Parenting Without Punishment: What DO you do?
I knew from pretty early on as a parent that I would definitely not be doing things like ‘controlled crying’ or smacking with my children. As they grew bigger and I learned more, that evolved to rejecting more of the ‘mainstream’ ideas and moving to parenting without punishment. We’re big on freedom here and we let our kids make their own choices and learn from their own mistakes. It was hard at first though because when you take away all of those parenting techniques you’re not left with much! That makes it easy to fall back into old habits, or what you experienced growing up. It’s easy to know what you don’t want to do but in the moment it’s hard to know what exactly to do instead! I can tell from the comments on some of my parenting posts that there are a lot of people out there feeling similar. So, I thought I would try to put into words exactly how things work in our family (or at least what we are aiming for because we’re not perfect and we make mistakes!). If you don’t use punishment, what DO you do?
In general, this is how I approach day-to-day parenting situations…
1. Keep people safe
In any situation, the first step is to keep everyone safe. If siblings are fighting over a toy for example, pushing and pulling at it, step in and place your hand on the toy to hold it steady. Say something like ‘it looks like you’re trying to work this out. I need to keep everyone safe. I’ll help you hold this and make sure no one gets hurt while you work it out’.
If children are hurting each other, simply step in and block their hit/kick/scratch etc saying ‘I won’t let you hit your sister’. It’s hard not to get frustrated at these times. You think ‘how many times have I told them they can’t hurt each other!!’ But try to remain calm and simply stop it from happening while setting a firm limit (‘I won’t let you kick your brother’). Don’t try and talk about it right now or ask them why they are doing it. If a child is having such big emotions that they’re hitting and kicking then they’re not going to be up for rational conversation right now. First, just keep everyone safe.
2. Describe what you see
The next thing I do in most situations is just describe what I see. It’s easy to do, you don’t have to remember anything in particular to say, and it gives you time to think about what you need to do next. Just describe what you see.
‘I heard lots of loud voices, I came to see if you need help’
‘You were playing with the doll, and now your sister has the doll’
‘You’re trying to go down the slide and your sister is sitting on it, it sounds like you might like her to move?’
‘I’m holding your sister and you would really like me to pick you up too’
Things to remember when describing…
Use a calm voice: After you’ve kept everyone safe you might need to take a second to calm yourself. Lots of situations are frustrating. That’s ok! But we’re going to be able to better deal with them (and help our kids deal with them!) if we can remain calm. So take a few breaths, and bring out your normal calm non-judgemental voice. Your calm makes them feel that you can handle the situation, that they are safe, and that they are able to deal with any problem.
No judgement: When you’re describing what you see, refrain from any judgement! No taking sides, no blaming. Stick to the facts about exactly what you see. Instead of ‘Your sister is annoying you’, you could say ‘It sounds like the noise is bothering you and you’d like some quiet time or space’.
Expect the best: Try not to assume what’s going on before you’ve even assessed the situation. Don’t fall into the trap of automatically blaming one child in your head because ‘he always does this’. Give them the benefit of the doubt. Treat each new situation with a clean slate. You might be surprised!
I don’t think I can stress this enough but this is the most important step! Empathy is like magic! It is your most powerful parenting tool so use it ALWAYS. Sometimes that’s all you need to do. Just empathise, hear your child’s feelings, understand them, be there while they process them and work out what to do. ALL behaviour has a reason and if we only address the behaviour without acknowledging the underlying feelings then we will have little long term success. Children need to feel heard, and valued, and understood. If you feel like reverting to punitive discipline, empathise instead! It changes your focus from controlling behaviour, to understanding behaviour. All you need to do is listen to your child and reflect back their feelings with understanding.
‘You would really like the red pen but your sister has it. It’s so hard to wait’
‘You sound really sad/upset/angry/frustrated’
‘You’re upset because you really wanted to climb on the table. It seems like a lot of fun’
‘It’s ok to feel sad’
‘It feels so frustrating when we can’t do what we want’
‘I hear you’
The next thing I do is just wait. Comfort them, continue to empathise and see what happens. Maybe they want to talk more, maybe they just needed to release some feelings and they’re done. Maybe they want to cuddle for a while. Maybe they’re ready to problem solve.
