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How to appropriately discipline children is a topic that we begin to consider during our own childhood.

This process becomes acute and urgent when we become parents ourselves.

What works? What's best? How are we going to teach this child to behave?  How are we going to show love to this child?  What rules are we going to have and how are we going to enforce them?  These are the questions that parents-to-be ask themselves as soon as they become aware of pregnancy, adoption or guardianship.

Our culture has often stopped at "what works". This is a short term and limited way to approach discipline. The discipline choices we make affect the quality of our daily lives and, later, the daily lives of our adult children. The tone, tenor and family dynamic we cultivate emerges as a result of the discipline choices we make.

Simply put, there are 3 kinds of discipline:


Punitive – Parents who use punishment as a means to teach.

Permissive – Parents who fail to define and enforce appropriate rules.

Effective Practical Parenting – Parents who utilize proactive and responsive measures to honor reasonable rules of conduct.

In making discipline decisions, we need to evaluate what works from a big picture standpoint.  We also need to define what “works” looks like in terms of daily life and as embodied in our children.

In order to determine “what works”, let’s take a more in depth look at the 3 discipline approaches.

Punitive Parenting

Punitive parenting approaches children with the assumption that parenting is a battle of wills.  Parents and children stand on opposite ends of the rope in a figurative game of tug of war.  Indeed, even our language reflects this assumption.  We have a “battle” with our children and we find ways to “win”.

 

Punitive parents assume children have to feel bad in order to learn - though they may not use those words to describe it. When confronted with inappropriate behavior in their children, punitive parents search for a punishment to extinguish the behavior.  Punitive tools include: time outs, spanking, lectures, grounding, loss of unrelated privileges or property, physical exercise, and physical discipline such as hot sauce on the tongue.  Reward/punishment systems are part of a punitive paradigm. 

 

Punitive parenting is the most common type of parenting today in our culture.  Even most permissive parents use punitive tools when they do attempt to discipline their children.  Punitive parenting is so pervasive that punishment and discipline are used interchangeably, as though there were synonyms.  We are immersed in a punitive culture; it’s hard to imagine parenting without those tools.  You’ll find punishments in homes, at church, school, on sports teams, and in other organized activities for children.

 

If most people use some degree of punitive parenting, why consider abandoning it? 

 

Punitive parents risk creating an adversarial tone and dynamic that pervades the home and taints each interaction.  A home that includes frequent use of punishment is a home that offers less proactive discipline, less teaching, minimal coaching, less of an emphasis on modeling and less setting a child up for success.  At the extreme, a punitive home crosses the line into abuse.

 

It’s hard to challenge the punitive model of discipline.  Most of us hold onto it in an almost primal way.  Indeed, when I speak to people about giving up the thinking behind punishing children, they react rather passionately in defense of the “need” to punish children. 

Parenting without punishment does not mean that you will parent without rules.  It does not mean that you will have less high standards (although some adjustment for age may be suggested). It does not mean that your children will have more authority or you will have less authority.  It does not mean they will fail to develop discipline, good character and self control.

 

It’s true that punishment may extinguish or mitigate misbehavior. Punitive Parenting can "work" in the short term. Spanking can work for some kids, for example. Children can learn, through fear, to not run into the street. On the other hand, punitive parenting often takes the focus off the original behavior and puts the focus on the punishment. Punitive parenting risks feelings of love, safety and connection.

It can also create resentment, rebellion, anger, fear, and frustration.  Punishing does not teach how to do better; it only has the potential to teach to not do something.  Imposing punishment often obscures the real issue.  Feeling the need to find punishment displaces the time and energy that could be spent connecting, enveloping and correcting.



After imposed punishment, the parent and child often feel the situation is over.  Each event is taken in the limited context of the specific behavior.  Opportunities for setting the stage for success are abandoned and teaching a child what to do instead is skipped.  Punishment is short sighted and finite. 

 

Happily, and contrary to our collective misunderstanding, punishment is not necessary.  Children can be parented, guided, coached and disciplined without punishment.

 

The idea that a child needs to be punished in order for them to obey the rules is an erroneous idea.  Instead, children need to be immersed in a life designed to help them reach a reasonable standard and offered age appropriate assistance to hit successfully achieve that standard. 

 

Permissive Parenting

 

Permissive parenting is an awful thing to do to a child, a family and a culture.  It creates unhappy families, unhappy grocery store clerks, aghast in-laws and, later, frustrated employers.

 

Permissive parenting takes many forms.


It’s the parent who repeats a child’s name endlessly without doing anything to enforce what they want done or stopped.


It’s the parent who has vague rules around the comings and goings of a preteen.


It’s the parent who threatens a (punitive) response, but never follows through.


It’s the parent who walks on eggshells to avoid a meltdown or tantrum.

 

Permissively parented children feel unloved.  And insecure. And inappropriately powerful.

Permissive parents come in several types. One type comes to permissiveness through neglect. Often this parent has unresolved addiction and/or depression issues. The parent isn't able to parent at all and the child is allowed to do nearly anything.

Another type of permissive parent is more attuned and better intentioned. This is the type who feels age appropriate behavior is not only expected, but will be outgrown without intervention.  

Another type of permissive parent is simply lazy, or at least unaware.  This is the parent who intends to guide and direct but does little more than issue empty threats and repeat their child’s name endlessly in a lame attempt to get the child to change the behavior. 

All 3 permissive types are at risk for switching into a severely punitive, angry style when the ineffectiveness of their discipline attempts makes life miserable.

The reasons to avoid permissive parenting are more obvious than the reasons to avoid punitive parenting.  Permissively parented children quickly become terrors at 2, bullies at 7 and delinquents at 16.  These are the extremes.  Permissively parented children are often damaged in less glaringly obvious ways, including depression, poor decision making, and failure to define and assert boundaries in their adult lives.

Security, safety, health are issues for permissively parented children.

Permissive parenting doesn't “work”. Although some assume the child is going to love it, typically a permissively parented child feels unloved, neglected and out of control. Other family and friends often resist spending time around permissive families.  The child searches for the limits, for the envelope of love and control which good, aware and engaged parenting would provide. 

Most people reading would agree that it’s imperative to avoid permissiveness, even though many permissive parents don’t see themselves as qualifying for that label.

If we are to avoid punitive parenting and permissive parenting, how do we discipline children in a way that has reasonable rules and respectful ways of enforcing them?