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Kids Just Want to Have Fun: 3 Secrets to Discipline without Punishment

"I'd love to be able to parent this way but unfortunately my children have always been very strong willed and even though there is a part of them that wants to do the right thing, the part that wants to have the most fun generally wins out. How do you discipline them without resorting to traditional forms of punishment?"

Discipline means to guide.  Punishment means to persuade with unpleasant or painful consequences. So to guide kids without resorting to traditional forms of punishment, you simply offer guidance, while resisting the urge to punish.  And you parent in such a way that your child WANTS to follow your guidance, so the part of him that wants to do the right thing wins out.

Of course, it doesn't feel simple in practice.  Not because offering guidance is hard.  Much of that guidance comes from what we model, for instance when we speak with respect, or say please and thank you.

What's hard is parenting so that children WANT to follow our guidance. Which means:

1. Staying connected.  When kids don't immediately follow our directives, it's natural to feel like yelling.  But if kids don't feel deeply connected to us, they have no reason to follow us.  In that case, why not just do what seems like more fun? (And let's face it, most of our directives aren't that much fun.)

Kids will always do things we don't like, because their job is to explore and test, and their brains are immature. If we respond by yelling or punishing, we erode the connection. Research shows kids respond to punishment by misbehaving more.

If, instead, we return ourselves to a feeling of compassion and see things from their perspective, kids are more likely to learn the lesson we're teaching, and choose to follow it the next time. Which of these approaches will strengthen your connection to your child so she's more likely to cooperate for the rest of the evening, and in the future? 

"How many times do I have to tell you? That's it, no bedtime story tonight! Get up into that bathtub RIGHT NOW!!"

"I asked you to stop playing and take your bath, but I see it was too hard for you to stop playing, so I will help you....I want to be sure we get enough Special Time tonight....Hop on my back, Cowgirl, for a bucking bronco ride to the bath!"

2. Helping kids with their feelings.  When kids don't follow our guidance, it's because something else was driving their behavior, which felt even more urgent than pleasing us. That something is always big needs or feelings.  When kids can't understand their feelings, or show you their feelings directly, they act them out. (That's what we mean when we say kids are "acting out.") 

When you punish the behavior, you aren't helping him with the feelings, so they burst out in some other way.  If, instead, you empathize, you help your child accept and therefore manage his emotions. When kids "act out" with anger, you set limits -- but you do it with compassion so he feels safe crying those feelings out. Which of these approaches will help your child with his emotions, so he doesn't need to "act them out" in the future?

(From across the room) "You know better than to throw that! If you throw that, you're going straight to the Naughty Step! Ok, that's it! You asked for it!"

(Putting hand on arm to stop child from throwing, getting down on his level to look with compassion into his eyes, speaking gently) "Sweetie, I won't let you throw that.....It's ok to be sad and mad, but no throwing....Now you're crying....Come here, Sweetie."

3. Share joy.  Of course, kids just want to have fun.  That's how they're designed, to love exploring, growing, learning. That doesn't mean that kids don't need to take care of business.  But it does mean that children learn best when we help them find the joy in doing what needs to be done.  So instead of thinking of fun as a necessary evil that gets in the way of your child doing the tasks you assign her, think of fun as a motivating and bonding tool. 

Do you want to communicate to your child that life is about drudgery, moving from one burdensome responsibility to the next?  Or do you want to model that joy is our birthright, that life is filled with joyful moments that we can seize and revel in?  That your child can take joy in his "response- ability" by finding new capacities inside himself?

"Why aren't you ready for school yet?  Did you brush your teeth?  You can't wear that shirt with those pants!"

"Wow! You got yourself dressed! You look like a rainbow!  We're running a bit late, so let's work together on brushing.  Can you brush fast AND well, so your teeth are super-healthy?"


The bad news is that parenting so that your child wants to follow your guidance means you have to regulate your own emotions, so you can stay connected, help your child with his feelings, and keep returning yourself to to that centered, happy state where you can find your joy and compassion.

The good news is that when you do this, your child will naturally cooperate. You'll never need to punish, because the part of your child that wants to do the right thing will gain the upper hand. Not to mention that YOU will be having a whole lot more fun.

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