Punishment and reward
Some common punishments
“Stop crying. Calm down. Knock it off. You’re fine. There’s nothing wrong with you. Be quiet. Shut your mouth and do what I told you to do. You’ll get over it.”
Or distractions like
“Look at this. Look at that! Here’s a goody to eat. I’ll give you this. If you are good, you can have a treat!”
These are examples of common (and accepted by the majority and mainstream) ways people (parents, teachers, etc.) speak to children in Western culture. Can you think of any worse way to teach our children to distrust their own feelings, values, and needs?
Remember, these experiences teach kids how to deal with other people and even life, so the odds are high these are the kind of responses your child will later give others when those others are struggling to express “unacceptable” emotions or needs.
All of this usually comes from a sincere desire on the parent’s part to minimize their child’s suffering. For most of us, it hurts to see another person in pain, especially our children. So it is much easier to overlook the long term damage that occurs when we choose the short term fixes that ignore a child’s needs to express, be heard, understood, accepted, and respected.
Especially when those short term fixes seem cheaper in terms of time and energy expenditure because the quick command or fix requires little time or thinking and we might see an immediate payoff, assuming the child does not immediately rebel. Whether we get the short term results we want or not, the long term price is high.
Before we go any further, I want to disclaim the following: While I have a daughter, I’m not a parent. She’s been on her own for many years and her mom gets the credit for how she turned out. I’m not a psychologist, psychiatrist, doctor, or astrophysicist. Anything I say here that may come across as parenting advice is merely the speculative rantings of a fellow primate.
Other examples, perhaps more controversial:
“Share your toys! Come here! Eat your spinach! Go to school now! Say you are sorry! Go to your room! Go to sleep!”
I think most of us can agree that forcing another person to do something against their will rarely works out as we’d like to see.
Yet we do this with children all the time. When they are babies and infants, we have the most legitimate excuses. In that first year we build up a habit of feeding, cleaning, moving, etc., because they are so dependent on us. As their brains and bodies grow, it can be difficult to know when and how to allow them more autonomy.
I can hear the Voluntaryists out there already. Hold your scorn for overly permissive parenting, until you have read a bit further because peaceful parenting with allowance of natural consequences* is not permissive parenting.
*Note: I’m borrowing the term and practice “natural consequences” from Becky Bailey’s Conscious Discipline.
They are smaller than us, may have less- or un-developed speaking capability, understand a limited number of words, if any, and do not have the benefit of our years of life experience. So obviously, there are limitations as to what we can do at certain developmental stages.
Even though their language processing capability is just developing, their senses are working. They hear and feel the tone of your voice. They see your smile and eyes. They feel your gentle hands. We can begin by showing empathy for their powerless plight as soon as they are born. This is where I recommend a combination of touch, gaze, hum, and words. One method I’ve found to be effective: Make up little songs for the baby to let them know you are about to pick them up, feed them, change their diaper, etc.
“Hey hey, little Emily, I’m about to change your diaper to get you clean. In some ways, hey hey, it’s like I’m in your personal space without asking, putting aside your choice and autonomy in order to get you clean. You may not know my words now and that is okay, hey hey, because you hear my tone and you know that some day, hey hey, your subconscious mind will find these words and know, oh oh, that from day one your mommy showed, ho ho, empathy for your unique be–ee–ing, dependent for now on others to clean your poo and pee–ee–ee…”
Let’s show children awareness of the price we all pay when choice is not present.
I’d love to see a reduction in exceptions to “you don’t force people to do stuff” across the board. I’m thinking about kids but it happens to all ages. We tell kids it is wrong to initiate force, yet we control every detail of their lives. I see a thousand and forty–two ways parents can reduce this hypocrisy by picking less battles, offering more choices, encouraging kids to do more on their own, and allowing natural consequences to teach them valuable lessons. For those times when you see no way other than force, at least let them know you would prefer another way and empathize with how frustrating it must feel to be controlled so often.