5. Problem solve
This might happen straight away or at a later time. If it’s a sibling dispute then we obviously need to work it out then and there (if they haven’t already been able to work it out themselves while I’ve kept them safe, empathised, and reflected feelings and needs). But we always have to go through the other steps first to make sure everyone has calmed down and is feeling more able to think clearly. Sometimes we don’t need to problem solve at all because all that was needed was empathy and understanding. Or sometimes I am the one who wants to follow something up at a later date. Maybe I wasn’t satisfied with the outcome and thought it needed a bit more discussion. I might just calmly approach them with ‘I was wondering if we could talk about what happened yesterday, it still doesn’t feel resolved for me, would you be willing to listen to my thoughts?’
I will then talk about what happened, empathise again (are you getting how important this is? Just keep empathising!), acknowledge what their wants and needs are, and what my needs are, and then ask them for their ideas of what we will do moving forward.
‘I need to keep everyone safe, I’d like it if we could try not to hurt each other. When you feel angry you can…’
‘It feels overwhelming trying to clean up on your own and you don’t like it. I like to have the lounge room clear of toys before I go to bed and I’m needing some help. Could we work together?’
‘It sounds like you would both like to feel heard. I’m here to listen. Tell me about it.’
‘How can we work this out?’
‘Do you have any ideas?’
And that’s it! That’s generally how I try to approach everything that happens on a day to day basis. There’s no tricks, no strategies, just using situations as opportunities to connect and help children learn how to manage their emotions. Because ALL behaviour is caused by underlying emotions. Challenging times are not things just to ‘get through’ but opportunities to grow and help children learn how to regulate their emotions, and communicate their needs.
Some more general ways that we approach parenting include…
Letting go of control
Mainstream parenting seems to work on the assumption that adults are the boss and must always remain in control. I don’t know about you but I couldn’t think of anything more tiring than having to be constantly policing behaviour, granting permission, enforcing rules, and inflicting punishments. It also doesn’t seem to be conductive to a harmonious environment. I want my children to feel valued and empowered so I have given up the traditional family hierarchy. Everyone is equally important here. Everyone has equal say. We make decisions as a family.
Freedom and trust are SO important to me. I want my children to feel totally in control of themselves. I think the best way to equip them for the world is to let them start making and learning from their own decisions from the beginning. So unless it is a case of safety or health, we try to let them make their own choices as much as possible. They decide when they go to bed, when they wake up, when and how much they eat, what they wear, and what they learn. It seems unbelievable that kids are capable of some of these decisions if you’ve never seen it but they truly are.
Making requests, not demands
I read an article the other day that said parents are asking their children to do things instead of demanding and that this is what’s wrong with ‘kids these days’. I think it’s the opposite. Most kids these days experience a lot of control so it’s understandable they would fight for their freedom and ‘misbehave’. I think we can extend some common courtesy to our youngest humans. I don’t go around demanding things of anyone else. I find that if I speak nicely to my children they are more often than not very happy to help me.
Not taking it personally
Kids are just learning how the world works and how to deal with their emotions. Sometimes they say and do things that hit a nerve. Maybe you spent an hour cooking dinner and they tell you it’s gross. Try not to take it personally and respond with frustration. Instead model good manners and maybe talk to them about how they can better express themselves.
Allowing natural consequences
We don’t use parent imposed consequences or punishments but we do allow the kids to make their own mistakes and learn from them. I try not to warn them with ‘be careful’ when they’re exploring and instead trust them to know their own capabilities. I will give them my opinion if it’s asked for or if I think it’s genuinely needed because they don’t have all the information. But they are free to make their own decisions even if they’re different than mine. When something goes wrong I’m there to comfort and empathise without unnecessarily enforcing a lesson and making them feel ashamed. For example I can empathise that they’re upset that their toy was ruined because it was left out in the rain and we didn’t notice, without going on to say ‘but if you’d just done what I said and looked after your toys for once this wouldn’t have happened’. That’s unnecessary. They get it. Let the lesson sink in without being overpowered by shame.
What is good parenting? Is it having obedient children, or is it building strong relationships and supporting your children to grow up into the people they are meant to be? For me, obedience is not the goal at all. So I have adjusted my expectations. These little people are just learning, there will be mistakes and frustrating times and that is OK. Don’t expect perfection. It’s constant work but it is worthwhile and fulfilling.
Working on connection
What I want most of all is a deep connection with my children. When they are grown I want them to always know that they can come to me and I will be a safe place. I think the only real lasting influence we can have on our children comes from connection. If you rely on punitive discipline, what will happen when you’re no longer there to enforce your rules? If you parent with connection your children will always value you and trust you and come to you with their problems. And isn’t that what we all want?
