Parenting Without Punishment Or Reward . . . Really?

Blog post Larissa Dann 23 January 2017                  Image:Shutterstock

Warm, pliable and soft, caked in afterbirth, my newborn snuggled onto my chest. As he locked his wise eyes onto mine, I discovered a love unimaginable, a future unknowable. A new person breathed gently on my skin, and I was overwhelmed. For the next couple of decades, I would be responsible for helping him meet many of his needs – his physical and emotional needs, his nutrition, his safe passage through life.  How would I bring up this future citizen of the world?

During my entire life, I could only recall holding one baby.  I did not know how to change nappies, what to do when my newborn cried.  All I had to guide me through this parenting jungle was the dimly remembered and experienced way I had been raised - with a lot of praise, balanced equally, of course, by smacking– just once every six months or so, ‘to keep us in line’.  Sure, there were books and magazines that offered alternatives on Bringing Up Baby (no Google Parent in those days!), but the advice was conflicting.

My son and I muddled on until one day, my then seven-month-old was busily drinking his breakfast, one large blue eye gazing fixedly into mine as he guzzled. I loved these times, and I wondered what he was thinking, what was happening in that fast-growing brain.

Then I gasped in pain – he had bitten me! What was I to do? I was at a loss – the books and magazines hadn’t covered this particular situation.  Surely, the only thing he would understand was a deterrent?  So, reluctantly, I tapped his tiny, soft, pudgy foot. Yanking his head from my breast, my baby looked me full in the face. I will never forget his puzzled brow and his downturned, puckered mouth

Surely, there had to be another way? 

Putting the Relationship Back Into Parenting

Serendipitously, around that time a friend asked if I’d like to take her place at a parenting course.  The course was Parent Effectiveness Training (PET) – a course that teaches a relationship approach to parenting. I had no idea what I would learn. I just knew I needed all the tips I could find on this new journey. 

The parent training was life changing.  I learned that children were people!  I learned they deserved to be taken seriously, and treated with respect.

But the most mind-blowing and challenging aspect of this parenting approach was no rewards or punishment. 

Wow!  This was BIG!  This challenged all my assumptions of being a ‘good’ parent, and a lot of my experience of being parented.  I was questioning everything. 

Now, my parenting emphasis was to build a relationship with my child, not to control him.

This was a fundamental shift in the foundations I had been preparing as a parent.

Meeting Scepticism With Resolve

Could I do it?  Could I really bring up a considerate, caring child in today’s world, without bringing him into line using the old carrot and stick?  Wouldn’t he end up spoilt, selfish, narcissistic

I proudly told my mother of my plans, and excitedly described all the new skills and philosophy I had just learnt. Her scepticism was palpable.

I bowed my head, more determined than ever.  I was going to do this, and my son would benefit!

My resolve was cemented when I asked myself this question. When rewards or punishments are used to ‘discipline’ a child, whom is the child considering? To me, the answer was plain. They would only be thinking about themselves.  ‘Will I get a reward if I do this?’ or, ‘what’s going to happen to me if I do/don’t do this?’

My parenting paradigm shift was influenced by authors including Thomas Gordon, Parent Effectiveness Training and Teaching Children Self Discipline, Louise Porter, Children are People Too, Robin Grille, Parenting for a Peaceful World, and Alfie Kohn, Unconditional Parenting.  These authors demonstrated, I felt, a strong case against using rewards or punishment. 

Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence strengthened my commitment to rely on relationship skills when parenting my son.  Recent research, and publications by authors such as Daniel Seigel and the Nobel laureate James Heckman, is now, I believe, vindicating what was a revolutionary approach to parenting in 1962.

Change Begins with a New View on Children

And so, this journey through parenting began.  How was I going to avoid using praise, or star charts, or stickers?  What would I do when I couldn’t put my child in time-out, count to three, plan a consequence for his actions?

I was helped by an underlying principle from my parent training - that children did not ‘misbehave’.  Instead, they behaved simply to meet a need

If I could understand that need, then rather than blame my child, I would stop taking his behaviour personally.  I would cease to think of him as deliberately wanting to ‘get at’ me.

Understanding my child, and understanding myself, would help me respond, rather than react.  The powerfully simple tools of PET’s respectful communication guided me, helping me become intentional and mindful in my responses, and to begin regulating my emotions.

