My answer is that children learn what they live. The most effective way to teach kids is to treat them the way we want them to treat others: with compassion and understanding. When we spank, punish, or yell, kids learn to act aggressively.
Even timeouts – symbolic abandonment -- give children the message that they’re alone with their big scary feelings just when they need us most, rather than being an opportunity to learn how to manage their emotions. (But I'm a big fan of Time-Ins, during which we remove our child from the situation and sit with him to help him process the feelings that were causing him to act out.)
That doesn’t mean we renege on our responsibility to guide our children by setting limits. No running into the street, no hitting the baby, no peeing on the carpet, no picking the neighbor’s tulips, no hurting the dog. But these are limits, not punishment.
Are you wondering how your child will learn not to do these things next time, if you don’t “discipline” him when he does them? Then you’re assuming that we need to punish children to "teach a lesson."
Actually, research shows that punishing kids creates more misbehavior. Being punished makes kids angry and defensive. It launches adrenalin and the other fight, flight or freeze hormones, and turns off the reasoning, cooperative impulses. Kids quickly forget the “bad” behavior that led to their being punished, even while they’re processing the emotional aftermath of the punishment for weeks. If they learn anything, it’s to lie and avoid getting caught. Punishment disconnects us from our kids so we have less influence with them. It even lowers IQ, since kids who don't feel completely safe and secure aren't free to learn. Quite simply, punishment is never an effective means of raising a responsible, considerate, happy child. It teaches all the wrong lessons.
If, instead, we can stay kind and connected while we set limits, our children will internalize what they’ve lived. They don't resist our guidance, so they feel connected, and they see their impact on others, so they’re considerate and responsible. Because they’ve had parents who modeled emotional self-regulation, they’ve learned to manage their own emotions, and therefore their own behavior. Because they’re been accepted for all of who they are, they’re in touch with their own passions and motivated to explore them.
So what can we do to guide children without discipline?
1. Regulate your own emotions. That’s how children learn to manage theirs. You’re the role model. Don’t act when you’re upset. If you can't get in touch with your love for your child, then what would a really fantastic parent do right now? Do that. If you can’t, then take a deep breath and wait until you’re calm before you address the situation. Resist the impulse to be punitive. It always backfires.
2. Honor feelings. When your child is hijacked by adrenaline and other fight or flight hormones, he can't learn. Instead of lecturing, do a "Time-In" where you stay with your child and let him have his meltdown in your attentive presence. Your goal is to provide a calm "holding environment" for your child's upset. Expressing emotions with a safe, attentive, accepting adult is what helps kids move through those feelings and learn to self-soothe so they can regulate their own emotions eventually. Don't try to reason with him during the emotional storm. Afterwards, he'll feel so much better, and so much closer to you, that he'll be open to your guidance about why we don't say "Shut Up" (Because it hurts feelings) or lie (Because it cuts the invisible cords that connect our hearts to each other.)
3. Remember how children learn. Consider the example of teeth brushing. Start when she’s a baby, model brushing your own teeth, make it fun for her, gradually give her more of the responsibility, and eventually she’ll be doing it herself. The same principle holds for learning to say Thank You, taking turns, remembering her belongings, feeding her pet, doing homework, and most everything else you can think of. Routines are invaluable partly because they provide the “scaffolding” for your child to learn basic skills, just as scaffolding provides structure for a building to take shape. You might be mad she forgot her jacket again, but yelling won't help her remember. "Scaffolding" will.
4. Connect before you correct, and stay connected, even while you guide, to awaken your child’s desire to be his best self. Remember that children misbehave when they feel bad about themselves and disconnected from us.
Stoop down to her level and look her in the eye: "You are mad...Tell me what you need in words... no biting!"
Pick her up: "You wish you could play longer... it's time for bed."
Make loving eye contact: "You are so upset right now."
Put your hand on her shoulder: "You're scared to tell me about the cookie."
5. Set limits -- but set them with empathy. Of course you need to insist on some rules. But you can also acknowledge her perspective. When kids feel understood, they're more able to accept our limits.
"No biting! You’re very very mad and hurt, but you need to tell your brother in words."
"It's bedtime now. I know you wish you could play longer."
"You don't want Mommy to say No, I hear you....And the answer is No. We don't say 'Shut Up' to each other, even when we're sad and mad."
"No matter how scared you are, I need you to tell me the truth."
6. Remember that all “misbehavior” is an expression, however misguided, of a legitimate need.
He has a reason, even if you don't think it's a good one. His behavior is terrible? He must feel terrible inside. Does he need more sleep, more time with you, more downtime, more chance to cry and release those upsetting emotions we all store up? Address the underlying need and you eliminate the misbehavior.
