Non-Punitive Parenting: A Starting Primer

kids at Ocean Crest, Ocean Shores

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.

***

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 end up with “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. 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 more extreme end of this (common) worldview: “the world is tough and my kid needs to know about it. I’m going to help him learn early to keep him safe.”

Even adults who admit that “spanking” is just hitting, and that we should not do it, usually still maintaining we should absolutely exploit our power position to “mold” them. These adults hold that spanking is inhumane and/or child abuse, and instead 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 difference 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, and “natural and logical” consequences (crafted and 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. In fact most parents who use time-outs, threats, removal of privileges, scarcity/reward system, rely on a lot of behavioral praise as well.

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. To skeptics 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 in what I’d call punitive parenting 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 (adult humans and domesticated 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. So let’s stop with this “allowed” business. I have neither the ability, the right, nor the interest to drive around inspecting how each and every household runs their home. 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 and missteps, 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.

Shame and guilt as forces for improving one’s parenting don’t work very well. I am not here to wield a cudgel. Sadly, when it comes to parenting – or mothering, as most finger-wagging diatribes usually concern, implicitly or explicitly – almost any discussion of bad strategies vs. better ones will prod the guilt and shame injuries most parents and carers hold. Mothers especially, are held to account for any real or perceived errors, and missteps. This shame and guilt can sometimes prevent us from openly hearing what we need to. This is a sad thing, but perhaps unavoidable unless we decide not to speak frankly on these matters.

The good news is, I’m here to deliver some hope.

Because what many people are too afraid to hope for, or 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 throughout their upbrininging. 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 as each year passes, our children prove we made the right choice.

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 about that. They also believe – incorrectly – that if they give up punitive measures their children will suffer for it, and in effect grow up “bad”.

Here is, as of today, my best thoughts on the sacrifices as I’ve experienced them.

Primarily, we give up the illusion of control. 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.

As our child grows, we may maintain this facade if our child lets us win out – because we have made things so unpleasant for her should she assert herself. Some parents are very good at this. In this stage our child begins to hide her nature, opinions, feelings, struggles 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”. Predicably, 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 even even in cases of severe teenage behaviors, there is still hope – but not much hope, if the parents, carers, and teachers in stewardship aren’t willing to admit their own faults. 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.

What else 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. If you patiently say “Thank you,” to the clerk, let your child cry, remove your child as soon as you can (with gentleness), you may very well be glared at. Giving up punitive and public parenting strategies, then, means many adults will expect authoritarian 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. Your family and peers may not support you; this is based in their fear, and has little to do with you. But it can be hard to be so unsupported when what we need, is a community to lift us up.

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. no longer interested in claiming virtue or value as a result of my children’s behaviors. 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, because I did not engender their good behavior but merely didn’t thwart, suppress, and twist it. My children themselves are allowed to handle those compliments as they see fit (they usually say, “Thank you.” and leave it at that).

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.)

That’s what we give up.

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 perfectly accomplished, but is not only my experience: it is regularly remarked upon by others. 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, hide it as they may try).

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 mean-spirited lectures, 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. I have never represented myself this way and a parent who thinks I am doing so, is too defensive to really listen to what I’m saying.

But believing in a better way is the first step to living a better way.  I have had the honor in helping other parents and carers find this believe. And so far, it has been the most encouraging experience of my life. Not just living this way in our own household, but helping other households to find this path.

***

* 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.”

20 Responses