Monday, April 7, 2014

We Gave Up on Punishing Our Kids

Before I get started, I want to be clear. I am not saying that what we do in our family is right for every other family, or any other family, for that matter. Each family is as unique as the individuals in the family. What we do in our family is what we feel is right for our family, at this time, with the specific needs and circumstances of each family member. I am only writing about what we are doing, not what I think anyone else should do.

Yes, we gave up on punishing our kids. Not because we are defeated. Oh, no! Though some days are challenging and we do feel discouraged, we are far from being defeated and certainly NOT giving up on our kids. But punishment is almost eradicated from our home.

I know, I know. You are now picturing kids running around doing whatever they please while we sit back and ignore it. But that is not the case. We have not given up on teaching our kids and training them in how to behave properly. We have only given up on punishing.

See, it was not working for us. Whatever the reason, punishing negative behavior, no matter how kindly or calmly, only increased the negative behavior and caused the boys to act out more. We were all feeling disconnected, angry and very negative. Everything was a battle. As parents, we were grumpy because we were not in control. The boys were grumpy because they were always being punished. It just was not working for us at all.

It has been a gradual change. Over the past year and a half we have been making changes. We began to work on connecting with the boys while correcting their behavior. But we were still punishing with time outs, a smack on the hand, a small spank, a stern tone and threats of consequences. We realized that these methods were working against forming a connection.

So, what do we do if we do not punish negative behavior?


We highly value connection and have found this to be a preemptive strike against negative behavior. We do not wait until the negative behavior occurs to try to make a connection. We are constantly working on the connection. Here are some examples of ways we work on connection:

Listening attentively when they talk, but also teaching that there are times when they must listen or be silent.
Responding compassionately to their hurts and sorrows without going overboard and making more of a fuss than is necessary.
Showing respect in the way we speak to them and treat them, just as we want them to show respect to us.
Spending time with them reading books, playing, going for walks, singing and dancing to fun music, eating meals together.


A hug will fix almost any problem with the boys. My theory is that they are likely acting out because they are feeling disconnected from the family and need a little extra affection and love to bring them back into connection. When that connection is strong, they have little need to act out.

If they are annoying each other, they need a hug.
If they are throwing a tantrum, they need a hug.
If they are dumping all their toys on the floor, they need a hug.
If they are repeatedly doing something they know they are not supposed to be doing, they need a hug.

Instead of seeing their behaviors as rebellion or opposition, I first assume that they are behaving this way because they are disconnected. Negative feelings, such as frustration, annoyance, sadness, disconnection, lead to negative behaviors. If I can address the root cause -- the negative feelings -- and resolve them, then I have opened the door to a learning moment to teach proper behavior. If I try to teach my frustrated toddler to not throw his toys while he is still frustrated, my message is not going to get through. In fact, if I ignore his feelings, my attempt to teach him may alienate him more. So first, I reach down to the feelings that are causing the behavior before giving instruction in proper behavior. Sometimes, if I take care of the feelings, there is no need to address the behavior. They know that what they were doing was inappropriate and when they are taken care of emotionally they are able to realize that they did wrong and apologize on their own. Not all the time, but it has happened.

Natural Consequences

Natural consequences must be just that - natural. They cannot be contrived though they are enforced by us. Natural consequences teach the possible outcomes for their behaviors and are not a sneaky way to punish them.

A natural consequence for fighting with his brother could be that he needs to spend some time playing by himself in his bedroom. "You are not playing kindly with your brother. I think you need some time on your own to get a better attitude."

When we are getting ready for bed and it is time to read books, if he chooses not to come when called, a natural consequence would be that he must sit in his crib and miss out on reading a book. "You chose not to come when you were called. Now you must wait until I call you again."

At meal times, if food is thrown, smashed or otherwise used improperly (any use other than eating it), the natural consequence is that their meal time is over. "You were smashing your food. That makes me think that you are all done, so I am going to clean you up. You can have more food at the next meal."

Another meal time natural consequence is hunger. We offer healthy foods, including at least one food item that we believe they will enjoy. They can eat all of their food, none of their food or pick what they want to eat from what they are served. Their only options are what has been given to them and food will not be given until the next meal. Occasionally we will have a treat after a meal, but this is not the standard. If they choose not to eat the food that is given to them, then they may be hungry before the next meal. We do not coerce or force them to eat. "This is meal time. This is the food that we have to eat right now. If you do not want to eat, that is OK, but you may get hungry before we have food again." We are allowing them to learn to listen to their body and eat when they are hungry and experience the consequences of not eating when food is offered.

Whatever the situation, the consequence must "fit" the misbehavior so that they get the idea of consequences. When we force a completely unrelated punishment on them because of misbehavior, it may curb the behavior because they want to avoid the punishment, but it seems to do little in teaching them that their behaviors have real life consequences. With natural consequences, they are learning to think through their behaviors and consider the possible outcomes. This skill will be very useful as they get older.

Time Ins

We have all heard of time outs. In a time out, a child is sent to a specific place to think about what they have done or to serve a sentence for having done something wrong. It is a method of punishing negative behavior. It may work for some kids. I am not saying that a time out is categorically wrong. But it is not the best method for our boys.