7. Say YES. Kids will do almost anything we request if we make the request with a loving heart. Find a way to say YES instead of NO even while you set your limit. "YES, it's time to clean up, and YES I will help you and YES we can leave your tower up and YES you can growl about it and YES if we hurry we can read an extra story and YES we can make this fun and YES I adore you and YES how did I get so lucky to be your parent? YES!" Your child will respond with the generosity of spirit that matches yours.
8. Stay connected with special time, every day. Turn off the phone, close the computer, and tell your child "Ok, I'm all yours for the next 20 minutes. What should we do?" Follow her lead. The world is full of humiliation for kids, so for this 20 minutes just be an incompetent bumbler and let her win. Giggling releases pent-up fears and anxiety, so make sure to play, giggle, be silly. Have a pillow fight. Wrestle. Snuggle. Let her tell you what's on her mind, let her rant or cry. Just accept all those feelings. Be 100% present. Kids who know they can count on daily special time with their parent flourish because they trust enough to express their full range of emotion, and they WANT to behave.
9. Forgive yourself. You can’t be an inspired parent if you’re feeling bad about yourself, any more than your child can act “right” if she feels bad about herself. You can always repair the relationship. Start today.
10. When all else fails, give yourself a big hug. Then give your child a big hug. Connection trumps everything else in parenting.
Don't believe it? Try it this week and see what kind of miracle you can make.
Want to explore the research behind this approach? My favorite resource is the index of Alfie Kohn's wonderful book Unconditional Parenting, which lists hundreds of peer-reviewed studies that support this view. That's a wealth of research. I refer readers here because you get a synopsis of peer-reviewed research from a credible academic, and you get the citations to track the studies down if you want to. But here are a few studies to get you started. More are being published every day.
Burhans, Karen Klein, and Carol S. Dweck. “Helplessness in Early Childhood: The Role of Contingent Worth.” Child Development 66 (1995): 1719-38.
Chapman, Michael, and Carolyn Zahn-Waxler. “Young Children’s Compliance and Noncompliance in Parenting.” In Marc H. Bornstein, ed., Handbook of Parenting, vol. 4, Applied and Practical Parenting. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, 1995.
Dienstbier, et al. “An Emotion-Attribution Approach to Moral Behavior.” Psychological Review 82 (1975): 299-315.
Hoffman, Martin. “Power Assertion by the Parent and Its Impact on the Child.” Child Development 31 (1960): 129-34.
Hoffman, Martin. “Moral Development.” In Carmichael’s Manual of Child Psychology, 3rd ed., vol. 2, edited by Paul H. Mussen. New York: Wiley, 1970b. 285-6
Assor, Avi, Guy Roth, and Edward L. Deci. “The Emotional Costs of Parents’ Conditional Regard: A Self-Determination Theory Analysis.” Journal of Personality 72 (2004): 47-89.
Grolnick, Wendy S. The Psychology of Parental Control: How Well-Meant Parenting Backfires. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, 2003.
Hoffman, Marin, and Herbert D. Saltzstein. “Parent Discipline and the Child’s Moral Development.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 5 (1967): 45-57.
Cohen, Patricia, and Judith S. Brook. “the Reciprocal Influence of Punishment and Child Behavior Disorder.” In Coercion and Punishment in Long-Term Perspectives, edited by Joan McCord. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Kandel, Denise B., and Ping Wu. “Disentangling Mother-Child Effects in the Development of Antisocial Behavior.” In Coercion and Punishment in Long-Term Perspectives, edited by Joan McCord. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Gershoff, Elizabeth Thompson. “Corporal Punishment by Parents and Associate Child Behaviors and Experiences: A Meta-Analysis and Theoretical Review.” Psychological Bulletin 128 (2002): 539-79.
Gordon, Thomas. Teaching Children Self-Discipline…At Home and at School. New York: Times Books, 1989.
Hoffman, Martin. “Conscience, Personality, and Socialization Techniques.” Human Development 13 (1970a): 90-126.
Sears, Robert R., Eleanor E. Maccoby, and Harry Levin. Patterns of Child Rearing. Evanston, IL: Row, Peterson, 1957.
Stormshak, et al “Parenting Practices and Child Disruptive Behavior Problems in Early Elementary School.” Journal of Clinical Child Psychology 29 (2000): 17-29.
Straus, Murray A. “Children Should Never, Ever, Be Spanked, No Matter What the Circumstances.” In Current Controversies on Family Violence, 2nd ed., edited by Donileen R. Loseke, Richard J. Gelles, and Mary M. Cavanaugh. London: Sage, 2004.
Straus, Murray A., David B. Sugarman, and Jean Giles-Sims. “Spanking by Parents and Subsequent Antisocial Behavior of Children.” Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine 151 (1997): 761-67.
Straus, Murray A. Beating the Devil Out of Them: Corporal Punishment in American Families and Its Effects on Children. 2nd ed. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 2001.
Toner, Ignatius J. “Punitive and Non-Punitive Discipline and Subsequent Rule-Following in Young Children.” Child Care Quarterly 15 (1986): 27-37.