There is a lot more I could say about the benefits of respectful parenting but they will have to wait for another post! I hope that was a little bit helpful. You can find more parenting posts here.
Do you parent similarly, or differently? What do you struggle with?
Good post! Completely agree with you. I work in a nursery as an early years teacher and this post is basically my day to day.
I grew up in a country were culturally it’s alright to smack sometimes your child if their behaviour has been naughty. I completely disagree with this parenting at all and I think is not effective.
Thank you 🙂
I have half-way read Raising Resilient Children which covers a lot of the same things you’ve mentioned here (with a particular focus on empathy) and it’s very thought-provoking, particularly in a professional context as I often have to give parenting advice which is a big responsibility since I’m not a parent and have had no official “training”! I frequently say to parents, ‘You’re trying to raise an adult, they have to be able to learn how to do things themselves’ or similar. Sometimes that gets lost in the frustration of the daily grind.
Sounds like a good book!
Exactly, we’re raising people, not just getting through the day.
I’m bookmarking this post. I have alot of the same opinions on parenting as you. The difference is you’re living them and I’m struggling. I find myself yelling alot and I hate that about myself. I’d always sworn I’d never be a yeller like everyone else I’ve known but I find myself falling back on it so often. I love reading your posts. It’s so hard to change the parenting “norm”that most of us grew up with.
It’s really hard! I don’t do it perfectly all the time. Always a work in progress xx
Lovely post. We try and follow these techniques, but as with our children, we don’t always get it right and are still learning. I found that my ‘falling into bad habits’ tended to occur around a couple of trigger issues for me. Recognising this allowed me to catch myself in the moment prepared, take a breath and approach it in a better way.
That really helps. I found the same.
Good tips on how to handle in difficult situations. But there is one thing I like to share with you from my own experience as a child. I am raised like you describe ‘in freedom of making my own decisions’. I always had to be totally in control of myself because my parents thought just like you that this was a good thing to do. But it made me feel ‘unprotected’ and made me become an adult on a very young age. I do not have the feeling that I had the FREEDOM that other children had of just being a child. It can feel so good to sometimes (ofcourse not always) just be lead by your parents and you can just enjoy, without having to make decisions about things you do not know anything about the results on long-term or even just enjoy the flavor of what is served without having to decide what flavor of icecream you have to choose. I regret the fact that my parents let me decide all the time. I wish they had guided me more with the experience they had in life.
I’m sorry you had that experience Valeska. I agree, those things ARE important. Children need to feel protected, supported, and safe. We do value freedom here, but most of all we’re about respect. I noticed you said “I always HAD to be totally in control” I don’t think respectful parenting is about pushing children to do things before they’re ready. It’s about allowing them to do things IF they are ready. No pushing. I definitely value childhood immensely too. I’m sorry you felt you had to grow up too soon xx
I agree with all you have said here. I wish it could be the case in my home. However, my son will get out of control in hitting me and his siblings. Nothing will stop him. I have to forcibly stop him and it seems very violent (to me) when I do, but there is no other way “to keep everyone safe.” And when I pull him away, he’ll come back at us over and over. I have to throw him outside to stop him. This may seem cruel, but it is better than spanking. These incidents happen at least every day. Otherwise he is very sweet hearted and we have a peaceful and very stable, homeschooled home. It is beneficial to hear the ways I can talk to him, however, it’s difficult to enforce the respectful parenting mantras when your child is out of control in these incidents (in both his energy and when he gets angry about something — we bring him outside, etc all the time).
I don’t think that sounds wrong Heather. If my child tries to hit me I block them too. If taking him outside helps to calm down then that’s just what you have to do. I would just try to remain calm while blocking him and repeating that you won’t let him hurt you or anyone else. I imagine it must feel scary to have such intense emotions for him. Your calm presence will help him feel safe xx
I really love this post. My husband and I have raised our six year old with these same principles in mind but now that he is older we are having a more difficult time. If we left him to his own devices he would be on a screen 24/7. And it is causing a lot of conflict in our family. We tried making a schedule, which he made actually. And it was completely reasonable but when it came down to following the schedule it just resulted in more of the same conflict. I personally don’t like screen time at all but it is very important to him. So we limit screen time but it’s always comes with some imposed consequence. I could use some serious help with this one!