Most people skip empathy, jumping straight to evaluation, fixing, assisting, distraction, reward, and punishment. To be clear: when I say empathy, I mean responses like, “Wow you did it!” and “Hmm seems like you are having difficulty with that.” and “Seems like you are really disappointed.” and “Ouch I bet that hurts.” and “Did you want more consideration?” and “Sounds like you wish someone would do that for you?” and “Is it a little scary when you think about doing that thing all by yourself?” and “When you hear it is time to go, are you frustrated because you would love to keep playing?”
Important note: empathizing out loud does not mean we give in. It merely shows them we get them, their perspective is valid, and we respect them.
To zoom in on one thing I said above: Rewards. Yeah, duh “positive reinforcement” is a popular behavior–modification method. But maybe that is for animal training. Guess what? Do you want your kid to grow up to be a people–pleaser, motivated and controlled by other people and desire for material acquisition, i.e., external factors? That is what you are asking for when you rely on use of the reward/punishment paradigm.
What is an alternative? How about a person who grows up confident in their internal compass, caring about others for deeper reasons than wanting to impress them and/or to get something from them (because THEY were treated with empathy while growing up)? How about a person who is motivated to succeed and be powerful because it feels good inside?
“You did it, lil Susie! How does that feel? Why? How do you think this new skill will help you in the future?”
“You did it, Susie! I’m so proud of you! Here is a reward.” Save that method for dogs.
Now when you look at the two examples above, it may be obvious to you that the first one is more useful for growing the human you want. I agree that it is and we can go further in that direction by using some PE.
Let’s take it one step at a time by looking critically at various ways of expressing the same idea and/or feelings.
“You did it, Susie! How does that feel? Why?”
Optional: How do you think this new skill will help you in the future?” Why “optional?” Because we are bringing her out of the moment and into her mind by asking her about the future.
The analysis part:
(a) “You did it, Susie!” Analysis: I see this as perfectly fine as a non–evaluative way of celebrating and noticing with Susie.
(b) “I’m so proud of you!” Analysis: When practicing empathy, the more difficult and often more effective form is “empathy for other” as opposed to “empathy for self out loud”. So as you can see, here we expressed our feelings in regard to Susie’s actions. As you may remember from the chapter on “Being and sounding natural,” sometimes it might be best to include our feelings or values so as to increase connection and/or trust. Sometimes not. Finally, “I’m so proud of you” may be, depending on context and other factors, conditioning the child to look to external sources for validation. In my opinion, this is a delicate balance. To be clear: I believe that at times a statement like this is totally okay and maybe even beneficial.
(c) “How does that feel?” Analysis: This is often a point of curiosity for those new to PE. Open–ended questions are not our style and without deeper examination, open–ended seems like the better approach. Remember our discussion on open–ended questions? If not, that’s because we go fully into that topic in the “No no’s” chapter. For now I’ll recommend to instead guess feelings. Take the risk. Exercise your vocabulary and courage. For now: How much variety and authenticity of response do you get from people you ask open–ended questions of? Alternative: “Are you feeling excited?”
(d) “Why?” as in “Why do you feel that way?” Analysis: Yay for curiosity and wanting to know why a person feels as they do. I recommend saving the why for later if brought up at all. Why? For now, this question can easily be misinterpreted as evaluation. Also, using our approach to empathy, along with some patience, and the “why” will surface. Much like the pros and cons of open–ended questions regarding feelings, “why” is usually an open–ended question regarding motives, needs, wants, or values. An alternative: “Do you feel that way because you value growing?”
(e) “How do you think this new skill will help you in the future?” Analysis: Depending on a few factors, including the child’s current mood and your goals for the conversation, this question may or may not contribute to nudging the child out of connection with you and into their head. Notice the key words “think” and “future” above? I am a bit on the fence with this one because I can understand and support the goal of wanting the child to relate their current situation to far–reaching effects. On the flip side, here are a couple alternatives: (i) Leave this question out; or (ii) Wait until the child has responded to the empathy in previous steps before moving into “thinking” and “future” territory.
Let’s put it all together into an empathy statement. We’ll begin with “clinical style” and then talk about ways to sound more natural.
