Our goal as a parent is to give life to our children’s learning—to instruct, to teach, to help them develop self-discipline—an ordering of the self from the inside, not imposition from the outside. Any technique that does not give life to a child’s learning and leave a child’s dignity intact cannot be called discipline—it is punishment, no matter what language it is clothed in. – Barbara Coloroso
Part 1: An Introduction to Positive Non-punitive Parenting
When I first came across this philosophy of non-punitive parenting, I admit I was unsure about it. I had the same fears and thoughts many of you may be having. Don’t children need to be punished for misbehavior? Isn’t that how they learn? Is non-punitive parenting permissive? Won’t my children take over the house and become unruly tyrants who have no manners, no respect, and no boundaries? The answer, of course, to all of those questions is no!
Traditional behaviour management processes like time out, removal of toys, sticker charts and rewards for ‘good’ behaviour stem from the behaviourist movement based on the work of B. F. Skinner. His theory asserts that children will behave in certain ways if they receive rewards (positive reinforcement) and that undesirable behaviour can be diminished by withholding the rewards or invoking pain (both of which are termed ‘punishment’). I believe this theory may be suitable for training animals, but not so much for raising children. The major flaw here, of course, is that we cannot change or control the behavior of any human being other than ourselves, at least not in the long-term.
Since B.F. Skinner, we have made strides in understanding child development and the importance of secure attachment between parent and child, which encourages healthy development. Secure attachment builds resilience, paves the way for how well your child will function as an adult in a relationship, and has a positive impact on brain development.
What we now know to be true is that punishment, in fact, actually increases misbehavior in children, fosters resentment and disconnection, and, very importantly, does not teach the child a better way to behave. How can children subjected to this model, be expected to learn major concepts about relationships, feelings, choices, etc when receiving an unnatural consequence inflicted on them by an adult? Punishment simply misses the opportunity for a child to learn an important concept about themselves or others. On the contrary, children who feel empowered, respected, and connected will behave better and internalize values.
If you’ve been parenting using this traditional model and want to make the change to positive, non-punitive parenting, where do you begin? The first big step is a complete paradigm shift in the way you think about raising children. The second step is to understand that relationships, not punishments, influence behavior. While it is true that we cannot control the behavior of another human being, we certainly can have an influence on it, but we can only have that influence through relationship. Relationship is the heart of positive parenting.
How do you foster a connected relationship, especially if you’ve previously used punishment?
1. Build a foundation of trust. At first, your child might think “is this for real?” If your child is used to going to time out or getting things taken away, there may be a period where your child tests the waters of your new parenting philosophy. Don’t give up quickly. Once your child realizes that she is accepted and loved without conditions, you will see her behavior start to improve. All good relationships take work. Take the time to build that foundation of trust, and you will reap the rewards with a connected parent-child relationship that lasts for a lifetime.
2. Respect is mutual. Show your child the same respect you want him to show you and others. Example is the best teacher.
3. Prioritize time with your child. Dr. Laura Markham says, “In relationships, without quantity, there’s no quality. You can’t expect a good relationship with your daughter if you spend all your time at work and she spends all her time with her friends. So as hard as it is with the pressures of job and daily life, if we want a better relationship with our kids, we have to free up the time to make that happen.”
4. Resist the urge to be punitive. It is hard not to fall back on old habits when your buttons get pushed. Take a deep breath and focus on the goal. Remember that problem-solving, not consequences or time-outs, will teach your child.
5. Don’t let little rifts build up. Every difficulty is an opportunity to get closer or create distance.
For more on building a strong connection, see Dr. Markham’s post here.
“While criticism or fear of punishment may restrain us from doing wrong, it does not make us wish to do right. Disregarding this simple fact is the great error into which parents and educators fall when they rely on these negative means of correction. The only effective discipline is self-discipline, motivated by the inner desire to act meritoriously in order to do well in one’s own eyes, according to one’s own values, so that one may feel good about oneself may “have a good conscience.” -Bruno Bettelheim
Part 2 will be Non-punitive Parenting In Action.
Until then, you may be interested to read the following posts: