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Many of us were raised in homes where we were expected to follow certain rules, whether spoken or unspoken and if we didn’t, there were major consequences. We learned to do what we were told out of fear for what might happen if we didn’t. And we got really good at trying to lie and hide the things we had done wrong. But as parents in today’s culture, these are punishments we should avoid.
I believe there is a better way to parent, and science backs that up. We are learning more and more every day about how our actions as parents affect our children, and what we’ve discovered changes the way we should approach discipline. Traditional forms of punishment are outdated and possibly even harmful.
Traditional Punishments To Avoid
- Rewarding Good Behavior
- Taking Away Privileges
- Spanking (and other forms of physical punishment)
Why These Methods Don’t Work
It’s true that parents have been doing it this way for years, decades even. But just because something has always been done a certain way, doesn’t mean there’s not a better way. The world we are raising our kids in is much different than the world previous generations raised their kids in. Our methods of teaching and discipline should evolve with the culture we live in and we should most definitely avoid punitive punishments. We know so much more now than we did back then about how our interactions affect our children both in their present and their future behavior.
It’s been shown that traditional forms of punishment such as shaming, blaming, yelling, spanking, time-outs and more actually have an overall negative long-term impact on our children. These methods may be very effective in stopping unwanted behavior in the short-term. However, it seems that long-term, these types of punishments have no benefit in teaching a child why they should behave a certain way and we should avoid them. In fact, we may actually be hindering their emotional, mental, and even physical development.
When we punish instead of teach, our children learn that their behavior is dependent on external motivation. This means that when that motivation is not present (i.e. when the adult who disciplines isn’t around or doesn’t see something happen), the child will not adhere to the same values and standards that the disciplinarian would like for them to. The child never learns to internalize positive and beneficial behaviors and may only learn to resent them.
Positive Parenting Alternatives
Instead of time-out, which is intended to isolate the child and withdraw the parent’s attention and love, try a time-in. With this method, you enter the space with your child and help them walk through their emotions. Many times when children act out, they are craving a connection. Putting aside whatever you’re working on at the moment and taking that time to connect lets them know that you are there for them and that you are big enough to handle whatever they can throw at you.
Just as we don’t appreciate someone trying to reason with us, point out our mistakes, or correct us when we’re angry or upset, children need some time to process their emotions too. Once everyone has calmed down and gotten all their negative feelings out, it will be much easier to talk about the problem and work out a solution. A time-in gives you the opportunity to connect before you correct.
This method may not work for older kids, but it’s perfect for babies and toddlers! Young children have a very short attention span, so when they are doing something they shouldn’t, calmly direct their attention to something more interesting. If possible, remove the thing instigating negative behavior from their space.
Re-frame Your Request
Sometimes the only thing needed to avoid a major meltdown or a power struggle is simply to change the way you present a request. One way I do this is instead of saying, “You need to stop jumping on the furniture,” I say, “I need you to please sit down on your bottom.”
This simple change in phrasing takes the request from an accusatory tone limiting their behavior to a request for help that lets them know what they should do instead.
Offer a Choice
Many parents balk at this idea. It’s my house and my rules. The children need to do what I say because I said so. However, offering a choice does not mean you must give up all control. In many situations, it can be as simple as choosing the red cup or the blue cup. Let them know that those are the only options available and, if they can’t make a choice, then you will make it for them.
Another situation where allowing a choice may be appropriate is when you need your child to do something and they don’t want to. Instead of engaging in a power struggle, try saying something like, “Would you like to pick out your own clothes or would you rather have mommy pick them out?” “Do you want to leave the park now or in five minutes?” “Would you like to read a story and then take a bath or do you want to take a bath and then read a story?”
Only offer options that you are ok with following through on. This gives the child some sense of control over their lives while still allowing you to set appropriate limits and avoid harsh punishments.
Negotiation is a skill that everyone should have, so why not begin teaching it early? The same rule applies to negotiation as to offering a choice: only negotiate when you are willing to follow through. If negotiation will trigger you in that particular instance, then don’t offer it as a solution.
An example of how this might look is your child wants to stay at the playground longer but you want to go home so you can prepare dinner. You might negotiate with your child that you will go home now, but tomorrow you will come back to the playground. Be sure to mark it in your calendar right away to show them that you are serious and offer them hope that you will follow through.
Allowing natural consequences to deter your children whenever possible will help you avoid endless power struggles and meltdowns. If your child doesn’t want to wear a coat, they will be cold. If they refuse to eat, they’ll be hungry. If they don’t keep track of their toys, they will lose them. You don’t have to do anything except remind them that their choice led to their circumstances. Of course, you’ll need to make sure their basic needs are still met (don’t let your child outside in sub-zero temps without a coat and don’t let them skip several meals in a row) – but this method can be surprisingly simple and yet effective.
This is a way of enforcing limits when natural consequences are not an option. To do this, you respond by giving discipline that makes sense for the misbehavior. If your toddler hits you with a toy, you take the toy away and say something like, “I see you’re having a hard time playing with this toy gently. I’ll put it away for now and we can try again later.”
This is not a time to dole out any old consequence you can come up with. For instance, offering punishments that don’t make sense for the offense or punishments that far exceed the level of misbehavior. Taking away TV time because your child threw their food on the floor doesn’t send a clear message. But saying, “Throwing food shows me you’re finished eating,” and then removing the food lets them know this is not acceptable behavior.
In the same way, taking away all of your toddler’s toys for several days because he threw one of them is a bit extreme and will likely only lead to further frustrations without helping your child truly understand what they did wrong. These are the types of punishments we need to avoid.
These positive parenting solutions do not guarantee that your child will always behave perfectly (no child does). And I can’t promise any particular outcomes for your specific child. But using these methods instead of the traditional punitive punishments used in the past does tend to produce more positive outcomes in the long run.
Positive parenting encourages open communication, cooperation, healthy compromise, and connection. Using these methods of discipline helps your child learn how to manage their own emotions and teaches them to internalize appropriate behavior so that they can make good choices without external motivations (i.e. punishments).