“You did it, Susie! Are you feeling excited because you value growth?”
Okay, so the feeling we are guessing is “excitement” and the need/want/value is “growth.” As mentioned before, I consider this the more difficult path and a useful path to practice in non–crucial conversations because it can be more challenging to combine everything into one fluid question.
Let’s convert our empathy to something we’d more likely want to use in a crucial conversation.
“You did it, Susie! Are you feeling excited?”
Susie: “Mm hmm! I’m super excited and can’t wait to do it again! So fun!”
Prior to her answer, we were thinking “growth” might be the underlying value but because we broke up the empathy question into pieces and are now basing our “needs/values guess” on feedback, we can be more accurate.
“Oh! Was it so much fun because it met your need for play?”
Susie: “Yes! Play play play! And…”
[Listening patiently because Susie is obviously working something out in her head and we want to encourage and nurture her ability to think for herself and share without fear of shame or evaluation.]
Susie: “… I like knowing I can now do it better every time!”
“Ah. Thanks for telling me that! I feel some joy getting to know you better, Susie! So would you say doing that double twisty flip into the pool was fun and satisfying because it’s play and at the same time you are increasing your competence?”
Susie: “I don’t know what copytons means, mommy!”
Growth vs safety
Hint: It doesn’t always have to be an either–or. Before I go any further, I want to offer clear recognition that yes, sometimes a life is in danger and you may choose to throw rules out the window until safety is obtained.
Yes, there are situations where parents “have to” put their foot down for some things in order to keep their kids safe, but I think way too often parents don’t slow down to ask themselves, “Do I really need to force my kid to do or not do this thing? What is the price and what is the worst that could happen if I just allow the kid to make his own choice in this situation and reap the consequences? What lesson will they learn that will serve them later in life?”
Let’s pause a moment and give some recognition to you, the parent or teacher! You are a human who is doing the best you can. You care. You recognize how important your role is. Your contribution is immeasurable. You are not perfect and you will make mistakes. It’s impossible to know for sure what risks will result in a “price” not worth paying. Take a deep breath. You earned it.
A child who has their values–needs and boundaries recognized and respected will more likely grow up to be a person who…
(a) knows how to clearly speak their feelings, values/needs, and boundaries; and
(b) knows how to – and is in the habit of – recognizing and respecting the values–needs and boundaries of others.
When I ask “What is the price…?” above, I mean every time you yell at your kid in that tone to make it clear they are going to do this thing against their will or you will make them do it or make them “wish they had” – every time that happens – there is a kernel of resentment that lodges somewhere inside that child.
Think on this: You are teaching that it is okay to force another person to do things against their will (if you are “authority” or if you are bigger or you think you are smarter). This is not teaching them responsibility. This is not allowing them a chance to make mistakes and learn consequences. Especially when the consequences you impose have little, if any, relation to the “terrible thing” the child did or didn’t do. For example, how does taking away video games apply to the child not being hungry when you want them to eat or sleepy when you want them to sleep?
One of humanity’s greatest strengths is our adaptability. We mimic the behavior we see around us. Our children grow up watching adults speak to each other with blame, shame, guilt, evaluation, and demands. Sometimes it is subtle and sometimes not so subtle, but all of it is coercion because it is the practice of forcing other people to do things against their will; consistently showing children that it is okay for one person’s agenda to be grounds for ignoring and/or violating the needs – or even rights – of others.
More on reward and distraction
Offering a pleasant sensation, yummy food, reward, punishment, etc. as a distraction to replace desired or undesired behavior can create a personality that will later look for distraction whenever their environment is not offering “easy happiness”.
Reward can be just as damaging as punishment. Would you prefer your child’s motivation for creativity or “getting things done” come from an internal place or a desire for external validation in the form of rewards? What happens to intrinsic motivation when we bombard a child with constant stimulus and evaluation?
