Remember so long ago when I wrote a primer on non-punitive parenting? That got a fair number of shares on Facebook as well as several emails, tweets, and comments that asked for more information or follow up.
But, I had a hard time thinking of how to write another piece for many reasons. One, I wasn’t sure if I should write to parents-to-be (who may be more open-minded to such ideas), or write to those who’d already had bad experiences or results from mainstream parenting strategies (in other words, who could use some help, but already had specific problems developed between themselves, their children, and other adults – the latter class who may or may not be supportive of non-coercive/manipulative/authoritative strategies). And really, that last little bit is crucial. Assisting families out of harmful patterns and (seemingly) complicated impasses is often best done with specifics discussed, and at length. To that end, I am always willing to respond to emails and assist anyone as best I can (kelly AT hogaboom DOT org). I do this writing and work for no other reason than I am passionate and I want to help families live in harmony, freedom, and with intelligence and respect.
Fortunately, a reader and Twitter friend gave me a few direct questions about her specific situation and I was able to write her. After the first bit of our exchange I asked her permission to publish her query and my response, as I thought it might help other readers (please remember anything written to me is considered fair game for publishing, although if you have any specific objections let me know as I am often wont to honor them). So here’s a scenario-specific followup.
This is Sandi, @5and1 from twitter. I’ve seen you link some really interesting things about non-punitive parenting and unschooling and I’d really like to learn more. I’ve looked a bit on your website but if you have other resources I’d love to read them.
A bit about my family. I have four year old boy/girl twins. We co-slept for a year and a half, and I nursed them for almost two and a half years so I’m used to being labelled as a hippie by my friends and family. My kids are whip smart but have room to grow socially. They have been in preschool for a year and are really excited to start back again.
We don’t spank but we do do time outs. I am realizing that they are not effective so I’m trying what I call time ins. The kids have to sit with me and once they are able to we talk about what has happened. But. Even that is not always effective. I am way more shouty than I care to admit. I never thought I’d be this kind of parent. I know that it could be a lot worse but I see that there is loads of room for me to improve.
So what has worked for you and your family in terms of non-punitive parenting? How have you implemented unschooling?
Thank you for the generous offer to give me more information!
I think it is wonderful that you’re seeing the limitations of punitive, authoritarian, manipulative, and/or coercive parenting. Many if not most adults are quite sure these strategies are necessary, and very fearful that if they were to abandon them for something else the results for parent and child would be horrific or at the very least, highly uncomfortable and inconvenient.
My kids are “well-behaved” (whatever that means! – I only report what many grownups tell me, here), literate and life-skills proficient, social, intelligent, strong, loving, empathetic, self-directed (now there’s a value you won’t see most school environs fostering or supporting in a meaningful way) and this is all despite the many many times I’ve fallen well-short of my ideals and been quite ungentle – and resorted to punitive or authoritarian strategies. I too was for a long time able to report “I never thought I’d be this kind of parent”. This was made confusing by many factors, especially considering that before I had children, I’d never been a violent person or rather, had not considered myself one. It was a very discouraging revelation to find out I was, or had that potential as a parent. But I have resolutely used my experiences to delve deeper into the roots of my story and my inner states of spiritual, mental, and emotional well-being, as well as developing and writing with a critical eye towards the narratives society purports – which are often quite harmful. The results are pretty good, in that we’re a happy family as far as I can tell, my kids are thriving without school or authoritarian/authoritative edifices, they tell me I am a wonderful parent, and I am committed to further improvement, god willing.
So as for being a “shouty” parent, or behaving in ways you never thought you would – welcome to the human race. I have not met a parent/carer who would claim perfection in the ideals they wish to live out, although I have met some who seem not to examine their own behaviors very closely, nor evidence corrections. I never want to sit back and justify my bad behavior or poor strategies, and leave it at that. I want to, and do, pick myself up, apologize, strive to do better through mentors and/or spiritual practice or whatever works. Sometimes I think I will never get it “right” but – that’s okay. The days I think, in so many words, I’m doing so awesome at this gig!, and compare myself favorably to other parents (ugh, yes, I do this sometimes), I’m usually overlooking something and I am definitely suffering from major cases of Ego and Denial! Usually these spates are followed by me having a massive and inappropriate blowup at my children.
