Danielle Aubin, LCSW
How do I discipline my children without punishment?
No Punishment = Faith In Humanity
In a nutshell, I have way more faith in humanity than people who believe in punishment. People who believe in punishment believe that humans are so inherently mean and selfish that we need to be hit or hurt mentally in order to fall into line. Every single parent who doesn’t punish their kids basically shows how this line of thinking is totally false. I believe the exact opposite of humans. If you point to the millions of people in prison as proof that humans are inherently destructive, I would ask how did these people grow up? Most likely being abused. Raise children in healthy, safe, nurturing environments and you more than likely are going to raise healthy and happy pro-social kids.
The Nature Of Children
Children inherently want to fit into their families and to be contributing members of their culture/society. All of my actions as a parent are based on this foundational assumption. I see discipline as a teaching role, I am continuously providing my children with information about what is expected in our family’s culture and the larger society in which they live. When I am correcting behavior, I start by connecting. I need to make sure we are connected and they are ready to hear me. I then explain how the behavior impacted other people to educate my child on how their actions affect others and to evoke my children’s innate empathy and wish to treat others well. I then offer to help them identify a safer/better behavior or they may wish to self-correct without my help.
Foundation Of Disciplining
I believe the foundation of disciplining children is based on the modeling we do as parents. If we treat our spouse or others harshly, that is what we are teaching our children to do. If we speak poorly about others, that is what we are teaching our children to do. If there is violence in the home, that is what we are teaching our children to do. Children are sponges and they soak up what we model as their parents.
My ability to discipline my children is also highly dependent on how healthy our relationship is. This means I need to constantly be engaging in actions that improve our relationship such as paying attention to my children, actively listening to them, expressing my love for them, respecting their autonomy, and playing together/doing mutually enjoyable things together.
If I have not been respectful to my children or we are going through a rough patch in our relationship, it is going to be harder for them to take the time to listen to me. This is a sign I need to prioritize the relationship and work on connection first.
So my disciplining approach boils down to 4 focal points:
#1 Healthy Modeling By Adults and those who surround the child
#2 Assumption of the Pro-Social and empathetic nature of children
#3 Prioritize parent-child relationship
#4 Communicate clearly, offer information, and intervene only when absolutely necessary
So what does all of this look like in action?
For example, if I observe that my child is being verbally aggressive toward another child, I will ask my child to come over to me because I want to speak with them. I will get down on their level and explain my concerns using objective observations such as “I see that you are using words like ________ and _________ with your friend and I noticed that she began to cry after you said that to her. What do you think about what is happening?” I listen to their point of view. I ask if they would like help finding a new way to communicate that doesn’t hurt their friend’s feelings. If they say yes, I offer my suggestions. It is possible that they say no, in which case I would not keep them from going back to their friend. Usually what happens is that they have found their own way to remedy the situation. Just my observations can help my children notice the impact of their behavior, and being the pro-social animals that they are, they will self-correct and/or ask me for help. If they are not self-correcting and/or asking for help and they continue the behavior, I may explore if there are unmet needs or dynamics happening that I can help with. If my child seems to be overly tired or having an off day, I may suggest ending the playdate early.
No Punishment ≠ Neglectful Parenting
What I don’t do: I do not sit on the sidelines and allow my child to be verbally or physically aggressive. I do give her the chance to correct the issue herself but if I see that she cannot, I will intervene and either take her aside and spend some quality time with her to help her work out her feelings/unmet needs and/or I may end the playdate early. Both of these are not “punishments”, they are not done to give a negative reinforcement to extinguish a behavior. They are done to protect others if/when my child is unable to control her actions. I explain that once the problematic behavior stops, she can return.
There is no “time out” or removal of privileges involved, I simply remove my child from situations where she cannot control herself and in which she is harming others. I do not lecture her during that time (she is not able to absorb information when she is upset), I simply explain why I am doing what I am doing and what she needs to do to return (e.g. cease insulting others, cease harming others, etc). I rarely have to do this. When problems arise, I usually just explain how the behavior is harmful or problematic and she is able to self-correct because she is pro-social and empathetic.