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 statement 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.

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.

There a two dichotomous sets of vocabulary words that need to be defined before you can apply them to your child’s behavior. The first is the difference between a reinforcer and a punisher. In 1905, Edward Thorndike created the Law of Effect, which says that behaviors which are followed by a satisfying outcome are more likely to be repeated, while behaviors which are followed by a discomforting outcome are less likely to be repeated. In a nutshell, the first part of the Law of Effect is describing a reinforcement and the second part is describing a punishment. Put another way, a reinforcer is anything you do for/with your child that is intended to encourage your child to repeat his/her positive behavior, and a punishment is anything that is intended to discourage your child from repeating his/her negative behavior. As we will discuss, how you define the behaviors that your child exhibits is up to you. Some behaviors, such as honesty, might be construed as positive in one situation (e.g. You ask your child, “Did you eat that cookie?) and negative in another (e.g. Your child says to your friend, “That dress is ugly!”).

Next, we have to discuss the difference between responses which involve giving something to our child, versus taking something away. There are two ways to reinforce our child – we can either give them a reward, such as a toy or a piece of candy or a compliment, or we can take something away, such as some of the child’s chores, or a curfew. Remember, when talking about reinforcement, we are talking about things we are doing in order to encourage our child to repeat the behavior we like. So, in this case, what we would call positive reinforcement would be giving the child something as a reward, while what we would call negative reinforcement would involve taking something that the child doesn’t like away from them, again as a reward.

In my teaching practice, my students often have a difficult time with the words “positive” and “negative.” Our first instinct is to equate “positive” with “good,” and “negative” with “bad.” When discussing these terms, we must instead think of the word “positive” and “negative” like math terms – positive is adding and negative is subtracting.  A positive reinforcement is something we add to our child’s life that is intended to send the message that the behavior we are rewarding is something we would like to see again. A negative reinforcement is something that we take away from our child that is intended to send the same message. So, when our child does something that we like and wish to encourage, we can either give them something pleasurable, or take something away that is unpleasurable.

Activity: Think about your own parenting, and make a list of as many positive and negative reinforcers that you have used. Next to each specific reinforcement, write down what behavior your child had exhibited that you were trying to encourage in the future. Be as explicit as possible.

Similar to reinforcement, punishment can be delivered by adding or subtracting something from your child. For example, if your child hits his brother, you can give him extra chores, yell at him, make him write an essay about why he shouldn’t hit his brother, OR you can take away his Ipad, video games, outside play time, give him a time-out (which is taking away his freedom). The first set of examples would be called “positive punishment,” because you are adding something to the child’s life that is intended to send the message that the behavior you are punishing is something you do not want the child to do again. Conversely, the second set of examples would be called “negative punishment” because we are taking away something from our child in order to send the same message.

At this point, I would like to specify my comments about punishment by saying that I am not a believer in spanking or any form of corporal punishment. The research on spanking is generally dismal, in terms of the amount of resentment it can build on the part of the child, and its ineffectiveness in the long-term. Therefore, as I speak about punishment, I will be speaking about nonviolent punishment.

My students especially find it difficult to think about “positive punishment,” mainly because punishment is never positive to the receiver of the punishment. However, as discussed, this is confusing the meaning of the word “positive.” To make things clearer, behaviorists have given alternate names to these two strategies. Positive punishment is sometimes called “punishment by application,” while negative punishment can be called “punishment by removal.” Regardless of what you call it, we punish when we don’t like our child’s behavior, and we reward when we do. And, regardless of whether we are punishing or rewarding, we have two alternatives – giving something to our child, or taking something away.

Activity: Think about your own parenting, and make a list of as many positive and negative punishments that you have used. Next to each specific punishment, write down what behavior your child had exhibited that you were trying to discourage in the future. Be as explicit as possible.

Take a minute to reflect on the reinforcers, punishers, and child behaviors that you wrote down in the last two activities. Now, compare what you have to the goals you created for your parenting and your child from the last section. Be honest with yourself: In what ways do your reinforcers and punishers match those goals? This is what I mean by being intentional about our parenting. If one of your goals is to teach your child good manners, but you don’t have any examples of occasions where you rewarded your child when she demonstrated good manners, then this is a gap that ought to be addressed. If one of your goals as a parent is to be patient and kind with your discipline, but your list of punishers is not consistent with those qualities you wish to emulate, then this is another gap.

