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"I try to use positive parenting, but there always comes a point where I'm stuck and threaten a timeout. Without punishment, how do I enforce my limits?  I can remind him until I'm blue in the face about the things he's supposed to do, but I can't actually MAKE him. What do I do to make my child behave, if I can't use force?" – Lisabet

“Punishments erode relationships and moral growth.” – Alfie Kohn

This is a terrific question. How can we "enforce" our limits?

The short answer is, force doesn't actually "work" to "make" kids behave. Sure, it might get your child to comply for this minute. But it doesn't raise the self-disciplined child you want. And I don't think you just want obedience (although we all do, sometimes!) You want to raise a good person, who WANTS to cooperate, and to do the right thing.

So force, or the threat of force, works temporarily. Timeouts scare young children into complying because they're a form of ritual, temporary abandonment.  But they don't teach kids to regulate the emotions that drove them to behave badly, so the misbehavior continues. Eventually, kids rebel and you have to escalate your force. You can drag your flailing child, but sooner or later you won't be able to do that, and in the meantime she's not learning to manage herself.

What's more, the more often you resort to force, the less your child will WANT to cooperate. I hear frequently from parents of six year olds who have become defiant, now that they can't be dragged to timeout. The six year olds who were never punished with timeouts (or other punishment) but were instead taught family expectations and emotional regulation are much better behaved and cooperative.

So force doesn't actually get kids to behave any better. In fact, research shows that punishment makes kids misbehave more. (There's a list of studies about this on the Aha! Parenting website: Why Positive Parenting?)

Here's why. WE know that brushing teeth, not hitting his sister and not sneaking a cookie are for your child's highest good. But he doesn't. In fact, he is strongly driven to avoid teeth brushing, demolish his rival, and eat as many cookies as he can. The only reason for him to go against what he thinks will serve him is that he trusts us to always have his best interests at heart.

But when we punish, he feels wronged. Even if we can get him to parrot back to us why he was punished, he still feels wronged inside.  (Don't you remember feeling this way with your parents?)  What's more, he doesn't really see how to control the bad feelings that drove him to behave badly. So he feels all alone with those scary feelings, and we aren't there to help him. He doesn't actually know how to make himself behave when he gets upset. He concludes that he's a bad person. He feels less and less like trying to please us. That's why punishment destroys our child's desire to behave.

So we can't "enforce" our limits, with or without force.  But we CAN make it likely that our child will want to meet our expectations and comply with our limits.  How?

1. Teach appropriate behavior with loving guidance.
If your child doesn't know the appropriate behavior, help her learn it. If she does know but won't do it, then help her want to.  With brushing teeth, that means making it fun and giving her control.  To resist hitting her sister, that means helping her develop a competing impulse, like the desire to please you, and the desire to see herself as a good person. Over time, positive interactions outweigh negative ones and she actually feels affection for her sister.  But she'll also need some tools for emotional regulation.

2. Teach emotional regulation by modeling emotional regulation. 
Kids learn how to handle big emotions by watching how we do it.

Does that mean you can't get mad?  No. It means you calm down as soon as you can -- eventually (hopefully) before you open your mouth.  And you support yourself in every way so you have the internal resources to regulate yourself. Anyone will blow up once they're pushed over the edge. So your responsibility as the grown-up is to stay away from the edge.

3. Set limits with empathy.  
Want your child to accept your limits? State them clearly, kindly, and with understanding of what your child is feeling. If you need to, get in his face in a friendly way to let him know you aren't going anywhere until he does what you're asking.

"Sweetie, you know the rule is that everyone clears their own plate after dinner...I know you can't wait to watch your show, AND no TV until your plate is cleared." (Marching child back to dining table) "Let's go..."

"It's hard to stop playing and get ready for bed...I bet when you're a grown-up, you'll never go to bed, will you?"

4. Help your child manage his emotions by helping him express them.
Even if we're always calm, children still have big feelings. They learn to regulate those emotions when we accept their feelings, even as we limit their actions.

"You're so mad at your sister.  I won't let you hurt her. Come here, Sweetie, what's going on that you're so upset?" 

Young children need to express emotions by laughing, yawning, trembling, or crying. As they get older, their brain development allows them to use words and stories to self-regulate. Of course, even adults need to cry sometimes, so children of any age might need your help to cry about a disappointment or hurt. Some parents are fine with sadness, but when their child gets angry, they get angry back. But your child's anger is masking his hurt, fear, sadness, or powerlessness. He won't show those deeper feelings to you unless he feels safe enough; he'll just keep "acting them out" with "bad" or angry behavior. That's why creating safety is the best parental response any time big emotions flare up. The more safety, the more he can show you what's really going on under that anger. (How do you create safety? In the moment, with compassion. The rest of the time, with empathy and playfulness.)

5. Empower your child to make repairs.
Kids feel terrible when they hurt others. They need a way to dig out of the hole they've created for themselves, so they can feel (and act) like a good person again.  Support your child to find ways to repair relationships and make amends.  Can your toddler get the ice pack or his friend's blankie?  Can your four year old rebuild the tower with his brother?  Can your six year old make her sister a card or do her sister's chore? 

