Posts tagged ‘punishment’

close call

I’d like to say that I respond to my children with empathy as my first and immediate response. I’d love to say that I never waver from a loving and kind stance, no matter what the situation might be, but alas. It just isn’t true. Sometimes, even though, as I begin, I know it is the wrong/unhelpful path to travel I plunge headlong regardless.

The other day while writing a post to this blog the two younger girls were playing in the bathroom bathing a baby-doll. In the back of my consciousness I could hear them getting prickly with one another but I didn’t tune-in completely to their struggle. I typed onward until their yelling and screeching broke through my concentration. With consternation I burst onto the scene.


Xi: She splashed me and I don’t want to be wet!!!

Echo: Will you hold me mama!!?? Wahhh!

Me: (Sternly and annoyed)What happened?

Xi: She got me wet!

Me: (Exasperated) And what did you do?

Xi: Nothing.

Me: (Frustrated) I don’t believe that. Did you say you’d prefer to stay dry? Did you ask her to stop?

Xi: No.

Me: What did you do instead?

Xi: Nothing!

Echo: Well, I got her wet and she hit me! And then I hit her and I spit at her.

Xi: No I did not Echo! You hit me.

Me: Well you guys, I really don’t like how you are treating each other. Xi, if Echo does something you don’t like, talk to her about it and if that doesn’t work come and get me to help you. But you didn’t do that, did you, and now look at you guys. Both of you are upset. And Echo, Xi didn’t like getting wet and she didn’t like getting hit either. You chose to handle it in a way that was upsetting to both of you. Now you’re both mad and both crying. Etc. Etc. Etc…….

I went on and on. Annoyed. Exasperated. I didn’t pick Echo up. I blustered about, wiping up water, and scrunching up my forehead in irritation. And then after I had “sorted it all out”, deciding who was at fault and what they could have done differently, guess what? THEY DIDN’T FEEL BETTER. My response had not improved the situation in the slightest, in fact it only made it worse. By the end of my rant Echo was a crying lump on the living room floor and Xi was slumped against the bathroom wall, tears stalled on her cheeks and hair hanging limp.

They were still mad. And sad. In fact as a last stab Xi said: Thanks a lot for getting me wet ECHO.

And I said: Hey! I don’t like the way you are talking to her. If you are upset with her then say that instead of sarcasm. That’s bullshit. We don’t talk to you that way and I don’t want you to talk to her that way.

Guess what? That didn’t work very well either.

I took a deep, regretful, breath and started over.

I asked Xi what, in particular, she was upset about and she wouldn’t answer me. Understandably she wasn’t exactly seeing me as an ally. So I made my best guess.

Me: My guess is that it feels unfair. Unfair that Echo got you wet, unfair that she spit on you, and unfair that I came in and started yelling at both of you and not her.

Xi: Yeah.

Me: Would it have felt better if I had just checked in with you when I came in? Talked with you about your feelings instead of huffing and puffing at you guys?

Xi: (Smiling) Yeah. You were like the grandmother in that book we were reading!

Me: I know. I was mad and saying, “you did this, and you did that!”. That was definitely a mistake. I made a mistake. It didn’t really matter who did what to who, what mattered is that you guys were upset.

Xi: (Happy) Yeah.

Then I crawled over to the lump of Echo on the floor to give her love and hear about her feelings, and it was over. Happy children and happy Mama. Once I got out of my automated response and switched to empathy, the process was lightning-quick.

At the bottom of it all I was mad, annoyed, and frustrated that I was interrupted from what I was working on. I didn’t take a second to give myself empathy before I barged in to “help”. Instead I carried my emotions with me and threw them at the girls. Secondly, I fell into the trap of thinking that by giving the kids empathy I would be siding with one or the other, or condoning their actions. It felt like if I picked Echo up and held her I would be supporting her decision to spit at Xi. If I wiped Xi’s tears and rubbed her back, it would be like telling her it was okay that she didn’t use her words to communicate with Echo. This way of thinking is a trap because it causes me to act against what I know.

Empathy supports a person’s feelings, not their actions.

Empathy allows a child to act from a place other than their feelings.