When a child experiences sadness, boredom, anger, etc., these are natural responses and ways of being. When we attempt to change these “negative” moods, we give a message to the child: Your feelings are not reasonable or valid and not to be trusted. Also, you need to be rescued from those feelings because you can not find your own way back to “happy”. Never mind the unmet needs underlying those feelings; rarely does a parent address those. And no, I’m not talking about food and diaper changing. I’m talking about needs for power over one’s environment, choice, consideration, and respect. Children are treated like 2nd class citizens in regard to those needs and they feel it.
So we are surprised when one out of a hundred thousand decides it’s okay to pick up a gun and kill people with it? Or even that people think it is okay to make war or steal from other people as long as the cause is righteous?
What is a solution?
Short answer: stop ignoring children’s needs and violating their bodies and property!
I know it sounds crazy. But seriously. Stop it. Whether you are a parent or a teacher, there are many benefits to practicing Practical Empathy with children, including:
When children are raised with recognition of and respect for their needs/values, they grow up respecting themselves and others.
When they grow up hearing and using a language of empathy and compassion, they better understand and speak their own needs and the needs of others.
When they are raised hearing and using a language of responsibility, they act responsibly as adults.
A closer, more trusting bond is created between the adult and child.
It is my belief that children treated in this manner will have a vast reservoir of strength coming from within. People with this kind of strength need not look to others for validation or power.
Deeper in the trenches: Bulldozer parenting
Are kids getting enough hardship inoculation?
I came across the term, “Bulldozer parenting,” by listening to a professor, author, and social psychologist named Jonathan Haidt. When “helicopter parenting” wasn’t going far enough in describing shifting behaviors, the bulldozer parent emerged. In addition to “hovering,” the bulldozer parent removes all obstacles from their child’s path.
I’ve noticed a pattern. Let’s call it “bubble–wrapped people”. Most parents care about their children and justifiably want happiness for them. Unfortunately, these caring parents may not realize the benefits of allowing their children to experience hardship may often outweigh the pain or potential risk involved in the “hard,” “boring,” or “dangerous” activity.
An experiment you can try
When a child has the physical and mental capability to do something for themselves, and they come to you asking for help they don’t really need, put aside your need/value for nurturing and gently insist they do the thing. Of course, you will weigh the risks! I’m not advising you to put your child in danger. The point is not to harm or cause pain to your children. The point is to allow them to experience the natural consequences of the world around them so they grow up to be people who rise to a challenge, rather than shirk away in fear. And bonus: less work for you as a parent.
What I’m recommending is neither “permissive parenting” nor “authoritarian parenting”. This is part of a growing movement called “peaceful parenting” where we acknowledge that interference, especially coercion and assistance, come with a price. Like most parents, we prefer our children grow up to be people who are peaceful, resourceful, generous, responsible, powerful, and empathetic.
So we, as examples, must embody these traits for our children to see and experience as they grow up.
Now many parents not studied up on peaceful parenting might say, “But I do all that!”
Oh? Let’s see.
Do you consider it peaceful to force your child to wear what you think is best for them to wear, rather than allow them to be responsible for their own choices and acquire the natural consequences lesson of learning that their choice of clothing earned them discomfort throughout their day? The “I’m going to control what you wear” battle you can – at an appropriate age, of course – choose to let go of.
Another example: Which of the following is more empathetic after hearing “Mommy the things that boy said to me hurt my feelings!”?
(a) “That boy was wrong. He’s mean. Ignore him!”
(b) “Oh my sweet baby! Let’s get you some ice cream and a toy!”
(c) “Don’t be a wimp. Hurt him back!”
(d) “Are you sad because it hurts to hear things like that and you want more consideration for your feelings?”
And after empathy for your child, maybe even progressing to encouraging empathy for others with something like, “I wonder why that boy is hurting so much he says things like that to other people?”
Which of the above methods jumps straight to “fixing,” “solution,” and/or “us vs. them” programming and which gives empathy?
Going a bit deeper: Look again at the empathetic approach. It’s conveying some powerful messages such as, “You are responsible for your feelings” (empowering the child) and “His actions come from his experiences.” Also important: We are not assigning blame or responsibility here, though PE–type empathy often tends to at least point out where responsibility is.
