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How to Discipline Without Using Punishment

I have a long-standing disagreement with punishment.  When I was a child I would think to myself when I was punished, “Geez!  You don’t have to punish me.  Just tell me what I did wrong and what to do instead!” Punishment always seemed like an overreaction. It was only when I became a parent and a therapy graduate student that I realized that, indeed, it is an overreaction!

How Do Children Learn Without Punishment

I know you are asking, “Well, how are children suppose to learn what to do and what not to do if we don’t punish them when they do the wrong thing?”  To that I say, “Children will learn what to do and what not to do by your example and by the natural and logical consequences of their behavior.”

What’s the Difference Between Punishment and Consequences?

Defining punishment and consequence is important here. defines the words as follows:

Punishment:  a penalty inflicted for an offense, fault, etc.
Consequence:  the effect, result or outcome of something occurring earlier.

When I worked in family therapy, I would encourage parents to stop punishing (and rewarding) their children and start letting consequences teach their children what to do and what not to do.  It’s a tough paradigm shift, however, in a society where parents think they have to make their children feel bad when they misbehave.

Some parents feel their children will become unmanageable or even criminal if they don’t feel bad for misbehavior early and often.  I get that.  It was a tough shift for me to make, too, and I even now, I flirt with the idea of punishment from time to time in order to punctuate my point when dealing with misbehavior.

Usually the question I get when discussing “no punishment” is “What on earth do we do instead?”
I’m glad you asked!

3 Important No-Punishment Parenting Tips

1.  Utilize consequences.

Let logical and natural consequences teach your children.  Understand that no-punishment parenting is not permissive parenting.  Permissive parenting is as dangerous to the emotional health of your child as overly-strict parenting.
Make rules and enforce them just like you do now. What things do your children currently face punishment for most often?  Do these things already have natural consequences attached?  If so, then there is no need to heap punishment on top of that.  If not, then think of a logical consequence that fits.
Here’s an example of natural consequences.  Your child throws a beloved toy (whether for fun or in anger) and the toy breaks.  Your child is upset about losing a favorite toy.  There is no need to punish your child.  He has learned that throwing something can break it.  He is sad.
You shouldn’t buy him a new toy.  Instead, if he wants to replace the toy, he can earn the money to do so.  Your job is to comfort him and help to explain how his actions led to the loss of his toy.
Logical consequences are a bit different in that you must impose the consequence.  They work best for older children and teens who have the ability to think logically.  However, you can use them for younger children.
Here is an example of logical consequences.  Your child throw a favorite toy in anger or in fun.  You remind your child that the toy is not appropriate for throwing.  If your child throws the toy again, you put the toy away and tell her that she will get it back when she is able to have more self-control.
Again, there is no punishment necessary.  Either she’s developmentally ready to handle that toy, or she isn’t.  No need to make her feel bad about that.  Instead your focus is keeping her toys unbroken and keeping her and those around her around safe.
Be matter of fact, be firm and be kind.

2.  Seek to understand behaviors.

Children who feel well, behave well.  If your child is misbehaving there is usually a reason.  Sometimes that reason is nothing more than boredom.  A bored child who has chosen to entertain himself by picking on a sibling doesn’t need to be grounded.  He needs more things to do.  I’m sure you can think of a chore that would keep him busy!  That’s a logical consequence.
A child who misbehaves in school might have underlying issues that need to be addressed by a medical or mental health professional.
A disrespectful child needs to be given a script of the right words to say instead and not merely grounded or lectured.

3.  Teach your child how to make amends.

Children should not be allowed to hurt others without consequence.  It is important that your child make amends to those he hurts with his misbehavior.  Did she speak rudely to you?  Then she needs to give an apology.  This can be verbal or written–which ever way your child is the most comfortable expressing herself sincerely.  Did he break something that belongs to someone else?  He needs to replace the item or pay for it.
At first, simply making amends may not feel like enough.  You expect that your child will make amends and face a punishment, right?  The truth is that the punishment goes beyond what is necessary to teach your child compassion and adds nothing of value to the situation.

Resources for Parenting Without Using Punishment

Here are some great books to read about how discipline without using punishment and how to grow your relationship with your child in a positive way.

How to Discipline Without Spanking

How to Discipline Without Spanking

How to Discipline Without Punishment

Discipline With Logical Consequences

Why I Don't Punish My Children

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