Unpunished

April 18, 2012

I don’t punish my child for his behaviour. I haven’t done for a few years now. Before I made this shift in my approach and attitude I would have thought these statements sounded extreme. But now I often find myself reflecting on how I actually never feel the need to punish. My child presents his fair share of challenging behaviour, yet strangely I never find myself wishing I could dish out a punishment, or having to remind myself not to. The less you punish, the less you need to punish. Punishment only makes behaviour worse.  I was commenting on this to my husband last night, then suddenly remembered that earlier that evening my child had hit out at me. Surely this would be considered by many to be punishable behaviour. Yet it never occurred to me at the time, and reflecting on it afterwards, I’m still quite certain that it was right not to punish.

My child had been at school all day. When he came home, after a snack, he said he wanted to play ‘rugby on the bed’ with me. This is his name for playing rough and tumble, and one of our main ways of reconnecting with each other. We had a lovely play and a giggle together for a few minutes, then he heard voices, looked out of the window and saw his friends from next door playing outside. He immediately announced that he wanted to go outside and play with them, but with a hint of regret at ending the time we were having together. I commented that we could always have another play later, and off he went.

There was never an opportunity to resume our rough and tumble play that evening for one reason or another. When I announced it was bath-time my child started bouncing on the bed – a clear and common indication of his intention to be uncooperative. Being accustomed to these tactics, and having various means of dealing with them, I was unphased until he started hitting out at me. His hits were more like swipes, reminiscent of the warning swipe a cat might give with her claws retracted. There was no intention to hurt, but there clearly was the  intention to communicate something.

“No hitting”.

He continued.

“No hitting” – this time gently taking hold of his hands. I knew there was something wrong, and I had a pretty good idea what it was.

When he was calm we talked.

“Are you sad that it’s bath-time?”

“Yeeeees”, came the sad cry.

“Do you feel like we haven’t had enough time to play together?”

“Yeeeees”.

“Tomorrow I’m picking you up from school early so we’ll have all afternoon”, then realising this was trying to fix things and not validating the feelings he was experiencing right now in that moment, “We were playing rugby on the bed then you went outside to play with your friends, and we never got a chance to play again”.  A cuddle.  “Let’s get ready for your bath really quick so we’ll have time for some extra books tonight”.

A minute later he was playing happily in the bath.

Did he ‘get away’ with hitting? Was a punishment required to ‘teach’ him that hitting is wrong?  I think not. He knows hitting is wrong. That’s why he was doing it. He was doing wrong because he was feeling wrong inside and couldn’t quite find the words to tell me about these feelings.  He may not even have been sure exactly what those feelings were or what gave rise to them. He may have felt angry at me when he realised the day was nearly over and we had not had enough one to one time together.

I reminded him “No hitting” and gently enforced that limit. I then helped him process the feelings that had given rise to the behaviour. That is all that was needed. If I had responded by putting him in a timeout, or saying ‘no books tonight’, giving him a ‘sad face’ sticker on a chart, or come up with some other parent imposed ‘consequence’ would this make him less likely to hit again? Absolutely not. If anything it would make his behaviour worse. He would feel bad about himself, angrier with me, and more disconnected from me (the very issue that caused the behaviour in the first place), and the opportunity for me to help him process those feelings would have been lost.

He lost control. He did wrong. He’s a kid and he’s not perfect. I’m not going to punish him for that. I will, however, be more mindful of incorporating one to one time into our days. My child is not the only one with lessons to learn here.

Punishment does not teach. Empathy, understanding, and love teaches volumes and equips children emotionally to deal with their feelings and problems in a more mature way.


Too permissive?

February 29, 2012

I often feel that one of the potential pitfalls of my parenting approach, and something that I constantly need to guard against, is that of too much permissiveness.

Sceptics and critics of punishment-free parenting, positive parenting or whatever we want to call it will often accuse us of too much permissveness, whilst advocates of this parenting style will assert that it does not mean permissive parenting, and I agree with this – it doesn’t.

But I do feel there’s a danger that it can.

