Parenthood is many things.
But perhaps, above all else, it is about building relationships with our children; about seeking and deepening connection.
Because without connection, no matter how skilled we may be, we lose the power to parent. We surrender the ability to influence our children. As cliché as it may sound, connection is almost always the answer.
It is the ass-kicking antidote to coercion; dwarfing punitive methods in its ability to shape our children’s behavior.
Yet, we tend to shy away from it. Why? Because it demands so much more of us than conventional approaches. It requires vulnerability. It asks us to be brave enough to look in the mirror and analyze the root cause of own emotional triggers, while simultaneously shattering the notion that all parenting challenges can be solved if only we can fix our children’s flaws.
One if the greatest obstacles we face is the cultural belief that an absence of coercive discipline is evidence of parental apathy. That when parents fail to control their children through fear-inducing techniques that anarchy will break loose. That children will run wild and that chaos will prevail.
But, that’s simply not true. The truth is that young children will do just about anything to maintain their connection to their parents.
And consciously or not, all parents wield its power; how we choose to use it is up to us.
Taking a positive approach means using connection as a tool; strengthening and refining its power as our relationships naturally deepen. In contrast, mainstream discipline uses connection as a weapon; leveraging it against children, weakening the very relationships it is intended to reinforce.
Thankfully, there is a BETTER way. Here are four practical tips to avoid time outs and other punishments on a daily basis.
1. CONNECT BEFORE YOU CORRECT.
When a child makes a mistake or is hurt, their thinking brain shuts down and their emotional brain takes over. When a child is in this state, learning is impossible.
We need to connect on an emotional level first. Hug your child, sit with them, empathize and resist the temptation to correct the behavior. Recognize that they have lost a little dignity and may feel embarrassed, scared and confused. Teaching a lesson is rarely an emergency, so leave it for later (maybe five minutes, five hours or five days from now, depending on the situation and age of your child).
“You have to reach the heart before you can reach the head.” Carter Bayton
When you feel your child is in more control, attempt to redirect and bring in the logical left side of the brain. Dr. Dan Siegl, author of The Whole Brain Child, calls this process ‘name it to tame it’. One approach is to ask your child to tell the story of what happened and you can help fill in the blanks for them if they need it. Walk through the event, matter of factly without judgment.
This helps children process their emotions while making logical sense of what really happened, laying the foundation for a lesson to be learned and emotions to be regulated.
2. TAKE A TIME IN TOGETHER.
The original theory underpinning time out was a good one – give children ‘time out’ to reflect on their behavior so that they can make a better choice next time. But, in practice, it doesn’t matter what we say (or intend), it matters how a child feels. Sending a child into isolation can lead to feelings of abandonment, shame and rejection. There is a better way.
We can choose a proactive approach and take the TIME IN together. Time in is a positive parenting tool that helps children learn to process their emotions, so they are ready to problem-solve, learn and grow.
So, when your child experiences a challenging moment, invite them to sit with or near you as they express their feelings while you cool down together. Remember to connect before correcting, empathize and then address any changes that need to be made. Imagine life from their perspective as you wait for the storm to pass.
This time is an investment in your child’s emotional well-being. You’re building your child’s confidence and solidifying their trust in you; in the future they’ll feel safe to come to you in a time of crisis.
I recently found an incredible Time In Toolkit, designed specifically to help parents create a calming space for children aged 3-9+ years. It is a beautifully designed kit, which helps us lead and guide children by example, while nurturing their emotional intelligence.
3. REFRAME YOUR EXPECTATIONS
The impact of expectations cannot be underestimated. John Milton famously said, “The mind can make a heaven out of hell or a hell out of heaven.”
Our expectations start when our children are babies; if we expect that by six weeks our babies will be sleeping through the night and they’re not, we’re lead to believe that there’s something wrong. We may start to feel resentful and look to sleep trainers for answers. Yet, if we hold the expectation that our baby is likely to wake every two hours for the first year, we’ll still be equally as tired but we can make more appropriate choices about how to manage the situation.
And nothing changes as our kids grow. We need to recognize that there is a wide gap between society’s expectations about how children should behave and how kids actually behave. Before we even consider attempting to influence our children’s behaviour, we need to ask ourselves if it’s reasonable to do so. Rather than demanding our two-year-old shares a toy and then punishing her for her completely normal behaviour of refusing to do so, we need to be brave enough to advocate for our children in our adult-centric culture.
Our children are wired to have fun, to play, to learn, to test their limits and their behaviour reflects this. Yet, all too often, adults swoop in and attempt diversion simply because a situation is inconvenient, embarrassing or unfamiliar. Let’s lean into discomfort, challenge ourselves to see the world from our children’s vantage point and the thought of punishment is unlikely to even enter our minds.
A fantastic book that I can recommend for challenging cultural norms around children’s behaviour is Heather Shumaker’s, It’s OK to Go Up the Slide.
4. IF IN DOUBT, ASK YOURSELF THIS ONE QUESTION.
Close your eyes for a moment and imagine that you’re having an issue in your relationship. You confide in a trusted friend explaining that your partner’s recent behavior is upsetting you. What would be the first line of advice they’d give?
Would they suggest ignoring your husband or wife for a prescribed period of time, while they quietly sit in the corner contemplating the errors of their ways? Would they suggest confiscating their phone? Or taking away their car keys as a ‘consequence’ for ‘bad’ behaviour?
Viewing our actions through a different lens can give us the perspective shift we need; in a marriage this behaviour would be seen as game playing that would highlight an underlying pathology of a failing relationship. So, why is it acceptable or even encouraged to treat children this way?
All people, regardless of their age, size, mental capabilities or emotional maturity deserve to be treated with equal respect. If you’re ever in doubt, ask yourself would you speak to your husband or best friend in the same way? If the answer is no, pause, take a deep breath and choose new words.
OUR CHILDREN AREN’T BROKEN
Taking a positive and proactive approach to modern parenting isn’t easy, especially when we find ourselves without a village. There is no shame in reaching breaking points or in needing a time out ourselves. Give yourself permission to have a bad day and acknowledge that it doesn’t define you or your parenthood.
Recognizing that authoritarian quick fixes do not serve our children makes it easier to resist when we’re feeling overwhelmed. While parenting through connection may be the slow road it builds a solid foundation for our children and our relationships with them. When we approach parenting in this way situations in which we think the best outcome is merely to survive are transformed into moments in which we can thrive.
Connection is an invisible force that sprinkles magic on our relationships. It grants us the patience to sit through frustration and boredom. The resilience to rock our babies to sleep for the fifth time in a row. The self-awareness to empathize rather than retaliate when our children’s words hurt us. And the tenacity to push ourselves to limits we would simply never consider approaching for someone with whom we didn’t share that same lifesaving attachment.
So, when friends and family suggest that you’re soft for refusing to punish your child, that you’re creating a rod for your own back or that children simply need discipline, feel free to whisper a silent bullshit under your breath and instead choose your child over any momentary judgment. Let it wash over you as your positive choices fuel an inner strength that creates an unbreakable bond between you and your child.
“Discipline is helping a child solve a problem. Punishment is making a child suffer for having a problem. To raise problem-solvers focus on solutions, not retributions.” L.R. Knost