Parenting Blog

Latest Posts

“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 discipline."

"Do you even have children?!!! Obviously not, or you would know this kind of parenting is impossible, and would raise criminals!"

I rarely mention my own children in my posts, but I'm often asked about them because naturally parents want to know if this kind of parenting works. So 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. And yet they're now considerate, responsible, happy young 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 coached them so they developed the skills to do it. When I focused on moving myself back into a state of compassion, reconnecting with them, and helping them through their feelings. When I resisted controlling them, and didn't step in to rescue them from the natural consequences of their actions, so they learned life lessons through their own experience. 

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, punishment backfires. We can't really control another person. All we really have to work with is influence. And punishment erodes that influence. If we want kids to accept our guidance, we need to maintain a positive relationship with them.

I should add that my kids are not the only "proof" of this -- here's a whole page of parents sharing their experience:

This kind of parenting is hard, but it isn't impossible. There are many thousands of parents like me, who have never used any punishment 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. Our jails are full of kids who were raised with punishment and knew they were doing wrong. Kids raised without punishment are more likely to make the right choice because:

1. They're more receptive to our guidance, right through the teen years. 

2. They have more self-discipline, which they're developing every time we set a limit and they accept it. Choosing to give up what they want, to do what we ask, is what builds those self-discipline muscles. By contrast, kids who are punished aren't "choosing" that limit, they're forced into it, so they aren't exercising self-discipline. And permissive parenting doesn't set limits at all, so kids aren't asked to develop self-discipline.

3. They're ABLE to make the right choice, because they’ve learned to manage their own emotions. 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.  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.


If you're looking for the research to support this approach, one great source is Alfie Kohn's book Unconditional Parenting. 

Like what you're reading?  You can get these posts every day in your Inbox,  free!  Subscribe.
Wednesday, September 25, 2013 | Permalink | Blog Home
Pin It

View Older Comments

Rusty Shakelford commented on 21-Mar-2012 04:54 PM
My wife and I constantly discuss this issue (among many others :). My question is always, What about consequences? Specifically, if a child behaves poorly, makes a negative choice, or otherwise "acts out", how do we show that there are consequences to
these actions? If we are to prepare our children to become adults, the adult world has punishment for misdeeds, are we depriving our children of the truth about the world if we do not demonstrate that punishment is a part of life? We have a child on the way,
so please forgive any lack of knowledge that is not as apparent to me. Thanks :)
Magda commented on 21-Mar-2012 06:43 PM
Great post for a great question! Congratulations, Laura!
Laura Markham commented on 21-Mar-2012 07:56 PM

What about consequences? If we impose them, that's punishment. Punishment has been clearly shown in study after study to have the opposite of the effect we want. Instead of the child focusing on the bad result of what they did, such as hurting another person,
they focus on how unfair the parent is. Here's a whole article on the problem with consequences:

So, what about "natural consequences"? They're terrific! When the child forgets lunch, he's hungry, and the next day he remembers it. When the six year old socks her playmate, the consequence is that the other child doesn't like her any more, and the other
parent no longer wants her to come play. But that is not a punishment imposed by the parent. It's a natural consequence. So these are often terrific teachers. But even so, there are some natural consequences we will intervene to prevent, like our child getting
a concussion from not wearing a bike helmet.

And what about preparing our child for the fact that the adult world does use punishments? By the time they're adults, they will have fully developed frontal cortexes and can handle the world of punishments appropriately, as most adults do. In the meantime,
just because it is a cold, cruel world, I would not make my child sleep without blankets to get used to that. Would you?
Vanessa commented on 21-Mar-2012 10:57 PM
Wow, I have a 22 month old and your blog is so helpful and I had always wondered about this.. and it totally makes sense to me. I think especially because it applies on to adult hood, in as a person, wanting to make the right decisions and loving yourself.
I read or heard somewhere that if you don't love yourself first, how can you love another person back? I really think there is truth to that, in my experience with others. Thank you so much for writing about this and for all your articles; I really look to
them a lot for parenting resources.
Terese Bradshaw commented on 26-Mar-2012 11:07 PM
I love this discussion. As a mom of 4 adults, ranging in agefrom 25 - 31 years old, and who were raised with the principles of Positive Disciplie (most of the time - I'm not perfect) I have learned that "consequences," in our society usually means "punishment."
Instead of becoming hung up in the terminology, we can view discipline as "teaching," and that teaching does not have to "hurt." As Dr. Jane Nelsen says, "Where did we ever get the crazy idea that in order to help children do better, we have to make them feel
worse?" I am grateful to Dr. Jody McVittie who points out that parents want to have "impact" and so, therefore, use consequences/punishment to "reinforce" what they want children to learn. However, we can have just as much, and in fact, more impact when we
offer learning opportunities with connection, which is what doing "with" our children accomplishes. So instead of focusing on "consequences" (which really just feel like punishment to a child - no matter how nicely you try to deliver them) forcus on solutions
instead. Solutions focus on the future, consequences focus on the past. When you involve children in finding solutions, , they are more likely to develop the healthy qualities and characteristics that they will need for "life success." My children never needed
punishment to thrive. They never experienced a "time-out", punishment, curfew, grounding or anything "imposed" by me, and yet they have grown up to be quite capable, confident and happy adults, who are all college graduates with careers they enjoy and are
in healthy relationships. What more could a parent hope for? They are adults who are great problem-solvers, work well with other people and contribute to society in positive ways.

Hide Older Comments