I managed to pull the interaction out of the gutter at the last second. Thankfully we all came away from the dispute feeling more connected, but it was a close one.



June 6, 2010 at 8:57 am 4 comments

out with the old

There have been a flurry of questions about the previous posts. We have always been empathic parents, even when using both praise and punishment, but now we use empathy as our primary tool, and leave praise and punishment out of the equation. Here is what our transition has been like.

Bella, now nine years old, was four when Nathan and I  decided to go cold turkey with praise and punishment. When we told her we would no longer be giving her time-outs, and that we would offer empathy and information instead, her eyes widened and a big grin slid across her face. She was delighted. Her sister Xi was two at the time, but began immediately to reap the rewards of the new parenting style as well since we didn’t have to set her down in order to rush Bella off  for a time-out. Nor did she have to endure the shouting that occurred every time Bella fought against the very idea of a time-out. Instead, Xi remained in arms while we held Bella and sorted through the trouble. Echo, born a couple years later, has been parented with empathy from the get go, and has had the benefit, in addition to her parents, of two sisters handling her baby demands and screams with sincere empathy and problem solving instead of eye rolling and threats.

As we shifted toward empathy as our main response, the main thing we noticed was the tendency for the child to still squirm away from responsibility. Accustomed to a disagreeable consequence, they would still do things to evade punishment, like distorting the facts of the situation to paint themselves in a better light. We had to continuously remind them that there was not going to be a time-out, that they could be completely honest with us and we would still hold them, love them, and work it out with words.

That being said, although both Nathan and I parent this way all the time, the co-parents of Bella and Xi do not. So some of these difficulties with candor still occasionally pop up today. We find that the more time, proportionally speaking, the child spends in another environment, the more often these difficulties arise. The daughter that spends most of the week away from us, might, during a moment of strife, first respond with a lie, (before she realizes this is unnecessary), in an effort to protect herself from the punishment she is accustomed to receiving at her other home. The second daughter, who spends less time away from us, might twist the facts just slightly before remembering that she doesn’t have to. The third daughter, who is with us all day, every day, cops to an offense immediately. “I wanted that toy so I grabbed it from her and then I punched her!

In addition to learning that there was no longer any reason not to be honest with us, the girls also had to learn that we were being honest with them. Our questions about their emotional state were not rhetorical. At first, if we asked “How do you feel about that?“, we often got a reluctant, disgruntled, “Fine“, in return. They did not yet know that we really did want to know how they felt, we really did have every intention of not only discovering their opinions but also factoring them in completely, and using this information to find solutions that met everybody’s needs. It took time to build their trust.

Parenting in this new way also required a little restructuring of our days. It took awhile to get used to allowing for time in the moment to see an empathic discussion through to its end. We are now aware that in comparison, time is actually saved by parenting in this manner. For example, leaving the grocery store in order to carry out that common threat: “If you can’t stop ________, then we will have to leave the store!“, is even more inefficient than taking a moment to actually be with a child while he melts down in the cereal aisle. When using empathy, information, and patience as your primary parenting tools, designing a simple day for you and your children becomes a necessary practicality. If you are unwilling to forcibly strap your toddler into their car seat when they resist buckling up, squeezing several back to back appointments into one day just isn’t smart.

Eliminating praise took some getting used to as well. The very idea that sweet sounding words like “Good job“, and “Well done!” might be harmful is a bit of a brain twister. We certainly slipped on occasion, but by and by, the other, simply observational ways of responding, became second nature and now we hardly think of it at all. But let’s face it, even if we no longer praise our kids, %99.9 of the rest of our culture does. There is no way to avoid it.

When confronted with a stranger that wants to let my kid know she is a “good girl, good traveler, or good helper, ” I might say something like “Oh, we don’t do the whole good/bad thing.” and smile. This is, of course, completely confusing to them (not to mention unheard of) and certainly will not change their future behavior, but I do it to be true to myself and to honor my girl. Though it is tempting to try to convert others to interact without praise, the challenge is too big, and the numbers of praisers too immense. Instead I soothe myself with the idea that there is an oasis here at home, a place where they are loved unconditionally, and that the time they spend in this environment is rich and influential.

We also check in with our girls after they hear a bit of praise from others. The bank teller said you were a good girl. Why do you think she said that? How did you feel when she said that? Or, we offer additional information so that they might hear the intent behind the words.

I think Grandpa said “Good Job!” about your drawing because 1. he loves you so much, 2. he wants you to feel good and thinks that might be a way to communicate that, and 3. he likes the drawing.

We give them information that there are all kinds of opinions about everything, and that if they are feeling good about their work, if they are meeting their own goals, that might be the best way to identify whether or not it’s a job well done.

Praise is a potent thing. After receiving praise, even once, I hear Echo using it around the house. Little whisperings to herself like: Good Job Echo!. Or she will ask: is this a good job mom, the way I am scrambling these eggs? I try to understand what she is looking for by asking her some questions.

Are you wondering if I like what you are doing?  Yes I do.

Are you wondering if what you are doing is helpful to me? Yes it is.

Are you wanting me to notice that you know how to scramble eggs all by yourself? Yes. I see you. You didn’t know how to do that before, but now you do.

It takes a lot of self-confidence to do something in a way that others do not. The odds are that we will be the only parents at the park that do not scream “Good job!” as our child careens down the slide. The odds are that several parents will consider our empathy and negotiations “permissive”. Though we now take this in stride – our self empathy (when we were feeling lonely because we did not fit into the parenting norm) and our finding a supportive community were both crucial to the success of our transition to this empathic style of parenting.

Although this transition started by leaving praise and punishment behind, we continue to transition by:

*looking really closely at each interaction

*unlearning our automatic responses

*being mindful of what is most important in every instance

*and holding the integrity of our relationship with these girls as the highest priority.

And so far, I have no regrets.

March 1, 2010 at 11:49 pm 8 comments

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?”

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.

February 26, 2010 at 10:21 pm 12 comments

it’s counterintuitive, i know

If I were to break down our parenting into categories, I would say that %70 is spent offering empathy in some form or another, %20 is spent providing information (detailed explanations for how things work and why we are asking the kids to do what we are asking), and %10 on miscellaneous things like negotiating peace, brainstorming solutions, and a few executive decisions. When I look at the numbers it seems empathy takes up an enormous amount of our parenting time, and when I look a little deeper I realize it is, in part,  because we are using empathy to supplant praise.

Praise, along with it’s counterpart, punishment, is probably the most common parenting strategy in our culture. Chore charts, time-outs, stickers, allowance, consequences, etc. I know this is how I was raised, how most of us were raised. When I met Nathan and began to help parent Bella and Xi, we kept scratching our heads over this strategy. One of our rules was: when Bella hit, she got a time-out. So when she did hit, (time-outs did not deter the hitting), she immediately felt very upset, not by the fact that she had hurt someone but by how she was going to be affected. She was, quite literally, traumatized by the separation. This bothered us. Not only were time-outs not preventing the behavior, but we felt they were also causing our relationship with her to suffer, as well as raising our stress levels to uncomfortable heights. We decided the strategy wasn’t working.

The book we looked to for help with this was Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn. Kohn makes the case that not only is praise and punishment not good for our kids, but it also backfires by taking away all of their own built-in motivation in any activity, wether it is swimming, clearing the table, spelling, or basketball. There’s a lot more, but this information was all we needed to start down a different path, one that felt so much better.

Abandoning praise and punishment is how we got to %70 empathy. But praise, in particular, is not easy to shake. To start I find it helpful to identify what you are trying to achieve by using praise.

If you use praise because you want your child to know that you love her and to know that you are noticing her achievements, switching to simple observations will do just that. Observation is empathy at it’s finest, simply seeing who your child is.

Some examples:

“I see you!”

“You climbed all the way up there!”

“I see you walking all by yourself. You seem pretty happy about that!”

“I saw you stack those toys up. Yeah. Then they fell down.”

It feels silly at first, but all most children want is for you to see them and be with them. They aren’t wondering if you deem their actions “good” (Good walking! Good sharing! Good jumping!).

