The other day, my 3 year old daughter ripped her brothers’ picture. On purpose!
She did not go to time out. She was not punished. There were no parent-imposed consequences.
Most parents tend to believe that acting out, spitting, hitting , bad behavior or behavior problems need to be managed with punishments, time out or some kind of power and control in order for them to go away. In the moments when I feel my buttons getting pushed, I sometimes want to believe that too.
Most often, control and disconnected consequences though, make a child’s behavior worse and not better. This happens because children don’t respond to control.
What Happens When we Choose Control over Guidance
When we respond with control, power and frustration to a behavior that we believe to be bad, defiant and disrespectful, our child is much more likely to:
- shut down (look away, freeze)
- feel ashamed
- get angry (retaliate, hit, spit)
- startle (cry, scream)
- withdraw (avert the eyes, hide)
- become nervous (giggle, try to run away, tap fingers or bang things together)
Guidance vs. Punishment
When children “misbehave”, aside from having the behavior stop, what we really wish is for them to learn how to do behave in a different or better way. Perhaps a more socially acceptable way or a way that is in line with our family values and boundaries. What our children need is guidance and not punishment.
We want for example our children to know how to handle being bored without whining for attention, how to handle a conflict without hitting, how to share and not grab, how to express being full instead of throwing down food, manage their anger and frustration well..In other words, we want them to be capable of regulating their responses ( a.k.a. behave “better”) and make good choices or solve their own problems.
Punishments and disconnected consequences like standing in a corner do not help with any of that. Like when my daughter ripped the picture, sitting in the corner was not going to make the picture whole again. It also was not going to teach her how to manage her frustrations or how to make amends with her brother.
So what does help behavior improve and change?
While positive parenting has many parenting tools that encourage cooperation and reduce conflict, the basics for helping children behave better can be summed up in these four principles:
Provide guidance that encourages learning.
Allow the child to be part of the solution.
Accept all feelings and emotions as valid.
Lead with respect and unconditional love.
If we consistently approach our children with these principles in mind, as they grow, they learn. They learn to cooperate, problem solve, accept responsibility for their feelings, emotions and decisions. The learning is a process and it’s true, it is not as quick as counting 1,2,3 or placing them in the corner, but it is a process that honors our developing child’s needs, one that models qualities we wish to see as our children grow and most of all it is a process that facilitates and maintains family harmony.
So, when that picture got ripped, there was no time out, no yelling or shaming. There was this conversation between my 3 year old and soon to be six year old son:
“You ripped my picture.” my son said to his sister.
“I so angry!” my daughter said to her brother. “You bothering me at my table.” (I believe she meant his things were piled on her table and in her way)
“Ok, sorry I bothered you but…but my picture?! I just made it today.” my son asked.
“Wait…I know!” my daughter offered, running to our box of tape & glue. “This will fix it!”
My son smiled as my daughter took some tape and said “can you help me cut it, it’s sticky tape.”
“Oh, cool, the silver will look awesome. I mean, I wish you hadn’t broken my picture, but this is cool too.” my son said.
“There…all fixed. I sorry I did that.” my daughter said once the duct tape was firmly holding the picture back together.
Days later, my son brought another picture home and forgot it on his sister play table again. She took it off the table and handed it to him. “Here you go. I not ripped it this time even if you bothered me with it again!!!”
Of course, this learning didn’t happen from one day to the next. It’s a process of offering guidance, using tools like time in, reflective listening, validating feelings and encouraging problem solving and accepting imperfection. Some behaviors and choices are simpler and others take more patience, practice and then more practice and more patience. It also takes trust and believing that our children are willing and capable of learning and growing. Better behavior without punishment is possible.
Peace & Be Well,
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