If Not Punishment, Then What? Three Ideas That Work.

For most children, punishment does not solve a misbehaviour but it does create terrifying fear of their caregiver/parent. Research shows that what leads children to become responsible, resilient, moral citizens, with emotional accountability is not being punished. Instead, it is receiving empathy, unconditional love,  being involved and respected.  In other words, when children  make a mistake, mess up, break things, say something obscene, they don’t learn from pain or shame but they do need us to help them find their way.

So if not punishment, then what? While there are numerous parenting tools, alternatives to punishment as ways to help children learn “consequences” of their actions, here are three biggies that may help families move beyond the punishment mind set:

Set Limits: Children need limits, like set bed times so the get appropriate rest, healthy food options to lean how to nourish themselves. Make these limits clear and be consistent. It doesn’t mean you can’t be flexible but it does mean you need to be accountable for your decisions as a parent.

Create a safe home: Young children need to play, learn and explore. They do this by climbing, tinkering, taking a part, building things back together. If you don’t want the sofa to be jumped on, cupboards to be opened and emptied, drawers to be dumped, then lock things, store things away and implement alternatives like a mattress for jumping on.  The other part of creating a safe home is providing emotional safety, children will say the “wrong things”, they may lash out in anger or frustration. Help them feel safe by accepting them, showing empathy, care and giving unconditional love.

Connect and then Correct: When you observe a child getting ready to do something unacceptable or if you dislike a certain behavior, instead of yelling from across the room or waiting to punish after the fact, whenever possible start the process by proactively connecting with your child. If you can relate to their situation, stop something before it starts or engage with your child in his play it can make a real change in your dynamic.

How does this translate to real life? Here is a recent excahnge:

In the evening, after playing a game it is time for getting ready to sleep.

Mom: That was a fun game, I enjoyed playing with you.

Five year old:Mom, I want to play another round of twister.

Mom:  Oh, you really like this game.(connecting) I see that, it is really fun.  Since it’s 7 o´clock, the answer is: you can play again tomorrow,now it`s time to get ready for bed. (States limit)

Five year old: You are no fun mom. I´m going to throw the game in the trash now.

Mom: I can see you are upset (keeping it safe, no accusations or yelling about the trash threat) I bet you really would like to play more, I believe you. Bed time sure came fast tonight. (reassurance, empathy).  You may not throw the game. (Limit)

Boy: Please, just another round!

Mom: 7 pm means time to get ready for bed. . (restating limit, firmly) We can play a tooth brushing game if you would like. (keeping it fun and positive to connect)

The game was put away and the evening routine went on as planned.

Instead of punishing, we can show the way, explain, ask, demonstrate, talk.  Is it a difficult, tiring, sometimes heartbreaking, hair pulling, stick your head in a paper bag and just breath, will this ever end, type of a  process? Well, yes.

Then come the moments when you realize it really works.  You see this ever so kind, bright and responsible citizen-in-the-making, helping around the house, using manners, making amends, defending a friend in distress etc… and you just know….it’s all worth it!

Peace & Be Well,


Still skeptical? Last week at Authentic Parenting I explored “Why Punishment will  not make children behave.”

What are some times when you believe punishment may be in order? What alternatives have you tried?

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Ariadne is a happy and busy mama to three children. She practices peaceful, playful, responsive parenting and is passionate about all things parenting and chocolate. Ariadne has a B.S. in Communication, is a certified Positive Discipline Parenting Educator, and has completed several graduate courses in child development, psychology and family counseling. She lives on top of a beautiful mountain with her family, one cuddly dog and "bluey" the fish.

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33 thoughts on “If Not Punishment, Then What? Three Ideas That Work.

  1. Nice post. After reading this, I realize that I don’t “punish.” We don’t do time outs, withhold food or activities, or spank, or any traditional punishments. Instead we have a conversation about what is expected or appropriate and talk about how we’re going to get to that behavior in a similar vein to what you’ve described here.

    • Chrissy, that is wonderful to hear! Talking it out, even if after the fact when everyone is calm is a fantastic alternative!

  2. Yaaaaaaaaaaaaaay for this article!! Thank you for the great demonstration. I was just wondering…if I’m not punishing, what will I do? Thank you so much.