Activity: In what ways do your lists match up to your goals? If you were going to improve on your list, so that the next time you create one, it was a better match, what changes would you want to make? Focus on the kinds of behaviors you want to reward more often, which behaviors you want to punish more often, and the methods that you use (tone of voice, emotional content, bodily contact,  magnitude of your reactions). No parent is perfect, including you. How can you improve?

Let’s discuss the interplay of rewards and nonviolent punishments in a little more detail, focusing on what the decades of research on effective parenting says. First of all, the research is very clear – with humans, animals, in a lab, in the home, everywhere and with everything – reinforcements are more effective than punishments. In my opinion, the reason that reinforcers work so much better than even nonviolent punishments is that reinforcers come with INFORMATION. When a child is punished, the child only knows what he did wrong, but often, we neglect to provide our child with alternative responses to the situation that brought about the negative behavior. If a child is playing with his brother, and his brother takes away his toy, the child is angry, perhaps frustrated, and the hitting behavior that he may use to express himself is a natural inclination. As humans, we have some violent instincts. Have you ever been frustrated by your boss, or a parent, and you had a fleeting (or not so fleeting) vision of revenge? Of course you have. Humans get angry, and violence is a way to express our anger. Problem is, outside of certain proscribed contexts (like the military or sports), violence is not an acceptable behavior in the adult world. You can get sued, or fired, or incarcerated for violence.

You and I have learned these potential punishments for violence, and most of us hold back on our violent thoughts to avoid them. Your child, however, may not have fully incorporated this need for repression. That is where you come in! Your job as parent is to teach your child how to act, so that when she is grown up, she will be able to live a productive life, with money and a job, outside of prison. Now the rub: Your child wasn’t born with any strategies for repressing anger and frustration. Especially when she is young, your child reacts to situations authentically, and with very little of the self-censorship that we adults have learned to varying degrees. So where will she learn how to act differently when she is frustrated? From you!

Now, I am not saying that your child shouldn’t be punished if he hits his brother. What I am saying is that in addition to you sending the message that this behavior is inappropriate, you also need to send a message about what he should do next time, instead. Most of the time, punishers are delivered without any conversation about why the child is being punished, and what the child could have done instead. So the first rule of good nonviolent punishment is this – Talk with your child about alternatives to their behavior. For example, you could talk about how hard it is to deal with being angry, or to be treated unfairly, and that, when you are angry, you need to calm down before you can handle the situation. Teach your child how to ask to leave the room, how to close their eyes and count to ten, how to take deep breaths, and why being calm in the face of an angering situation is good.

Next, you can help to facilitate a conversation between your child and his brother (after everyone is calm), to help your child express his feelings. You can make sure to deliver the message that talking about how you feel is an important way to address something that makes you angry, and that it is better to express our feelings than to hold them inside and let them fester. We will talk in a later chapter about communication. For now, this can serve as an example of how a nonviolent punishment should be supplemented with information about what the child could have done differently.

IMPORTANT NOTE: If you have problems with anger, and you haven’t yet learned how to follow the strategies that you might want to teach your child, work on yourself first, so that your child knows that you are credible and authentic.  You have surely heard the expression, “Do as I say and not as I do.” This saying sarcastically reprimands us when we our actions belie our words. Do as I do, AND as I say, should be the motto for your parenting.

ANOTHER IMPORTANT POINT: Much of the information I will be advising you to teach your child seems like common sense. Please remember that at one time in your life, you didn’t know how to calm down when you were angry either. You weren’t as versed in communicating your feelings as you are now. You learned those skills as you grew up, perhaps by your parent(s). Your child needs to learn them as well, from you.

Now, here is the clincher – how to use nonviolent punishment most effectively: After your child has been punished, and you have given your child information about how to handle similar situations in the future, reward your child when you see them using the alternatives. Remember, your child wants to please you. You should give your child as many opportunities to gain your praise and positive regard as you can.

