Why I Ditched Punishment And Started Doing This Instead

by Carly Bonderud
Originally Published: 
Thanasis Zovoilis/Getty

A year ago, I was at the end of my rope and turned to a child development specialist for help. My son was not responding to any of the usual parenting methods that were “supposed to” work. Time outs were a joke, taking away privileges didn’t phase him, he didn’t care if he only had his bed in his room and no toys. As for spanking? Forget it! It seemed that no matter what I did or how consistent the limit was, he would push and scream and fight it. Punishing him even slightly was a recipe for disaster and he could throw a violent tantrum for over an hour. Everyone was questioning whether there might be something “wrong” with him, and I started to doubt myself.

So I asked for help and the developmental specialist came over to assess him. At the first visit, she told me “there’s nothing to be concerned about. You’re setting limits and you’re showing empathy, but he is just a high energy little boy. Just keep doing what you’re doing and try addressing his feelings first and then set the limit.”

So I did. It was working well for a time, until a month later when I brought out the Christmas stickers for the window and let him decorate. I told him that he needed to keep them on the window because they wouldn’t stick anymore and his baby sister could get at them. I thought he understood the limit and why it was in place. Most four-year-old kids I had babysat in the past knew not to touch when told not to touch. Well, I went to put laundry away and came back to discover that he had pulled stickers off the window. I told him, “If that happens again, I’m taking them all off and putting them away.”

I thought that would be the end of it. I came back from giving the toddler a bath and he had pulled more stickers off the window. I started taking them off. He screamed at me that he hated me. I said, “I hear that you’re upset. I know you wanted to play with the stickers, but this is what I told you I would do if you couldn’t stop touching them.”

He threw a board book at me. It missed and hit the window. The window broke. Long spidery cracks spread from where that simple little book had hit it, and at that moment I was shocked to my core. My four-year-old had just broken a window with the force of his anger.

I had a choice to make. I could do what my parents would have done to me, but I was really trying to avoid spanking because all the research has come out against it and, to be honest, I just don’t believe it works. I had spanked before, but I always felt terrible about it, and in that particular moment I knew that my urge to spank was more to release the rage I felt that he had broken the window. It wasn’t a good idea.

My second choice was to breathe and get some space; and perhaps some clarity before taking action.

I chose option B. My little boy was standing there a few feet from me, frozen in place. He was terrified. And I calmly told him, “Go play in your room. I need to take care of this before anyone gets hurt.”

He went without a fuss, though I think it was more due to the shock that I was so calm about it. I taped up the window and immediately called the specialist. I told her, “My son just threw a book at me and it hit the window. I don’t know how to handle this. Tell me what to do.”

She told me to look past the behavior to the feelings behind it. Why did he throw the book? I needed to address that first. She also loaned me three gentle discipline books and I realized that discipline is different from punishment, and that punishment doesn’t work.

I stopped punishing my kids.

It’s not a perfect system. There are days I’m tired or overwhelmed and I fall back to old patterns, but now I apologize to my kids for it and I forgive myself. I tell my kids, “Mommy lost her temper and it’s okay to have big feelings, but it’s not okay to yell/throw things/hit people when we’re mad. You hit me and I yelled at you. What were you trying to tell me?”

People who believe in punishment might be rolling their eyes right now, and I might have been one of them if I didn’t see the transformation for myself. The more I started apologizing and voicing my frustration without trying to intimidate my son into behaving the way I wanted him to, the more willing he became to work with me and do what he was asked to do.

He still goes to his room to calm down sometimes, but it’s no longer because he’s “bad;” now he knows that when we’re really upset it helps to go calm down before rejoining the group. His books, toys, and tablet are in there with him; he gets to decide what he’s going to do while he’s calming down and when he’s ready we talk about what happened, including anything I did that he didn’t like. We acknowledge how our actions might have hurt the other person and then we apologize and think of a way to make it right. We also come up with a plan for next time.

