Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Discipline Without Punishment

(Originally posted at Rational Jenn)

I've been writing about our experience with and applications of Positive Discipline methods for a while now. I'm aware that there may be some new readers who have found this blog (hi!) and so I wanted to do a quick review of what PD entails, how it fits well with my principles as an Objectivist, and to revisit the most controversial aspect of this parenting method: no arbitrary punishments and rewards.

(If you would like to read more about PD, check out my list of resources in this post.)

One of the reasons I like using the PD approach is that it reminds me to treat the children as if they are young human beings--because they are in fact, young human beings. A carrot-and-stick approach may be necessary with lower animals (and I'm not entirely sure if I think that's always so), but young humans, while not fully rational, are not the same as animals. They need guidance, sure. But their nature as humans demands that we treat them differently from other animals.

The Ambassador

I once read an analogy on a discipline discussion group that is a really wonderful way to describe the positive discipline approach. (If you happen to know the origin, please let me know so I can credit it properly.)

Imagine that you are a government official (no, really--it's a good analogy. Stay with me.) and your job is to introduce a foreign ambassador to our country. The Ambassador is brand new here. He has no knowledge of our language or customs, but he sure is excited to be here, and is eager to do things just right. As he tries to get along with "the natives," he's going to make some mistakes. LOTS of mistakes. Your job is to show him the way to do things around here. The Ambassador likes you a lot and has readily accepted your authority in the matter of All Things This Country. What is the best way to help him understand how to behave?

Imagine a dinner party where the Ambassador reaches across the table and grabs food off of someone else's plate. That's how they do it in his country, but not here. Should you smack his hand away and scold him for being rude? Should you scream at him? Should you talk condescendingly to him? Should you force him to apologize to the other guests for his behavior?

Or should you say "In our country, we only eat off of our own plates. If we'd like more food, we can say 'Please pass the carrots.' and someone will pass us the bowl."?

Imagine he doesn't know how dangerous a moving car can be. (They only ride horses in his country.) The Ambassador walks heedlessly into traffic. You grab his arm and stop him just in time. Do you now smack him? Scream at him for being so foolish?

Or do you say in probably a loud, obviously stressed out tone of voice "Don't walk into the road! Those moving cars could hurt you!"

Imagine that he lies to you about something important. Do you make him sit in his hotel room and think about what he did? Do you make him wash the windows of the embassy (a chore he hates) as punishment?

Or do you explain to him that truthfulness and trust is extremely important, that your relationship depends on it, that tricking someone by lying to them is a good way to damage a relationship and make yourself miserable? That because your trust is damaged, you'll be doing an extra careful job of making sure that what he says is true, so that you can continue to help him out?

And if I had belittled or smacked the Ambassador, what would his impressions of our country be? He might feel inadequate or stupid for not somehow automatically knowing what the rules were. He might view the our country as a place that doesn't make sense, and maybe a place that he can't ever understand.

What might he think of me? He might worry that I didn't really like him. He might learn to fear me instead of look to me for guidance and protection and answers about the way things are. He might become scared to try anything new (since my reactions were negative and unpredictable to him), afraid of making a mistake and facing my anger or a punishment or physical pain.

If I treat the Ambassador in a kind way, answering his questions, correcting his behavior, helping him make sense of things that are incomprehensible to him, he will begin to understand the customs, act in accordance with them, and he will look to me as a resource--someone who can help him out.

No Punishment? Really?

When I first started reading about PD, I couldn't get over the whole "no punishing" thing. I kept looking for loopholes--because I simply couldn't see how a child who isn't punished for his wrong actions would learn the right way to behave. How he wouldn't just act like a crazy hooligan all the time. How his parents would keep him under control.

And then I realized--discipline shouldn't be about keeping kids "under control." It should be about helping them understand rational (not arbitrary) boundaries and how to control themselves. In time, as the child matures, he will understand not only what the boundaries are, but why they are necesssary, and have the self-discipline required to abide by those boundaries. He will understand how to correct his mistakes. He will want to do the right thing because it is right--not because he'll be punished for doing the wrong thing, or rewarded with a prize for doing the right thing.

I should define what I mean when I say "punishment." I'm talking about an arbitrary, adult-imposed sanction upon a child for a specific transgression. If you run out into the street, I'll smack your bottom. If you scream at me, I'll make you sit in the Time Out Chair. If you throw a toy, I'll smack your hand. If you hit me, I'll hit you. If you break something precious of mine, I'll send you to your room. If you speak rudely to me, I'll withhold love, affection, or television privileges. If you lie to me, I'll ground you. In other words, punishment is something negative I'll do TO you in order to let you know you did something wrong (or something I don't like).

All of these parental actions are designed to get the message across that the child's action is unacceptable. Because those behaviors are unacceptable (accidents excepting). And of course kids ought to learn those things. And they CAN learn them if they are not punished for making mistakes or bad decisions.

Does this mean that there's an "anything goes" policy at my house? No! The kids take responsibility for their mistakes and bad decisions--but the consequences they face are reality-driven, not mommy-driven.

