Behavior Analysis, Development, Education, Gentle, love, reasonable expectations, Reinforcement, respectful parenting, Uncategorized

How We Avoid Punishing Our Children

I often see comments in gentle parenting boards asking, “If you don’t punish, what do you do?” Or, “There are definitely circumstances where punishments are necessary, right?”

As a BCBA (Board Certified Behavior Analyst), I frequently have to hold back from defining the term ‘punishment’ because I know that’s not exactly what folks mean. I won’t hold back here…

Punishment: something that decreases the future occurrence of a behavior.

That’s it.

A punishment can be anything. Let’s say you go running through a wet parking lot in your flip flops and you slip and fall. The next time you think to run through a wet parking lot while wearing flip flops you hesitate…then just walk. Your behavior of running through a wet parking lot was decreased. It was punished. Something (you falling) made you not do it again.

Punishment happens all the time. There are always things happening in response to our behavior that then decreases how often we engage in that behavior again.

Sooooooooo…. guess what that means? We can never truly avoid punishing our children. Our responses to certain behaviors may act as a punishment without us really realizing it.

For example, let’s say your child walks up to you to tell you he broke a dish from your grandmother’s china set, and you exclaim in horror, and demand to know how it happened. He gets scared by your response. The next time something breaks he either leaves it or hides it, and you find it later. His behavior of coming to you to talk about a broken item has decreased. He’s doing it less, or not at all. The behavior was punished.

But let’s move away from the definition of punishment. I know what people are really asking when they ask what parents do instead of punish… and I know what’s meant when other parents claim they don’t use punishment.

Imposed consequences.

Like sending your child to her room after she’s ‘talked back’ to you. Or putting your son in time out because he hit his sister. Or taking away your daughter’s favorite toy because she got in trouble at school.

And no… we don’t use imposed consequences. We don’t send our daughter to her room; we don’t take things away arbitrarily. We don’t demand recompense.

Imposed consequences are just a method of control. A way to try and tell your child that you have the ability to completely control their behavior. If they don’t do what you want, or they do something that displeases you, then you’ll exert that control.

This is no way to build trust in a relationship, or help your child learn to manage their own actions. Imposed consequences hinder the development of a child’s intrinsic motivation. Instead of doing what’s right because it’s the right thing to do, they do it because they know that if they don’t they’ll have to face some kind of consequence from you.

Imposing consequences also overshadows the natural consequences that occur. And it’s the natural consequences that make the biggest impact. If we consistently protect our children from the natural consequence and instead impose our own consequence, what are they learning?

If a 4-year-old hits her 2-year-old brother and mom intervenes immediately, scolds the 4-year-old, and sends her to her room for hitting, natural consequences are not being experienced and she may hit again… but only after making sure mom wasn’t around to see.

If we allow for natural consequences, this scene may play out differently:

A 4-year-old hits her 2-year-old brother and he gets upset and pushes her. She doesn’t like that he pushed her so she pushes him back. He lashes out, hits her, and yells. She really doesn’t like that and moves away from him. Her behavior of hitting begins to lessen, or she doesn’t do it again.

Obviously there can be so many different variations of this scene… and when safety becomes an issue a parent should definitely intervene.

So what does it look like to have a parent intervene without imposing consequences? It may go something like this:

A 4-year-old hits her 2-year-old brother and he gets upset and pushes her. She doesn’t like that he pushed her so she pushes him back. He lashes out, hits her, and yells. They begin grabbing each other, trying  to scratch, and an all-out brawl breaks out. Mom steps in, picking up the younger child, effectively ending the brawl. “It looks like you both need a break from each other. Why don’t we play separately for a bit?” And then she moves with the 2-year-old to another space/room/activity. From here, other issues can be addressed if necessary, such as why the hitting happened in the first place (“he took the toy I was playing with!), and what can be done instead of hitting (“Ask for it back like we practiced, or come and get me and I will help you.”)

Addressing the reasons so soon after may not be necessary, and if young children are still  in fight or flight mode they will not be able to really comprehend what’s being discussed anyway. So waiting till everyone has cooled off is usually best.

Like I said, there could be a ton of different variations of that particular example, I know, but the point is: we want to allow for natural consequences and avoid imposed ones. Step in when we need to, but help our children through challenges. Not demand they go sit by themselves, or take away their possessions.

The only reason we may take away a toy or something from our daughter is if she’s using it inappropriately (breaking it, or other things with it, hurting someone with it, etc.). In these situations we might say, “This is not how this toy is used. Let’s move onto something different for now.” A similar interaction may occur with your teenager: “You keep getting home later than what we’ve agreed upon. It’s not safe, nor is it legal, for you to be driving that late. I can’t let you drive the car for now because it would be irresponsible of me, as your parent. We’re going to have to talk about what can be done to make sure you’re getting home when you need to.”

These examples are a bit clean, I realize this. They don’t really show all the emotion that goes on during these challenges with our kids. I’m not saying we can’t show our emotions – our fear, frustration, and sometimes anger. But imposing consequences when we’re feeling those strong feelings often means we’re just looking to do something that makes US feel better. As though we are actually doing something to address the situation, make our child realize the seriousness of the situation, or try to ensure that what they did will never happen again. WE often feel like we NEED to do something… and this feeling seems to stem from personalizing our child’s behavior. As though what she did was an affront to you and now she must suffer the consequences. It’s in these situations, however, that we must model appropriate responses. We can be authentic in displaying our emotions without exerting unnecessary force over our children.

Long story short, how do we avoid imposed consequences? By offering our daughter the same respect we would want offered to us. By treating each challenge as a problem to be solved, or an emotion with which to empathize, or a need to be met.

How do I know this method is working? I know it by watching how my daughter interacts with me, her dad, and others. By catching glimpses of the empathy she’s developing and grasping. By how she handles tough situations and challenges. And by how she plays.

Just now she said to us, “Let’s play house! I’m the mommy. Daddy, you’re the daddy. Danny is the baby. Mommy, you’re the big sister.” I had been nursing Danny, and a moment later he launched himself off of me, kicking me in the hip. So I said, “Ouch! Mommy! Danny kicked me!”

Clare (in her soothing, calm, mommy voice): Aw hun, it’s ok. He kicked you?

Me: Yes! It hurt! He kicked me in the hip!

Clare: Hun it’s ok. It hurts? Well let me get you something.

Me: Like ice?

Clare: No. Something soft. A pillow. Here! I’ll put it where it hurts. It’s ok.

Do you know what she didn’t do there? She didn’t turn to her little brother and scold him. Or yell. Or tell him he shouldn’t kick. Aside from a quick glance to her ‘son’ to make sure he was now being cared for by Daddy, she didn’t address him at all. She only addressed me, and what I was going through, and worked to help me through it in the best way she knew.

This is how I want her handling issues: working to solve the problems, and take care of those around her. Not placing blame or telling others what they shouldn’t be doing, or imposing consequences.


Let’s recap, and let’s change the term from ‘imposed consequences’ back to its common form: ‘punishments.’

Why do we avoid punishing our children?

Because imposed consequences:

  • interfere with natural consequences
  • very often do not address the need or issue at hand
  • is a method of control, which hinders trust and does not allow for children to learn to manage their own behavior
  • very often is only done to make us, as parents, feel better

How do we avoid punishing our children?

  • by meeting needs
  • empathizing with our child’s feelings
  • changing the environment 
  • allowing natural consequences as often as is appropriate (while also maintaining safety)
  • reinforcing the behavior we want to see

Interested in learning more about the methods we use? Interested in learning about behavior science, and how it can help you become a more gentle parent? Check out my upcoming classes!

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