So, you asked about my family. My kids are 7 and 9. Raising them as we have, they are very adept at handling themselves in many situations I notice schooled kids, parented in mainstream and authoritarian fashion, tend to be less competent with. They also seem very happy, well-rested, well-fed, and physically and “academically” active (the latter: they read, study, teach themselves skills and world science, do math etc. on their own). The factors I’d say contribue to our successes (such as they are):
1. a knowledge and acceptance that to live the way we wanted required financial sacrifice (specifically, of a fulltime income),
2. a partner who is in as complete agreement with these principles as is possible or likely in another human being, and who is as committed as I to our role as parents, and our passion to sort out problems when they arise (I don’t think a partner is necessary to so-called whole-life unschool, but if you have one that is in disagreement with these parenting values and practices, this can add some complexity),
3. freedom and autonomy given the children as much as they request (example: today the kids know they can choose school if they ever want to try it out),
4. complete inclusion of the children as to how the family runs itself and why, and a regarded voice in all decisions.
When it comes to freedom and autonomy for children as well as their vote, my main regard is safety as is age- and child-appropriate on a case by case basis. It seems to me safety concerns take a more active role when a child is very little. But in raising kids the ways we have, it is incredible to me how adroitly they master concepts of personal safety and how quickly they are to take suggestions, directions, and/or advice from a parent who they’ve come to trust via their own experience, and trust at a deep level.
By the way, I have realized that “time ins” can be tricky too, because we may still be forcing our will on our children. If children respond well to “time ins”, use them! But I suppose if pressed to comment I would say it’s better if kids are immediately removed from hurting one another, or humanely separated if need be, in a non-punitive nor angry fashion. Then each child should be loved up or given attention to in whatever way seems best, making sure your OWN needs are as reasonably met as possible before doing so (learning to meet one’s own needs, with regularity, is a challenge but well-worth the effort). Later in the day when things are calm a brief, age- and child-appropriate approach to conversation may be introduced, but watch and see how interested, if at all, the kids are in this. The separation, whereby you keep the kids safe, and respond with calmness as to whatever need they may have (food, attention, a quiet space, a LOUD ROWDY space, whatever it is), and later discussion with your partner or mentor as to the children’s possible deeper needs, is probably the most effective treatment in the long term. Over time kids will trust you to keep them safe while not trying to direct their feelings, actions, thoughts, etc. This in turn gives them room to develop better strategies and participate in family life in a more self-authored and likely more helpful way.
Obviously what I describe above, especially for young children, is time-intensive and means being able at any moment to put your work on the back burner. I just want to acknowledge this, because few adults seem to give primary carers respect for this aspect of a difficult job! This time-intensive nature was a fact of parenting my young children, but I will add that so soon the kids grow and need so much less physical constancy – and also that I miss the intimacy of my infant and toddler years, and in no way regret the efforts I put in during those times.
And on that note – your children are young enough they likely can’t be left unsupervised for much time at all. You also mentioned on Twitter that you work out of the home. I don’t know if you have a partner and if he/she is interested in the tenets of whole life unschooling, or life learning, or whatever label we’re calling it. All of these listed factors matter. However, I am convinced no matter what our particular circumstances are we can always move away from harmful practices towards ones that better reflect our ideals. So please do write more, with specifics, if you want to, and I will respond as best I can, keeping in mind that for some situations I do not have first-hand experience (for instance: raising twins).
