The science is in.
It’s consistent and compelling.
If we want to raise kind, compassionate and cooperative children, there is simply no place for traditional discipline techniques.
No time outs. No spanking. No consequences. No threats. No rewards. No bribes.
It is time to move on from short-sighted strategies that erode the parent-child connection; from tactics that are designed to shape, mold and tame our kids. It is time to challenge the status quo of modern discipline that elevates obedience over learning.
Yet, by rejecting these traditional techniques, others may accuse you of being a passive parent. Family members may suggest that you’re soft. Friends may judge your parenting “style” and think that you’re weak.
As a new (or not so new) parent, these judgments can be hard to hear. They may tempt you to parent differently in public, to be seen as being in control, to not allow yourself to be manipulated by your child. Afterall, you were a child once too – and you’ve most likely been conditioned to seek external validation, to look to others for approval, to believe that you are loved and accepted most when your behavior aligns with the expectations of others.
But the further you venture into this journey, the more you will realise that taking these judgments seriously is dangerous; they make your love conditional, they’re rooted in childism and they stem from a lack of awareness of healthy child development while perpetuating a disrespectful social hierarchy.
Because, the reality is that those who believe that parenting is about doing to, rather than being with our children are missing the entire point of parenthood. The sacred nature of the parent-child bond lies in the fact that it is the strength of our connection that determines the level of influence we have over our children.
And without influence, as Gordon Neufeld says, we lose the power to parent.
Pause and ponder that statement for a moment. Losing the power to parent. It’s a terrifying thought, isn’t it?
Because our children need us to be their strong leaders. But, there is a difference between leading and dictating, between teaching and forcing, between connecting and coercing.
Traditional discipline techniques destroy connection. They turn our homes into battlegrounds. They make parenting about “winning” and “losing”. And through this approach, a parent’s influence is lost. Our natural power to parent wanes before we’ve even realised how to use it and so, we may feel there is no option but to turn to heavy-handed authoritarian tactics to “make” our kids behave.
These techniques also threaten to transform us into lazy, disconnected and unconscious parents. Why? Because traditional discipline is easy…for the adult.
It has become a one-size-fits-all, cookbook style of parenting; asking almost nothing of the adult in terms of their own mental and emotional evolution and spiritual growth.
It unfairly lays all the blame, shame and burden at a child’s feet, while focusing on the adult’s wants, not the child’s needs.
So, let’s dig a little deeper into the science of traditional discipline. Let’s seek to understand why it doesn’t work and what’s really happening when we discipline our children in these ways. Let’s cultivate your confidence so that you can stand beside your child, guiding them with compassion on this adventure called growing up.
Why Punishment Doesn’t Work
At its core, punishment is designed to hurt a child either physically or psychologically, in order to avoid “bad” behavior, while gaining compliance and establishing authority.
In his must-read book, Unconditional Parenting, Alfie Kohn describes punishing children as, “to make something unpleasant happen to them – or prevent them from experiencing something pleasant – usually with the goal of changing their future behaviour. The punisher makes them suffer, in other words, to teach them a lesson.”
Conventional parenting experts justify this mean-spirited approach as being for a child’s own good. Yet, studies show the complete opposite is true. The sad thing is that we have known this for generations.
Kohn reports on a classic parenting study involving kindergartners and their mothers from the 1950’s in which the investigators found that “the unhappy effects of punishment have run like a dismal thread through our findings.” Punishment proved to be counterproductive regardless of whether the parents were using it to inhibit aggression, excessive dependence, or something else. The researchers consistently found that punishment was “ineffectual over the long term as a technique for eliminating the kind of behavior toward which it is directed.” (1)
More recent and well-designed studies have only served to strengthen this conclusion, finding, for example, that parents who “punish[ed] rule-breaking behavior in their children at home often had children who demonstrated higher levels of rule-breaking when away from home.”
