Using Nonviolent Punishment: Effective Parenting Toolbox

“My 5 year old is driving me crazy!”

“I can’t get Sam to listen. I’m at the end of my rope!”

“I don’t understand why Emily keeps hitting her sister.”

Using nonviolent punishment to teach your child how to act

If any of these statements sound familiar, then this chapter is for you. Statements like these indicate a frustration on the part of a parent who feels at a loss to produce the kind of behavior that s/he wants to see. If you have been saying, “I need help with my child’s behavior,” don’t fret. You are in control, even if it doesn’t feel like it. In my years of experience as a parenting consultant, my observation is that many parents are overwhelmed by the abrupt entry into adulthood that having a baby entails. I remember the first time I held my first son in my arms at the hospital, and thinking, “Oh my God! How do I do this?” As brand new parents, we immediately transition from being able to think only of ourselves to having to think also (and more primarily) about someone else. Soon, we realize that this someone else doesn’t know how to do anything except cry, gurgle, sleep, pee and poop. Did it ever occur to you that it was up to you to teach this tiny being how to act “civilized?”

Parenthood is the first time that most people have to think seriously about how their words and actions can have a powerful impact on another human being. Parenting is an awe-inspiring responsibility, and without thinking intentionally – parenting on purpose – the task can seem like too much. How on earth can I turn a tiny creature with no understanding of the world into an adult who can contribute positively to society?

Many parents, not knowing what to do, resort to parenting their children exactly how they were parented. The thinking goes, “Well, when I misbehaved my father spanked me. And I turned out ok, so…” Or, “When I talked back to my parents, they washed my mouth out with soap. I guess that’s what I am supposed to do.”  Or, many times, our parenting isn’t even conscious. We aren’t making an active decision to do what our parents do. Rather, our child acts, and we respond. Perhaps you tell your child to go outside and play, and she ignores you. All of a sudden, with no forethought, you begin to yell and berate your child. Perhaps internally, a part of yourself can hear your father’s voice coming out of your mouth. My own father was often verbally abusive, and I have to be very careful to note when I am getting overly annoyed, so that I can leave the situation before I might say something I don’t want to say to my child.

There’s nothing abnormal about responding to an emotional situation (and parental frustration can be very emotional) reflexively. We humans have learned a whole repertoire of responses to situations through observation. Even when we aren’t aware that we are taking in what is happening, part of our brain is interpreting our surroundings, and creating associations that might be activated later on. This network of associations might work like this – “Talking back = disrespect = yelling.” One day, our child catches us after a tiring day at work, and talks back. Without thinking, we begin yelling at our child, many times with the exact same words our parents used.

This tendency to replicate our parents’ approach to raising us is what researchers called “intergenerational transmission of parenting practices.” If there is one thing that you take from this chapter, it is that the mere replication of our parents’ decisions, without any conscious thought about whether those decisions are consistent with our parenting goals is the opposite of what this website is attempting to teach. As I stated, there’s nothing abnormal about resorting to practices that we observed when we were younger. However, just because humans have a tendency to do something doesn’t mean that we cannot use our higher brains to check that tendency.

Your parenting is up to you – your own ethics and goals should guide how you handle every interaction you have with your children. The goal isn’t for you to adopt a set list of strategies.

The main outcome I have for this book is not to convince you to clone my parenting, but rather, to lead you through a process of being intentional about how you act with and around your child. Your parenting is up to you – your own ethics and goals should guide how you handle every interaction you have with your children. The goal isn’t for you to adopt a set list of strategies. It is for you to consciously, intentionally, choose words and actions that are consistent with the outcomes you want to achieve as a parent.

Activity: Take out your notebook and pen. Down the center of a blank piece of paper, draw a vertical line. On the left, put a column heading that says, “How my parents punished.” On the right, put a column heading that says, “Do I want to use this punishment?” Now, I want you to list 10 punishment techniques that your own parents used on you on the left. Then, on the right, write freely about whether each of these techniques was effective with you, whether it made you a better person, and whether it is consistent with the goals you made for your parenting in the activity in the Introduction.

Let’s reflect for a moment on the results of your activity. Were there any punishment strategies about which you had forgotten? Were there any punishment strategies that you adopted from your own parents? Were those strategies consciously chosen, or were they more reflexive? In what ways did this activity suggest new directions for your parenting?

Now that we’ve consciously thought about the sources of our parenting strategies, it is time to “frame” the different strategies that are available to us, so that we can choose among a larger pool of options than just the ones that our parents modeled for us. I am hopeful that learning about the various ways we can effectively discipline and mold our children, will be useful to those of you who are looking for advice about how to improve your child’s behavior, as well as those of you who are are just looking for positive parenting tips.

A brief guide to behaviorism

The field of psychology has provided us with many theoretical frameworks for thinking about ourselves. One of the more practical theories is the theory of behaviorism. Behaviorism suggests that our behaviors, inclinations, likes, dislikes, attitudes – in short, everything – is a result of the rewards and punishments that we have experienced. While I am not a believer in this radical form of behaviorism (this book is attempting to encourage you to overcome your past when it is not in line with your own intentions, which is tangential to the goals of the radical behaviorists), I do believe that an understanding of the main strategies that behaviorism has described is a key tool for teaching your children how you want them to behave.

The most important thing you can do for your child is to give them information about how you want them to act. It is your job as parent to show your child how to handle negative experiences, how to properly react to emotional situations, and how to treat others. The way you do that is through modeling ethical behavior yourself, and through letting your child know what pleases and displeases you. Deep down, your child is highly motivated to gain your approval. In my opinion, this drive to seek your approval is a very powerful source of influence that we have at our disposal. Therefore, the essence of good parenting involves giving your child knowledge about how he can make you pleased. Any reward or punishment that does not give your child this important information is in need of more reflection on your part. Let us look at the four main categories of behavior modification, and how they can be used and combined to teach your child how to please you.

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