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Guiding Children to Behave Instead of Punishing Them

Can you learn to behave?

Key points

  • The verb "to discipline" means "to guide,” and guidance does not have to be punitive.
  • Guiding instead of punishing can help parents raise young adults who are emotionally healthier and happier.
  • Kids raised without punishment could be more likely to make good choices for multiple reasons.

In our previous post, I shared my children’s responses when I asked them to explain how they learned to behave when they were not punished. In today’s post, I’ll discuss how I guided my children to behave and how the research supports this approach.

Dr. Laura Markham
Source: Dr. Laura Markham

I'm not a permissive parent. I have higher standards than many parents I know, which my kids sometimes challenged. And I set plenty of limits, but always with empathy and understanding of my kids' feelings.

And lest you think these kids were so well-behaved that they didn't need discipline, my extended family still hasn't forgotten one of my son's hair-raising tantrums at age 3, and I remember well my mortification when my daughter socked a playmate at age 6. Raising my children has been wonderful, but not without challenges. There were certainly times that other parents would have punished them.

But I found that they learned faster when I didn't. When I helped them want to meet my high standards, and coached them so they developed the skills to do it. When I focused on moving myself back into a state of compassion, reconnecting with them, and helping them through their feelings. When I resisted controlling them, and didn't step in to rescue them from the natural consequences of their actions, so they learned life lessons through their own experience.

Sure, kids need "discipline." But the verb "to discipline" means "to guide." There is absolutely no reason why our guidance needs to be punitive. We can't really control another person. All we really have to work with is influence. And punishment erodes that influence. If we want kids to accept our guidance, we need to maintain a positive relationship with them.

I should add that my kids are not the only "proof" of this. The research supports this approach. And here's a whole page of parents sharing their experience with it.

This kind of parenting is hard, because we as parents have to regulate our own emotions. But the good news is that it's more rewarding, because kids behave better, and the parent-child relationship is sweeter. It also raises young adults who are emotionally healthier, happier, and therefore are more likely to be successful, in both love and work.

There are now hundreds of thousands of parents like me, who have never used any punishment at all, and whose children have grown into wonderful teenagers and young adults. They’ve never needed to be threatened into compliance. Why? Because these kids want to make good choices, the choices we've guided them towards over the years.

All kids know what the right choice is. Our jails are full of kids who were raised with punishment and knew they were doing wrong.* But kids raised without punishment are more likely to make the right choice because:

1. They're more receptive to our guidance, right through the teen years.

2. They have more self-discipline, which they're developing every time we set an empathic limit and they accept it. Choosing to give up what they want, to do what we ask, is what builds those self-discipline muscles. By contrast, kids who are punished aren't "choosing" that limit, they're forced into it, so they aren't exercising self-discipline. And permissive parenting doesn't set limits at all, so the kids aren't asked to develop self-discipline.

3. They're able to make the right choice, because they’ve learned to manage their own emotions. They can resist impulses that might take them off track.

But what if you're using peaceful parenting, and you stay calm and regulated, and you empathize, and your child still doesn't cooperate? Join the club. That certainly happened sometimes with my kids. All young humans have days when their emotions get the best of them, just like all "grown-up" humans. Reconnection and empathy usually work to help children master those emotions and cooperate. But sometimes kids just need us to listen to all those tangled-up feelings. Not in words, but in laughter, or in tears. Which we'll talk about in upcoming posts!


If you're looking for research studies to support this approach, one great source that cites the full research is Alfie Kohn's book Unconditional Parenting.

If you're looking for the research to support this statement: "Our jails are full of kids who were raised with punishment and knew they were doing wrong." I must add here that there are many reasons that young people get in trouble with the law, and there is a strong association with class and race. But there is also a strong association with parenting. There are many thousands of studies showing that parenting that is warm and sets empathic limits (exactly what I describe on this website) is the most effective parenting to raise emotionally intelligent kids, who by definition have more self-control and are less likely to engage in criminal behavior. Here are just a few studies:

You can also find studies on the effect of corporal punishment on kids here.