If I had young children and was unable to have a partner at home, I’d probably seek out care for the kids in a less academically-inclined school – like a Waldorf or an outdoor preschool (however, in my opinion it is likely better to have the kids with kind and loving adults than prescribe to a specific type of educational model, so the type of preschool etc. is less important than the leaders/directors/teachers). Alternatively, I might seek out someone such as myself, a person at-home with other kids, who could care for yours in a way you and the children would be happy with. Finally, I might also consider committing to a life where one partner can be at home, if he/she can do so with a willing spirit (and I can speak to how exciting it is!). I might also consider living on student loans or some other form of assistance for those early years. These are all deeply personal decisions, especially that of working in-home without pay nor status, and I will say there is a phenomenal lack of support for kid-care work should you or partner choose it, or should you seek to have it personalized. Just things to be aware of, because my experience is that in having my children out of mainstream school/daycare structures I am often asked, basically, to explain or justify myself! *grin*
If you have any questions or desire clarifications please let me know. Realize also I am only a person raising my children and (to a lesser extent) other children around me. I have no professional qualifications that make me an expert on much of anything. I am passionate about these ideals and happy with the way we live – but I am human and fallible and have many lessons to learn. I write and share like I do because of how many adults have requested it, and how many have told me it has helped them.
Thank you for your query!Read More
This piece was written as a participatory exercise for The Great Spank Out. All comments on this post will be heavily moderated. No comments endorsing punitive parenting will be allowed through, although of course you can write your own blog post saying whatever you’d like. Send me an email if you’d like me to link to it.
I’ve heard every rationalization for punitive parenting in the book, and then some.* I’ve heard that using these strategies doesn’t really hurt nor humiliate a child. I’ve heard Yeah, it hurts/humiliates, that’s the point, and it works well! I’ve heard “I was hit, and I’m fine” (about… a thousand times). I’ve heard punishing/hitting/grounding/time-outs are necessary and if you don’t do them, you will absolutely generate “spoiled, entitled brats”. I recently had a friend tell me he thinks something is wrong with my partner and I that we do not spank (hit) our kids as a parenting tool – although he grants my children are the first children he’s ever liked – and that he envies our family life but holds no hope he could raise children without violence. He explained to me his carers beat the shit out of him (his words), but it was for his own good; he lived in a dangerous and crime- and drug-laden neighborhood. I bring up this anecdote because it is an elegant example at the extreme end of this (common) worldview: “the world is tough and my kid needs to know about it, and I’m going to help him learn early to keep him safe.”
And of course, arguing against those who promote spanking, I’ve heard many words said against hitting children – while still maintaining we absolutely should exploit our power position to “mold” them. This worldview is represented by those who hold that spanking is inhumane and/or child abuse, while they advocate for so-called “gentle discipline” methods cited as time-outs, restriction/grounding, removal of privileges, lectures, etc.
I’m going to get down to brass tacks to state in my opinion there is little to no concrete differences between the following: hitting (also called “spanking”, “swatting”, “smacking”, or “beating”, depending on your culture/family), yelling at, scolding/lecturing, grounding, removing toys/items as a lesson, “natural and logical” consequences (applied at the discretion of the parent/carer in order to groom for desired behavior or eliminate undesired behavior). On the flip side of the coin, praise and rewards are perfectly complimentary to this type of punitive/manipulative parenting schema – and those “carrot” (as opposed to “stick”) systems are relatively common too.
So I’d imagine some people are reading (if they’re still reading) with their jaws on the floor – or perhaps they’re sporting a sarcastic smirk. It would seem I don’t hold there’s any way one is allowed to raise a child. Next you’ll be guessing my house is a loud, craven mess with children shouting at me at the top of their lungs, their mouths set in garish and sticky Kool-aid grimaces, and that these children are the terrors of the town, and I’m in “denial” about it all, and I’m Ruining America.
Well, first of all, let’s banish this “allowed” business. You’d be surprised what you’re “allowed” to do as a parent. Actually, everything I’ve listed above is fair game and usually encouraged in our country. Indeed, in the United States you are legally sanctioned to hit your child – as long as you don’t use an implement nor leave a mark (grownups and animals are protected by at least the letter of the law). As for grounding, restrictions, time-outs and the rest – these are generally thought of as Good Parenting. In any case, I have neither the ability, the right, nor the interest to drive around inspecting how you’re doing things. If you parent or care for a child you are pretty much free to do as you see fit and nothing I say here can force you one way or another.
