(Photo by Mark Burgh)
Well before she was born, I made the decision never to hit my kid.
Worse, when she was two or three, I gave up on all forms of punishment.
“If you don’t spank her,” other, well-meaning parents would tell me, “how will she learn?”
I’m a professor at a university. I would sometimes blank out here, considering how this concept would transfer to my classroom. If I don’t smack you in the head, how will you ever learn that correlation is not causation?
I mean, it’s a tempting thought.
“What do you do when she has a fit?” another parent asked me once. (For those of you who don’t live in the South, fit is Arkansas for tantrum.)
“I put her in her room,” I said. The kid was maybe four at this point. “I tell her she can come out when she calms down.”
“Well, what kind of a punishment is that! It’s toys and books and all kinds of games in there!”
“I’m not trying to punish her, though,” I pointed out. “What do you do when you’re angry?”
The other parent stared at me.
“I mean, don’t you take a walk or read a while or dig in the garden? You don’t hurt yourself to make yourself stop feeling angry, do you?”
“So you don’t spank her at all? Ever?”
It always came back to that.
“Kids just need a good butt-whupping, sometimes! If you don’t put the fear of God in’em, how will they learn to respect authority?”
And that, of course, was the crux.
Because, in fact, I was raising my child to respect authority. Real authority.
Not the authority of the fist (or the belt). Not the authority of “do what I say because I’m bigger than
you,” but the authority of reason: of truth and knowledge.
My child was not just allowed to talk back and to argue. She was expected to.
From the time she was a toddler, she was encouraged to question my rules and her father’s rules, to argue with us if she thought our rules were unreasonable.
When she was nine, she came from the bathroom, toothbrush in hand, and said, “But why should I have to brush my teeth, Mama? Isn’t it my body? Didn’t you always say I could do whatever I wanted to with my own body?”
Deeply amused, I nevertheless refuted her with the argument that not brushing would lead to cavities, and she hated having her teeth drilled, and so – The good thing about raising a reasoning child is that they respond to reason.
What I did not do, what I stopped doing when she was two or three, was punish her.
I never hit her. But early on, I came to the decision that punishment was not just counter-productive, it was unreasonable. Harming a child to make it better makes no sense. If you want to stop a behavior, find a way to stop that behavior. Find a way by working with the child, though, not by hurting the child.
For instance: if the child keeps forgetting to brush her teeth, talk to the child about why she’s forgetting, and then if she’s just forgetting because she’s six, maybe say, “All right. We’ll make a chart. We’ll work on reminding you, and putting a star up every day that you remember. Yay us!”
For instance: if the child is not doing his share of the housework, talk to him. Discuss why everyone needs to do their share, and what happens when everyone does not. Discuss what has to be given up, if people don’t do their part. (This is not punishment; this is a logical consequence.) Ask whether he would rather have this logical consequence or do his share of the work. Let him make the decision, and then – without anger or shoutyness or any sort of guilt-tripping – follow through on his decision.
A specific example of this. Suppose the child’s share of the housework is doing the laundry. Suppose he has not been doing the laundry. You say, “Okay. If you can’t get the laundry done, then I’ll have to do it. But this means I can’t go to your swim meet this weekend. (Or take you hiking, or to the movies, or some other pleasant thing the child wants to have happen, and – this is important – something that would actually free up some of your hours. This can’t be seen by the child as some fake penalty you’re imposing, so choose carefully.) And you must not relent and do the thing. Do the laundry instead of the thing, even if you really want to attend the swim meet.
It’s even better if you can get the logical consequences to follow from the thing itself – not doing the laundry to equal no clean clothing, for instance. But that only works if everyone in the household is doing their own laundry.
The important part of this No Punishment philosophy is its end.
And its end makes all the difference. When you raise children with beatings and with punishment, what you are raising is obedient children, who do what they are told because they fear their parents.
When you raise children without punishment, what you are raising is adults, who act right because acting right is the reasonable thing to do.