Up until Science Kid (our oldest child, now nine) was two, we used to occasionally swat him on the butt. It was always done out of anger. Never something where we hit him after we’d calmed down. An immediate, emotional response to what we perceived as misbehavior. We always felt ashamed of ourselves after striking him. We also realized, though it took awhile, that hitting him wasn’t helping to modify his behavior. He might act “better” for a little while, but he’d go right back to the aggressive behavior we’d supposedly corrected within a couple of hours. We did notice that he’d become much more aggressive himself after we had hit him. We vowed to change this but the urge to lash out was very strong – for me (Big Daddy) – for years afterward. It took all I could do some days not to hit him. We decided to try our version of Time-Out which we called the Naughty Step.
The Naughty Step entailed sending a “bad” child to sit at the bottom of the stairs by him/herself for a while so they could supposedly realize what they had done wrong. Did it work? It seemed to work better than spanking, but problems arose. Some of them wouldn’t stay on the Naughty Step. Sometimes, they’d just entertain themselves there for a while then go back to doing the thing which got them sent there in the first place. Other times, they’d just refuse to go. At no point had we really made an effort to correct the behavior; we just punished.
Of course, we’d also yell a lot. Unfortunately, I’m still guilty of this. So, technically, we haven’t reached the no-punishment stage we claim because I violate it a couple of times a week, though I do get better at biting my tongue as time passes. I don’t like yelling but I do it out of frustration. And the frustration stems from failed attempts at creative solutions.
When our fourth child, Rebel Toddler, turned two, the Naughty Step went by the wayside as well. He would not accept any aggression against his person. We couldn’t put him in the bathtub without him freaking out. We couldn’t give him ultimatums. He wouldn’t stay on the Naughty Step. He’d just laugh at us. And if we persisted with the use of physical force, he would go apeshit. He became completely uncontrollable. So, we took the drastic step (for us) of completely abolishing punishment. My wife, Mama Bear, had spent considerable time researching this, mainly at The Natural Child Project website. It took her a long while to convince me to even try it. I was so stuck in my ways and quite pig-headed. It made no sense to me. “What, we just let him get away with it?” I remember saying that all the time. Eventually, I gave in and we decided to attempt it on a trial basis and see what happened.
At first, we didn’t know what to replace punishing with, so we just sort of let him (and the other children) do their thing. Just eliminating punishment seemed to make him much happier and he stopped being as belligerent. His belligerence was a direct response to our belligerence. When we stopped, so did he. I still didn’t understand what the hell we were doing, but it seemed to be working. We kept at it.
The next step in the experiment was devising a way to live together without coercion. The most important realization was that even very young children can be reasoned with. They also understand private property. So, if Rebel Toddler hit his sister, for example, we would immediately go to the injured sister and see if she was okay while temporarily disregarding RT. After a bit, we would discuss with him that he wasn’t allowed to hit because he hurt his sister. At this point, with no prompting from us, he would usually offer hugs and forgiveness. Sometimes he didn’t, but the message was still received. We don’t hurt others. Same thing applies to the taking of someone else’s property.
On the rare (and I do mean rare) occasion that a kid continues harming another, we will physically stop them. We will restrain them so that they cannot injure someone else or steal/damage their property while explaining to them that this is unacceptable. This does often make them more aggressive in the short term but is necessary to protect the rights of others. This almost never happens anymore, however.
The only time we’ll use physical force against a child is to prevent them from truly harming themselves or someone else’s property. We won’t allow them to run in front of a moving car but we will let them fall off the back of the couch. We won’t let them run through a busy parking lot but we will let them go outdoors in the snow without shoes. In this way, they learn that when mom and dad say something may hurt them, they believe us.
Some other things we do in place of punishment:
- We give choices instead of commands (do you want to take a bath first or brush your teeth first?)
- We give options (you can’t jump on the bed, but you can jump on the trampoline)
- We remove the child from the situation but stay with them (instead of isolating them):
- We negotiate (instead of saying “It’s time to go inside”, we say, “Do you want five more minutes or ten?”)
There are many other examples. Basically, we treat them as we would another adult. No force, no aggression, no punishing. I try to not do anything to the children that I wouldn’t do to my wife.
In short, not punishing means finding creative solutions. We try not to intimidate, coerce, or force them to do anything. Everyone in the house has agreed to abide by certain rules, of which there are very few (mainly, do not encroach on another or their property). “Rules” is not even a good term. Mainly, we live by a set of principles:
- The Non-Aggression Principle: No one shall initiate (or threaten to initiate) force against another.
- Self-ownership: You own yourself. You are no one’s property. As well, everyone else owns themselves. No one else is your property.
- The Silver Rule: Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you.
- Keep your agreements. If you promise to do something, do it. This, and all the other principles listed above, apply to mom and dad, as well.
This has not led to the children running wild. They do not run the house. We do not live in chaos. Mama and I are not pushovers. The children are (normally) quite peaceful and respectful of others. We all follow the rules and aggression in our house is pretty minimal.
Now, look – we’re not giving parenting advice unless it’s solicited. We’re not claiming to be experts on anything. We’re just mom and dad trying our best. This is what works for us. If you’ve gotten this far, thanks for reading. This shift in philosophy has been revolutionary for us and our kids. We much prefer interacting with them in such a peaceful manner.