It’s weird the memories that stick with us. Sometimes it’s the most random stuff that we remember: stuff that doesn’t seem to have any significance at all. By why I can’t accurately remember what I need to get from the grocery store when I’m there, I have no earthly idea.
One memory that has oddly stuck in my brain was from when I was a nanny a few years ago: pre-baby. I watched the most precious little toddler boy during the day about five days a week. He had an older three-year-old sister who went to a Montessori school, so I rarely saw her. One night, I stayed a little later than usual and I got to watch both of them while their parents were making dinner.
Our of the blue, the little girl hit her brother. The mom told her to go sit on the stairs for one minute, like a time out. She wouldn’t listen and her mom, busy with dinner and I’m sure a million other things, never followed through. I remember thinking that the little girl needed to be punished and wondered why the parents didn’t do anything. Otherwise, how would she learn not to hit her brother?
Side note: It’s funny how those who don’t have kids really think they know everything about parenting, right?
I had this mentality that I’m sure a lot of parents and non-parents have, that children need to be punished to learn how to behave and/or learn their lesson. It really makes sense, doesn’t it? Or does it? Our culture speaks this message loudly, and so a lot of us follow along. But is there a better way?
Having my daughter and learning more about gentle and positive parenting showed me the flaws in my thinking and mentality around children and their behavior. One principle that rocked my parenting world is best described through a direct quote from one of my favorite authors, Sarah Ockwell-Smith: “Once you change your view of naughty/attention seeking/manipulative behavior to struggling to make sense of the world with an immature brain, you are naturally different in the way you parent and discipline.”
I like to add into that “looking and desiring connection” because often it is either that or an unmet need that causes undesirable behavior.
We are entrusted with these precious humans, whose behavior, although unpleasant at times, cannot be remedied through manipulation or other forms of control. Once my mindset changed, I began looking into how to deal with bad behavior in a gentle way.
Important note: the punishment and discipline ideas discussed in this article are for children. For toddlers and babies, redirection is the best form of discipline.
Through personal experience and research, I discovered the most effective and respectful way to teach our children how to become the best humans they possibly can, which I believe is the end goal we are all striving for, is to discipline rather than punish.
Now, I know some of y’all are looking at me bonkers through the screen right now. You might be saying, “Aren’t those the same exact thing?” which to be fair, can definitely seem like the case. The words are often used interchangeably, but they have two completely different meanings and implications.
The Definition Of Discipline
Discipline comes from the word disciple. If you’re a Jesus fan like me, or even if you’re not, you’ve probably heard of this used in reference to the disciples who were the followers of Jesus. They were called the disciples because they were being disciplED by Jesus. It’s kinda confusing but basically to disciple someone means to teach or instruct.
The Definition Of Punishment
The definition of punishment on the other hand is to “inflict a penalty or sanction on (someone) as retribution for an offense.” It relies on fear and/or suffering to get compliance.
So, now that we know the dictionary definitions, what are the actual practical differences between the two and how can we apply them to our parenting?
The goal of discipline is to let our children learn the natural consequences of their behavior and teach them how to remedy it and alter it for next time. It focuses on giving the child the tools to control their own behavior and boundaries to support them. The parent controls their response instead of controlling the child’s behavior. Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, it recognizes and respects the validity of our child’s feelings and emotions.
Punishment sees children as “bad” and puts a large focus on the parent controlling their child’s behavior through various tactics such as manipulation or threats and then “teaching them a lesson” by taking away things, bribes, spanking, or time outs.
The problem with punishment is that it doesn’t work. It might work in the short-term but long-term, it fosters rebellion and dishonesty, to name a few. But most of all, it breaks the connection we have with our children. Our children do or don’t do things out of fear or they hide in order to not get caught.
Punishment teaches our children to behave well when someone is watching, but it doesn’t teach them how to become good people. We try to control them, thinking that control is the only way we will get the desired behavior or keep undesirable ones out. As adults, we hear over and over that the only person that you can control is yourself. So, then it makes sense to reason that trying to control another human (even if it’s a tiny human) is impossible.
Instead, we can teach them through:
1. Modeling good behavior ourselves
2. Setting firm limits
3. Consistently enforcing those limits gently
4. Responding to unmet or broken expectations with natural or logical consequences (such as time-ins)
5. Finding opportunities for solutions
When we respond in this way, we are teaching our children that yes, there are rules that need to be followed and that it’s not good when the rules are broken. But that we want to understand them and will help them find a solution when they break a rule so that they can fix it themselves. We are giving our kids the tools to actually become better behaved on their own, not to just be well behaved for fear of getting punished.
Children behave in negative ways because they are struggling. Our children aren’t bad. Again, our kids aren’t bad. They are struggling. Until we see them in that light, we will always see their behavior as warranting “being taught a lesson.” But being taught a lesson doesn’t actually teach the lesson. Inflicting painful consequences teaches them that bad things happen when they misbehave. But to actually teach them the lesson, we have to teach them practically how to get through it and remedy it.
We all want our children to have good morals and values and we try our best to instill those in them. But the fact of the matter is that morals and values are adopted through our own beliefs and they cannot be forced upon us.
Control and manipulation do get the desired results in the moment. But if we look at the bigger picture, we can instead have patience in the moment for our kids. This in turn makes it a lot easier to react with empathy, respect, and kindness.
By doing this, I believe we can effectively raise better humans, while maintaining a beautiful and trusting relationship with them. It takes a lot of work and definitely might not be the most natural response, but it’s worth it and I’ve seen it work first hand! It’s up to us to control our own response. There are no bad kids, just undesirable behaviors.