“How we feel about our kids isn’t as important as how they experience those feelings and how they regard the way we treat them.” Alfie Kohn
Common sense supports these findings because punishment, by design, prevents children from taking personal responsibility for their actions. When an authority figure hands out punishment, children begin to believe, consciously or not, that they can’t behave well on their own; they begin to rely on the authority figure to “make” them behave.
Dr. Shefali Tsabury, Clinical Psychologist and author of The Conscious Parent, describes this as a “prisoner-warden” approach to parenting. The “warden” is required to closely monitor the “prisoner’s” actions, which are either “right” or “wrong”. The “warden” then dishes out either a punishment or reward. Sadly, the prisoner becomes dependent on the warden to regulate their behavior. (2)
“It’s because discipline focuses on behavior, not on the feelings driving the behavior, that it undercuts the very thing we are trying to accomplish.” Dr. Shefali Tsabury
At best, this approach is reactive and superficial as it attempts to deal merely with behavior, rather than seeking to uncover the hurt, unmet need or lacking skill a child is trying to communicate. Children become puppets who adjust their behavior based on what they predict their parents, teachers or other adults want to see. It impedes healthy moral development by teaching children that when we want someone who is smaller, younger or weaker to do something, we simply use our size, privilege, and power to make them cooperate.
The long-term consequences of unhealthy parental control
Psychologist Elizabeth Thompson Gershoff analyzed more than 80 studies and found a strong correlation between corporal punishment and negative behaviors, including increased aggression and antisocial behavior. (3) Among her findings Gershoff reported a 2009 study, which concluded that children who were frequently spanked “had less gray matter in certain areas of the prefrontal cortex that have been linked to depression, addiction, and other mental health disorders.” (4)
There are few parents reading this who would argue that corporal punishment is justifiable under any circumstances, yet techniques like time outs, consequences, threats, and bribes may be gentler, but they are to the same ends – control.
“Nine times out of ten the story behind the misbehaviour won’t make you angry; it will break your heart.” Annette Breaux
Barbara Coloroso, parenting consultant, says parents of teenagers often say, “He was such a good kid, so well behaved, so well mannered, so well dressed. Now look at him!”
She offers the following reply: “From the time he was young, he dressed the way you told him to dress; acted the way you told him to act; he said the things you told him to say. He’s been listening to somebody else tell him what to do….he hasn’t changed. He is still listening to somebody else tell him what to do. The problem is, it isn’t you anymore; it’s his peers.” (1)
Whether we have the right to control another person is a moral judgment. Personally, I don’t believe we have the right to control any living being, no matter how immature they may be. The question needs to be asked – when we try to control a child, an immature child whose brain is still developing and whose sense of self is still unfolding, what long term impact does an adult’s controlling behaviour have on them? Will they come to expect (and accept) others controlling them? Will this set the stage for unhealthy relationships with peers and partners?
Time outs, consequences and modern forms of discipline
The original meaning behind the word discipline is a good one. It derives from the Latin word disciplina, which means ‘instruction’, which in turn derives from discere, meaning ‘to learn’. The modern approach, however, as defined by the Oxford Dictionary is “The practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behavior, using punishment to correct disobedience.”
Unfortunately, this is the definition that is more in line with conventional discipline. Methods like timeouts, consequences, and rewards may appear to be relatively benign, but they’re not. Why? Because they are just different ways of pulling the same puppet strings. Let’s look at two examples, consequences and time outs.
Parents are told to use consequences instead of punishment. The term “consequences” sounds less offensive and more intellectual, but it is punishment repackaged. Consequences involve a parent announcing in advance how they plan to punish their child if their child doesn’t behave as they wish. So, in addition to punishment, consequences add threats and mistrust, by telling a child that we don’t believe they’re capable of making the “right” choice without the threat of a punishment.
“Children must never work for our love; they must rest in it.” Gordon Neufeld
Time outs are another tactic that are sold to parents as being less hurtful than spanking. That may be true but it’s like comparing two competing brands of fast food – neither are healthy choices. Time outs may seem like a progressive idea; giving children some time out to cool down, to think about what mistakes they’ve made and how to make it right. Only, this is a fantasy. The reality is that we’ve forced our kids into isolation. We’ve withdrawn our love, empathy and attention when they need it most and using it as a weapon. They’ve learned that their emotions are too much for us to handle. They’ve learned that they are only welcome in our presence when their behaviour is pleasing to us.
