Punishment Without Emotional Support Can Cause More Harm

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When my 5-year-old told me she “ruined everything,” I felt it in my gut. I’d just put her to bed early and without dessert for fighting with her sister, screaming, and a number of other broken house rules. It was around 7:30 p.m. I was standing outside her room, trying to be stern. But then she made that comment, and it seemed so advanced for her age, and I couldn’t help but go back in her room and comfort her.

She was sitting up in her bed in a pink My Little Pony nightgown, her short pixie cut brown hair still wet from bath time, tears streaming down her face. Like most parents, I know her cries. I know when she’s been hurt and I know when she’s just trying to get attention. And I know when she’s really struggling emotionally. And this cry, it was the latter.

As I looked down at her, I couldn’t help but hear the words of my own mother. “Yeah … you should be crying. You’re in trouble.” And you know what? I hated that phrase. I mean, don’t get me wrong. She was right. I was in trouble. But at the same time, did she really need to rub dirt in it like that? When I was a child, in moments like the one my youngest was struggling with, I didn’t really want an additional lecture, nor did I really need one. I just wanted a hug. But I suppose that’s the really cool thing about being a parent, it gives you the opportunity to give your children what you needed as a child.

So I sat down next to her, and reassured her that she didn’t ruin everything. I told her that she’d just had a bad day, and we’d try again tomorrow. I told her I still loved her. I was sitting on the side of her bed, and she crawled into my lap, and buried her face into my chest.

Masha Berliner/Reshot

I know as parents we are supposed to lay down the law. We are supposed to be stern, and if we are not, everyone will tell us that we are spoiling our children. That we are turning them into snowflakes, and that this is what’s wrong with the future generation. But you know what? I’ve been a father for 12 years now, and in that time, I’ve learned that discipline is about teaching, not punishment. (In fact, the word discipline literally means to teach.) It’s about helping your child understand that they did wrong, and helping them learn how to do things differently the next time. And although it can be frustrating to keep teaching the same lessons over and over again, none of that means you can’t be supportive and leave emotions out of it.

I’ve worked in education almost as long as I’ve been a parent, and I’ve learned that so much of education isn’t about laying down the law. It’s about setting consequences, sticking to them, and teaching your students the reasons behind those consequences in a calm and compassionate way. And that’s exactly what I did with my daughter.

Honestly, if we’ve learned anything about punishment, particularly corporal punishment, in the past 20 years, it’s that punishment without emotional connection doesn’t work. If you don’t believe me, take a look at this review of 20 years of studies on the punishment of children that was published in 2012 by the Canadian Medical Association Journal. After reviewing a litany of studies, they found that punishing a child without emotional connection and direction often comes out sideways, resulting in higher levels of antisocial behavior.

But hey, perhaps I’m still a sucker. Perhaps I got played regardless of the research. In that moment, though, I couldn’t imagine leaving my little girl alone with what she was feeling. She cried into my chest. I held her, and she held me.

After several moments, her cries turned into soft whimpers. Then she got quiet for a time, and we just sat there. I kissed the top of her head. Eventually, she pulled away, and looked up at me, her eyes still a little red, tears on my shirt, and asked one more time to get out of bed.

“No,” I said.

Then she asked for just a little dessert, and I told her “no” again.

“Listen, kiddo. You can’t act like you did today. You need to be a good listener, and you need to follow the rules,” I said. “But none of what you did today means that I don’t love you. And it doesn’t mean you ruined everything. It just means that you are going to bed early, and that you can’t have a dessert.”

Eventually she stuck out her lip, and accepted that I wasn’t going to change my mind.

Then I tucked her in and as I kissed her forehead, she said, “I love you, Daddy.”

“I love you too, kiddo.”

As parents we are supposed to teach our children consequences. But that doesn’t mean we can’t comfort them as they work through those consequences. It doesn’t mean that we can’t hold them, or kiss them, or say that we love them.

Just because your child did something wrong, doesn’t mean that you can’t show them love and comfort while they try to make it right.