Write me: rebecca@positive-parents.org


We had an interesting discussion on PPTB today under a post about non-punitive discipline, and I’m hoping to clear up some of the confusion about enforcing limits versus doling out punishments or made-up consequences.

Let me preface this with a note about connection. I’ve said multiple times that a strong connection between parent and child is the most important factor in positive non-punitive parenting. Let me be clear, though. Having a strong connection does not mean that your child will never push limits, never do anything wrong, never defy you, and always be perfect. That is a perfection no one will ever achieve no matter what parenting style they use. Kids are people too. They have bad days. They get grouchy. They are influenced by television, friends, grandparents, etc. They have their own minds and their own wills, and so, as in any relationship, conflict will occasionally arise. What the strong connection does mean is that your influence is ultimately greater than the influence of others and that your child is much more likely to heed your advice and cooperate with you. It also makes repairing rifts easier, and of course, the biggest perk is that, well, you are connected. If you try to use your connection as another means of control, you’ve done gone and missed the point. You want to be connected for the sake of a good relationship, and the bonus of that connection is your greater influence on your child.

Limits are imperative. Do set them and enforce them. I realize that the lines between enforcing limits and giving consequences or punishments get blurry. If you look at anything hard enough, it can be viewed as a consequence. It is easy to over-think it and get caught up in the semantics. The key is your intent. Positive non-punitive parenting does not mean that our kids will never experience consequences for their actions. Actions have consequences; that is just life, and it’s an important lesson to learn. Just because we don’t punish doesn’t mean we don’t parent. The “entitled brats” some speak of come from homes that are permissive, where limits are not set on behavior and where parents are not teachers. Dr. Becky Bailey, in her book Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline, sums it up better than I can.

The Power of Intention reminds us to use moments of conflict as opportunities to teach, not punish. If you deliver consequences with the aim of making your child feel guilty, you will focus the child on his inadequacy. Two things are then likely: 1) your child may chastise himself and feel bad about himself, or 2) he may blame others for being mean in order to defend himself against feeling bad. Neither of these states will inspire him to reflect. To govern himself, a child needs to know what he feels, not what others think he should feel. Intention depends upon attention. If you are focused on what you want your child to feel and think (or not feel and think), your goal is control. To teach, you must focus on what actually happened, those aspects of your child that you want to highlight, what you want him to reflect upon, and what you want him to learn. More often than not, problem solving is the better approach to take.

Is it making more sense now? Let’s ask the big question! What do I do when my kid breaks my limit if I don’t punish? Here are some examples.

Limit: No throwing toys in the house.
Scenario: Your preschooler just hurled a truck clear across the room, narrowly missing brother’s head. Pick up the truck and say “Whoa! You threw this truck really far! Remember, you may not throw toys in the house.” Hand the child the toy back. Say “If you throw again, we’ll have to put the toy up.” If he plays nicely with it, great. If he throws it again, say “Oops, let’s put this toy away for now. We’ll try again later.” *Smile* “Let’s color!”

Taking the toy was not a punishment; you were enforcing your limit. You didn’t take it in anger. You kept your tone kind. You didn’t shame him or call him naughty. You engaged him in another activity. Your intention was not to make him feel guilty but to teach him what is appropriate. Now, if he gets mad that you put the toy up, you will empathize with his upset. “I see you’re upset about the toy. We’ll try that toy again later. When you’re feeling better, we’ll color!” *Hug*

Or, let’s say it’s a nice, warm day out. You could say “Whoa, you thew this truck really far! Remember, you may not throw toys in the house. Would you like to go outside and throw a ball?” If he says “yes,” let him throw to his heart’s desire out there. If he refuses to go out and you give him the toy again and he throws it again, repeat the above steps.

Mmm - spaghetti sauce and rice cake for dinner

Limit: Food stays on the table.
Scenario: Your toddler is at the table eating lunch. Suddenly, you are smacked right in the cheek with a carrot. You know what works sometimes? Silly songs. In a sing-songy voice, “Silly girl, I know you’re able to keep your food on the table!” If nothing else, she’ll giggle and forget to throw the food. If she throws it again, you might say, “You’re throwing your food, you must not be hungry” and remove the plate. If she cries that she is hungry, I’m a believer in second chances. Sing it again! “Okay silly girl, now I know you’re able to keep your food on the table! Eat it up!” If she starts throwing it again, take it back and try again in 30 minutes. The game will soon lose its appeal.