More about punishers: Removing privileges, in the opinion of many psychologists, is vastly preferable to punishments that include yelling and spanking. If your goals as a parent are to be patient, kind or understanding, I hope you will agree with me that violent reactions to your child’s behavior are inconsistent, not to mention unnecessary. Your child will not gain anything extra from you berating them or hurting them, that she cannot gain from other forms of punishment. Your job as parent is to teach how to act, and removing freedoms, toys, playthings, car keys, cell phones, sends that message loud and clear, especially if, after you are calm, you discuss with your child the alternatives. Yelling and spanking reflect baser reactions to your child which are not conducive to the relationship that I would want you to build. In addition, there is a rather large research base which suggests that spanking in particular doesn’t even work that well in the long-term. Instead, punish unwanted behavior through the removal of privileges, and then reward your child for positive behavior. If you wish to read more about this, see my article on spanking here.

The importance of consistency and timing

The research on nonviolent punishment demonstrates the importance of consistency. If your child acts inappropriately, it is most effective to address it, and punish it, immediately. When I was growing up, I heard “Wait until your father gets home” all too often. If father isn’t home, then mother should do the punishment. The sooner after the negative behavior takes place, the better. Your child will learn the association between the nonviolent punishment and the behavior more comprehensively if the time gap is as short as possible.

In addition, punishment for inappropriate/unwanted behavior is more effective if it is delivered consistently. How many times have you been to the store and heard a scenario like this?

“Mom, can I have a candy?”

“No, not today.”

[child picks up the candy]

“Put the candy down, I said no.”

[child holds the candy]

“I said, put the candy down.”

[child lifts the candy to her mouth]

“Don’t put that in your mouth.”

[child moves it closer to her mouth]

“You better put that candy down before I count to three.”

[child moves it closer]

“One…”

“Two…”

“Three…”

[child puts the candy in her mouth]

“Take that candy out of your mouth right now.”

[child swallows candy]

[Mom sighs with exasperation, or threatens the child with something that will happen later – “When we get home…”]

The mom in this situation may feel reluctant to punish the child in a public place, or perhaps she doesn’t like punishing her child because of some confused boundaries. No matter the reason, what you are witnessing when you see a scene like this is a whole history of empty threats, and inconsistent punishment. The child has learned that the mom cannot be believed. Why wouldn’t she put the candy in her mouth? She gets the candy, and no consequences. Or, she may be punished, but most of the time she misbehaves, her mom, burnt out by her daughter’s bad behavior, doesn’t do anything. If the candy looks good enough, it might be worth “rolling the dice.”

Here’s another situation – dinner at a friend’s house:

[Son finishes eating, and walks away without clearing his dishes]

“Tom, come put your dishes away, please.”

[Tom acts like he doesn’t hear]

“Tom!”

“What?”

“Come back and put your dishes away.”

“Ok.”

[Tom walks away]

“Tom, come back and put your dishes away or we’re leaving.”

[Tom runs off]

[Mom sighs and cleans Tom’s dishes.]

Here’s another hard and fast rule of punishing – Don’t make a threat you have no intention of carrying out. In this situation, Mom may have wanted to stay at the party. She’s having fun. She throws out the threat of leaving, hoping it will work. When it doesn’t, Mom gives in, because she doesn’t want to leave the party. If Mom makes this threat, and Tom doesn’t comply, then it’s time to leave. As it says in the Bible, “Let your yes be yes, and your no, no.” (Matthew 5:37) It is essential that your child understand that ultimatums and warnings are serious, and will be followed by action – every time. Counting to three is meaningless if three is followed by zero!

Nonviolent punishments are a necessary component of parenting. For many parents, it is the hardest part of the job. You love your child, and you don’t want to punish him. I understand. I feel a little sick to my stomach whenever I have to punish my children, because I don’t want them to feel any discomfort or experience any hardship (there’s another chapter on this coming up). However, your child needs boundaries, and the knowledge of what is right and wrong to grow up and be successful. Saving your child from a punishment now may only lead them to a far more severe punishment from society later. And the people who will punish him later – his boss, a police officer, his teacher – will care far less about him than you do. In short, despite how you might feel about punishing your child when it is necessary, appropriate, nonviolent punishment is an act of love.

3 Replies to “Using nonviolent punishment: Effective parenting toolbox”

  1. I love the notebook idea! It’s a great way to step back and look at what your parents did to see if you can do better. I can see this being beneficial for couples as well so they can see if they are on the same page when it comes to parenting styles.

    1. Thank you for your comment. I in turn like the idea of couples using the notebook idea to communicate their parenting plans.

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