Hi Krista, I love this post and it’s pretty much how we handle screens: http://forageforge.com/2015/11/28/but-wont-they-just-watch-tv-all-day/
Wow! A lot of information, but great ideas! These are things I tell myself or other parents all the time, but have a hard time doing with my daughter. Letting go of the control is the hardest part.
It sure is 🙂
I like the idea here, I just wonder what will happen when they get to be teens. Six is way different than sixteen and when there are no set rules and everyone gets to choose what is best for them, does the fourteen year old get to decide that having a steady boyfriend is okay if you can tell they’re a bad influence? Our brains don’t fully mature until our early to late twenties according to current brain research, and if my kids have been hearing since they were small that they can make their own choices with only a child’s reasoning, a child’s understanding, a child’s worldview, maturity and experience, I judge that sets them up for trouble. It seems like putting them in more than they can handle and if we always just tell them to follow their instincts or values, and those values are undesirable, then what? At some point when they get old enough to dislike their sibling and old enough not to care what you think, then you…? I read the article about the TV and it seems like the kids are still youngish. As Valeska and Krista are saying, as they get older and these are no longer issues of sharing toys and who gets to use the markers first, but life-altering choices that can be made in teens, boundaries and consequences are needed. Natural consequences don’t always appear. I know as a teen I was really excellent at not getting in trouble with authority, but had myself all twisted around in my relationships with friends and guys. When your teen doesn’t care that you don’t like sexting, and she does, then what? If you don’t realize they’re in over their head and they think they can handle it because that is what they’ve been told over and over, I think that could come back just the same as punitive disciple. I would like to say that I enjoy the concept and think that a combination approach would work. A police officer isn’t going to pull me over and ask me how I’m feeling about driving drunk, but the thought of jail time might keep me from doing it in the first place. Ideal, probably not, realistic, I think so.
I think the key thing your missing is that kids WANT to do the right thing. They don’t just grow out of caring what you think. Connection is our biggest influence and if your relationship is strong then they’re going to come to you with their problems and listen to what you have to say. You will have an opportunity to let them know unforeseen consequences. On the other hand if they’ve always been punished, strictly controlled, and had no chance to practice making their own decisions, what happens when you’re not around? There’s no threat of punishment now and no one enforcing the rules. What happens when they do make a mistake? Will they feel safe coming to you with their problems? That seems much more risky to me.
Lovely post & ideas…most if which I try to do whenever possible. However, here is my main issue. I am struggling a little with the no punishments or threats at certain times e.g when you’re trying to get two boys and a baby out of the house in the morning for school and the youngest boy doesn’t want to rush, dress, stop playing his game. I just don’t have that spare time to discuss, empathise, give extra cuddles…& baby is usually on my front in a sling whilst I’m dressing him as this I don’t see as a problem. We have a good connection but I feel if my second son doesn’t have concrete boundaries his behaviour seems more out of control. I also wonder what message my older child is getting. I do at these times try praising my older child to encourage but then I’m aware this probably makes the younger one even more angry. I end up saying that super listeners & great helpers can have a coin for their money box but then the punishment ends up as no coin for the younger one. So confused on how to tackle this no punishment idea?
Agreed! I love this idea so much, but I don’t know how to use it when it’s time to leave somewhere, or the child doesn’t understand that if they stay at the park they will get tired or get hurt in the dark… And many other scenarios.
I am taking an online parenting course that follows a very similar approach. I’ve just started this approach with my 2 and 5 year old homeschooled children so still quite new to it. Before it was a more forceful approach with punishment and no room for insults and fits. I understand now why that doesn’t work long-term and can harm a child. My struggles are the mean insults that come out of my 5 year old’s mouth when he does not get what he wants or I’ve imposed a limit to an activity. He says “your bad”, “I hate you”, “there is no room in my heart for you”, “I don’t ever want to plat with you again”, “Poopoo head”, “you’re stupid”,etc… I say “I see you’re frustrated and it’s ok you let it out… I love you” and then I say “this is not how we let out our frustration” “what else could you do?” Or give him examples of how to let it out… It doesn’t work though, he continues to insult me when he’s really upset. Then I usually just ignore it for a couple minutes and acknowledge that he’s upset. Then I change his focus by playing a game or signing a song or engaging in an activity with my youngest. I have no idea if this is a good approach! I feel there is a lack of examples of what to do with kids who insult… I’m worried by the age of 10 he will be calling me way worst names that I don’t need to list and think that it’s ok because he doesn’t get in trouble. Would love to hear your insights!