Time outs are nothing more than a behaviour modification technique.
When we leverage something that should be sacred – unconditional love – communicating through our actions that we love our kids more when they’re good and less when they’re bad, we’re causing our children to experience unnecessary emotional distress. It doesn’t matter if that is our intention or not, it doesn’t matter what message we think we’re sending; it only matters what message our kids receive.
When we participate in these kinds of parenting, we have become conditional parents.
The damaging impacts of conditional parenting
A 2004 study by two Israeli researchers, Avi Assor and Guy Roth, in collaboration with Edward L. Deci, a leading American expert on the psychology of motivation asked more than 100 college students whether they felt the love they had received from their parents, when they were children, depended on whether they had succeeded in school, practiced hard for sports, been considerate toward others or suppressed emotions like anger and fear.
They found that those children who experienced love as conditional approval were more likely to act as the parent wished. But, at a high price. These children tended to resent and dislike their parents and they reported that the way they acted was often due more to a “strong internal pressure” than to “a real sense of choice.” (5)
In 2009, a further study interviewed ninth graders. In this study, the researchers teased out the nuanced difference between children feeling more approval when they did what parents wanted compared to less approval when they did not. They found that positive approval was associated with getting children to work harder on academic tasks, but at the cost of unhealthy feelings of “internal compulsion.” They also found that negative conditional parenting was completely ineffective, only serving to increase the teenagers’ negative emotions about their parents. (6)
In a 2013 paper, the same researchers summarised that, “while parental conditional regard might lead to enactment of expected behaviors, this practice has the following costs: (1) stressful internalization of parental expectations, (2) rigid and low-quality performance (3) self-esteem fluctuations and poor well-being, and (4) negative affect towards parents.” (7)
What these studies and an empathic approach to relationships tell us is that it’s not that negative judgments (criticism) are bad and positive judgments (praise) are good – it’s judgment itself that is the problem. Unconditional love, acceptance and parenting is the answer. We need to show that we love our children for who it is they are, not what it is they do.
What if we focused on relationship instead of parenting?
Young kids mess up all the time. They drop things, break things, lose things and forget things. They’re slow, impulsive, intense, explosive, unstable and inflexible.
In short, these little people, these amazing blessings, these children we dote on and buy too many things for, are pretty hard to live with at times.
But, they’re our little people.
This is what WE signed up for.
As a parent to a toddler or a teenager, your primary responsibility is to ensure that your child feels safe – emotionally, physically and mentally. You are also tasked with the privilege of teaching them the skills they need in life, which don’t include repressing emotions, becoming people pleasers and losing their true selves in order to “fit in”.
Traditional discipline runs counter to these responsibilities.
Authoritarian (or traditional) parenting keeps children in a state of anxiety, anticipating the next mess up and subsequent punishment.
While passive parenting makes the child feel as though they need to be in charge, which makes them feel unsafe and uncared for. Clearly, neither extreme is a good option.
“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 retribution.” L.R. Knost
And the answer isn’t to meet in the middle of two flawed ideologies. We need to reject both of these misguided approaches altogether and rather than devising new strategies, we need to accept that the idea of implementing a “strategy” itself is a problem when it comes to raising individual children with unique personalities, strengths and weaknesses and hugely variable timelines for development.
Rather, we need to focus on the relationship we have with our children. Because that’s all parenting really is: a relationship between two people, albeit the most unique, sacred and influential relationship of your life.
As simplistic as it may sound, our relationship with our kids is nested in unconditional love. It isn’t the “love” part we need to focus on – we all love our kids. It’s the “unconditional” nature of our love that we need to direct our attention toward. It doesn’t matter how much we love, it matters how we love.
Unconditional love is unwavering, it is the anchor the holds them and the light that guides them.