Limit: No hitting.
Scenario: Brother and sister are playing. Things go awry, and brother bops sister on the head. Sister comes crying. First you tend to sister. Give her cuddles and make sure she’s okay. Go to brother, but not with an Army commander attitude. He might be the aggressor, but he has feelings too. Kids who do bad feel bad. Get down on his level, maybe scoop him up in your lap. “You hit your sister, and she’s hurt. Remember, we don’t hit. What happened?” At this point, he may either explain his side or break down crying. If he cries, show him empathy. Yep, empathy. Bad feelings can make you do bad things. Get rid of the bad feelings and feel good again, and you do better. Once, he’s regulated, it’s time to problem-solve. If he told you what happened to cause the thump, you have a good starting point. “Hitting hurts. How can you make your sister feel better? What can you do next time so that you don’t hit her?” If he’s old enough, let him come up with solutions, like draw her a picture and walk away when he’s angry. If he doesn’t come up with a solution, offer him ideas. This whole process of him on your lap or close to you could be called a “time-in.” You’re showing him the behavior is not allowed, and you’re helping him to come up with tools to handle it better next time. You’re not turning him away or shaming him. Your intention was not to make him feel guilty or bad but to teach. Win-win.

Child Playing Video Games (Animal Crossing)

Limit: No video games until homework is done.
Scenario: Your 8-year-old has math homework, but he asks if he can play a short game and then do it. You say politely “You know the rule, sweetheart. You may play when your homework is finished.” “But mom!!!!” “I can see you really want to play that game. It is fun, isn’t it? I bet you’re close to beating the game now, aren’t you?!” “Yes! And I really want to get started on playing!” “I know you do. How about you get started on your homework while I put some cookies in the oven, then when you’re finished, we’ll have some cookies and I’ll watch you play?” “Aw. OK, then.”

It may not go that smoothly, obviously. Don’t get involved in a power struggle. State the limit, keep your attitude kind, and stick to it. If he storms off or says you stink, tell him that was hurtful and you’d appreciate it if he didn’t talk to you like that, and let him go storming off. He’s not getting to play his game, so there’s no need to add something to that. That would be retaliation, or punishment. Your intent then would be to make him feel guilty or bad. Right now, you’re being calm, kind, and simply enforcing your limit. When he’s calmed down, you can go in and talk to him about the reason for the rule and empathize with his upset about it. He’ll eventually decide it’s best to get it done so he can play. Once he’s done, let him play his game, sit with him, and enjoy each other’s company. This is repairing the rift.

Let’s do one final scenario. You’re visiting relatives, and your 11-year-old is being rowdy with his cousins. They engage in a game of chase inside the house, and your child bumps into a table and breaks a vase. Which route would you take:

A. Say to him, “Oh, that’s okay sweetie. You didn’t mean to do it. I’ll give Aunt Ruth the money to replace the vase. Just be careful from now on, okay?”

B. “Young man! You get in here this instant! You apologize to your aunt right now!! I’m taking the money out of your allowance to pay for that vase, and you’re grounded for the weekend!”

C. “Uh-oh. You accidentally broke Aunt Ruth’s vase. I know you didn’t mean to break it. It’s best to run outside where there is more room. What can you do to fix this?”

If you guessed C, you’re right! Option A is permissive. Option B is punishment. Option C is problem-solving. You’re allowing your child to experience the consequences of his actions by holding him accountable, but you’re not trying to make him feel bad or guilty.

Here’s the difference.

Punishment is a retaliation. The intention of punishment is to make the child feel bad for what he did. It is usually not related at all to the “misbehavior,” like grounding him for breaking the vase, and it does not teach alternatives. In scenario #1, if you’d have yelled at the child and taken the toy away for the rest of the day saying “Fine! You just lost that toy!” then that would have been a punishment. You’d be mad, he’d be feeling crummy. The intention would have been different. If in #2, you’d have said “If you can’t do better than that, you don’t get lunch!!!” that would have been a punishment. You’d have been mad, she’d have felt bad. In #3, if you’d spanked him or sent him to his room for hitting his sister, that would have been a punishment. In #4, if you’d taken the game away for the day or a week, that would have been a punishment. Punishment leaves the child feeling bad about himself and you feeling mad, usually. It causes a disconnect and doesn’t teach.