In a nutshell, I recommend:
Get in the habit of asking yourself, “Does this situation offer an opportunity to become a lesson in natural consequences or empathy?”
Imagine a future generation of compassionate adults who will truly get their own needs and the needs of others; who deeply understand the relationship between responsibility and power. How does this not lead to peace and prosperity?
“But if I avoid punishment and reward, how can I keep my kids safe and make sure they grow up with healthy values?”
“If it damages my child to try to ‘happy her up’ when she is scared, hurt, or angry, then what do I do, ignore her?”
No. You acknowledge how she is feeling. You can even guess at the met or unmet needs contributing to her feeling. Example:
Parent: “Oh sweetie… Your playmate is going home now and I see your tears. Are you sad because you want more play[need] and connection[need]?”
Child: [Sniffle sniffle] “Yeah.”
Parent: “You really wish he could stay to play more?”
Notice there is an important distinction between verbally recognizing their unmet need and fulfilling it. Sometimes it may work out that you can offer an activity that will fulfill the unmet need. Sometimes it won’t be easy or possible. Often times these are opportunities to teach natural consequences.
A natural consequence is anything that happens naturally, with no adult interference. When you play in the rain, you get wet. When you don’t eat, you get hungry. When you eat too many sweets, you get sick. When you forget your jacket, you get cold.
Having more experience than children, we can see what pain certain actions will lead to and since we care about the lil ones, we want to share our wisdom and prevent the “accident” from ever occurring. But:
What if every time we do this, we are denying our children an important lesson? What if instead we asked ourselves the following question: “Is this a situation where I can hold back and allow my child to continue to do what she is doing and learn a valuable lesson?”
Of course we also ask ourselves what the chances are of our child getting seriously hurt if we do not intervene! There is a huge difference between “rescuing” your child from tasting food that is too spicy VS them running out into the street to get hit by a car.
So yay, maybe we succeed in pausing, taking a deep breath, and allowing our precious child to get a minor booboo. At this point, it might be tempting to lecture, “I told you so,” or act in a way that adds evaluation, blame, shame, guilt, or pain to whatever pain she already experienced naturally from the situation. Children usually feel bad enough when they make a mistake. Lecturing and punishing reduces the learning that can occur from experiencing a natural consequence because the child stops processing the event and focuses on absorbing or defending against the blame, shame, guilt, or pain. Instead of lecturing or punishing, show empathy and understanding for what the child is experiencing:
“I’ll bet it sucked to walk home from the bus stop in the rain with no jacket!” It can be difficult for parents to be supportive without rescuing or overprotecting, but it is one of the best things you can do to help your children develop a healthy sense of independence, self esteem, and confidence.
Finally, another, similar, way parents “help” their kids that maybe actually be screwing them up:
Doing things for our children that they may be able to do for themselves
Are they old/smart enough to get and fill their own water cup but you do it for them because you keep the water and cups in a place that is too high for the child to reach? How about dedicating a “child cupboard” in your kitchen for certain items so you can encourage your child to be more self reliant?
How about putting on and taking off shoes or other clothing for them? How about helping them with eating? I’m sure parents reading this can think of a hundred things they do every day for their children.
When we do these things for our children when they are developed enough to accomplish themselves, we deny them important lessons in self reliance and self esteem.
It also teaches them to look externally for solutions. “Why figure out how to do something for myself if I can get people to do it for me?” So it is important to ask ourselves before doing something for our children, “Is this a situation where I can allow/encourage my child to help themselves?”
Credit to Becky Bailey’s Conscious Discipline system for the idea of natural consequences. Not necessarily a new thing in the parenting world but it was new to me when I discovered it and I’ve found much use in the practice. In 2013, a daycare in Austin (Children’s Discovery Center) required me to learn her system before I could train the teachers and kids there in use of PE.
Levels of violence in your discipline
A friend came to visit the other day. Let’s call her Jane. She complained some that she was really glad to have somehow found the time to herself away from her 12-year old daughter. This was not a new issue for her. I’d known Jane since before she had become a mom.
