“What do you mean you don’t punish your kids, you permissive freak?”

Well. “The ultimate secret behind parenting: it’s evolution, baby” just set a record here for reader stats, as the result of making its way onto a couple of wider attachment parenting fora. Cool. But from the feedback I’ve gotten what’s causing the furore isn’t the heart of the post, but my throw-away comment about punishment.

So―two requests. First, if all you took away from that post was “We don’t punish our children,” could you take the time to read it again? Or at least read this, the heart of the post: The real secret of parenthood: humans have done it for millennia. You’ll do just fine. It’s an important point.

Second, I get that punishment is a hot-button issue. Let me now highlight, purposefully, the paragraph that’s causing the furore:

… we don’t punish our children. Not by withdrawing privileges, not by disguising punishment by consequences, not by trading negative stuff for excessive positive reinforcement and rewards. Doesn’t mean we don’t periodically get angry, frustrated and yell. It doesn’t mean we don’t correct undesirable behaviour―but we don’t time out, send to room, cancel plans etc.

This is how I define punishment: “You did something I did not like, so I’m going to do something you don’t like to you.” Or, to make it even more naked, “You did something bad. So I’m going to do something bad to you.” That’s punishment to me. And I don’t do it. I don’t punish my children. I don’t punish my husband. I try really hard not to punish myself when I’m unhappy with something I’ve done.

Is punishment the same thing as discipline? Do I not discipline my children? That probably depends on who you ask. I purposefully do not have a “discipline” category on this blog because I try not to think of discipline as a separate category. It’s just part of life. I apply a lot of self-discipline in my life… I work very actively with my very challenging, in their different ways, children to teach them to develop their own self-discipline. I absolutely correct undesirable behaviour―and teach and model and even (gasp!) nag (at length) about desirable ones. So depending on how you define discipline, I either discipline the bejeezus out of my children… or I don’t.

So if I don’t “punish,” what do I do instead? Because do not misunderstand: I am no saint, and my children are no angels. They engage in behaviours that tick me off. They’re freaking annoying at times. No automatically obedient drones here. Highly physical. Highly emotional. If I do not punish the behaviours I do not like, what do I do instead?

Lots of things. I’ve got a trio of posts in the pipe for release later this month that together explore a few of the possible strategies and approaches (Five is hard, or is it possible to AP an older child, my personal favourite: Ice cream discipline, and Love letter discipline). In the meantime, let’s play this game: you name the transgression. I’ll tell you if my kids have done it, and what my ideal response would be.*

And if you define punishment and discipline in a way to similar to mine―share your example. What do you do instead of falling back on “punishment”? And why?

In the Corner. From A Home (26 watercolours)

In the Corner. From A Home (26 watercolours) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

*Advice unbacked by experience is worthless, so I plead the right to say, “My kids haven’t done that (yet?).” And keep it real, eh? The eldest is 10. He’s not mugging old ladies or dealing crack.

7 thoughts on ““What do you mean you don’t punish your kids, you permissive freak?”

  1. I was caned and beaten at school; thrashed and starved at home. I say you are 100% absolutely correct. Well done!

  2. From a behavioural view, punishment usually gets defined as something that reduces the frequency of a behaviour, in contrast with reinforcement, which is something that increases the frequency of a behaviour. The interesting thing is that from the research reinforcement seems much more effective in changing behaviour than punishment, probably for a couple of reasons. Punishment tells someone what not to do, but it doesn’t necessarily tell them what to do instead, so if they don’t have any other ideas (or don’t know how to do what they are supposed to do successfully) they may just do what got them punished again for lack of a better option. Secondly, primates are obstreperous critters, and they often respond to punishment by trying to avoid getting caught rather than doing something different. Reinforcement, on the other hand, shows people what they should be doing and doesn’t have as obvious a shortcut as just not getting caught to get the pay-off without acting differently.

    So to me, structure (aka discipline, probably?) is really important, showing kids effectively what the right thing to do and rewarding them (in whatever way) for it is a powerful way to guide them, and punishment is, while not totally useless, probably the least useful tool, and also not that hard to do wrong and in a counter-productive way. Something to use carefully and selectively if at all, but not as a first resort or as the primary strategy.

  3. Thanks for being such a freak so the rest of us aren’t alone in our freakyness. As a child my punishment was to stand in the corner with my hands up in the air FOREVER! I joke with Kandk and tell them to do it when they start bickering and we all have a good laugh.

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