Whilst I do believe passionately that a parenting style that seeks to empathise with children, understand their feelings, allow for their capabilities, respect their wishes as much as possible, and move away from behaviour focussed, controlling and punitive methods is absolutely correct, I also think this can leave us treading a very delicate line between authoritative and permissive. Maybe it’s because we immerse ourselves with advice on how not to be too controlling, how to move away from an old parenting style of power and submission, that we’re left in danger of becoming too hung up on avoiding this aspect, and don’t spend enough time thinking about how to avoid being too permissive. Or maybe it’s just me.

Following studies in the 60s, psychologist Diana Baumrind came up with 3 basic parenting styles; Authoritarian, Authoritative,  and Permissive.  You can read more about these here, but the conclusions Baumrind’s studies came to were basically that authoritative parenting leads to happy children growing into happy adults.  Authoritarian is too strict, and permissive too soft.

Now, having read these descriptions of parenting styles, I placed myself as somewhere between authoritative and permissive, (although aspiring to be authoritative) and being slightly alarmed by this overlap into the ‘too soft’ category, I also read plenty of material on the negative effects of too much permissiveness, which alarmed me even more. This excellent article by Dr Laura Markham is a good example.

Now, if I’m not careful, all this could lead to a constant paranoia in my every parenting decision that I am being too permissive.

So what is too permissive? It can all get very confusing.

For example, Naomi Aldort writes in her book ‘Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves‘;

“A child cannot experience the parent’s love while being controlled by him/her….Even what some parents call ‘natural’ consequences is mostly parent-imposed and therefore causes the same harm and mistrust as punishment. If is is natural, it occurs on its own. For example, a father told me that the ‘natural’ consequence of his son not finishing his chores is that he will not go to his friend’s house, as he now must stay home and do his chores. However, if a child was expected to wash dishes and didn’t, the only natural consequence is that the dishes are dirty. Cancelling his play date is a punishment imposed by the parent against the child’s will…..the child who neglected the dishes may choose, after you express your feelings, to wash the dishes before going over to his friend’s; however, such choices must come from respectful communication of the people involved and based on their authentic preferences. You can kindly offer to wash the dishes or find some other considerate solution. You can also find out why the chore wasn’t done, and you may discover some need for change in the work loads or expectations….When you offer to help, the child learns to offer help unconditionally.”

OK, I can see what she’s saying here, but what does this all mean to us as parents in practical terms? Does this mean that any means we employ to get our child to do what we want, and what we think they should do, means we are not being ‘authentic’ and that our child’s compliance is not ‘authentic’? Or, on the other hand, by offering to help with the dishes and not enforcing any consequence are we failing to enforce our limits and to be sufficiently demanding and assertive as a parent,  failing to set boundaries and limits with consistency, denying our child the ability to learn self discipline, self regulation, etc etc? Aargh!

Aldort’s suggestion of finding some other ‘considerate solution’ or finding out ‘why the chore wasn’t done’ brought to mind Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish’s book “How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk“, in which they give lots of practical advice on problem solving and finding solutions that work for both parent and child. However, they do allow that natural consequences and letting a child ‘experience the consequences of his misbehaviour’  is sometimes necessary, where all else has failed. Examples include refusing to continue to allow a child to borrow things  if they fail to take proper care of them,  and getting a child who is late home for supper to make his own.

Meanwhile, Alfie Kohn’s principles of Unconditional Parenting include, amongst other things, “Reconsider your requests”, “Put the relationship first”, “Be authentic” (that word again!), and “Don’t be rigid”.

In the end I think it all comes down to the usual answer; that there is no easy answer. Parenting is not an exact science. All this advice is open to how you interpret it. And every parenting decision we make has to be treated individually, within its own context. So I guess I’ll just have to carry on being paranoid,  sorry, mindful, about being too permissive.

In my attempts to be mindful I try to keep these two basic points in mind:

If I feel I’m allowing my child to do something against my better judgement then I’m probably being too permissive. I think this is a good rule of thumb, for example for things like too much TV, too much junk food, or allowing my child to stay longer at the playground when I know he’s tired and hungry and a meltdown is imminent!

I make sure I have a good reason to say no. This is useful not only in challenging my own motives, but in providing an explanation for my child.

What about you? Which of Baumrind’s categories would you place yourself in and how do you guard against too much permissiveness?