"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, we can't force anyone to do anything. All we can
do is help our child WANT to meet our expectations and help him develop
the emotional regulation so he's able to do so.
Sure, 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.
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 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 affection for her sister, and the desire to please you. 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. Your responsibility as the grown-up is to stay away from the edge.
3. 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 welcome their feelings, even as we (sometimes) 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 crying and shaking them out. 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 any age child 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 sadness, hurt or fear. 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.
4. 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 her little brother? Can your six year old do her sister's chore?
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 you can help her make
things better again.
5. 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. When in doubt, reconnect.
And you'll never find yourself reaching for force again.
Are you in Portland? So am I, Thursday January 24!
Boones Ferry Primary School on Wilsonville Rd at 7pm.
Come ask your parenting questions!