“Dr. Laura....I just don't get it. How can kids
learn to behave if they're never punished? I would never hit them, but
what about timeouts and consequences? Everyone knows that children need
To answer this question, I went to the best source I know: My children. They were never punished, including with timeouts or parent-contrived consequences. They were never even yelled at more than once or twice. So there was none of the teaching that most of us associate with conventional discipline. And yet they're now considerate, responsible, happy people. How do they explain it?
When I asked them, they were puzzled.
My 20 year old son: "You and Dad were always nice to us. So why wouldn't we be nice back?"
My 16 year old daughter: "We LOVE you and Dad. Of course we try not to disappoint you."
Me: "But how did you learn to behave, without punishment?"
My daughter: "Why would punishment teach you to behave? That just makes kids dislike their parents, and disrespect them. Why would kids follow someone they don't respect?"
Me: "What do you mean by 'follow'?"
My daughter: "You know, doing what you say. I know so many kids who had a bad relationship
with their parents so they lied and rebelled as soon as they could. But
I didn't want to break your rules. I saw the sense in them. Why
wouldn't I follow what you tell me?"
Me: "But how did you learn not to hit, for instance?"
My son: "Empathy. I always knew, for as far back as I can remember, that I didn't want to hit other kids because it would hurt them. But sometimes if I was very upset, I didn't care. But because you always understood, I was able to stop myself from hurting someone else. And because you understood why I would have those angry feelings, it made me feel better about myself, too."
My daughter: "Either way--if you punish or not--the child learns not to hit. But if you're punishing to teach him, he learns not to hit so that he doesn't suffer. If you're using empathy to teach him, he learns not to hit because it hurts the other person. So he becomes a better person. He cares more about other people."
Now, I'm not a permissive parent. I have higher standards than most
parents I know, which my kids sometimes challenge. And I set plenty of
limits, but always with empathy and understanding of my kids' feelings.
And lest you think these kids were so well-behaved they didn't need discipline, my extended family still hasn't forgotten one of my son's hair-raising tantrums at age three, and I remember well my mortification when my daughter socked a playmate at age six. Raising my children has been wonderful, but not without challenges. There were certainly times that other parents would have punished them.
But I found they learned faster when I didn't. When I helped them WANT to meet my high standards, and gave them the tools to do it. When I focused on moving myself back into a state of love, reconnecting with them, and helping them through their feelings.
Sure, kids need "discipline." But the verb "to discipline" means "to guide." There is absolutely no reason why our guidance needs to be punitive. In fact, it backfires. There are many thousands of parents like me, who have never used any conventional discipline at all, and whose children have grown into wonderful teenagers and adults. They’ve never needed to be threatened into compliance. Why? Because these kids WANT to make good choices, the choices we've guided them towards over the years.
All kids know what the right choice is. Kids raised without punishment want to make that choice because they’ve stayed deeply connected to their parents, whom they don’t want to disappoint.
And there's another, essential, secret here. These kids are ABLE to make the right choice, because they’ve learned to manage their own emotions, so they can resist impulses that might take them off track.
But what if you're using positive parenting, and you stay calm and regulated, and your child doesn't cooperate? Join the club. That certainly happened sometimes with my kids too. All young humans have days when their emotions get the best of them, just like all "grown up" humans. Sometimes kids just need us to listen to all those tangled up feelings. Not in words, but in laughter, or in tears.
Which we'll talk about tomorrow.