The Trial of the Toddler Years

Soon, we came to the toddler years. How could I avoid enticing my son to use the toilet, without rewards – praise, stickers, star charts?  How could I stop him drawing on the fridge without some consequence, such a smack? Surely he was too young to understand my verbal communication?

Resolutely, I tried putting those PET communication skills into practice.  When a ‘situation’ arose (and believe me, there were plenty!), I tried to identify who owned the problem.  Was it my son, or me, or did we share the problem? I listened.  I asserted my needs.  I listened again.  We brainstormed solutions to problems.

I did not count to three, use time-out, or bribe.  Instead, I used the relationship skills I’d been taught, with the core belief that he was not being ‘naughty’ or ‘bad’, but was simply a child with unmet needs.

Early Intervention to Prevent Violence

I had a strong incentive.  I wanted my son to develop emotional and social intelligence, for him to become empathic and considerate, to peacefully negotiate differences.  For this man-to-be, violence must not be an option to resolve relationship conflict.

Making a Long-term Commitment

Having emerged relatively unscathed through the toddler years, I decided I wanted to teach this style of parenting (partly, I admit, to help keep me on track with using the skills personally!) I continue to teach, decades later, with my passion for peaceful parenting burning as brightly as when it was first lit.

My family and friends have, at times, freely passed judgement on my ‘alternative’ method of discipline. I have been accused of ‘giving in’ to my children, because I don’t insist they do everything my way. ‘You let him win that time!’ is a never-forgotten comment by my grandmother, whereas I saw the outcome as a ‘win win’ for both my child and myself.

Fortunately, however, this parenting approach fitted with my new (now long-term) partner's views on children developing self-responsibility and autonomy.

Terrific Teens

In the first few pages of the Parent Effectiveness Training book, I read this groundbreaking statement from Thomas Gordon:

adolescents do not rebel against parents.  They only rebel against certain destructive methods of discipline almost universally employed by parents.  Turmoil and dissension in families can be the exception, not the rule, when parents learn to substitute a new method of resolving conflict’.

I discovered that it was the method of discipline that teenagers fight, not their parents.

‘All very well in theory’, perhaps I hear you say, but what about practice? 

Well, I loved (and am loving) being the parent of teenagers.  Sure, we have our moments of disagreement.  But they don’t seem to be the door slamming, screaming ‘I hate you!’ moments of my adolescent memory.  I am excited as I witness the unfolding adult emerge from childhood.

Relationship Repair

My children and I have a common language and understanding of communication.  We can, and do, use the PET skills to help repair rifts.

Still Learning

It hasn’t all been plain sailing.  I am no perfect mother – just ask my children!  They will happily fill you in on where I could do better.  I make a lot of mistakes, but I try and forgive myself – because I am human.  And if I can forgive myself, then I can forgive my children when they make mistakes.  Because they, too, are human.

I apologise.

And every day, I delight in my children. 

The Baby Becomes a Man

My son is now a young man living away from home.  I am grateful for the relationship we have, and the very close and strong bond he has with his sister.  I watch him with his long-term partner, and I am awed by their relationship.  I learn so much when I see them together!

In my children, I see qualities such as compassion, sensitivity to others and themselves, resilience, and strong social and emotional skills.  I see a quiet sense of self-worth and confidence, of autonomy and the importance of maintaining family relationships.  I see strength in their gentleness.

Validation

Some years after my son was born, my mother complimented me.  She acknowledged that she thought it would be impossible to bring up children without physical punishment, let alone no punishment or reward! Now, she had seen that it was possible.

For me, taking this approach to parenting seems to be fulfilling my goals as a parent.  It may not be everyone’s cup of tea.  But for our family, it worked.  I discovered it really was possible to parent by relying on building a relationship, rather than manage behaviour through rewards and punishment.  

Adapted and updated from an original article on Attachment Parenting International, 2010.

© Larissa Dann 2017 

Comments

Thank you for sharing this story. I have recently started my journey and stopped using rewards and punishment a few months ago. We recently hit a rocky spot and I was going to start using rewards again. Your article helped strengthen my resolve.

Thank you so much - I am humbled that my story has helped, and I wish you (and your family) all the best. My experience is that it does get easier - but not to be too hard on ourselves when we stumble. We are human.

Are you a single parent? I hear no mention of a spouse or partner in your trials and quest for peaceful parenting.

Thank you - I agree - this was an aspect missing from the story. I wrote this largely to reflect my journey (I couldn't write about someone else's views). However, I have now edited the article slightly to include a reference to my partner.

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