We Need To Give Our Kids Boundaries Without Punishing Them For Their Feelings

by Rachel Garlinghouse
Originally Published: 
Rachel Garlinghouse/Instagram

My oldest was a biter. It was just her thing. Whenever things began to spiral from calm to hectic, she would bite. When we took care of another two-year-old for three weeks to help out his mom, my daughter bit him—multiple times.

Of course, we were totally appalled. We felt terrible. Having a biter is sort of the worst of the worst—causing panic among both the parents of the biter and the parents of the kid who gets bitten. Lots of people told us to bite our child back — a sort of “taste of their own medicine” approach, I suppose.

But it didn’t sit well with me. Of course, the behavior was hurtful and inappropriate. But I was wondering, what is “the why?” What’s the reason behind why she’s doing what she’s doing?

It was obvious in this case. My daughter was the center of our universe until a second child came along. This child played with her toys, slept in her nursery, and cuddled her mom. She was basically telling us “oh, hell no” by biting. It made no sense to her how one day she was our everything and the next day—and for three solid weeks—she was one of a pair.

Plus, two-year-olds have limited vocabulary and are extremely self-centered. Their world is their own. Their feelings are big—like, really big. They’re either giddy-laughing, sleeping (sometimes), eating (again, sometimes), trying to potty train (fail), or they are learning how to throw epic tantrums and test boundaries. Their favorite word is “no,” and their favorite action is to pretend their bones have turned to noodles, forcing us to scoop them off the floor.

We ended up getting a board book called Teeth Are Not For Biting and reading it over and over again. We also found that her struggle eventually resolved itself when the little boy left our care and her world went back to its norm. That is, until her little sister arrived.

Now I have four kids, and I’m glad I never followed the “bite them back” advice. Because I’ve found something that works so much better—for any of my kids and in any stage or age.

When our oldest was about five years old, and we also had a three-year-old and a one-year-old, I learned about something called connective parenting. Being raised in an old school household where seemingly “bad behavior” was punished with standing-in-the-corner, spanking, and later, grounding, this connective parenting thing sounded a bit hippie-ish to me. My mental picture was one of flowers, rainbows, and peace signs. It felt hokey and unrealistic and permissive. I am not a parent who yearns to be my child’s bestie, and I had reservations.

But after doing some more research, we decided to give connective parenting a whirl—because having three kids at home under age five was chaotic—and something needed to be consistent. There were so many big feelings at any given time, not to mention all the diapers, baby gates, toys, and naps—or lack thereof. Someone was always tired, hungry, or in need of cuddles. We were caught in a vicious cycle of being reactive to our kids’ needs and behaviors instead of being proactive. And it wasn’t working.

Connective parenting–which could be considered a cousin of attachment parenting–means many things. One of those is figuring out the reason behind the behavior, rather than assuming that the behavior defines the child. Is the child hungry, thirsty, tired, sick, stressed, or off of their regular routine? Some of those needs are easy to meet.

Other times the underlying emotion is jealousy, frustration, confusion, or loneliness. Acting out can get parental attention—even if that attention isn’t positive. We do some digging. Did something happen recently to trigger the behavior?

Basically, we became detectives. But let me tell you, it’s not a perfect method. Kids can be so puzzling, and we don’t always figure out the “why.” The good news is, ultimately that doesn’t change how we respond to our children.

Connective parenting in our home means first connecting with our kids before moving on to correct. That’s eye contact, calm voices, gentle and reassuring touch. It’s sitting face-to-face and knee-to-knee. Once we figure out what the inner storm is, then we work on the correction part. Correction is what we call it, but if you’re like me when I grew up, the traditional term is discipline.

This doesn’t mean we don’t hold our kids accountable for their actions. As a former college teacher, I met a lot of students who were extremely entitled and had an excuse for every choice they made. And when those excuses didn’t work, they’d blame me—the educator. I was unfair, I didn’t like them, or I needed to be more like their high school teachers. Puh-leeze.

I was and still am determined to raise respectful, accountable kids. Which is why after I get my kids back to a calm state—meaning the underlying need is met and the emotion is voiced—we talk about the behavior. And I ask a problem-solving question. “What do you think should happen next?”

The answer is usually that they need to offer an apology to a sibling, parent, or teacher. Apologies require eye contact, saying sorry, and stating what went wrong. For example, “I’m sorry I threw your library book when I got angry.” They usually hug it out after, and we move on. In some cases, they’ve written a letter or sent a text. Whatever works.

There’s a huge perk of parenting this way. We don’t do delayed punishments. Why? They cause unnecessary, ongoing bad attitudes and essentially punish the child for having feelings–even if their behavior was in-the-wrong. If they do authentically and appropriately apologize and “make right” what happened—no further discipline is needed. However, sometimes the action the child chose to take does manifest natural consequences. If a kiddo stomps on a toy out of anger, then the toy is broken. I don’t rush out and buy the child a replacement toy. Nope.

Connective parenting means that we treat the problem rather than the symptom.

Consider that we all have bad days. Why are we punishing children for having feelings and expressing those—you know, being human? If we’re teaching them to “suck it up, buttercup” and sitting them in a time-out chair or grounding them for a month—the message we send our kids is that they need to stuff down their emotions and carry on. That’s not healthy.

As adults, we clap back at our bad days and seasons by treating ourselves with a venti latte, binge watching a favorite show on Netflix, or go to therapy. Connective parenting allows our kids to struggle to, to recalibrate, and to start fresh.

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