oh yeah, and…

February 26, 2010 at 10:21 pm 12 comments

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?”

Evan: “Yeah”

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?”

Alex: “Yeah”

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.

Entry filed under: discipline, empathy, parenting principles. Tags: , , , , , .

it’s counterintuitive, i know out with the old

12 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Annie  |  February 26, 2010 at 10:54 pm

    You rule. I love this blog.

    And where did you find that picture??!!

    • 2. nataliechristensen  |  February 28, 2010 at 11:54 am

      Thanks Annie!
      I love to google things like “fighting kids” in an image search and see what comes up. That’s how I found this CRAZY image. 🙂

  • 3. kimberley  |  February 27, 2010 at 7:13 pm

    thank you. thank you for taking the time to explain parenting with empathy over and over again. It really helps somehow to hear different scenarios – how the argument went, what you might have said, how you used empathy instead….it really helps. I am a new mommy of a 5 1/2 month old, just beginning this parenting journey and finding all of the natural parenting, non violent communication stuff amazing and yet very overwhelming. Can I measure up? Will I ever be able to do it? Will I keep my cool? I really enjoy your posts – thanks


    • 4. nataliechristensen  |  February 28, 2010 at 12:08 pm

      Thanks for the feedback Kimberley. I’m sensitive to sounding like a broken record, so I’m glad that all the examples are working for you. The parenting journey is so amazing, but all the information that comes with it is a lot to take in. If you can, remember to go easy on yourself, your sweet baby is already benefiting from your intentions. natalie

  • 5. gray  |  February 28, 2010 at 11:32 am

    Your blog always makes me think, and think hard about the way I’m trying to parent. My desire to parent differently than my parents is strong, but without role models it’s hard. I feel like I’m learning new ways of thinking all the time, especially from reading your posts. Thanks for taking the time to share. It’s making a huge difference in my life!!

    • 6. nataliechristensen  |  February 28, 2010 at 12:02 pm

      Thanks for reading! It feels wonderful to me to share. I’m so happy you are finding it useful.

  • 7. Jen  |  February 28, 2010 at 12:03 pm

    Thank you for your post. I would love it if more parents and caregivers gave this a chance—I am also curious to see how it works out for you.

    I try this out at home and use it in the classroom. I have found blind ambiguous praise and punishment not as effective as a developmentally appropriate conversation such as you described. The trouble is that others interpret this as “doing nothing” and it takes a lot of courage and will power to follow through.

    • 8. nataliechristensen  |  February 28, 2010 at 12:13 pm

      Yes. You’re right. This kind of parenting requires a lot of self-confidence. Many people see using words instead of action as “permissive”- which really isn’t the case. I think there is fear involved, a fear of new ways to do things, a fear of honesty, a fear of “having” to learn something else, a fear of being wrong for the way they already parent/teach. It’s hard for me not to get defensive, but I know that isn’t helpful to any of us.

  • 9. nataliechristensen  |  February 28, 2010 at 8:16 pm

    What do you think the difference is between praise and encouragement…?

    I do not see a big difference between praise and encouragement, and try to avoid both.

    Let’s look at a scenario. A girl is practicing climbing stairs, or a ladder. She gets up one step but then starts to whimper and wants mom to hold her or help her. Mom thinks the girl needs encouragement so she says:
    “You can do it! Go ahead! You’re a big girl, I know you can do it!”

    This kind of response butts in on the experience the girl is having. She is essentially being asked (albeit subtly) to ignore her feelings and carry on, move forward, to please or respond to someone else’s opinion or wishes. I know it doesn’t look like that on the surface. Mom is certainly trying to be helpful and loving. But it doesn’t take many of these kinds of interactions to start to alter the way the girl sees herself and the world.

    If she feels like she really can’t do it, and mom thinks she can, then what does that mean? Does it mean she isn’t a good climber? Does it mean mom doesn’t believe her? Does it mean mom isn’t going to help her when she needs it? Does she have to do it alone? Does she have to make it to the top of the ladder so that mom is proud of her?

    My version of helpful or encouraging looks like this:
    “You’re looking for some help to climb that? You climbed the first step but then it seems like you felt a little nervous. Are you scared? Yeah, that’s higher than you’ve climbed before. Would you feel safer if I held your hand?”

    This is the kind of help that fosters a secure feeling, a sense that mom really is there to support her.

  • 10. Carol  |  March 1, 2010 at 6:59 pm

    Thank you for the reminders! I’ve been struggling a bit lately with my two year old and often feel like I use the mean mama voice way to much and it’s clearly not effective!

    Just found this blog and will be sure to check it out again and mention it in my own blog.


  • 11. Lorien  |  March 1, 2010 at 11:23 pm

    My almost two year old hits me in anger a lot. Obviously I don’t hit him back. I tell him that it makes me mad. It REALLY triggers me. Sometimes I hold down his hand so he can’t hit me. I know I should be trying to figure out what is the core problem, and addressing it. However, it seems like a constant experience for him right now. He is still not talking much, so it is hard to reason things out with him. He doesn’t respond to the “You’re MAD, aren’t you”. He just wants to hit when he feels thwarted or frustrated. It doesn’t seem to matter what I do. It’s hard, because I have a lot of anger myself, and a lot of judgment and rejection for that anger. So I am working on being present and accepting of both of our anger. I don’t know how to verbally empathize with both parties when he hits another preverbal toddler, either. Thanks for the blog. It is useful.

  • 12. Without a Net | "A Beautiful Place of the World"  |  August 27, 2010 at 11:18 am

    […] Want more info? Check out two of Natalie’s previous posts about it here and here… This entry was posted in Parenting Ideas and tagged attachment parenting, children, […]


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