust, whereby children submit to a request from a place of trust and understanding that the parent has more experience and is probably doing the right thing- this needs to be built and earned, not demanded. Check out my post on the difference between obedience and compliance by clicking here.
So, if we don’t punish our kids, how do we make sure they don’t end up as hideous feral criminals?
Well, there are no guarantees, but you can bet your bottom dollar that the most depraved and immoral people in society were not supported and helped to learn discipline in loving and gentle ways.
Unconditional Parenting: Our 5 Top Tips
Here are 5 things we do in our family instead of punishment (unconditional parenting):
When our children do something that might warrant punishment in other families, we try to take a pause. Reactionary behaviour from a place of heightened emotions is rarely constructive. Take a few breaths and go off and give yourself space if you need to.
Help the victim.
If someone has been inconvenienced, upset or hurt by the child’s behaviour, we try to deal with that first and make them the priority. This does three things- it helps rectify the situation and comfort the hurt party; it demonstrates empathy to the child who has done the behaviour and it ensures that “acting out” is not seen as a way to get attention.
All behaviour is communication, so what is the child communicating? Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired are often feelings that catalyse unpleasant or inconvenient behaviour. Before addressing the unwanted behaviour, it’s best to meet the needs of the child. It might seem counter intuitive but children do not learn well when they are in a place of physical or emotional stress, so rectify that first before trying to talk about the situation to your child. This also helps your child understand that you are their partner and that crucially, your love and help is not conditional.
Don’t get into the trap of thinking that if a behaviour isn’t dealt with immediately, it will go unprocessed. Waiting for a time to talk when the child is calm, preferably happy and has had time to process the situation themselves, is much better than trying to force them to apologise when they are still angry. I don’t know about you but when I’ve behaved badly, it’s often only later that I will reflect and realise that I really was wrong and can offer a genuine apology. Sometimes even if I know that I’m being unreasonable, if I’m emotional I’m not in a place to ‘give in’. Maybe this is just me, but I don’t think so. Kids are the same- they are growing and learning and developing and making mistakes, just like us. Ask your child why they think they acted as they did, and offer them ways to make better choices next time, with your help. Tell them about times when you’ve messed up, let them know you don’t expect them to be perfect, that they are forgiven and that you’d really like to help them.
As the parent, team up with your child to try and help the same situation happening. Set your child up for success, not failure: If certain situations seem to really wind them up, avoid them for a while. If there’s often arguments over a certain toy, perhaps help your kids set a rota for using it, or borrow/buy another if that is an option. If large family gatherings stress them out, arrange for a bedroom to be a quiet space where they can go and be alone when they need to be. If hitting is an issue, find other ways for them to express themselves physically- punching a pillow or punch bag, throwing bean bags or screaming into a cushion are all good options. Lead by example- next time you are cross, make the decision to demonstrate to your child how to express your emotions without affecting others.
Unconditional parenting: The key
There’s one super important point that I feel is perhaps more valuable than all of the others on here, but isn’t a step-by-step kind of thing. It is this: Forgive your child. If we want grace and forgiveness for ourselves, it’s only right that we demonstrate to our children how to be gracious when we are wronged. It also helps children to be gracious when those around them behave badly and when we mess up as parents.
I hope this is helpful to your family! If Christmas is a time when there are a few more meltdowns or stressful situations, check out my Guide to a calm and happy holidays with kids, for those of you whose kids might find aspects of the season difficult. You can also find our library of parenting resources and guides here. As always please let me know if there’s anything you’d like to see and I will do my best to help!
Peace out x