Through unconditional love, we can set firm boundaries, we can hold limits, we can weather the cyclone of the emotions that follow and stand firm no matter the outcome.
Because we are parents who take responsibility for uncovering what our children need, for understanding the basics of brain development, for bravely leading our children, not blindly following the crowd.
As parents, it is easy to mistake the difference between being “in control” and being “in charge”. Parents always need to be in charge. We have the responsibility to control the environment in which our kids operate. We have the obligation to set the stage for our child’s success. It is encumbered upon us to maintain our own rational control, to help our kids regulate their emotions and to give our children healthy choices, but not to make those choices for them.
Parenting in a conscious manner is hard. No two ways about it. Conditional parenting has been ingrained in us and it’s not something we can change overnight, but just bringing our awareness to it is the first step.
“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” Maya Angelou
If I could only give one piece of advice for you to implement today – and it is the advice I am trying to follow myself at the moment – it would be to take care of yourself. Because, how we react as parents has far more to do with how we’re feeling than what our children are doing. Rather than reacting to our children, we want to be able to pause, pause again and respond. As cliched as it sounds, we can’t do that if we’re pouring from an empty cup.
So, go for a walk. Get outside. Eat healthy food. Drink more water. Get more sleep (even if that means going to bed at 7pm sometimes). Be kind to yourself. Stop criticizing yourself. Don’t worry about how you parented yesterday, focus on the now. We all mess up at times, we yell and we lose our cool, and that’s ok – our kids don’t need us to be perfect (there is no such thing). Apologise. Move on. Be the parent your child needs you to be now.
Because, when you engage in a relationship with your child from a place of worthiness, of rest, of calm, of peace…you won’t be rattled. You won’t take “bad behaviour” personally. You won’t see meltdowns as something to avoid or silence, but as opportunities for connection, for curiosity, for problem-solving. You will see them as windows into your child’s inner self, giving you clues to what it is they truly need from you.
You will see your child for who it is they are, beneath the chaos of their passing mood. You will calm your nervous system and soften your heart. You will forget that traditional discipline techniques even exist and the very thought of them will seem completely foreign and strange to you.
And in years to come, when your children have a choice, they will want to spend time in your loving presence, because they won’t remember what you said, but they will remember how you made them feel. Loved. Cherished. Accepted. Celebrated. Honoured.
“People will forget the things you do, and people will forget the things you say. But people will never forget how you made them feel.” Maya Angelou
How can you learn more about conscious and unconditional parenting?
My friend Tracy Cassels, PhD,. founder of Evolutionary Parenting runs a brilliant course called Sharing Control: A Course on Discipline Across the Ages.
I’ve just finished the course, Conscious Parenting Strategies for Success with Kids Under 6, by Dr Shefali Tsabury. I absolutely loved is and can’t recommend it highly enough if you have a young child. Click on this link to check it out and scroll down to the course.
And here are some of my favorite books on the topic of gentle discipline and positive parenting. Read one of them and your parenting will change. Read all of them and your parenting will transform (traditional discipline will no longer be an option):
Dr. Shefali Tsabury, Out of Control: Why Disciplining Your Child Doesn’t Work and What Will
Dr. Laura Markham, Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting
Rebecca Eanes, Positive Parenting: An Essential Guide
Dr. Dan Siegel and Dr. Tina Bryson, The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind
And here are some other articles I’ve written that may help:
- Alfie Kohn, Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason, Page 63
- Dr. Shefali Tsabury, Out of Control: Why Disciplining Your Child Doesn’t Work and What Will
- American Psychological Association, Is Corporal Punishment an Effective Means of Discipline?
- Reduced Prefrontal Cortical Gray Matter Volume in Young Adults Exposed to Harsh Corporal Punishment
- Alfie Kohn, Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason, Page 21
- The Emotional and Academic Consequences of Parental Conditional Regard: Comparing Conditional Positive Regard, Conditional Negative Regard, and Autonomy Support as Parenting Practices, 2009
- Parental Conditional Regard: Psychological Costs and Antecedents, 2013