I’m rereading this after several months of thinking about taking a more non-punitive, non-controlling approach to parenting, and there is so much here that is helpful!
I think maybe you’ve touched on it before, but what is your approach to screen time?
100% agree not nessessary too punish self controll and natural consequences alot more positivly affective treat outhers as u’d want to be treated 🙂
I understand what the messsge of the article is, but it’s not helpful for a 15 yo that is regularly disrespectful and offensive. What way do you make him realise that it’s just not ok to be so rude not because I’m his mum, but because I’m a human being.
Example when he is swearing constantly and we don’t swear in front of him. How do we make him stop if there are no consequences. We request , we we model , but he swears regardless.
Yes, there are a few specific instances, such as this one (leaving the yard), that I am struggling with as I try to parent without punishment. The only way I can figure out how to handle this is to talk with my three year old about it and then say, “This is one of those times that mommy has to be like a police man. You may not go —–. If you do, we will have to go inside and play.” And I have no idea how to handle it with my one year old. Another time that I have trouble with is simply when I ask, “Will you come here?” I have so much trouble with giving them the option to come or not come when I call. I try to keep my mindset, “If I would not say this to Jim (my partner), then I won’t say it to Em and H (my kids). If I would not expect this from Jim, then I won’t expect it from Em and H.” But there are times that I need to make the final decision. I’m stumped and frustrated in these times and that is when I want to go back to my distraction and manipulative ways to get them to do what I want. Grrr. Thanks for any insight.
Another couple examples that came up yesterday that stump me are: 1) My partner (Jim) wants my son to eat with us or at least sit at the table with us for dinner. My son fights it every night. So, every evening we begin dinner with them fighting. I asked Jim to let him decide when to come to the table, but Jim refuses. He believes a family should eat together and that it is non-negotiable. How to I approach it differently? 2) Also, my son still needs a nap or else he will be cranky by 3 PM. He doesn’t want to nap. I can only get him to sleep if I lie with him after we read our three books together (we do this immediately after I nurse my 19 month old to sleep for her nap). He will fall asleep as we lie together, but if Em (my 19 month old) wakes up, he will not stay in the bed. My parents say to spank him every time he gets up, which I refuse to do. Jim doesn’t want to spank him for that either but thinks he should learn to go to sleep and stay in bed on his own (because he IS sleepy.) What do I do that will help him want to do this because he is only 3 and just goes berserk if I tell him to try to go to sleep by himself (Jim lies with him at night for him to go to sleep, but if Em tries to lie with us for nap when she wakes up before he falls asleep, H won’t go to sleep because they try to play over me.) Blech. Help. I want to be this kind of parent that I read about here, but am struggling with some daily disagreements. Thanks.
Thank you so much for sharing this. Before I became a parent, I thought so much like you. I studied childcare and psychology and I knew exactly how I wanted to raise my children. And I can pinpoint the exact time my parenting changed because of a comment from one of my older relatives. Since that day, I’ve not been the parent I want to be and I struggle daily with how to change because I became the parent I didn’t want to be. And now I find that I don’t know how to parent without all the discipline and telling off and the praise. I feel so inspired by your posts that I am going to re-assess and try and change. Thank you.
I’m going to bookmark your site. We have the same parenting style 🙂
This reminds me a lot of Devon’s Transforming Toddlerhood. We did 1-1 coaching with her when we were overwhelmed with my 2 year old. Devon’s steps for dealing with a difficult situation are very similar to yours (safety, connection, empathy, etc).
The only thing that I had to add was redirection. It didn’t matter how much/long we empathized with my 2 year old (sometimes 30 min!), he would still insist on the one thing that he wanted in that moment (ie. not wanting to leave the grandparents’ house, wanting to watch another TV show, etc). He could verbally repeat what he wanted 100 times. The only thing that I found to work in those moments was redirection, such as asking him a completely unrelated question (“Do you want to walk to the mailbox with me?”), or playing a song, or taking him outside. It’s a fine balance between validating his intense emotions and moving beyond them.
This is wonderful. I think I try to follow these guidelines already. The thing I’m struggling with is that I have a 7 year old son who just started school in person (we did virtual school during the pandemic), and he refuses to do his work while he’s at school “because it’s boring”. I don’t know how to get him to do the work in school without having a fit every time the teacher asks him to do something. I’m at the point now where I’m just begging him to do his work at school, otherwise we’ll have to cut out electronics. I don’t know what else to do.