By: Susan Glaser
Not punish? That seems like a counter-intuitive suggestion in a world where too many children appear to be unaware of basic social boundaries. However, if you choose not to punish that does not mean that you have also chosen not to discipline your child. You may think this is just semantics but the way you choose to guide your child is reflected in how you view the process of helping your children grow into independent, responsible and caring adults.
So Why Not Punish?
- Punishment may stop the inappropriate action in the moment but it does not teach the child how to make a more suitable choice in the future. The root of disciple is to teach or to learn and discipline can, and should, be a tool for teaching children the skills they need to change their behavior.
- Punishment may make the adult feel vindicated but leaves the child feeling shame and anger. Ironically, many parents report that, after a short while, they feel terrible after they impose a punishment. They may think they were too harsh and crumble in the face of their child’s anger and sadness, either softening or taking away the punishment all together. Confusing? You bet!
- Punishment often does not fit the crime. Taking away a toy because a child talks back to a parent does not teach a child how to express their feelings in a way that allows them to be heard- and respectful at the same time. Punishment tells a child the parent does not approve of their behavior but discipline can teach a child how to communicate a wide range of emotions and establish authentic dialogue.
- Punishment is often meted out in anger. An angry outburst can cause parents concern about their loss of control and can scare a child as well. Children who are punished in anger do learn a lesson-that angry responses are an acceptable way to interact. Angry responses by parents often include shaming words, which if repeated often enough, can undermine a child’s feeling of self-worth.
- Punishment robs children of the opportunity to learn how to solve their own conflicts. Most punishment is something that is “done” to a child; whether it is taking away a privilege, putting the child in time out or getting a spanking. Discipline can help a child use his or her critical thinking skills and learn to solve their own conflicts.
Often a paradigm shift is necessary to move away from punishing children to disciplining them. Effective discipline can stop inappropriate behavior and its use of consistent, natural consequences also help children problem solve their own conflicts and choose a more acceptable behavior in the future. Many parents find this shift difficult because they think that their child will not change if there is not some tangible, “real” punishment. They ask: How will they learn if the punishment is not strong enough for them to remember?
In fact, in families where corporeal or harsh punishment is used, children do tow the line; at home, at least. Some children rebel when they are out of their parent’s reach; others become passive, having learned that they have no power to make decisions on their own. It is difficult not to match your child’s anger with your own responses, but parents who can keep cool know that they are their child’s teacher, not their keepers, and will see inappropriate behavior, not as a failure, but as an opportunity to teach.
Next week, we will provide general principles and specific details of effective discipline that parents can use to guide their children.
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