    • Kimberly, yes that is the big question from many parents. There are some lovely resources out there, like the positive discipline series and also the other blog I co-author, authentic parenting, and aha!parenting with wonderful examples! Thank you for your lovely comment.

  3. What about when this doesnt work tho? i think that is the model that majority of parents would be hoping to achieve anyway, to not have to punish, but when the child, for example, refuses to put down the console, runs and hides with it and plays up what do you suggest?

    • Roisin, It sure can be frustrating sometimes. All three things apply here to your question, if you have set limits in your home as to how long your child can play with his video game, perhaps setting a timer when play time starts, using reminders 5 minutes before time is up so your child is not caught off guard when time is up and then lastly connecting with your son, not just before transitioning onto the next activity but also engaging him, perhaps asking him to show you how his game works or agreeing before he starts what he will do when his time is up will help you stay connected and with time, patience and practice it can be a very different experience. i hope that is helpful. thank you for your thoughts!

  4. I don’t agree with the examples you give as limits, I think kids can easily regulate themselves when it comes to bedtime and food, as long as they’re trusted and offered choices.
    That doesn’t mean we don’t have limits, but they are few and not arbitrary. (I think we can categorize them under: hurting yourself or others and damaging other people’s belongings)

    • Laura, I totally appreciate your point of view on this. In trying to examplify limits you are correct, talking about not hurting self and others are very important limits to set. For some families, having set bed times can be important, notice I did not say when they must sleep but that they get enough rest, whatever that maybe for each child/family they can decide. Many children start “misbehaving” when they are tired, along the lines of your recent post with underlying issues to behavior, tiredness is certainly a trigger for some.
      I think families need to choose limits that work within their scope of needs, comfort, values in order to set their children up to feel capable and encouraged, for some that might be having screen time limit, no junk food limits, for others it maybe like you said just the very few limits surrounding safety. thank you for your input!

  5. Lovely post. It works when kids are calm. What do you do when they lose it and tantrum? Life keeps moving and most times i cant wait till she is calm. Took her an hour of throwing things, hitting me, crying , screaming before she calmed down. When she was calm, her “punIshment” was to cleanup. In the future, won’t phrase picking up the stuff she threw as “punishment”.

    • aw yes, dealing with a full blown tantrum can be difficult, still trying to connect and setting limits and staying safe will still work here, just with lots and lots of patience. For instance you can say, “I can see you are very mad but hitting me is not OK” for safety “maybe you need time tocool down, lets talk when we are both ready.” you can then stay close by for safety but need not do anything to fix or confront until the storm has passed. it takes a lot of practice, trial and error and that is ok too. cleaning up whatever mess your daughter made (granted i don’t know her age, so she might need help) is fine, i would encourage you to be positive about it and like you already decided not phrase as punishment. hope that helps!

  6. For the most part, I feel as though I practice this. But this past week, this one child in my classroom has had disruptive behavior that included hitting, throwing things and screaming. He followed me around during quiet rest time as it is clear he was trying to get me to lash out but I let him “do his thing” and then after an hour he fell asleep. I thought he was sleepy and maybe mom’s new work schedule was an issue but his behavior has been off and on all week and some of the kids have heightened their disruptive behavior as well. In response to it, we worked to brainstorm the rules of the classroom and had the three year old class “sign it” by decorating it and then I did bring in bubbles for those who were making good choices, which I did say was going to happen the day before. If I have a class of eleven where my lesson is being slowed down and there is only one teacher, what should I be doing to remedy this situation? I do take away “special” activities as an option for those who are having a hard time. Is there another option?

    • hi Ashley, you seem to have lovely classes and parties going on – what fun to have turned your passion into a thriving business! As far as the the disruptive child, it seems like you handled it just fine under the circumstances, it does sound like this child is discouraged or having a hard time adjusting to his new environment, you do not specify how long you have cared for this child but at 3 yrs it’s hard to expect a child not to have difficult moments, like you said of tiredness, crankiness, there is usually an underlying need the child is experiencing, in this case it sounds like he was tired. I find it very effective when a child is disruptive to either involve them more – giving them a specific job like holding an object for you, or offering them an alternative like sitting in a cozy corner with a board book or a quiet toy, but phrased as an option not a command. Positive discipline doesn’t encourage taking away priviledges like a special activity esp. not so young, but if they are so disruptive that you need to change your plans, you can just say that, we are doing something different, or trying something new…try not to phrase it as taking something away. with eleven three year olds it will be tough to follow a lesson plan exactly like you want as their attention and needs will shift but not impossible, just try to stay flexible, and keep doing what you are doing, it sounds like you really enjoy your work! Positive Discipline in the classroom is a good resource as is positive discipline for preschoolers! thank you for stopping by I hope this helps a bit.

