Punishment or limit setting?

One of the main concerns raised by parents when introduced to the concept of punishment free parenting is that it means there would be no limits or boundaries. If children are not punished when they do the wrong thing this must mean they are simply allowed to run riot and do whatever they like.

This is of course a major misconception. Punishment free parenting does not mean parenting without limits or boundaries. It just means what it says; parenting without punishment. The problem is parents not knowing how to set limits or boundaries without punishment.

But I don’t just mean parents who stick to the old conventional parenting methods. On the other side of the coin I think there’s a danger of being so fearful of issuing a punishment that we can fail to set limits where they’re needed.

scooterWhat I’ve come to realise is that the big difference between the two approaches lies not always in what we do, but in how we do it. Here’s an example:

My child is riding his scooter up and down our street. I’ve given him a clear point, say a lamp post, to which it is safe for him to go, and at which point he must turn around and come back each time.

The limit setting:
“Don’t you go past that lamp post. Turn round at the lamp post.”
The warning:
“I told you not to go past that lamp post. If you do that again I’m taking your scooter away for the rest of the day.”
The follow through:
“Right, that’s it. Give me that scooter. It’s going away until tomorrow. I told you not to go past the lamp post. That’s naughty!” Parent angrily snatches scooter from child, and ignores his cries and tears, continuing to scold him as he cries, or possibly sending him into time-out or to his room until he ‘stops this noise’ or ‘has had a think about his behaviour’.

This is clearly a punishment. But obviously we can’t allow a child to continue to breach the boundary. So what can we do?

The limit setting:
“You need to turn around and come back when you get this far. It’s not safe to go any farther down the road in case a car comes round the corner. What do you think would be a good marker; the lamp post or this red car?.”
The warning:
“It’s really fun scooting down the road. I bet you wish you could keep going for miles and miles. I need to keep you safe, so you must turn round at the lamp post like we agreed. Can you remember to do that? We’ll have to put the scooter away and find something else to play if you can’t. Would you like to draw a finish line or a Stop sign with your chalks?”
The follow through:
“I won’t let you scoot past this lamp post. I must keep you safe. We’ll have to put the scooter away and find another game to play. Perhaps we could take your scooter to the park tomorrow where you can go further?” Child cries. “I know, you were having fun on your scooter. I won’t let you scoot where it’s not safe, so I’ll have to put it away for now. Let’s have a big cuddle. You’re feeling upset now.”

In both scenarios the end result, in practical terms, is that the child’s scooter is forcibly removed for a time, against his wishes. But there’s a world of difference in how the child experiences things, and what they learn.

In the first scenario the child is given no reason for the limit, and is not involved in any way in setting it. It is simply issued as an order. And the warning is issued as a threat – if you don’t follow my orders I’ll make you suffer. The follow through puts all the emphasis on the child’s behaviour. They are ‘naughty’, it’s their own fault that they now feel upset, and as such have no right to express it. They perceive that their parent doesn’t care about their feelings and is not on their side. They learn that they are a bad person, that their feelings don’t matter, and that their parent is willing to cause them pain in order to control them.

In the second scenario the parent presents themselves as an ally. The emphasis is on caring about the child – about both their safety and their feelings. The child learns that they are loved, that their parent takes their feelings and wishes seriously, but that they will do what has to be done to keep them safe, and are serious about certain limits.

It’s true that sometimes children will just deliberately push boundaries. This is normal and does not make them ‘bad’, so there’s still no reason to punish them. All the more reason to emphasise that we care about them enough to hold those boundaries and keep them safe. And this is best done by showing empathy and affection whilst still maintaining limits. There could be other underlying issues that my child is storing up that’s causing him to push my buttons in this way. Perhaps he just needs to have a good cry and is looking for an excuse to have one.

Enforcing a limit is not the same as issuing a punishment. It’s how we set it, how we speak and respond to our children that makes for a healthy relationship. Empathy and love rather than anger and rejection send an entirely different message and lay the foundations for a much healthier, happier relationship to build on for the future.

With thanks to my gentle parenting neighbour for her positive inspiration for this post.

2 Responses to Punishment or limit setting?

  1. Lizzie says:

    Thank you this is a really useful post.

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