Over the years, I noticed that – at least in my presence – she always put her daughter’s needs first. It was frustrating hanging out with Jane when her daughter was around because the child interrupted constantly and the mother always felt compelled to give the daughter her attention, no matter the situation.
Back to her visit the other day. I asked Jane, “When do your needs come first?” It gave her pause. I left it at that, hoping she thinks more later on the issue.
Parenting can be the most challenging of responsibilities. We want so much for our children and sometimes they want more from us than we can realistically give. Balancing our own needs with theirs can be difficult and lead to conflict. We want to meet their needs while…
(a) preparing them for the real world; and
(b) without sacrificing our own needs to the point where our energy and patience run dry and our treatment of the child deteriorates.
Not easy! Especially because every child is different. My hope is that you will find answers or at least clues in the following examples.
Building on our exploration of natural consequences earlier in this chapter, I want to use those concepts to show a “third way” we can handle discipline when children’s needs conflict with your own. The chart below shows three distinct ways of parenting that I’m going to compare.
For each of the above three ways of parenting, there are many variations. For example, we could add “protective,” “helicopter,” “bulldozer,” “restrictive,” “violent,” and other refinements. For now, we’ll focus on the primary categories.
Example of passive use of natural consequences
Using “passive consequences” requires the least amount of work on a parent’s part. It usually involves merely allowing a child to reap the consequences of their actions. Most of the time it is “holding back” from helping or rescuing the child from a painful or risky experience that is not necessarily going to damage to the child. Sometimes it can be difficult to distinguish between just how likely their activity will lead to health-threatening damage vs resilience-building stressors. If you are unsure, in the name of safety, do interfere. Hopefully, you can find a minimal level of interference, like a gentle suggestion, that can create a “soft guardrail” for your child.
Little Susie is about to go out into cold/wet weather, maybe to walk to the bus stop. You want to protect her from the potential negative impact to her health by encouraging or forcing Susie to wear more weather-appropriate clothing. If you give in to these feelings, we have the following pros and cons:
– Peace of mind and vicarious comfort for you.
– Meets your needs for safety/security, support, nurturing, meaning, and purpose.
– Meets your child’s need for near future comfort; as soon as they go out and feel the cold/rain/snow.
– Meets your child’s need for health*.
*Saved from potential negative health impact. Potential because the natural consequences approach will usually result in the child solving the issue after minimum exposure to the inclement weather.
– Encourages dependency in both directions. (a) Your child is denied the opportunity to creatively problem solve. (b) The parent can become addicted to the “rescuing”, which meets needs for safety/security (for your child), support, nurturing, meaning, and purpose.
– Every time you dictate behavior, it has the potential to negatively impact the relationship. Of course, at certain ages and in certain situations, it’s difficult if not impossible to avoid dictating, but with enough thought, coercion can be significantly reduced, as we’ll see in other examples.
– The more time and energy you put into assisting, controlling, or protecting your child, the less time and energy you have to meet your own needs.
Example of active use of natural consequences
Using “active consequences” requires parents taking action to create a consequence, ideally tying the consequence as closely to the objectionable behavior as possible. It may not always be possible but striving for it can be beneficial because, when it works, it helps create a link in the child’s mind to the consequences of their actions. “You do X, you get Y.” Building, via reputation, a deeper understanding of response-ability.
Johnny is making a noise that is annoying, disruptive, or distracting. This includes asking for attention verbally or pushing, pulling, or striking you. You are in the middle of talking with someone else in person or on the phone. Note: I’m not talking about emergency situations where Johnny’s health is an issue.
First, of course, comes practicing our super power of empathy by guessing what needs Johnny is trying to get met. Let’s say it’s to be seen/heard. And your needs in this situation could be respect, consideration, and to be heard as well.