Instead of a time out, we do time ins. In a time in, they are kept close by until they are ready to talk about what they have done or ready to set things right. I also use time ins to keep them close when they are not able to control themselves for whatever reason.

Here are a few examples...

He is angry about something and throws a toy across the room. First, I address the negative feelings with a ((hug)). I scoop him up and say, "I know you feel angry. I feel angry sometimes." When he is no longer angry, I remind him that it is ok to be angry, but it is not ok to throw toys. I remind him that he can stomp his feet when he is angry, clap his hands, say, "MAD!" or come get a hug from Mommy. We will practice doing those things to reinforce it in his mind. Then, I will say something like, "You threw the toy when you were angry. I need you to go get the toy and put it where it belongs." More likely than not he will say, "NO!" Probably because he is still upset and has not yet resolved his feelings. Instead of punishing his negative response I will say, "Ok. Please sit right here until you are ready to pick up the toy. When you are ready, say 'ready' so I know." I will probably have to take him back to the spot he was told to sit in a few times and remind him that he must wait there until he is ready to pick up the toy. This is not a punishment. This is a break so that he can work out his feelings. It usually takes less than a minute for him to be ready and then he will go pick up the toy and put it where it belongs. Then I encourage him by telling him that I am so happy that he put the toy away and we move on with our day.

He has not "gotten away with" anything. He has not been permitted to do as he pleases. Instead, he has learned how to correct his behavior and how to do things better the next time.

Another time in may be when I am trying to get a meal ready. Perhaps one of the boys is acting up by dumping out all the toys on the floor and then running over them with his bike. Or maybe he is stomping on his brother's toys. I could yell at him and tell him he is going to get it if he does not stop. I could make him go to his room. Instead, I find it works better to say, "It looks like you need a hug. Are you having a hard time controlling your hands/feet?" And then I will ask him to hold onto my pocket of my pants (or hem of my shirt) while I finish the meal. I will say, "You are having a hard time controlling yourself. I need you to stay close by me while I finish." During that time, I talk about what I am doing, or ask him questions, engaging him in conversation. Instead of punishing and pushing him away, I am drawing him closer. I am filling up what is empty in him so that he does not feel the need to behave inappropriately.


Sometimes all that is needed is a do-over. "Oops. That did not work out quite the way it should have. Let's try again." Instead of focusing on the mistake and punishing it, we give the opportunity to try again and have a positive outcome. The negative behavior is replaced with a positive behavior. The positive behavior then sticks in their memory instead of the punishment.


How many of us work better when we have a deadline? We know we need to pay the taxes, but without a deadline, when would we get around to it? Keeping with this thought, how many of us wait until the last week, or last day, to file? OK, I know there are some who want to get it done and out of the way as soon as possible. Especially if you know you will get a large return! But I have a feeling there are a few of us who push it to the last minute.

A sand timer on my phone
A visual timer on my phone
My boys need deadlines, too. I can tell them to clean up their toys, but if I do not give them a clear deadline, they will get distracted and end up playing with their toys. I have a visual timer on my phone. In fact, I have two.

The boys can see the minutes counting down and know they only have a certain amount of time to finish a task. Our goal is to "beat the timer". When they complete the task before the time runs out, we cheer and clap and make a big fuss. If they do not complete the task before the time runs out, I say something like, "Oh, no. We didn't finish before the timer." There is no punishment, but sometimes there are natural consequences. Sometimes it means that they do not have as much time to play or we do not have as much time to read books. I will remind them that they need to finish before the timer so that we have time to do the other things we want to do. In most cases, just racing the timer is motivation enough.

Often, after giving an instruction such as "Go to the table for lunch", if they do not begin to obey quickly, I will say, "I am going to give you till 3 (5, 10) to get to your chair." This gives them a deadline, a time frame in which I expect them to do it. If I get to the number I gave as the deadline and they are not obeying, I will say, "You are not obeying Mommy. Now I need to help you." Then I will help them to do what they are to be doing. In most cases, giving them the deadline of counting reminds them that they need to obey quickly.

Sure, they sometimes exploit the counting, waiting till the very end to start obeying, but even this is an improvement. At this point, even delayed obeying is better than what we had before -- a total lack of response to instruction. We are building lives here. These things can take time. Even if they wait until the last possible moment to obey, we encourage the obedience by thanking them for obeying. If they obey without counting, or obey quickly once we begin counting, we make a bigger deal of it by cheering and clapping for "quick obeying".

Processing Time

Along with giving deadlines, the timer is used to give them some processing time. Often we use the timer when we are transitioning from one thing they are enjoying to another activity. If they are playing outside and we need to go in for dinner, I will set the timer for 2 minutes, 3 minutes, 4 minutes or however long I think they need to process and be ready for the change. I will call them over and say, "I am setting the timer for 2 minutes. When the timer is done, we will go in for dinner. No tantrums. No yelling. We will go in nicely." Many times, it is effective. Though we do still have the tantrums at times and then ((hugs)). Even with the occasional tantrums, transitions are much easier with the timer.

