“Dr. Laura....How will they know right from wrong when they are never taught something will happen when they do wrong? What should we do if one of the kids destroys property? What should we do if we tell them to do something and they don't listen? What if they hit another kid?"- Kristin
spent our last few posts answering Kristin's terrific question -- one that all parents sometimes have. We've explored why punishment doesn't teach kids to do the right thing and how kids learn right from wrong.
Today, we're answering the very tough question, What if your child DOES know right from wrong and chooses to do wrong?
Traditional parenting responds to the child's misbehavior by imposing a "consequence" that causes emotional or physical pain, so that the child will choose
to avoid that consequence in the future by choosing different behavior. But that assumes the child is has the ability to regulate her emotions, and
therefore her behavior. ("Why Consequences are Just More Ineffective Punishment.")
By contrast, Loving guidance sets limits on the child's behavior, but allows all emotions, including the child's upset about our limits. We help the child
with those challenging emotions so they don't drive her behavior in the future. And we help the child repair any damage to relationships or property,
rather than punishing. The focus is on connecting with the child so they are less likely to act out, and so we have more influence.
So is it possible to use loving guidance instead of punishment to keep problem behavior from happening again? Let's take Kristin's examples.
If you tell your child to do something and she doesn't listen, she may not have actually heard your request. It's
completely normal for young humans to be fully absorbed in what they're doing, and not really take in what we're telling them. And I've yet to meet
a child who thinks that taking a bath "this minute" is more important than whatever she's doing.
So the first rule is to connect BEFORE you start speaking. That means you can't bark orders from across the room and expect to get through. Instead,
move in close. Get down on your child's level and touch her lightly. Observe what she's doing and connect with her by making a comment about
it: "Wow, look at that house you built for your animals!" You aren't manipulating, you're acknowledging respect for her activities,
too. Then, empathize: "I know it's hard to stop playing now, Honey. But I need you to....."
If you've asked once and not gotten a response, don't just repeat yourself. You don't have your child's attention. Go back to Step One, above.
(For more tips on this, see How to Get Your Child to LISTEN!)
I don't consider "Not listening" to be a big deal. To me, that's just normal child-like behavior, best handled with a sense of humor. But maybe what Kristin
meant isn't so much listening, but obeying. What if you tell your child to do something and she willfully disobeys? That's defiance. More
on that in a moment.
If he hits another child, that's a strong signal that he needs help with fear, since fear is always behind aggression. Is something
at home scaring him, such as mom and dad fighting? Is TV showing him images that scare him, so he needs to act them out at school to process those
feelings? Is he feeling scared because all the other kids seem to understand the math and he just feels dumb? Is he being taunted on the playground,
or by his big brother? Is he worried about dad, who's deployed? Is he rebelling against our punishment or yelling at home? Does he worry that
you love his little sibling more?
Notice that if we punish, we don't learn any of this. Instead, loving guidance starts by empathizing. What made him so upset that he did this? We listen,
we connect. We ask him what he thinks about how things worked out. We point out the natural consequence of the hitting, which is that the other child
got hurt and now does not want to play with him. We brainstorm with him how else he could have handled the situation. We have him act out alternatives
so he's able to handle things differently in the future. We connect to help him feel safe enough to breathe his way through his fear and get it out
of his system. We create opportunities for him to giggle and cry out that fear. (What Your Child Wishes You Knew When She Acts Out)
And then we change whatever we can in his life that we suspect may make him vulnerable to fear, and to aggression.
If, instead, we punished him--whether by spanking, giving a timeout, or taking away his screen time-- do you think he would stop hitting? Unlikely,
because we haven't dealt with the feelings causing the aggression. The fastest way to get him to stop the hitting is to heal the festering feelings
of fear and sadness that find their way out in hitting, and to avoid creating more of those feelings.
If she purposely destroys property, and she's in the middle of a "tantrum" (even if she's a teenager), it's understandable. Most of us
have done stupid things when we're in the grip of "fight or flight" that we're sorry about later. (I still remember hurling my favorite mug at the
wall when I was in college.) The "cure" for that kind of outburst is to heal the feelings that drove it. (Or in the case of the teenager, maybe
to get more sleep!) Of course, she needs to replace the item, either out of her allowance or by doing chores. That's not a "consequence"
in the sense of punishment; that's just cleaning up her own mess, like cleaning up the milk when she spills it. When she calms down, she'll be open
to that suggestion, as long as she feels connected and understood. (What if she isn't? That's defiance. More on that in a minute!)
But if the destruction of property is premeditated? That's a red flag that something is very wrong inside her. You won't learn what it is if you
punish her. Of course, she needs to replace the item, but that's the least of your worries. That won't teach her how to work through the
tangled up feelings that made her destroy the property. And it won't connect her with you enough that she WANTS to control her impulses. Punishment
will cause this already extreme behavior to get worse, and to spill out in other areas of her life. A child who destroys property is yelling loud and
clear that she desperately needs help from you. If all you do is punish her, you're reneging on your responsibility as a parent to give her the help
Notice the constant thread here? Punishment drives the feelings underground and makes the bad behavior worse. Healing the feelings that are driving the
behavior is what prevents a repeat of the misbehavior. You're never ignoring it. You're healing it at the source.
Kids choose Right over Wrong when:
1. They feel connected to you, so they have a reason to choose "right" even when it costs them. Kids get disconnected from us constantly,
because life gets in the way, and because big emotions get in the way. So connection isn't something you do once. You have to make a point of
reconnecting with your child daily, just as you do with a romantic partner. (Here's a whole section of articles about Connection.)
2. They can control their emotions, which allows them to control their behavior. Most of the time when kids mess up, it's because
they couldn't manage themselves. (Just like with us. Remember the last time you said something you were sorry for later?) Punishment doesn't
help kids manage their emotions; it makes it harder. Here's a whole post on how kids learn to manage their emotions, which lets them manage their behavior.
3. They want to. If your child simply doesn't care whether he "does right," that's defiance. It's normal for a toddler,
who's still figuring out that she can be herself without saying No to everything you ask. But older kids who are connected to their parents don't want
to disappoint them. So you can't solve defiance with discipline, that just makes it worse. You solve defiance with connection. Here's a whole
post on Defiance.
Does this seem like a lot of work? It is.
But it's more effective to solve the reason the child is misbehaving. And it's much more likely to raise a healthy, responsible, considerate adult.
Which is, after all, our job as parents.