At some point, hopefully, before this event occurred, you would have explained to Johnny how sometimes people’s needs come into conflict. The conversation might look like this:
“Johnny, sometimes you might have a need to be heard and you want me to help you with your need. I always want to help you with your need! Sometimes, though, my needs may make it difficult to help you with yours. That’s where you get to exercise your ability to meet your own needs or find someone else to help you meet them. What comes up for you when you hear this? What do you hear me saying?”
Now, this conversation is going to be highly dependent upon many factors, including especially, the relationship you have built so far with Johnny, his age, and more. This is usually a conversation you will want to have set aside time for. Pre-planning this conversation will allow you to come up with some examples. Be sure to ask Johnny for feedback often during this conversation.
Is the visitor/phone call situation conducive for you to take the time to empathize with Johnny out loud? “Johnny are you feeling frustrated because you really want to be seen and heard?” If you are on the phone, depending on many factors, you may want to use silent empathy with a look of empathy on your face, placing your palm on your heart, and nodding at Johnny. Optimally, you have established the kind of relationship with him that he “gets” it.
But parenting is not always easy, so let’s go with the non-optimal happening. Maybe Johnny is tired, hungry, or just having a bad day.
You have (a) empathized with Johnny’s needs silently or out loud to him and (b) calmly conveyed to him how the behavior impacts you and yet, he continues the disruptive behavior, ignoring your needs. At this point, some parents might immediately yell, spank, or grab the kid and forcibly move them to another room.
Is the situation conducive for you to take the time to empathize with Johnny out loud? “Johnny are you feeling frustrated because you really want to be seen and heard?” Since you are on the phone, depending on many factors, you may want to use silent empathy with a look of empathy on your face and placing your palm on your heart and nodding at Johnny. Optimally, you have established the kind of relationship with him that he “gets” it.
But parenting is not always easy, so let’s go with the non-optimal happening. Maybe Johnny is tired, hungry, or just having a bad day.
You have (a) empathized with Johnny’s needs silently or out loud to him and (b) calmly conveyed to him how the behavior impacts you and yet, he continues the behavior. At this point, if he continues the behavior, some parents might immediately yell, spank, or grab the kid and forcibly move them to another room.
Sure, those are examples of “active consequences,” using the most direct and easy approach. But what if you are a parent who wants to reserve coercion only as a last resort?
For the purposes of this example, we’ll assume Johnny’s physiological health is not in danger and you have tried to empathize with him.
Remove yourself from the area
If you have a space you can go to in order to get the quiet and peace you need to continue your phone conversation free of interruption, use that area.
Now, if the child follows you and either makes disruptive noise at the door or refuses to stay outside the room, there is no other person available to handle Johnny’s needs at the time, and you can not take a few moments from your phone call to give Johnny your full attention, then it may be time to create some more extreme active consequences for Johnny’s actions.
The last resort
“In the event of an emergency, put on your own oxygen mask first and then your child’s.”
Let’s take a look at your goals:
– Get your needs met.
– Get Johnny’s needs met.
Now your issues:
– You want to empathize with Johnny
– You worry that allowing Johnny’s needs to trump yours can send reinforce an attitude that will not serve either of you in the future.
What is parental coercion?
Let’s get clear on what coercion is in terms of parenting. I assert the following:
– Consider the property where the behavior is occurring. Is it in the home you pay for? Is it in the car you pay for? Most people understand why respecting property rights is important, so I’ll assume we share that understanding.
– What are a parent’s obligations to their children? I assert: Keep them safe and healthy. I also assert that it is not a parent’s obligation to “make their child happy”. I want to be clear. A parent can choose to contribute to a child’s happiness, but it is important to understand it is a choice. I prefer to support the child in a way where they are capable of generating and sustaining their own happiness.
Now that we got those two points out of the way, I wonder if you can see where I’m going with this? Pause to think about it a moment, if you like.
Continuing the example
You are having an important conversation. Johnny is screaming. You tried various forms of empathy, including giving a hand signal and/or a facial expression expressing to Johnny this is not desired or acceptable behavior. Optimally, you have enough of Johnny’s respect from previous interactions that the gesture works. You tried to remove yourself from the area. Johnny persisted with the behavior. Johnny’s health is not in imminent danger.