If YOU impose these as consequences, you're right back to punishment.  But if you model this kind of making amends in your family, your child will naturally copy it.  And if you apologize often, your child will learn to do so also.  Note that all humans need to calm down before apologies and amends are sincere and meaningful. First, help your child express her feelings.  Then, wonder aloud if there's a way she could find to make things better again.

6. Above all else, protect the relationship. 
Connection trumps everything else in parenting.  Children "behave" because they love and trust us and never want to disappoint us. But we have to earn that level of devotion.  We earn it by managing our own emotions so we can stay compassionate with our child and help her when she most needs us. Which, if you were wondering, is when she seems to least deserve it. Children need physical snuggling and roughhousing to feel close on a daily basis, and they need our non-reactive compassion to help them through the tough spots. Your child isn't cooperating? Reconnect.

And you'll never find yourself reaching for force again.



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Anonymous commented on 19-Jan-2012 01:16 PM
I love this approach, but how do I use it with young toddlers? I watch three toddlers at home between the ages of 16-22 months and of course they fight. Specifically... My 17 month old has started hitting others a lot and I don't know how to stop her.
She can't express her feelings yet, but sometimes I know it's just because someone has a toy she wants. Or she will steal their toys and then cry and hit them when I give the other child back the toy. (Although I have found that if I ask her to give it back,
she usually does and we avoid a tantrum.) We do a lot of, "_____ has that toy. ______ has this toy." Or... "It's _____ turn to play with it. It will be your turn next." But I'm pretty sure she doesn't understand turns yet. I have taught her to take deep breaths
when she's upset. This works wonders and I've seen her do it BEFORE blowing up once or twice. But... I can't just let her hit other children (or myself or DH). Especially since they are in my care. What do I do? Basically, how do you start to teach a one year
old self-control? Thanks!
Teacher Tom commented on 19-Jan-2012 07:52 PM
Spot on advice, Laura! It often helps me to think about agendas. The times when we're most tempted to resort to force are those times when we are placing our agenda ahead of that of our child. Often, if we can step back we realize that we're only insisting
on our agenda out of force of habit and can let it go. Other times, however, our agenda must take precedence and in that case we owe it to our kids to help them understand why this is one of those times. Thank you!
April commented on 19-Jan-2012 10:49 PM
I think saying "And you'll never find yourself reaching for force again" is misleading and dodging the real issue somewhat. The reality is that even those of us who are highly trained in these techniques find ourselves bumping up against the desire to
use force over and over again. Why? Because it's almost impossible in today's world to get enough support to be the fully resourced people we want to be, and also because parenting is very hard -- it's very hard to interact with people who disregard you over
and over, and who trigger your own childhood issues, all while you're sleep deprived and haven't had your body to yourself or even your self-autonomy supported in a while. That's the reality that most parents face, with varying levels of success at addressing
it. We need real tools for the bad times that will inevitably come (both for us and our children), not just statements that if we do everything right we won't experience the bad stuff. I am a therapist who has specialized, in part, in play therapy for children,
and I experience bad times. My colleagues, all sensitive, empathic, intelligent people who are highly trained in empathic limit setting and creativity and relationship-building, all experience bad times. Knowledge is not the panacea here. Knowing the rules
of parenting is not enough. Any good parenting advice needs to really, really acknowledge the dark, hard sides. Otherwise, you're not giving people real tools. I try to carry this passage from Pema Chodron around in my pocket: "So when you're like a keg of
dynamite just about to go off, patience means just slowing down at that point -just pausing- instead of immediately acting on your usual, habitual response. You refrain from acting, you stop talking to yourself, and then you connect with the soft spot. But
at the same time you are completely and totally honest with yourself about what you are feeling. You're not suppressing anything; patience has nothing to do with suppression. In fact, it has everything to do with a gentle, honest relationship with yourself.
If you wait and don't fuel the rage with your thoughts, you can be very honest about the fact that you long for revenge; nevertheless, you keep interrupting the torturous story line and stay with the underlying vulnerability. That frustration, that uneasiness
and vulnerability is nothing solid. And yet it is painful to experience. Still, just wait and be patient with your anguish and with the discomfort of it. This means relaxing with that restless, hot energy- knowing it's the only way to find peace for ourselves
or the world." I find that the advice to "connect with the vulnerability", the "soft spot" underneath my anger/force is advice that works much better in a difficult parenting situation than advice to "follow these rules, and you won't have those feelings or
urges." I think it is modeling that works much better for my child, too. I don't know the answer to the above question. I have two high-spirited boys who frequently put me in situations where I have to enforce their cooperation -- either to keep things safe
or to enable overall family sanity. And then there are the times at the end of the day, when I'm exhausted and have parented perfectly all day, and none of it is having any effect, and forcing their cooperation is better than losing my temper. And then there
are the times where I *do* lose my temper. And all of that, *all* of that, is part of successful parenting, in my book. It's part of negotiation of the family dance, the relationships, learning the effects we have on others and how to repair and start over,
and how to be compassionate with ourselves and the ones we love. The key is to be willing to repair after a rupture, and to connect with the soft spot at the difficult times. That's much more practical than imagining that we can follow the rules all the time
and have a parenting experience where we never feel the urge or have the need to use force. ALL that said, I think your website is lovely, and you express this philosophy of parenting in a common-sense, available, inspiring manner. I'm sure you're helping
a lot of people, and I will use some of what you've written to help keep me on track. And I agree with you! Mostly. All best, April

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