Enforcing limits can and should be done nicely and with empathy. In #1, you were kind and gave your child an acceptable alternative (throwing outside), and you engaged with him in another activity, quickly repairing the rift. The limit was enforced, you stayed connected, you both felt good. The same is true for the other scenarios. In enforcing limits, you remain connected, teach, and everyone is left feeling good, their dignities intact.

See also:

The Newbie’s Guide to Positive Parenting – Part 1

The Newbie’s Guide to Positive Parenting – Part 2

What’s the Deal with Consequences?

Also for your reading pleasure:

What’s Wrong with Strict Parenting?

What’s Wrong with Permissive Parenting?


  • ripples of motherhood Posted 12 November 2011 20:54

    Thank you, I think you've explained this well. We generally follow this approach with our 2 1/2 y.o. son but there are a few situations we're struggling with: the first is when he refuses to hold my hand in a parking lot. Because I'm also carrying a baby in an ergo, it's really important that he holds my hand, but when he refuses I have to scoop him up, kicking and screaming, and get him into his carseat where he's safe. Normally he's allowed to climb into his carseat on his own ("I do it myself"), but if I try to let him do that when he's in one of his "refusing to hold my hand" moods, he just runs away from me in the parking lot. And I've got he baby and the diaper bag and his preschool art in my hands (you get the picture). So then he screams the whole way home because I didn't let him climb into his carseat. It's awful!

    The second situation is his refusal to put his undies back on after going to the potty. He doesn't have to wear pants in the house (ever since he learned to use the potty) biter insist that he wears his undies. Tonight, we ended up telling him he couldn't have dinner with us unless he put his undies on (um, it's kind of gross to put your bare bum on the dining room chair), so the rest of us sat down to eat while he screamed and kept saying that yes, he did want help putting them on, but then refusing when we actually went to help him. Eventually he gave in and put them on (when I went to help him, rather than dad), but it didn't seem like a very positive approach. I don't want to deny him his meals over this sort of thing!

    He's normally very sweet, cooperative, and smart. We spend tons of time together (I'm on mat leave so I'm home full-time right now) and we have a great relationship, apart from these kinds of "power struggles". Any suggestions?

  • Becky Posted 13 November 2011 8:58

    It's tough when you have your hands full (literally!) in a parking lot! It's not un-positive at all to stick to your guns on this one. It's important, though, to just show empathy for his upset when he's screaming on the car ride home. "I hear how upset you are. You wanted to climb in yourself, but I was afraid you'd run into the parking lot. I have to keep you safe; I love you."

    For the undies, again, there is nothing wrong with sticking to your rules here. You're right that you don't want to deny him meals, but it's perfectly reasonable that he can't sit his naked bum at the dinner table.

    You might say "Please join us at the table when you get your undies on! Otherwise, you may eat your meal over there." Set him up a little place away from the table where he can sit and eat naked. I seriously doubt he'll be doing this in 6 months anyway. 😉

    It takes 2 to have a power struggle, so don't engage in them. Politely state the rule. Calm voice. Smile. Empathy. It will get easier. <3

  • Ktietje85 Posted 5 December 2011 11:30

    This is interesting, because I ran into a situation several weeks ago where I felt I was really rather positive, but when I mentioned it on Facebook someone said I was "terrible" and not really positive at all! It's still on my mind weeks later.

    My almost 4-year-old had gone into the kitchen and come back with my spice grinder. Now — she's allowed to take pot holders or pots or other such non-breakable things, if she puts them back. But I asked her to return the spice grinder because it's sharp inside and not a toy and we walked it back to the kitchen. A minute later she has it again. I walked over, took it from her, and said, "I'm sorry, this is not a toy, and you may not play with it. You could get hurt." Then I put it up where she couldn't reach and got her (and my son) into some other game.

    I hardly think that was negative! Sigh, so many different ideas on parenting.

  • Meaghan Posted 5 February 2012 6:46

    Thanks for this practical post. I have been struggling with trying to be a gentle parent. I know my own feeling often get in the way too much. I'm feeling inspired again.

  • bitwise Posted 26 March 2012 5:28

    @Ktietje85: I don't think that was negative at all! If she keeps going after the spice grinder, here's a tip: get her some play-kitchen toys, something with a crank handle if that's what the spice grinder has. Children are usually satisfied with safe alternatives to adult tools as long as the mechanism is the same.

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