Parenting Without Punishment

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 – v 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).


Missing My Grandpa

I’ve been remembering my Grandfather lately. For some reason, 7.5 years after his death, several events have resurfaced his memory, and I miss him. It started with our family reunion, when many of my relatives flew in from England and we came together at my Grandmothers house to spend time together. A few years before my Grandfather died, through the wildness of the internet, my Grandfather found a long-lost half-brother who he didn’t know existed. They connected, my Grandpa’s half-brother flew across the ocean so they could meet, and as luck would have it, their resemblance, mannerisms, facial expressions etc, is uncanny. Fast-forward 10 years, and 7.5 years after my Grandfathers death, and sure enough, he attends the family reunion with his wife and daughter, who also looks uncannily like my Grandfather. First tug of my heart.

Second: I attended my cousins wedding, and there is a slideshow shown at the reception with lots of childhood photos. Sure enough, photos show up on the big screen with my Grandfather smiling and playing with his grandchildren, and tears well up in my throat. I am not prepared for the suddenness of such deep sadness in my heart, the emotion that I can only name grief. I can only define grief as missing someone who I love so deeply, who I wish I could have one more cup of tea and conversation with.

Third: my neighbor took my family and I out on his sailboat on a beautiful August day. His boat was very similar to my grandparents boat, and sitting on the boat basking in the sun, all of my wonderful childhood memories of being on the boat with my grandfather came flooding back. As I looked out at the beautiful lake and up at the wide-open blue blue sky and as I looked at my family, I felt thankful in that moment and a strong sense of peace washed over me.

My Grandfather was an intense person, and not always the easiest person to be around. He was opinionated, and lived life with gusto. My Grandfather never took a second of life for granted, and taught me to live with conviction and care deeply about my life and my precious time on this earth. My Grandfather was an outspoken activist, who was not afraid to take risks and speak his mind. My Grandfather was a long-time Anglican Christian, but he had a conflicting relationship with his faith. He wanted so badly for the church to change their views, especially in being accepting of homosexuality as well as recognizing the multi-truths of other faiths and that Christianity is not the only route to God. I remember attending church with my Grandfather and him arguing with the clergy members, as well as muttering under his breath to me when certain parts of the service were not ‘in line with the times’.

Of course, in writing this piece, I decided to google my Grandfathers name (Eric Perryman), with little hope that he would have a presence on the internet 7.5 years after he has passed away. Sure enough, I found two letters that he wrote to the Editor of the Anglican Journal, advocating for change in views. I can hear his articulate, angry (but trying to be diplomatic) voice in these letters that he wrote:

Letters to the Editor – May 1999 –

“Dear editor, Congratulations for publishing the March opinion piece on collegiality by Canon Gordon Baker, and the editorial on the need for open debate within the Anglican Church on potentially divisive issues. The various points of view on any divisive issue need to be discussed in all segments of the church long before any motion reaches the floor of a diocesan or general synod. If the democratic process is to be followed, then it becomes questionable as to whether collegiality within the House of Bishops can be used as a reason to override the prevailing viewpoint of other parts of the Anglican community. The recent example in the Diocese of New Westminster where a motion agreeing with the blessing of same-sex unions was passed by clergy and lay delegates at their synod, yet put on hold by their bishop, is a case in point. There, democracy and collegiality were mutually exclusive. I have asked our bishop to provide us, the laity, with documented reasoning, which led him to vote against the blessing of same-sex unions. To date he has not responded. He is the leader of his flock and therefore surely has a responsibility to give us his reasoning even though this may be different from other bishops. We, the laity, would be helped immensely in our struggle with divisive issues if bishops would trust us and share discussions and differing viewpoints with us. I hope our bishops will recognize that the time has gone when people were content to leave their brains at the church door”. Eric Perryman Corbyville, Ont

Letters to the Editor – March 1998,

“Dear editor, I am writing to praise Bishop Michael Ingham’s fortitude and honesty in writing his latest book, Mansions of the Spirit. W. Turner (February letters) took exception to this book because it was allegedly not based on the biblical truths. What are these biblical truths which state that Christianity is the only road to God, that Christians will be given preferential treatment in the next life, that other people not of the Christian faith will be dealt with accordingly? As more and more regions of the world become multicultural and multifaith, Christians have to face the existence of other religious faiths and must be prepared to discuss whether the great religions of the world are all connected to the same truth. In the same way we must be prepared to recognize the connection between interfaith reality and interfaith conflict. We should be thankful to Bishop Ingham for providing us with such a well thought out book to help us become informed, caring and unbiased Christians. I invite Mr. Turner to provide us with documentation illustrating those biblical truths referred to.” Eric Perryman Corbyville, Ont.

He never gave up. I am not sure if the Anglican Church ever moved forward on these issues or not, but I do know that if my Grandfather was alive, he would still be writing these letters and fighting the fight.

I don’t know what I believe about life after death. But I do know that my Grandfather taught me some of my core values, about living my life with gusto and integrity, and taking risks. I am striving to teach these values to my children, and in doing so, his spirit is kept alive.