Parenting in Jesus' Footsteps

Ten Alternatives to Punishment

by Jan Hunt

Many parents have come to recognize the harmful effects of physical punishment. They have learned that slapping, hitting, and spanking teach violence, destroy the child's self-esteem, create anger, interfere with learning, and damage the relationship between parent and child.

But knowing what not to do is only the first step. Parents who want to avoid punishment wonder what they should do instead. Unfortunately, most parenting books and articles recommend "alternatives" which we can see on closer inspection are merely alternative types of punishment. These include so-called "logical" consequences, time-out, and denial of privileges.

All of these methods have much in common with physical punishment, and all give the same messages: that the parent has no interest in the underlying unmet needs that led to the behavior, and that the parent is willing to take advantage of his greater size and power over the child. Above all, they tell the child that the people he has come to love and trust wish to cause him pain. This is a "crazy-making" message, because it is so alien to the child's intuitive understanding about what love should look like. Finally, all of these approaches miss the best opportunities for learning, because they sidetrack the child into fantasies of revenge, where he is too distracted to focus on the real issue at hand. Real alternatives to punishment are those that help the child to learn and to grow in a healthy way. There are few greater joys in life than allowing our child to teach us what love is.

Here are ten alternatives that give the child only positive, loving messages:

1. Prevent unwanted behavior from occurring by meeting your child's needs when they are first expressed. This is perhaps the very best approach. It not only prevents misbehavior, it tells the child that you truly love and care for her. With her current needs met, she is free to move on to the next stage of learning.

2. Provide a safe, child-friendly environment. There is little point in having precious items within the reach of a toddler, when they can be put away until the child is old enough to handle them carefully. For older children, provide opportunities for active play.

3. Apply the Golden Rule. Think about how you would like to be treated if you were to find yourself in the same circumstances as your child, then treat your child that way. Human nature is human nature, regardless of age.

4. Show empathy for your child's feelings. Even if the child's behavior seems illogical, the underlying feelings and needs are real and need to be taken seriously. Saying things like, "You really look unhappy" is a good way to show a child that you care about their needs and feelings.

5. Validate your child's feelings so he knows that we understand and care, that it is acceptable to have whatever feelings are present, and that he will never be rejected for having any particular kinds of feelings. For example, "That scared me too."

6. Meet the underlying need that led to the behavior in the first place. If we punish the outward behavior, the still unmet need will continually resurface in other ways until it is finally met. An example here would be, "Are you feeling sad because your friend moved away?"

7. Stay on your child's side. Whenever possible, find a "win-win" solution that meets everyone's needs. To learn conflict resolution skills, consider a course in Nonviolent CommunicationSM.1

8. Reassure your child that she is loved and appreciated. So-called bad behavior is often the child's attempt to express her need for more love and attention, in the best way that she can at that moment. If she could express this need in a more mature way, she would do so. For example, you might ask, "Would you like to read a book with me so we can have some time together?"

9. Provide positive alternative experiences and productive activities. Offer crayons, read a story, put a young child in the tub for water play, or enjoy a walk outside together. This can shift the focus away from a situation that has become too stressful to resolve at that moment: "Let's make some play dough!"

10. Ask yourself "Will I look back at this later and laugh?" If so, why not laugh now? Seize the opportunity to create the kind of memory you will want to have when you look back on this day. The most challenging situations can be defused by the timely use of good-natured humor: "Oh, no, you and your brother painted each other green? Wait, let me get the camera!"

In these ways, we can best bring about the genuine cooperation that we seek. But our greatest reward will be a life-long, mutually loving and trusting bond with our child.

1 Center for Nonviolent Communication, 2428 Foothill Blvd., Suite E, La Crescenta, CA 91214 (818) 957-9393

Reprinted by permission from the author.  Jan Hunt is the author of "The Natural Child -- Parenting From the Heart" and is the Director of The Natural Child ProjectThe Natural Child Project

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