Sometimes we spring things on them and have not given them the time to process and be ready. The other night, we were getting ready to leave from my parents' house and told the boys it was time to put their socks on. We had mentioned that we were going to leave soon a couple of times. One of the boys was very upset about having to put his socks and shoes on. So out came the timer. The timer was set for 1 minute and he was told that at the end of that minute we would put socks on. He happily complied when the timer went off. Now, we could have asserted our authority and made him put his socks on right away and dealt with a tantrum or wrestled him or both. It would have gotten his socks on. Instead, we gave him that minute to process and then worked together to get the socks on, while strengthening our connection rather than damaging it.

Another way we give processing time is to count silently in our heads after giving an instruction. "Pick up your cup." (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) "Sweetheart, pick up your cup." Many times they will begin to do the action before we must repeat ourselves. Often, we do not wait long enough to give them a chance to comply because we are too impatient, so counting before repeating is very helpful for everyone.

Key Phrases

These are phrases that we say over and over again. They are short and simple, but have meaning which has been taught. It is similar to the "What do we say?" prompt that comes after a burp (to say "excuse me") or when we want them to say "thank you". We do not have to go into a lecture to remind them of what is expected.

"When Mommy is talking..." That is all I have to say now and they can finish the statement. This is their cue to respectfully pay attention when someone is talking to them. "When Mommy (Daddy, someone) is talking, Look at Mommy, Be quiet, Be still." We hold up fingers, counting off the three things as we say them. I hold my fingers close to my face so that they can follow through with looking at me right away. This has been almost magical! Within one day of beginning this phrase, they had it down and did what was required. Just speaking these words stops all wiggles, silences the mouth and gets eye contact (most of the time).

Some other key phrases are...
"gentle hands" - To remind to use a gentle touch, not to hit, to handle toys and books gently.
"talk" - This is used when they are about to pitch a fit and to remind them to talk to us when there is a problem or if something is upsetting them.
"what are (insert plural noun) for?" - This reminds them of proper use of items. Bowls are used for eating, not for throwing. People are for loving (or hugging), not for hitting.

After using the phrases a couple of times and explaining what is meant, they become familiar and we usually only need to say the phrase to remind them of what is expected.


One of the most effective changes has been in giving choices. Instead of saying, "Do this because I told you so!" We will often say, "You have a choice. You can do A or B." This gives them boundaries and both choices are equally acceptable and work toward the goal, but they feel they have some say in what is being done with their body. They are more willing to cooperate even if they are not fully happy with what is being asked of them.

For instance, it is time to go up to bed. We say, "It's time for bed. Go upstairs." They do not want to go to bed. They run away or say, "no!" We could pull out the punishment threats -- "Go upstairs or I'll..." and then we would have to enforce whatever punishment we blurted out. While this may be effective in getting them up the stairs, it does not do much good for teaching them to have self-control -- doing things they may not want to do -- or making wise choices, or willingly obeying. It teaches them that we will do something bad to them if they do not do as they are told. In the short term, it may be effective in the goal of getting them to do what they are told to do, but our bigger goal is to teach them self-control, making wise choices and willing obedience.

We will often give choices. When they do not want to go upstairs, we give a choice (all resulting in getting upstairs). "You can walk up the steps by yourself, or I can carry you. Which one do you choose?" or "You can crawl up the steps or you can walk. Which one do you choose?" Most times, they will willingly make a choice and follow through. We will say, "Good choosing!" If they will not make a choice, then we make the choice for them. "You did not make a choice, so now I choose. I choose to carry you upstairs." Sometimes that causes a tantrum and then we deal with the tantrum. But most times, they respect that we gave them a choice and are eager to take the opportunity to decide for themselves.

A Few Last Thoughts

Honestly, it is so much easier to just punish negative behavior. It takes a lot less energy, less creativity, less attentiveness. Since giving up on punishing, we must invest much more time, energy and creativity into our parenting. We must always be attentive and ready to calmly and patiently handle the situations that arise (not that we are always patient and calm, but it is definitely our goal). Some days it is very intense. But it is worth it. We are seeing positive results. This time will not last forever, I keep reminding myself. We are laying a foundation for the rest of their lives, so the time we invest now has long term results.

Our methods for avoiding using punishment are:
Natural Consequences
Time Ins
Processing Time
Key Phrases

What we have come to realize is that our connection, our relationship, in our family is so important. It is more important than rules and proving we are "in charge". Yes, we still have rules and we are still the authority. We still expect obedience and appropriate behavior. But we value our relationship above that. We have come to see that when we put our relationship first, there is less struggle, not as many battles. We are still able to be in authority and enforce rules and expectations, but without as much conflict and without breaking the relationship. In fact, when we put relationship first, our teaching is much more effective.

Our methods may not be right for everyone. But this is what is right for our family. We are a work in progress and we are seeing progress.

1 comment:

Tabatha Clow said...

Thank you for writing this post. With some of J's issues, we have started implementing some of what is on you list. I feel that I will need to implement some more to help the boys feel more connected to each other. Thank you for this post.