oh yeah, and…
In the last post I talked about praise and abandoning it, in all its forms, for the sake of your child. Then today, as the girls got into one scrap or another, I realized that perhaps now might be a good time to talk about punishment too, or more specifically leaving it behind as well. I know the idea of ditching both praise and punishment, is, for many of us, almost too radical. Or maybe we can support the idea of using less praise, or less punishment, but not forsaking them entirely. Most of us still imagine scenarios in which punishment is not only necessary, but wise.
Violence, for example.
For a really long time, when I entered the room and saw one child physically assault the other, (hauling back with a solid punch, or a wicked scratch to the face), my automatic instinct was to swoop in quickly, silently, and suddenly, grab the offenders arm, and forcefully boom something like, NO! NOT OKAY! in the scariest voice I could muster. The urge to stop them in their tracks, scare them out of their wits, and swiftly deal out justice was incredibly strong.
Today my feelings about one child hurting another are the same: strong, hot, and sudden. But my response is no longer automatic, scary, or aggressive. We figure if we want to teach them that violence hurts, and that it is not helpful to their argument, then for goodness sakes, swooping in aggressively with our own violent force certainly sends the wrong message. We have reprogrammed ourselves to respond with empathy instead, not just for the apparently wounded either, but for the aggressor as well. The aggressor? Yes. Its counterintuitive, I know.
Hitting is always an expression of a feeling, usually anger, maybe frustration or despair. We believe it is beneficial to allow our children all of their feelings, no matter what they are, and to help them through them. Though we do not want them to hit each other, we are still going to assist them with the strong feelings behind the hitting. The idea is to give empathy for all feelings, even if we don’t like how they are expressing them. One tendency might be to give empathy to the wounded child in order to send a message to the child that hit. But this, though more subtle, is still manipulative and still punishment. Love withdrawal, no matter how it is clothed, is still punishment. (Again, read Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn, if you are still wondering about punishment.)
This is how it works:
Parent enters the room to see Alex punch Evan in the head.
Parent: “Woah! Hey! Do you guys need help?! Evan are you alright?” (Immediately holding both boys, if they allow it, or at least touching them in a caring way.)
Evan: “He hit me!” (crying)
Parent: ” Yes he did. You didn’t like that. Is your head hurting?”
Alex: (interrupting) “Well he grabbed that truck from me! And I was playing with it!”
Parent: “You didn’t like it that he took that truck. You feel pretty mad about that?”
Parent: “You felt so mad that you wanted to hurt him.”
Alex: “Yeah! I just wanted to bam him!”
Parent: “Yeah. You were so mad. Evan got hurt when you hit him. Were you scared too Evan?”
Evan: “Yeah. I didn’t like that.”
Parent: “No you didn’t.”
Often, after plenty of this kind of empathy, when the kids feel both heard and understood, they are willing to work things out.
Parent: “So you both really want that truck.”
Alex and Evan: “Yeah.”
parent: “Do you guys have any ideas how both kids can get what they want?…….”
This might look like a lot of work when typed out, but we found that enforcing punishments was far more taxing. In fact, I have found this method of “empathy instead” extremely liberating. This morning the girls were arguing over a necklace. Echo had a necklace that Xi had set down in order to get a snack. Xi had the intention of picking the necklace back up and continuing to play with it after she was done eating, but Echo had every intention of continuing to play with the necklace and flat out refused to return it. I found myself getting anxious. I didn’t know who to side with, I couldn’t remember any snacktime-break-from-playing precedent in the recent past, and I was plain tired of their squabbling. Then I realized I didn’t have to have the answers! I could simply have empathy for them both. In the end they came up with a solution on their own, one that never would have been embraced if a parent had imposed it.
If, after giving empathy and negotiating a solution, you find that you still want to address something like hitting or sharing, find a moment removed from the current scenario. Snuggling up in bed, waiting for a red light, or walking to the library are perfect opportunities to talk about taking turns and expressing feelings in ways that keep other kids safe. Your children will actually be able to hear you if they aren’t in the middle of defending themselves, or processing heated emotions.
Hitting and our responses to these unsavory behaviors are big topics. Its important to give yourself lots of empathy while figuring out the best way to parent your children through these moments. There is ego to deal with, painful memories of our own childhoods to sidestep, huge aspirations to live up to, and peer pressure to maneuver through. The parenting adventure is fraught with pitfalls so go easy on yourself no matter where you are in your process.