You tell the visitor or person on the other end of the phone you will call them right back. You hang up and give Johnny a stern look, while saying in calm voice, “Johnny I understand you may have a need to be seen and heard. I want to meet that need for you. I also have needs. When I was talking on the phone just now, and you interrupted, I had a need for consideration and patience not getting met. I signaled you that I’m annoyed and frustrated with your behavior. I will give you a choice: You stop now and wait for me to be available for you or I will put you in another room where you will not be able to disrupt my conversation.
At this point we are at a cross-road. If Johnny complies, you can breathe a sigh of relief and get back to your conversation. But let’s say he continues the behavior or even escalates. This is where you, in/on your own property and under no obligation to “make the child happy,” will, calm-but-firmly, say “Go to your room now.” If he still does not comply, you are fully within your rights to physically (gently as possible) move him to his room and even using the lock on the outside of the door if necessary.
“But it would be a little thing to pause my conversation and give Johnny the attention he craves.”
For now, consider what kind of person you want your child to become, both in your home and later in life when they venture out on their own. More on this later.
Some of you who are more creative may look for holes in this approach and maybe you will find some. Now, before you go far into that, I request you put on your “common sense” hat.
Here are some fun examples that all begin with “What if you lock him in a room and…”
– Your phone electrocutes you to death and no one else lives there, so the child is locked in his room and starves to death?”
– A sniper shoots you through the window, so Johnny eventually figures out how to break his bedroom window, but then bleeds to death from getting cut on the glass or breaks his neck falling out the window?
– An airplane falls out of the sky and hits your house at an angle where it kills you but leaves the kid to starve to death or roast in the flames from the burning wreck?
– An earthquake…
Yes, we can dream up all kinds of horrendous not-so-common scenarios to justify either beating our kids or passively letting them rule the house instead of taking the time to try reason, empathy, and potentially use of as gentle coercion as possible.
That all said, there are endless debates about whether children are to be considered “property” of their parents and thus supporting an idea that parents are morally correct to do anything they choose to their children, including violence far more harsh than I’ve spoken of her and maybe even choosing not to abide by the obligations to their children’s health that I asserted above. I’m not interested in those debates, as I see it as sufficient to use the methodologies and justifications I outlined above.
If you instead choose to stop your phone conversation before you are ready, to try to work with the child, meet their needs to be seen/heard in that moment, here are some potential negative consequences to them and their relationship:
– “I can interrupt whenever I want and I will get what I want immediately. I need not exercise patience, consideration, or self-control.”
– “If I demand, annoy, or make others uncomfortable enough, I get what I want.”
– “My feelings and needs are more important than anyone else’s, especially mom and dad.”
– I know many of you will choose to judge the “lock them in a room” as overly harsh and coercive. I know it may sound that way and even overly coercive to restrict their freedom of movement. I’ll remind you that they are in/on your property. Also, there are measures you can take to increase the safety of the area they are being restricted to. Of course, the child’s age must be considered.
– Finally, if you look closely at the examples above, you will find clarity and empathy.
Bullying and more on interference
I begin from a place of interference being a last resort, to be kept as a tool for use when the safety of a child is in question. Using the daycare again for an example. I remember watching a child as he hit another. I immediately ran over, physically stopped the hitting as gently as possible, and said, “We treat our friends with respect. Maybe you would like to get your need for power met by kicking a ball?” Did it work? It did insofar as the violence stopped and we moved on to play games with a ball that did meet the child’s needs.
I can’t say as to whether I’m sure if power was his need at the time when he was hitting the other child. It could have been a desire to be seen, recognition, or even connection. I don’t even think he had an idea what I meant by “need for power,” but I do know that within a week he and most of the other children had started using the language of Practical Empathy and even started showing some of the benefits of this practice, such as more acceptance, more peace, and more clarity in asking for what they wanted.
After being there about a week, one day while I was at the outside playground supervising the kids, I felt touched when a little one approached with a book, “Scotter, would you read this to me? I have a need for nurturing and mental stimulation.”