Children need rational, non-arbitrary boundaries based in reality, because like The Ambassador above, they are new here and don't automatically know the right way to act. If such limits are set and consistently enforced, then there is actually no need for an additional parent-imposed punishment. The child bangs up against the limit, the rule is enforced, end of story. In a way, handling limits in this manner sets the parent free (to a certain degree) from being the Bad Guy or JJ&E (Judge, Jury & Executioner). Mom is there to help the child respect the limits which are grounded in reality. The child can rant and rage against Mr. Reality (and my kids often do this), but Mr. Reality has a way of being constant and immovable, doesn't he?

Non-arbitrary limits include: Cleaning up a spill you made. A parent quickly grabbing you before you run into the street. Being held firmly by a parent until you can stop your arms from hitting. Being asked to choose between taking your screaming voices outside or quieting down a bit. Getting strapped into your carseat against your will, or being taken from a store or restaurant because you are flipping out and disturbing others.

Punishments do discourage unwanted actions. Rewards (the positive flip-side of punishment) do encourage desirable actions. But both are ways of controlling the child as opposed to helping the child learn to control himself in a rational way. In fact, punishments and rewards encourage second-handedness, I think, because the child learns to look to others for an indication of whether he has done right or wrong. He learns to expect consequences (positive or negative) to come from others--not reality. And he doesn't learn why right and wrong actions are right and wrong--only that others say so.


Some limits need no Mom-intervention whatsoever. Walking on gravel in your bare feet is a reality-based experience that needs no adult comment. Not wearing a coat or sweater outside when it's 38 degrees--again, No Mommy Necessary (except to bring a backup jacket). The negative consequence to those actions are "punishment" enough, yes?

The vast majority of the limits my husband and I set for our kids are rooted in Ethics, of course. And the principle we use is that of individual rights (although we don't often use that term when explaining our reasoning, since that's a bit too abstract for them just yet).

When the child's actions infringe upon the rights of another, we put a stop to the action. There is no additional consequence--because all I want to do is stop the violation of someone else's rights. I always explain why the behavior must stop (in terms they can understand), but the most important thing is that the rights violation ceases. The kids will--and have--figure out that what they were doing is unacceptable and as they mature, they will be able to stop themselves from doing it, and they will eventually be able to truly understand WHY the behavior is unacceptable. (Ryan has been flirting on the edge of this true understanding for a while now, but at nearly 7, he's not all the way there. I'll let you know when he gets there--I still expect it to be a while.)

So--hitting. Hitting hurts and is not respectful of other people's bodies. You must stop. If you can't stop your arm, then I will help you, asking you to stop hitting, or by moving you away from the victim, or even occasionally by holding your arm still.

Screaming at me rudely. Well, I really dislike that, and screaming at me makes me not want to help you out. I'm much more willing to help you open the milk if you ask me in a kind way. If you scream, then I'll probably won't help you.

Bossing your friends. Your friends won't want to play with you if they are bossed incessantly. Guess what? I'm happy to report that Ryan is changing his behavior and is treating his friend more kindly.

Coloring on my walls (or writing ASS on it!). My walls belong to me and I like them sans colorful words. (Also, I like them poop-free. Yes.) So you must erase it and if you need to write things, please find some paper.

Trashing your room rock-star-style. The things in your room belong to you, yes, but I wash your clothes and you need to keep them neat and tidy in your dresser drawer. So you'll need to clean them up. Also, we vacuum every other week, so you'll need to clean up the floor, too. And you'll need to get this cleaned up now, so I don't think we'll have time to read your story tonight. Oh, your friends helped you make this mess? Well, then you'll need to ask them to stop making a mess next time, since this is your room. If they won't stop, come and ask me for help. Also, I think you and your friends shouldn't be alone in your room for a while.

In any of the above examples, I can't see how adding a punishment on to what happened would have done anything more toward having the kids understand the limits and why.

Rational Discipline

The best thing about positive discipline techniques is that they are very compatible with my principles. When I am guiding my children through a situation, I am focused on reality; I'm thinking about ideas that are important to me; I'm treating my children as individuals; I'm making sure they treat me and others as individuals with rights; I'm protecting them from catastrophic harm; I'm staying out of the way of them experiencing the consequences of their actions; I'm ensuring that they are thinking about things for themselves instead of accepting an argument from authority (me).

PD tools reinforce the virtues which I try to exercise on a daily basis for my own happiness. When I slip back into JJ&E mode (and I do), I'm not a happy mommy. I don't like thinking up punishments and enforcing them; I'd rather enforce the rational rule. I don't like implicitly asking my kids to do something merely because I want them to do it; I like them understanding that it's important to do something because it's right to do it (even if they don't like it in the moment).

In the words of Aristotle: we are what we repeatedly do; excellence is not an act, but a habit. With rational, reality-based limits, kids will get experience making good and bad choices, and lots of practice in how to navigate the local customs. I think they'll enter adulthood with experience and skills in their own toolboxes to help them be happy, productive adults.

I realize that some of my readers may have disagreements about these ideas. Feel free to comment (pros and cons!).

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