  7. Thank you for your support! It’s a lot that I’m taking on right now and all very new but I’m especially excited. I’m always looking for ways to get better, which is why I came to your site for more insight. And thank you, I especially like the idea of offering tasks to do as a “special helper,” I think they’ll take to that really well. I tried the offering puzzles and books to the boy in my initial post, but the fact of the matter is that he was following me and was probably looking for my attention. And I did sit him in my lap for a while (which seemed to calm him down) but unfortunately had other obligations for the classroom that prevented me from stopping everything to just sit with him. I wondered what would have happened if I did stay with him a bit longer in that specific situation during quiet rest time…anyway, thanks again, I’m sure your advice will work.

  8. Thanks for the support. Had another rough morning and feeling so depressed that I don’t even want to interact with her. Started reading through your site again and finding the strength to carry on.

    • Hang in there JO, nothing wrong with taking a break. If you have a chance try doing something for yourself, even if its just a 10 minute shower.

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  11. One of the things that has worked well with my kids and also with my students when I was teaching was to shift the responsibility for the action to the child. Giving them specific options will help, such as “Which would you like to do first, put on your PJ’s or brush your teeth?” They feel that they still have some control but you are limiting their options.

  12. What to do if your child is toooo hyper….he cant sits even for a minute…he dont eat by himself and even took so long to chew a byte….i tried so many times to be patience but loose it at the end afterall cz of the irritation he creates to me always….i really tried hard not to be harsh but in vain…:(

    • Mrs. Ray, I understand it can be very challenging to deal with an active child. I would encourage you to seek ways for the child to burn off some energy like playing outdoors, having a lot of physical activity like climbing, playing, running can only help. Also find ways to get a break for yourself, do something that helps YOU feel good. hope that helps a bit.

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  14. I really love your blog and your facebook page. And I totally agree that we *can* parent without punishments – in fact I believe it is the best way for kids and for family relationships.

    I am reluctant to share this article because of the language though. I have a feeling it is more semantics than anything and that we probably practice things similarly but I think that some of this can be misinterpreted – especially the first idea of setting limits. I think “limits” are so entrenched in our current culture’s parenting paradigm that it will be difficult to keep this language and make a huge shift to not punishing at the same time. Most people associate limits with rules and breaking them with punishment.

    Also I’m not sure I agree that children “need” limits. My kids don’t have a set bedtime and are thriving. Is is always easy on my husband and I? No. But I’ve yet to find a parent who doesn’t have some challenges with bedtime. It makes more sense to me to extend partnership to all aspects of life – seems much more respectful. From what I’ve seen children are quite good at finding their own healthy limits with parental support.

    • Hi Susan,
      First, thank you for the lovely compliments! I appreciate your points – the idea of limits though is really for parents that are trying to shift from that total control and obedience mind set to more of a positive sense that there are times when saying no will be appropriate – for example, hurting someone, throwing something across the room and so on. Each family can learn what limits they are comfortable but NO limits at all is permissive parenting which is detrimental (not just my personal opinion but research shows this as well and just about all the positive discipline/positive parenting literature will support this too) – much like you said – the parental support and guidance has to be there otherwise young children really can become anxious and a bit lost having no structure at all.

      Some parents are comfortable with no set bed times, other children wake up far too cranky and tired so helping them to transition to bed by a certain time keeps the whole family in a much healthier and cooperative state. I know families that don’t limit screen time at all and others that have reached a compromise with all of those things. The whole idea of this post was to bring to light that shifting perspectives from control, obedience and punishment to cooperation, respect and well a host of other positive ingredients is not only possible but it truly can help families thrive.

      Thank you again for sharing your thoughts – punitive vs non punitive parenting can be tricky to discuss!

