‘I told you many times, put your shoes on, please’.
‘We will all be late! Put your shoes on now, or there will be consequences!’.
We have all been there: our child is not being cooperative but we need something to be done (or undone) quick, and frustration arises, and we feel we have to use the last resort – punishment.
And this is perfectly understandable, we are all humans after all and sometimes children are masters in the art of giving us headaches. When a parent arrives to the point of taking into consideration the idea of punishing his child, it is usually after the positive dialogue approach has failed.
But from an emotional – and rational – point of view, I believe that punishing our children is rarely a good choice.
To start with, consequences do not always work. As Ross W. Greene, Ph.D., says in his book The Explosive Child (a highly–empathic, practical book that is now a classic, from a very respected Harvard Medical School professor – you can find it on amazon Amazon UK and amazon Amazon US):
‘Kids do well if they can’.
If they are behaving poorly, it is because, in that particular moment, ‘They are lacking the skills to not be challenging’. In this picture, there is no need nor logic in punishments. The child wants to do well, wants to make her parents happy. If she can’t, she is the first one to be deceived by her behavior, even before we are.
‘If a child is already upset, threats and imposed solutions and time-outs often simply fuel the fire’, writes Greene.
When we believe that a young children is in full, conscious control of her challenging behavior, and she planned, intentionally and purposefully, to act the way she acts, in order to simply drive us mad, well, consequences might work. But – honestly – how often can we say that this is the case? Seldom, probably never, in my opinion. Children are not manipulative by nature. They did not learn this from parents that are permissive or inconsistent in disciplining them, so don’t go down the I–am–guilty path. They are just young, immature and not very experienced, that’s all.
If we add our inflexibility to their inflexibility, all we risk is a breakdown.
Punishments puts shame on your child’s shoulders and that shame becomes a distance between you and your child. Mistrust lingers. Nobody needs that.
What can we do then, when dealing with an inflexible, uncooperative child? We could try and listen and reason together instead of imposing unilateral solutions.
Not only punishments are often useless in reaching our goals of disciplining our children, they are misleading as well.
Punishments do not teach the essential.
The essential is for our child to be able to tell – most of the time at least – right from wrong.
At the end of the day, is not this what we really want for them? To be able to tell right from wrong, even when we are not there next to them to suggest the good answer.
Choosing to do right even in the absence of consequences, even if the child is alone and nobody’s looking. Even if there is no reward for it. Because the best reward is how she feels when she does the right thing.
We have to let our child taste the satisfaction of smiling to herself when she knows she did the best she could. If instead, she does the right choice just because we told her to do it (‘or else!…’), we will have robbed her of the feeling of owning her own moral stance.
This is the best way to deal with a uncooperative child – to state that she has a choice. I know that sometimes she will make the bad choice. It will be bitter for her, and she will learn from it. Next time, or maybe the following one, she will probably try the good one and the rewards will be felt. A lesson will be learned.
I want my children to know that punishment is not something I believe in, because I believe in them.
Consequences, on the other hand, we don’t need to impose on them. Life will take care of it. There are always natural consequences anyway and we don’t need to add our artificial ones! But we can talk with them, pointing at the natural consequences of their behavior – ‘You didn’t want to put your shoes on back home and we arrived late to the playground. So you had less time to play in the slide’.
Ask your child how she or he felt after doing something wrong. They will probably answer they felt horrible or unhappy. Well, this is the most effective consequence. Your child will understand.
Let her talk about it. Listen and be there for her. No need to punish. She will want to choose better next time.