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How To Change Your Child's Behavior—Without Punishment

Part I: How to Guide Children Without Punishment (Part I)

“Where did we ever get the crazy idea that in order to make children do better, first we have to make them feel worse? Think of the last time you felt humiliated or treated unfairly. Did you feel like cooperating or doing better?” - Jane Nelsen

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Parents are often surprised to hear that most of what we think of as discipline -- spankings, consequences, even timeouts -- doesn't help kids become responsible, self-disciplined people. After all, parents punish so kids will learn to behave, right?

But children learn what they live. The most effective way to teach kids is our modeling, and 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. Instead, I'm a big fan of Time-Ins, during which we create safety and connect warmly, to help the child 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 we don't need to punish to set or hold such limits.

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."

In fact, research shows that punishing kids creates more misbehavior.*

(*See the research citations below.)

That's not really surprising. If your boss criticizes, yells, humiliates, or docks your pay, does that make you want to follow his lead?

Being punished erodes the parent-child relationship so kids don't want to follow our lead. It makes the child angry and defensive. It floods them with adrenalin and the other fight, flight or freeze hormones, and turns off the reasoning, cooperative parts of the brain. Kids quickly forget the “bad” behavior that led to their being punished; they just go on the defensive. If they learn anything, it’s to lie so they can avoid getting caught. Punishment disconnects us from our kids so we have less influence with them. Quite simply, punishment teaches all the wrong lessons.

If, instead, we can stay kind and connected while we set limits, we create less drama and more love. Our children are more likely to accept our limits and take responsibility. Because they see us, their parents, model emotional self-regulation, they learn to manage their own emotions -- and therefore their behavior.

So how can we guide children without punishment?

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. 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. Empathize with feelings.

When your child is hijacked by adrenaline and other fight or flight hormones, he can't learn. Instead of lecturing, pre-empt the bad behavior with a "Time-In" where you stay with him and acknowledge his feelings. This is not a punishment, but an opportunity to reconnect so he can get emotionally regulated. If he moves into a meltdown, don't try to reason with him. Just create safety with your compassion so he can express and work through the emotions that are driving his bad behavior. Afterwards, he'll feel so much better, and so much closer to you, that he'll be open to your guidance.

3. Give support so they can learn.

Consider the example of potty learning. You're very involved at first. She gradually takes more of the responsibility, and eventually she’s doing it all by 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 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 that she forgot her jacket again, but yelling won't help her remember. "Scaffolding" will.

4. Connect before you correct

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.

  • Make loving eye contact: "It sounds like you're really upset about X."
  • Put your hand on her shoulder: "It seems like maybe you're scared to tell me about the cookie."
  • Stoop down to her level and look her in the eye: "It looks like you're really mad ... I'm listening. Tell me in words."
  • Pick her up: "Nothing's going right for you today, is it?"

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. If possible, give a choice or a redirection about what the child CAN do to meet her needs or solve her problem.

  • "It looks like you wanted your sister to move, so you pushed her. No pushing; pushing hurts. Tell her: 'Move please!'"
  • "No biting! You’re very very mad and hurt! Tell your brother -- in words."
  • "You wish you could play longer... it's hard to stop playing and get ready for bed. Let's go..."
  • "No throwing the ball in the house. You can take the ball outside, or you can throw stuffed animals inside."

In our next post, we will continue describing how to guide your children without punishment.

Want to explore the research behind this approach? The citations for this article can be found here.


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.

Burhans, Karen Klein, and Carol S. Dweck. “Helplessness in Early Childhood: The Role of Contingent Worth.” Child Development 66 (1995): 1719-38.

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.

Hoffman, Marin, and Herbert D. Saltzstein. “Parent Discipline and the Child’s Moral Development.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 5 (1967): 45-57.

Stormshak, et al “Parenting Practices and Child Disruptive Behavior Problems in Early Elementary School.” Journal of Clinical Child Psychology 29 (2000): 17-29.

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.

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.

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.

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