  15. How do you suggest altering this for toddlers that don’t quite understand? Most of the time they are frustrated because they cannot communicate their wants/needs. If this method isn’t working in a particular instance, what do you do AFTER they have already hit or otherwise acted out?

    • Kami,
      That is a great question. The approach I find works best with toddlers is to try to stay calm, and kindly explain the behavior they have shown is not alright. Short phrases without and loaded emotions seem to work best.
      “You may not bite your friend. Biting hurts.” OR
      “You seem very mad. Hitting is not ok. Do you need something?”
      Or “Biting is not ok. Let’s take a minute together to cool off”

      For many toddlers, crying after they hit or bite is common because this is how they are getting their emotions out – that’s the hard part for us parents to stay calm and let them ride out the storm but it’s really important to be there for them, just being supportive and present. I listed 11 alternatives to time outs here just for toddlers.

      Biting and hitting are a normal part of early childhood and although many parents feel ashamed or embarrassed by this particular behavior, for children it is really just like learning to drink from an open cup, holding a spoon or riding a bicycle…it takes a bit of time, love and lots of patience.
      Hope that helps.

  16. So what when this doesn’t work? Or results in a complete meltdown because your strong willed child doesn’t care about the “tooth brush game” and just starts screaming? These ideas are well and good and I try to implement them as much as possible, but what do you do when it ALL fails? Seriously? I’m looking for an alternative to time outs and spanking, but there gets a point, sometimes, where no matter what I try in the positive, patient vein that nothing, absolutely nothing gets us to the same end result.

    • Mari, every child and family situation is unique. I’m not sure the age of your child, that being said, if you are finding yourself locked into power struggles, perhaps finding ways that invite your child to cooperate and make choices in his daily routines, give him responsibility and look at the time you spend together as a chance to connect and really understand each other can all be very helpful. If you need to say NO when you mean it, by all means, set those limits and say no, and then support your child in the disappointment, it may mean that he needs to cry and you can empathize “I know you don’t want to brush teeth. i care about your health, brushing keeps you healthy.” giving choices “which do you want to do first, brush teeth or put on pajamas. YOU decide.” Also introducing a bed time chart with pictures to follow along can be helpful. I highly recommend the book Positive Discipline A-Z it has excellent ideas that are very specific and it’s divided by topics so not something you have to read cover to cover to benefit from.

  17. Your comments are helpful for trying to encourage children to do something they don’t want to do. This has been great for homework situations with my son or enforcing bed times. But do you have any advice on how to stop children behaving in a certain way e.g. mine (age 5 and 8) will not stop misbehaving at meal times, (kicking eachother under the table, flicking food, squirting drinks at eachother, etc.) I don’t think I have had a meal without having to say at least 10 times to ‘stop it’. It is not always convenient to have a time out as we are in a rush to get to school or do homework. I used to do time outs but the behaviour has not improved so am looking for alternatives. Also, how can I stop them fighting and bating eachother all the time? And to listen to me when I say ‘stop!’

  18. A question: My five year old son has taken to telling me “You’re being RUDE” when I tell him that he can not have or do something he is asking for. I am trying to be consistent with remaining calm and trying to have a conversation with him about why these limits are being imposed. BUT – I am finding that he is still getting frustrated and telling me I’m being rude OR he uses his fists to “air” hit me… Any suggestions on how to handle this?

    • Rhea, it sounds like your son may be frustrated or annoyed with whatever limits he doesn’t agree with, this is pretty typical for a 5 year old (can be quite the button pushing behavior for us parents!) Sometimes all we can do if we know a limit is needed is to set it, hold it and accept the frustration (let them cry or pout for a bit and not insist they stop). Basically, sometimes it’s helpful to simply trust that the child is capable of feeling that frustration and then overcoming it. Empathizing while being firm can help “I can hear this is NOT what you wanted me to say. I get that this makes you upset AND its my final decision” for many 4,5,6 year olds this is going to mean tears or anger. “You think I am being rude, I hear you, you still can’t have X and my decision has been made.” “I bet this is upsetting to you. I believe it’s not what you wanted to hear” It can also be very helpful to offer alternatives within your limits when possible “You can’t watch any more TV but we can read a book together when you are ready for bed” for example is a positive and flexible way to set a limit. hope that helps you!

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