Secondly, you should know I do not think parents/carers who employ the above listed strategies are bad people, monsters, stupid, “crazy”, or any other pejorative. If I thought that I’d pretty much think all parents/carers were jerks. I’d also have a hard time forgiving myself for my own “monstrous” behaviors, because for reasons I won’t go into detail here and now I have let myself and my children down many times, yes, even against my own better judgment or principles. Now while a sense of sadness in knowing one has violated one’s own spiritual practice or strayed from one’s moral compass can be helpful in course-correcting, shame and guilt as forces for improving one’s parenting don’t work very well. I do not wish to promote these experiences. Sadly, when it comes to parenting – or mothering, as most finger-wagging diatribes usually concern – almost any discussion of bad strategies vs. better ones will prod the injuries most parents (/mothers) carry. This is a sad thing, but perhaps unavoidable unless we decide not to talk frankly.
The good news is, I’m here to deliver some hope.
Because what many people are too afraid to hope for, and too convinced otherwise to entertain, is the possibility of raising a happy, healthy child – complete with a compassionate and moral and fierce spirit – without punishing them, or at least while actively resisting punitive methodology. That’s right. No grounding, yelling, lecturing, time-outs, spanking. Yeah, I wouldn’t have believed it either. Until I started experiencing it firsthand. It’s been one of the most humbling and exciting and amazing partnerships of my life. And my kids seem to feel pretty good about it too.
Parenting non-punitively is possible, rewarding, and incredibly freeing in about twenty discrete ways I could probably list (and will do so at some point). Most parents/carers are too scared to try. They intuit, correctly, that if they attempt to give up punitive measures they will have to give up things they want. And they’re right. Here is, as of today, my best thoughts on these sacrifices as I’ve experienced them.
Primarily, we give up the illusion of control. Hear that? We don’t really have control – we have the illusion of it. We maintain the facade of control as long as our child is not developmentally aware enough to perceive how she is being controlled; later, we may maintain this facade if our child either chooses to let us win out, because we have made things so unpleasant for her should she assert herself, or if she chooses to hide her nature, opinons, feelings, and/or actions (indeed, duplicity in a child is a first-string symptom of punitive parenting). We maintain the illusion of control until we observe our child regularly employing self- or other-harm. I am often very sad to hear adults promote narratives where their teenager “suddenly” starts acting “crazy”/sullen/angry/anxious/like an asshole. Thus many parents and adults put forth junk-science rhetoric regarding the “teenage brain”, pathologizing teens themselves and/or setting down young adult expressions of anxiety, alienation, anger, sadness or severe disassociation to hormones or some kind of temporary innate contrariety, etc. (what’s deeply sad is to witness teens internalize and then repeat this denigration and erasure; I was one of them). I personally think espousing “teen brains aren’t ‘normal’” / “teens are jerks” rhetoric is a last-ditch attempt to avoid admitting the damage many endemic mainstream parenting and teaching practices have inflicted upon our children. It’s too bad, too, because I’d like to believe it’s never too late to admit our mistakes, acknowledge our fears, and in doing so improve our treatment of the children in our lives.
Again: what do we give up, when we decide we will no longer punitively parent? We give up many accolades and praises from mainstream parenting “gurus”, from our family and friends, and from our micro- or larger culture. Believe me, if your child has a loud emotional display in a store (for instance) you stand to gain approving nods if you come down on the child with a stern and/or loud voice, especially if delivering a threat. Giving up punitive parenting strategies, then, means many adults will expect these displays of you and, when you do not deliver, tsk tsk – or worse. You may be told to beat your child. You may be encouraged (usually implicitly) to put him down or speak about him in a sarcastic and dismissive manner so he at least knows what a pain in the arse he is. Fortunately, although it can sting to give up the many surface-level commendations you receive as a demonstrably-”strict” parent, if you can cast off punitive forces or provide better caregivers or environs for your child, you’ll likely soon be receiving genuine expressions of delight regarding your children’s character and behaviors. The funnest part of this is, for me, a state of far less attachment to outcome; e.g. appearing virtuous or a “good mom” by result of my children’s behaviors (however I am nowhere near immune to this vanity, sad to say). When my children are complimented (as they often are), I can know it is not me in the driver’s seat, but the kids’ own individual qualities emerging. I do not accept compliments regarding my children’s behavior, but of course my children themselves are allowed to handle those as they see fit (they usually say, “Thank you.”).
