Its been about 6 months that I have now consistently, consciously been parenting without punishment. And along with no punishment, no rewards either. This decision was after great struggle over the past 7 years in my relationship with my 9-year old son (yes, struggle began at the early age of 2), who is so amazing and also the most stubborn person I have ever known. I am very familiar with motivational research that shows that the ‘carrot and stick’ approach (punishment and/or rewards) is not effective in motivation, and actually, can cause the opposite effect of de-motivating people. This research is most prevalent in HR research around motivating/demotivating employees, and the research findings have been popularized by one of my favourite writers (and TED Talk speakers) Daniel Pink in his amazing and inspiring book Drive.
While many of us, myself included, know this research well, we don’t seem to apply these same principles in our parenting. And in the moment, when I am reactive and angry, it can be so easy to pull out a punishment. But, and this is the kicker, IT DOES NOT WORK. My son’s behaviour does not change because he is afraid of punishment or doesn’t want a consequence. His behaviour is in reaction to something much bigger going on in his life.
Why, even when I know this, do the punishments so easily escape my mouth? Because frankly, I have power over my 9-year old son. And I have been thinking about my power, and the (unconscious) abuse of this power in my day-to-day reactions. I came across this powerful online article by Teresa Graham Brett about ‘Adultism’ that shook me to my core – vhttp://www.kindredmedia.org/2011/11/adultism-the-hidden-toxin-poisoning-our-relationships-with-children/. I teach the Power Flower and the ‘isms’ to College Students, and I am comfortable identifying and speaking about racism, homophobia, sexism etc. But this article made me confront my own oppressive use of power in parenting: “…if we are using our power over the children in our lives, we are perpetuating injustice and oppression. We are setting children up to accept a world that is based on the more powerful controlling the less powerful.”
All of this collided with my reading the amazing book ‘Honey I Wrecked the Kids: When Yelling, Screaming, Threats, Bribes, Time-Outs, Sticker Charts and Removing Privileges All Don’t Work’ by Alyson Schafer. This book was critical in providing concrete tools on what parenting can look like, when I am parenting without punishment. Along with the arguments above for this strategy, Schafer writes from an Adler psychology perspective, which is that children misbehave because they are experiencing a negative feeling and are communicating this. It is our job to understand what they are trying to tell us through their misbehavior, and to help them to find another way to feel positive and re-engaged in their life. Instead of getting angry with the misbehavior, Schafer encourages parents to ‘get curious’, to play the detective in understanding what is happening in our childs life.
In her book, Schafer points out that we often say disrespectful things to our children on a daily basis, not even thinking about it. Statements like: “Why don’t you act your age” or “How old are you anyways?”. Statements that serve to knock kids down a notch or too. When I really reflected on this, I realized that I was doing this, often without even thinking about it. And I wanted it to stop.
Without a doubt, parenting without punishment has been a game-changer for me, my family and my relationship with my son. It has been incredibly challenging for me to check myself, bite my tongue and not react with anger, threats or consequences. I have tried to respond with love and patience, every time. I am trying to treat my children with the respect that they deserve, every single day. And it has been eye-opening for me to notice how, even when I am so committed to parenting consciously without punishment, it can be so difficult. Especially when I am tired, or trying to get the kids out the door so we don’t miss the school bus, or when I’m trying to multi-task.
However, it has been so worth it. I saw the results right away, within 48 hours. Our family has become calmer, my son is happier and we have found a sense of peace. When my son does something wrong, I try to find out whats going on. But I also try to honour my feelings too, which sometimes means I need to take some space. I try to name my feelings, so that my children see that modeling. I say clearly, not angrily (but sometimes sadly): “I am feeling upset by what has happened. I need some space.” For the time ever, my son, who is so stubborn and could never before admit that he was wrong, has started apologizing on his own, when he knows that he has made a mistake. This was shocking when it first happened. I had never received an unsolicited apology from him before.
And we talk a lot about what is going on. My experience resonates with Schafers argument, that there is always an underlying reason behind the misbehavior. I play detective, and sometimes its challenging because he won’t just tell me what is going on. That would be too easy. But I often find out, even if it’s the last conversation before sleep, when he is most comfortable and ready to share. His reason behind the misbehavior usually has nothing to do with me, and is often a feeling of sadness and fear of not belonging with his peers at school. Usually there is some small but critical event in his day that has made him feel insecure about his significance and self-worth in his world. And when I find this out, it is my job to simply hug him, tell him that he is so very loved and that I believe in him. And especially after those most difficult days, I like to share my favourite quote with him: ‘tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it’ (Lucy Maud Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables).