Announcing how we plan to punish children ("Remember, if you do x, then I'll do y to you") may salve our conscience because we gave them fair warning, but all we've really done is threaten them. We've told them in advance exactly how we'll make them suffer if they fail to obey.Oh, my, this is exactly what I do when I'm trying to get my kids into the van after an excursion - almost word for word, "Remember, if you can't leave when it's time, then next time someone asks us to come to the zoo, I'll have to say no because you wouldn't leave when it was time." I thought I was being reasonable. Is it really just a threat? What's the unconditional parenting way to get them into the van when it's time to go? (The last time we went to the zoo, I ended up carrying Second Son kicking and screaming to the van but I didn't use this line. I wonder if that was an unconditional parenting success or failure?)
Then there are "natural consequences." Using natural consequences as a parenting method
invites parents to discipline by inaction--that is, by refusing to help. If a child is late for dinner, we're supposed to let her go hungry. If she leaves her raincoat at school, we're supposed to let her get wet the following day...the far more powerful lesson that she's likely to take away is that we could have helped--but didn't.I used to think this is a great way for kids to learn about consequences of their actions. As children grow into teenagers and young adults, I believe they can take more responsibility for their own lives and, when they have everything they need to be successful and know that they are now the responsible party, I think there could be great benefit to allowing them to experience consequences. However, I do not think this is a good tactic for young children. If my four year old refuses to take her coat to the zoo (which she did), I do not think I should let her shiver in the winter chill all day long. She is simply not capable of rationally making a decision about leaving her coat.
As children age, they can take greater responsibility for their actions. A teenager may very well have to suffer consequence for something like missing the bus, but I think it's a far stronger position as a parent to sit down with him and say something like, "I'm sorry you have missed the bus. Let's think together about how to handle this situation. Do you have any suggestions?" In this way, we can help develop problem-solving skills in our children, modeling the thought process as necessary. Perhaps more importantly, (hopefully) they will understand that we will always be available for help if they do get in over their heads.
Mr. Kohn writes that people continue to punish when it doesn't seem to be working (in gaining compliance), but I didn't find that a compelling argument against punishment at all. His method probably isn't going to work on the first try, either. Parenting young children in particular will always seem to be a circular endeavor; we have to repeat ourselves every day or every hour for years. I'm not sure how long that lasts, but I know I say the some of the same things to my nine-year-old that I say to my two-year-old.
For him, all punishment is equal: corporal punishment, grounding, time-outs, "natural consequences." Everything. But it's not clear to me that is true.
He has six main theories explaining why punishment fails:
- Punishment leads to anger. Perhaps they'll think about how to get revenge. This seems particularly likely for kids who are grounded or sent to their rooms to "think about their actions." (I was thinking about this theory when I posted this Caddie Woodlawn quote.)
- Using punishment teaches children that those who are powerful are able to make and enforce the rules, even if they are unfair or morally wrong.
- Punishment becomes less effective over time. It's just not possible to exert the same control over a fifteen-year-old as a five-year-old.
- Punishing a child damages the trust and security children should have in their parents.
- Punishment distracts children from the main point.
[P]unishment doesn't lead children to focus on what they've done, much less on why they did it or what they should have done instead...it leads them to think about how mean their parents are and maybe how they're going to get their revenge...[and] on the punishment itself: how unfair it is and how to avoid it next time.
- Finally, punishment encourages children to see only the effects on themselves rather than how their actions might have affected other people. Taken to the extreme, that line of thinking may lead them to believe they can do things that are immoral as long as they can avoid any external harm to themselves.
It's hard for them to sort out why someone who clearly cares for them also makes them suffer from time to time. It creates the warped idea, which children may carry with them throughout their lives, that causing people pain is part of what it means to love them. Or else it may simply teach that love is necessarily conditional, that it lasts only as long as people do exactly what you want.Just in case you thought you could explain why you are punishing your child and avoid the pitfalls theorized above:
The truth is that explanation doesn't minimize the bad effects of punishment so much as punishment minimizes the good effects of explanation.When someone is anticipating or experiencing punishment, they are not thinking about an explanation. They are thinking only about how they feel and how it's all someone else's fault.
Previous posts on Unconditional Parenting
Thoughts on the Introduction
Discussion of quotes from chapter 1
Discussion of quotes from chapter 2
Discussion of quotes from chapter 3