I’m wracking my brain to think more about what we give up, but really those two things are about it (although they’re biggies, I grant it). I suppose we give up allowing ourselves episodes of retaliatory anger. Or rather, when we inevitably give in to such displays (as I do, still), we can relatively quickly abandon the premise that this is our right or responsibility, apologize sincerely if we did something asshat, and return to our better selves a lot quicker.
So that, I suppose, is the bad news. (Except you can see it really isn’t. Bad news.)
Now: what do we stand to gain?
For one, we stand to gain the experience of a healthier, happier, braver, more empathetic, more alert, more humorous, and more fair-minded child. We also begin to see how children raised this way are less likely to experience or evidence the following: depression, low impulse control, habitual duplicity, generalized anxiety disorder, eating disorders, body dysmorphic disorder, repetitive bullying episodes (either as the bully or the target), self-harming rituals, and susceptibility to peer pressure. Please note I said less likely. Believe me, if I knew of any formula to raise a child safe from all large-scale harms, I’d be tempted to can it and put it up in my pantry.
What do we stand to gain? More enjoyment of our time together. More knowledge of who our children really are (and who they continue to grow to be). When we trust our children, we really trust them. It’s a wonderful experience. I’ve often been told by other parents, “Wow, I can’t believe you let your kids run a restaurant / ride the transit / pay your bills / use your phone / walk to the library. I couldn’t trust my kids to do that.” At first I thought these parents were talking into their sleeve, essentially chastising me for being me too permissive (and perhaps some of them were). But I began to understand I really do trust my children in a deeper way than many parents trust theirs. This wasn’t necessarily easily won nor is it fully accomplished, but is primarily due to and results in the fact: I don’t feel I should, or have to, fiddle with them too much. I am their advocate, I am their mentor and advisor (when they need me), but mostly I am their nurturer as much as I can be.
What do we stand to gain? Children we want to spend time with, and children who want to spend time with us.
What do we stand to gain? A home that is peaceful, fun, funny, compassionate, fierce, tender – and doesn’t feel scary … to anyone (including the parents… many whom I believe are often very scared indeed).
And a final note: although I have met other grownups who agree with principles of non-punitive parenting, I haven’t yet met one who claimed he/she had raised a child to adulthood and never hit, grabbed, yelled, or performed some other small or mean-spirited lecture, petty theft, or retaliatory creepitude (many parents/carers have done all the above). In other words, believing in a better way doesn’t automatically make one a saint.
But believing in a better way is the first step to living a better way. And so far, it has been the most encouraging experience of my life.
And next time I write, I’ll talk more about how it looks in practice.
* Here is a working definition of “punitive parenting”, from a site called the Positive Discipline Resource Center (I have not read nor formed opinions as to the site’s content, but do find this definition to be pretty good):
“Punitive parents assume children have to feel bad in order to learn – though they may not use those words to describe it. When confronted with inappropriate behavior in their children, punitive parents search for a punishment to extinguish the behavior. Punitive tools include: time outs, spanking, lectures, grounding, loss of unrelated privileges or property, physical exercise, and physical discipline such as hot sauce on the tongue. Reward/punishment systems are part of a punitive paradigm. ”
“Spanking Traumatizes Children” by Laurie A. Couture. I love this article by Laurie, for many reasons. Here are two: she discusses neuroscience and its findings on childhood development with regard to punishment, and she also provides one of the most convincing and brief yet well-rendered explanations of why so very many adults defend punitive strategies regarding children.