What if we lived in a world where there were no punishments? What if instead we were greeted with love and tenderness when we did the wrong thing? What would a world built on this premise look like?
When I first contemplated eliminating consequences and bribes with my own kids, it scared me. How could I possibly get my kids to brush their teeth every night if I didn’t promise them a TV show afterward? There was no way they would do it, and if they did, it was going to be a knock down drag out fight. I just rather not! I thought it sounded lovely to have my kids just do as I asked all the time without bribery or threatening and consequences; but at the time, it was all I knew, and it worked.
However, when I started to research rewards and other extrinsic motivators the evidence was clear. Once the motivator was taken off the table, the child not only failed to reproduce the behavior, but they also found no value in doing the right thing. So what was I teaching my kids? I guess I was teaching them to bribe and threaten to get what they wanted. GREAT! In fact, at times I would hear Esme bribe her sister; “If you play jump rope, I’ll let you play with my doll later” and “If you don’t play jump rope, I won’t play with you at all.” It sounded like coercion and control when it came out of Esme’s mouth. I struck out ONCE AGAIN!
Alfie Kohn explores in depth the concept of punishments, and how children feel unloved when they are punished. This he says is why punishments fail to do what they set out to accomplish. Children become angry, and eventually numb to the use of such power play parenting. When we as parents quickly resort to punishments, we also fail to discuss the behavior and why those “off track” behaviors are occurring. Usually kids do the wrong thing for a reason, and if we are too busy punishing, we never get to the root of what is going on inside of our child’s mind.
Another seemingly damaging thing I liked to do was “withdrawal” my love. Really just ignore my child when they were having an upset that I couldn’t stand to watch. I would politely say; “When you can calm down, I will talk to you.” It sounded so civilized at the time, and at least I wasn’t yelling, right? Who wants to be left alone when they are having a really hard time? Not me! I want someone to be there for me, listen to me, hold my hand and let me cry. Why wouldn’t a child want that same thing? As parents it’s nice to convey to our children that we will be with them no matter what, even when they are unable to regulate their emotions. Big feelings are scary for little kids and they can see how those feelings affect the adults around them. When we can remain calm, children learn not to be scared of their own feelings and those feelings pass quicker.
Parents always ask me what they are supposed to do to get their kids to behave. I respond with "connection". The only way to encourage kids to comply with our wishes is to become really connected to them in ways that are profound and continual. Using everyday connections like Special Time and Playlistening or little moment connections like greetings at pick up and 12 hugs during the day are a great place to start. Other actions include lots of eye contact, making requests down at their level with a calm loving voice, and making those request in close proximity instead of from across the room. When we can become connected and stay connected, our kids want to do the right thing and are built up to follow our directions. Is it perfect? NO! Are they going to become disconnected and do the wrong thing? YES! And those become the teachable moments, the moments we can delve into the reasons why and set kind loving limits that reiterate our rules and reinforce respectful behavior. Do we need to be permissive, absolutely not! However, we also do not need to punish, shame blame, lecture and coerce.
I propose that we take punishments off the table completely by creating a safe haven for feelings and mistakes and communicating to our children that we love them no matter what they do or say. It's some years away, but if Esme, at 16, goes to a party and drinks too much California Cooler (do they have that anymore?), I want her to be able to come to me because we have taken consequences off the table. I hope by then I have created a safe place for her to land and a shoulder to cry on when she does the wrong thing and needs help. Hopefully she will know I can listen to anything without becoming angry (at least on the outside!). I want to be my daughter’s safe place and refuge.
If we look at our overcrowded prison systems and kids at school who are always in “time out” or have moved their “clip, card or token” to the “bad” color, we know that consequences don’t work. We also know the value of doing the right thing, and hopefully we can pass that on to our children when they are small. Imagine how much better a world we would live in without punishments, one that made way for teachable moments and supportive interactions.