Is it a lot more work? Yep. Would punishment be easier? Yeah, probably, but it wouldn’t teach the real lesson I want my kids to learn. I am not interested in raising kids who obey without question out of some misguided sense of “respecting authority” and I don’t want them to go through life being “good” to avoid punishment. I want them to be kind because they want to be kind for its own sake, without expecting any reward for it. I want them to know that we help each other out and clean up our toys because we’re a part of the household and we all do our part to make things easier and more enjoyable for everyone, not because if they don’t clean up their toys they will lose them. I want them to know that hitting just because we’re angry is never okay, but we are also human and when we get overwhelmed we need to remove ourselves from the situation so that hitting doesn’t happen.

Most importantly, I want my kids to come tell me when they’re in trouble or have broken something so we can fix the problem together, and they are more likely to do that if they know that I’m not going to lay into them or spank them for it.

It’s been almost a year since I decided punishment doesn’t work and little by little that four-year-old boy who would throw half his toy collection at me in anger has become a calmer and happier child. He still shows some of that fear every once in a while when I get angry, and it breaks my heart when he says, “No, please don’t spank me.”

I wish I had never taken the advice of my relatives in that regard, but my response now is much kinder. I’ve told him, “I’m not going to spank you. Does spanking teach you the lesson I want you to learn?” He shakes his head. I continue to point out how spanking wouldn’t solve the problem that needs fixing, and that all it would do is hurt him.

“I don’t want to hurt you,” I tell him. “I want to help you. I know you’re feeling frustrated, and that’s okay. All feelings are okay. But what we do with those feelings is what’s important. We can’t hurt others just because we feel bad inside. Revenge only causes the other person to get revenge back. It doesn’t help anything. Now, what can we do to make this better?”

My son has come up with some amazing solutions to problems we’ve had. He’s also become a skilled negotiator and a lot of what he suggests as a compromise is what I would have proposed anyway. It’s perfectly reasonable for him to agree to go to bed without a fuss if I close the closet door first. Why do I need to tell him that he doesn’t get to make decisions because he’s “the kid” and I’m “in charge”? Thinking on my own childhood, that approach never worked for the adults I dealt with. I would roll my eyes because I didn’t feel they were giving a really good reason for why I should listen to them. Being the “grown up” doesn’t automatically make you all knowing and “right” in all instances. Sometimes kids have ideas too and are willing to compromise if only the adult would listen to them.

I started my parenting journey wanting to listen to and empathize with my children. I didn’t necessarily want to be permissive, but I knew that I definitely didn’t want to raise obedient kids. I want to raise kids who would do the right thing because it’s right and not because there was something in it for them. I want to raise capable adults who will question the rules and work to change them if they are unfair against any group of people, even if it is for no benefit of their own.

Essentially, I’m trying to raise kids who will take down the patriarchy and challenge the status quo. It’s not my job to raise kids who will fear and obey authority; it’s my job to guide my kids into making good decisions and teach them how to get what they need and want without sacrificing their integrity. Intimidation and fear of punishment has been the law of the land for far too long and it hasn’t made things better. Instead, it’s turned out generation after generation of scared adults willing to go with the status quo as long as it benefitted them. It’s turned out generation after generation of parents who think that it’s okay to spank their kids, even when overwhelming scientific evidence and simple common sense would show that it’s not effective at all. Punishment is not a deterrent; it’s an incentive to get better at not getting caught.

So my kids won’t be yelled at for whining or forgetting their manners and I won’t be sending them to the corner for misbehavior. If I forget myself in the moment and do one of those things, I will be quick to fix my mistake and remind my kids that everyone has moments that they aren’t proud of.

When my son accidentally hits, he is quick to apologize and make it better. He’s five, so he’s bound to slip up. But the important thing is that I’m no longer dodging objects and our home is much more peaceful than when I was operating under the assumption that punishment was part of parenting good kids. Thankfully I was blessed with a stronger-willed version of me, and he taught me there was a better way to guide him.

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