Punishment Perspective

One thing that I have come to realize since having children is that, while many – if not most – people view punishment as a teaching tool, it actually rarely teaches the desired lessons.  Behavior modification techniques, like Time Out, do modify behaviors, but do not actually teach the desired “lesson”.  And some punishments, like spanking, may stop one behavior in the moment, but lead to more problem behaviors down the road.

Yet, it is important to address the behaviors that are problematic, and often age appropriate.  In the long term, the only way children truly learn appropriate behavior is through modelling.  And that means that those of us who surround children must act the way we want our children to act.

This is an easy enough goal when everyone is happy; but what about at 5:00, when the preschooler is trying to  grab a snack out of the fridge while the baby cries and you are trying to make dinner?  The behaviors that were modelled for many of us as children (Time Out, yelling, spanking) bubble up and the parent we want to be often goes up in smoke.

There are some good “baby steps” we can reach for in the rough spots.  I’d like to share a few of my secret weapons with you here.  They are simple tweaks on some standard “punishments” that take them from power struggles to teachable moments.

1.  I Need – We are often met with the urge to tell children what they need.  But often (if not most of the time), we are using a misnomer.  And really, when someone tells you what you “need” to do, how do you tend to react?  Instead, stating what WE need ourselves actually gets a much better response.

Example:  Child climbs up on counter to get a cup.
Instead of: You need to get down from there!
Try: I need you to get down before you get hurt or something gets broken.  Can I help you get a cup?

2.  Counting – We’ve all seen it or done it; the parent tells the child that if the child doesn’t comply by “the time I count to 3…”  The child either ignores the request, glowers at the parent as the counting ensues and the tension mounts, or the child launches into tears and the power struggle continues.  Here is a simple twist.  Instead of the punitive mentality, try approaching the counting with a more indulgent mentality.

Example: While at the store, the child is drawn in by an end cap and wants to stop and look.
Instead of: You better get over here by the time I count to three!  1!  2!  3!
Try: Ok, we can stop and look while I count to 3, but then I really need to go back to shopping.  1, 2, 3!  Ok, let’s go!

3.  Time Out – In behavior modification theory, Time Out is a necessary tool.  However, many psychologists feel that sending a child away as punishment and forcing them to be alone for a set amount of time can lead to anxiety problems.  At the very minimum, the fight to keep a child in his or her Time Out spot can escalate a simple transgression into a very dark place.

At our house, we use Time Out as a tool instead of a punishment.  When the kids (or the hubs) and I are having a rough moment, and I am losing my cool, I take a time out.  I go to my room, or I go for a walk, or I go sit outside.  I do not go to my room for 32 minutes (per the 1 minute for every year of age rule).  I go until I am calm enough to be around other people again.  Likewise, when my children have hit their limit, and they just can’t handle being around people, and nothing I can offer is helping – we take a time out.

I know many families who prefer a time in, where a parent accompanies a struggling child to a quiet place and holds the child, or just sits near the child, until the child is calm.  Personally, however, I have a very low tolerance for screaming.  And I have also found that odds are about 99:1 that I will be involved in something that I actually need to be attending to – like not burning dinner – when someone is screaming at our house.  So, I do not use time ins myself.  However, if they work for your family, go for it!

I do a different version of Time Out.  The key to this twist is not to use it as a punishment, but a boundary.  Because it is a boundary, the child still has choices.  Giving the child choices and control in the Time Out takes the struggle away and allows the child to take responsibility.

Example: Mom is at a time sensitive part of cooking dinner and a child is following mom around screaming.  Mom is growing frazzled and the kitchen is not a safe place for this exchange.
Instead of: If you don’t stop screaming right now, you are going to Time Out for 3 minutes!
Try: I feel like one of us is going to get hurt if this keeps up.  I have done what I can to help you right now.  But I cannot have you underfoot screaming at me right now.  I need you to either calm down or go (outside, to your room, etc) until you are ready to calm down.  Now, what would you like to do?

Even if you have to (as lovingly as possible) carry a child to his or her room at this point, try to leave the exit up to the child.  Tell them you will be happy to see them when they can be calm in the kitchen.  Exit gracefully and receive them kindly when they re-emerge.  Sometimes just a minute break can swing the direction of a rough patch.

*As a side note, often when I ask Walter which choice he is going to make – calm down or go somewhere else – he will blubber out that he needs a hug.  Unless the house really is about to catch fire if I stop, I always give it to him.  Showing our children while they are young that we really do love them, even when they are struggling, is the only way that they will know they can really come to us down the road, when the stakes are really high.

4.  Spanking – As far as parenting tools go, spanking is like the rusty old sickle in the garage.  Sure, the sickle may hack down some weeds, still.  but it doesn’t usually take long to find that the sickle is a lot of hard work and that it doesn’t yield great results.  Also, when using that tool, it is all too easy for injuries to occur.

Likewise, spanking works in the short term.  Spanking a child typically halts the behavior they are engaged in at that moment.  However, it rarely causes a child to refrain from that behavior again in the future.  It does teach a child to hit and to be more aggressive – as that is what we are modelling for them.

So, if you tend to spank when things get rough, how can you change that behavior?  If you spank as a premeditated punishment – whoever doesn’t do their chores gets a spanking – simply change your consequence.  Better yet, encourage cooperation instead of threatening punishments.  If you spank because you lose your temper, it is vital that you work on not doing this and that you develop new tools.  One of the biggest obstacles with this type of punishment is that if you are using spanking this way – you were most likely spanked this way.  That means that when the adrenaline spikes and that fuse in your brain is tripped, your immediate response is, “SPANK!”  And negotiating with that primitive part of your brain is tough!  So, in order to get ahead of the curve, it is really vital to have a plan in place before that fuse is tripped.  Knowing that your adrenaline will be up, it may be best to plan a physical activity to partake of instead.

