My Aha Parenting moment this week came when a talk I was scheduled to give about parenting was canceled. Apparently one of the decision-makers saw on my website that I suggest parents use positive discipline, rather than punishment. As is evident on my website, I see timeouts as just another form of punishment – a mild one, maybe, and certainly better than hitting or screaming at kids, but punishment nonetheless. And since I think punishment gets in the way of raising wonderful kids, I advise against it. Long story short, my talk was canceled.
I’m not alone in coming under attack for my views. Alfie Kohn, who is a very well known expert on education and the author of 11 books, made a well-reasoned case against timeouts in last week’s New York Times, citing several recent research studies. Not surprisingly, this evoked a tremendous furor from parents. Kohn was interviewed on Takeaway, a morning radio show, where the hosts and the other guest ganged up on him. I know Mr. Kohn can take care of himself, but I want to thank him publicly for shaking up our assumptions. In fact, he's agreed to join us on my radio show on November 11.
Why the furor? Parenting is tough. Risky, because the stakes are so high, and what if your technique turns out to be ill-informed -- and your kid to be a mess? Truthfully, there are no guarantees, no proven answers. Unless you’re a statistician, it’s hard to make sense of the research and know if the evidence really supports a particular theory.
But as I watched all the outraged comments from parents, I realized that part of what’s getting in our way is nothing but our conditioning. We believe that children will behave badly unless we enforce punishments. Why? Our parents believed it, our society believes it, it's part of our view of the world -- almost invisible because we take it for granted.
This is an ancient view. One hundred years ago, most children were routinely whipped, even for minor infractions, because we assumed that’s how children learned. For some parents, physical punishments is still essential to teach kids right from wrong. Other folks wouldn’t dream of spanking their child but use milder punishments when the child misbehaves, like “consequences” and timeouts.
If this is the only weapon in our toolkit, the idea of losing it can be very threatening. What will we do to get compliance?
There, are however, many parents like me, who have never given a timeout or any punishment at all, and whose children have grown into wonderful teenagers. They’ve never needed to be threatened into compliance. Why? Because they WANT to make good choices, the choices we've guided them towards over the years. That’s who they are.
There's a secret here. Punishment may achieve the very short-term goal of eliciting immediate obedience. But punishment actually gets in the way of the long-term goal that virtually all parents say they want -- happy, considerate, responsible, high-achieving kids who "act right" and exercise good judgment.
Positive discipline isn't just a fancy way of saying I let my kids do whatever they want. Since "discipline" means "to guide," positive discipline means "positive guidance." It may be more work than punishing, but there's no question it's more satisfying. No punishment doesn’t mean I don’t guide my kids. And it doesn’t mean I don’t have high expectations. I do, and my kids share those expectations. I think now that they’re teens, it isn’t even about me. They have those expectations of themselves.
Have my kids ever not met my expectations? Of course. But I’m convinced that punishing them for that or getting into a power struggle would just get in the way.
Think about it. Would it help you to be spanked? To be sent to sit in the corner? To be yelled at? How would you feel about the person who punished you?
Punishing kids just adds an additional problem to their lives, by undermining their feeling that they’re a good person. That feeling is what helps all of us to make progress toward our good intentions.
Punishment also erodes our relationship with our child. And since young kids do what we want (if it's opposed to what they want to do) because of their desire to please us, eroding the relationship and diminishing their desire to please us is a recipe for more misbehavior.
Meaning, of course that maintaining a close bond with your child so that he wants to please you is the first step of positive guidance. If you make it a priority to build a close relationship with your child, you might be astonished to find that you no longer feel the need for timeouts and punishment.
But right now, your kid's behavior isn't pleasing you. What can you do instead of punishment?
I always start with myself. Is my expectation reasonable? Not always, in which case I ditch it.
Next, do my kids know the appropriate behavior? If not, punishment and correction would be out of order, only teaching is appropriate.
But let’s say my expectation is reasonable. If my child knows what’s appropriate behavior and isn’t doing it, then something is getting in his way. As his coach and guide, it’s my job to help my child get that obstacle out of his way so he can behave responsibly and considerately.
Now, often when I examine the situation I realize that my expectation is reasonable – such as sitting at the table instead of running around in a restaurant, an example used in the NYT letters about Alfie Kohn’s article -- but it isn’t age-appropriate for my child at the moment. He may be too tired, or too wound up to sit there, or he's simply had a hard day. Or maybe he's so overwhelmed by frustrations or fears that he can't even articulate that he's showing me in the only way he knows how -- through this challenging behavior.
So if my child isn't behaving as I would like, it's because he can't, at this moment, control himself to do so. Of course I want him to. I might think he should be able to. It might make me angry that he isn't. But if I'm honest, I have to admit that I'm not able to behave exactly as I'd like to every moment of the day either. That's part of being human, and of course it's much harder for young humans, who are still developing the neural networks to soothe themselves under stress.
If you have a plant that isn’t thriving in a garden, you don’t yell at it to straighten up and grow right. You transplant it so that it gets the conditions it needs. So my goal is, when possible, to give kids the conditions they need at that moment to thrive. That always means looking at what’s going on behind their behavior. That’s effective parenting. It might mean getting them out of the restaurant. It might mean eating scrambled eggs for dinner so we can avoid a shopping trip likely to end in a meltdown. It might mean ignoring, for the moment, a rude tone of voice, commenting instead on how she’s obviously very upset, to get to the fears or frustrations overwhelming her desire to act considerately. (For an example of this see my blog post about handling rudeness from a 12 year old.)
So I'm with Alfie Kohn. If you can't control your own upset enough to coach your child through his, do a timeout. Nobody's perfect. But your kid will be healthier if you can learn how to set limits in an empathic way that will help your child grow from the experience. You don't actually need punishment of any kind. Your kid will turn out better, and you'll be a lot happier.
Imagine, instead of leaving your child alone with his most difficult feelings, you could teach him how to manage them by coaching him through. That’s what produces high EQ kids who are considerate, responsible and high achieving. And that’s one of the biggest secrets of happy parents.