What is important when observing, is to match your observations to their reactions. Let your face mirror theirs. If they are excited about walking all by themselves, then go ahead and get excited. If they are disappointed, then let them know you see that too. (“Oh. You didn’t want those blocks to fall”, instead of, “It’s okay! You built that tower really high. Good job! Good building!”)

Asking her questions is a great way to let her know you see what she is doing without forcing an opinion on her.

“You are wiping your hands. How do you like that? Do you like it when your hands are clean?”

“How is that for you?”

“Do you like that?”

“Is that fun?”

“Is that okay with you?”

If you are using praise in order to get your child to do something, a point to consider is that although praise may work well in the short term, it is also the best way to get them to forget what it is they want/enjoy/need in life, to eventually stop doing those things they were praised into doing, and to lose their close connection with you. (Please, don’t take my word for it – read the book.)

Instead of looking for substitute words to say, it might be more effective to stop thinking in this way entirely. Kids are not here to be controlled, to perform on command, or to follow orders without thinking. Or, at least, this isn’t the kind of human I want to raise. Children have a natural care for others, they automatically want to help the people they love. By creating a solid foundation, with empathy as the main tool, your child will listen and care for you and your ideas automatically. You build the foundation by supporting them through all of their struggles and triumphs with respect and empathy.

An example:

“You’re really sad. You don’t want to get in the car. You want more time at the park. You’re not ready to go.”

Maybe there is a little more back and forth as well:

“How much more time do you need here? Are you willing to go after you go down the slide three more times?”

This works if it is not a rote response, but truly feeling what the scenario might be like for them. Often this is enough to get the kid to the car. It certainly requires a lot of patience from the parent as the response is almost never instantaneous. Indeed, a simplified schedule is helpful. You might not want to squeeze a trip to the park into an already packed day, as this will not afford you the time necessary for a fully empathic response if the child doesn’t want to leave. Time is not always saved by empathy but the relationship is, not only saved but enriched.

Then, when children feel heard and understood, they are much more willing to hear and understand what you are feeling. (Or anyone else for that matter.)

The same example continued:

“I know you aren’t ready to leave the park yet. You were hoping to stay here a lot longer. But I am ready to leave. I’m having a hard time here at the park. I’m super hungry and also nervous about being late to meet our friends.”

Empathy, followed by information. No praise, no punishment. It might look or sound crazy, but an exchange like this works for us every time.

February 25, 2010 at 10:12 pm 8 comments

you’re so smart

Natalie I found it so interesting to watch you with Echo. Typically, after an event like that, I expect people to heap praise onto a child. But, by doing that I understand that you’re beginning a lifetime of the good/bad – praise/punish cycle. As a child I did not respond well to that model. So I’m curious as to what it looks like to not do that.

But, as I watched Echo write her name i got really excited…I could easily imagine myself saying things like “Oh look at you, you’re so smart…so good, blah, blah.” So, my question to you is: Do you have to fight an urge to say things like that?

The answer is yes, sort of. I was really excited when Echo wrote her name. I was fairly bursting inside, but I did not want to influence Echo’s experience with my own value judgments of good or bad, smart, or not, etc. I use her feelings as my model. In this case she was almost blase so I remained pretty neutral. (If she had been ecstatic I would have jumped up and down with her.)

Real life examples are:

“Oh wow! You are jumping!” not “Good jumping Echo!”

“Oh yah, I see it. How do you like it?” not “Great drawing! You are such a good artist!”

“I see you!” not “Good job!”

Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn is the perfect read if you are looking to get out of the praise/punishment cycle that I think most of us suffered from in our childhood. I think the effect of praise, in particular, during my childhood still continues to affect me negatively today. It’s such a mind bender because it seems like a wonderful thing to let your kid know that you are proud, or that you think they did a good job. We have found though, through research and experience, that the best way to stifle a child’s natural interest is to praise them. Start with Kohn’s book, it is essential, in my opinion.

Also visit the Natural Parenting Center for more examples of neutrality and using unconditional parenting in real life.

Thanks Alyssa!

October 16, 2009 at 4:00 pm 1 comment

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