"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
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
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.