While it may not seem like it, I am a person who deals with “passion”, as Papa calls it when he is being nice.  😉  When my anger hits me, it HITS me.  I have found that I really need a physical outlet for my anger to go away if I am with the kids – especially when there are no other adults around to play interference if I get to that point.  Picking up a heavy child – if I can do it without hurting them in that moment – helps to dispel some of that energy.  If I am too angry to trust myself touching a child right that moment, I walk away and go “break sticks”.  This was Papa’s idea.  I can what sticks against a tree, the ground, whatever, until I am calm.  And I’m teaching my children – especially the one with the similar “passion” in life – an appropriate way to get that frustration out without hurting anyone.

It is important to guide our children through life.  It is important to teach them boundaries, and that other people have needs and desires that we need to be aware of too.  We do not need to punish them to do these things.  We just need to show them how to do them.

What tools do you reach for when you are feeling the frustration rise with your kids?


4 thoughts on “Punishment Perspective

  1. From Destany at http://theyareallofme.blogspot.com/: I love this post. As my children get older (and here, I am referring to my teenagers) I am able to look back with sharp clarity at what worked, what didn’t, and more to the point, the consequences of my parenting choinces. We talk things out now, and attempt to talk things out with the younger ones as best we can. Incidentally, my littlest one also will be melting down and I find that the best thing for her to be “okay” is to give her a hug. A lot of time, she’s seeking validation and assurance that even though she has been behaving in a way that makes us angry, we still love her.Now, I’d like to share a conversation I had with my 15 year old about spanking. I used to spank, and I thought I was doing the right thing. Everyone I knew spanked and told me it was a good tool – a necessary tool, even. I was advised as little as 4 months ago by a pediatrician to spank HARD. Anyone who wants to know this doctor is can email me.So, last week, Tim spanked Adam. Adam was just beside himself when he came and told me. Adam is not spanked so to have this done by his brother, was just about the worst thing he could imagine. So, I sat down with Tim to talk about it. I asked him why he spanked Adam, even though he knows we don’t spank anymore, and Tim explained that Adam had hit Karlie in the back. So I said, “You mean, you hit him to teach him not to hit?” and Tim said, “Yes.”I asked him how that made sense to him. He replied, in a rather angry voice, “Well, it worked for me!”I said, “No, it didn’t. You just hit Adam – and you do sometimes hit John, don’t you?”He said, “Yeah. Sometimes, but not all the time, like I used to!”I said, “Yes, but you do still hit him. When you hit Adam, you are not teaching him not to hit – you are teaching him: ‘I’m bigger than you and I hit HARDER’ which is what I taught you. Now, when you hit John, you will hit him as hard as you can (like the time you nearly broke his jaw), because you are teaching him: ‘I’m bigger than you and I hit HARDER. So when you hit Adam for hitting Karlie, you are really only teaching him that if he wants to make her comply, he should hit her harder.”Spanking is something we have talked about a lot in my house. I see what it caused in my older kids, and I am working to rectify that. We continue to discuss it, because I want my kids to have the right tools when they become parents.Anyway. Preaching to choir, here, so to speak. I love this post. I love it because I am a seasoned mama who is still learning the right way to go about things and your advice resonates for me very strongly.


  2. I am one of the ones who never plans to spank, but when times get rough and I lose my temper, I spank. And after about 3 seconds, I feel awful. Really, really awful, and I usually hug and kiss my son (he’s 2.5) and apologize and then talk about emotions and feelings and all of that. I’m really embarrassed to say that when he knows he’s doing something wrong and I give him a warning or a look, he might say, “Don’t spank me,” or more often, “Don’t yell at me!” It makes me feel awful! SO…I will be taking your advice to try to plan ahead to come up with alternatives for when the heat of the moment arises. On another note, we do something similar instead of “time out.” If he starts to cry for no good reason, we tell him he can go cry in his room if he wants to but we don’t want to hear it in here. No crying in the (kitchen/living room/etc.), just a real matter-of-fact tone, like it’s just a house rule. He usually runs to his room and comes back in 30 seconds and says, “I’m finished crying.” And I always praise him a lot for that, change the subject, and on it goes. Sometimes I do the same for whining, but he can usually change that without having to run to his room! Any advice for planning ahead? Some of the moments that get me are: smashing/climbing on/otherwise abusing his little sister (14 mos), doing something after being warned not to (pouring a cup of liquid on the floor, though probably more serious than that to get to spanking mode, etc.) Thanks for a great post!


  3. Louise, I’m so glad you are working on getting away from spanking! It can be such a huge struggle. In your first example, hitting a child to teach them not to hit is completely useless, since they will learn what you model to them. Instead, picking him up (hopefully before he hurts the baby) and moving him to a different area can provide a physical release while also ending the abuse. Also, telling children what you DO want, as opposed to what you DON’T want can make a big difference. Children tend to do what we say, so if we say, “don’t hit your sister!” the child tends to hear, “hit your sister!” Instead, saying what we DO want can often change the situation quickly. “Show your sister how to bear crawl!” might have a giggling brother lumbering across the floor instead of climbing on a smaller sibling. Similarly with the pouring the cup out, etc. Try, “Please put the cup on the table now” instead of “Don’t pour that cup out!”


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