Nonpunitive Child Discipline
By Chris Dugan


     On a regular basis, I took care of the daughter of some friends for hours and sometimes days at a time from age 3 to age 11.  I may have spent more one-on-one time with her than her father did.  (She asked me at one point if she could call me "Daddy" instead of her father!).

     After her father died in a car accident and her mother remarried, her new stepfather, a prospank fundamentalist Christian with heavily rigid, punitive views on childrearing, pretty much put a stop to her seeing me. He said that my presence in her life undermined his authority and that God had personally told him that he was in the right.  (Click here for a poem Vanessa wrote at age 11 during this period).    Vanessa is grown now with a child of her own.  She lives a thousand miles away, in part due to her desire to have no further contact with this stepfather, and is currently working on the first draft of a tell-all memoir about her abuse at his hands.  She still stays in touch with me, however, and treats me as part of her extended family.

     Here are some of my own kid-tested child discipline tips, in no particular order:

 1) Give Them Power.
     I was continually on the lookout for ways to give Vanessa power and control over her environment in harmless ways, such as getting to be the one who pushed the elevator button, chose which fork in the path we would take at the zoo, chose which cereal she would have, etc.  And of course, any game in which a child gets to give an adult orders (such as 'horseback rides') is a guaranteed hit.  The more one gives children power in ways like these, the easier it is to win their cooperation when you simply must lay down a rule or prohibition and make it stick.  For one thing, they will feel a little less powerless, making it less likely that the simple fact of being twarted in some particular way will tie into a big emotional issue for them.  For another thing, they will recognize that you are generally on their side and do let them have power when it is okay, so they are more likely to trust that you have a good reason for saying "No" when you do have to say it.

 2)  Respect Feelings.
     Children may have lower social status than adults, but their feelings are as important to them as our feelings are to us.  When the adults in a child's life take her feelings into account and make extra efforts to respect and accomodate them, they model considerate behavior to their child, who is much more likely to behave considerately herself in the longer run.  Remarkably, many parents routinely treat their children in rude, abrupt, snappish, impolite ways, and then claim that they "have to spank" when their children behave in exactly the same ways back to them.  What goes around comes around.

 3)  Don't Sweat The Small Stuff.
     There are inevitably times when saying "No" is necessary.  The trick is to reserve this word for only those occasions when it is absolutely unavoidable.  The less often it is used, the easier it is to make it stick when one really does have to lay down the law and there is no room for compromise, such as a safety issue or a financial issue.  If the child perceives the adult as a big bully who is constantly spoiling her fun and thwarting her at every turn, one "No" will sound just like all the other "No's," even if one "No" is just avoidable pettiness on the adult's part while the other is a life-threatening issue.

 4)  Avoid All Use Of Punishment And Reward.
     Both of these methods are heavily overrated as childrearing techniques.  Both have a wide range of poorly recognized negative side effects. Both are unnecessary. Children are not trained seals.

    Unfortunately, use of reward/punishment, even occasionally, decreases or abolishes the effectiveness of all cooperative win/win discipline techniques.  In order for these techniques to work, they need to be part of an entire parent/child relationship with which they are congruent.  All too often, one hears parents claim that "I tried those techniques and they didn't work," when what they actually did was attempt to append the techniques to their pre-existing punitive coercive parenting style.  This routinely fails, because win/win approaches are about having cooperative children rather than obedient children; genuinely willing cooperation is the first casualty of the use of punitive discipline or reward-bribing.  Spanking, in particular, is a pernicious addiction.  Like a drug, it seems to make everything okay in the short run.  But in the long run it just makes everything worse.  As its poisonous effect on the parent/child bond undermines the workability of more enlightened methods, it makes itself ever more "necessary" and makes the parent an ever more addicted spankoholic.

 The one and only time I ever used a form of punishment on Vanessa was a memorable mistake of mine. 

 I had taken her to a water park.  She was 9 or 10.  It was a hot  summer Saturday late afternoon, and she didn't want to change out of her bathing suit for the bus ride back.  We would have to change buses in the middle of downtown Denver and I felt that her in swimming gear would be inappropriate.  But she wouldn't budge.  I kept pressing her to no avail.  Finally I told her that if she didn't change into her street clothes, she couldn't have any of the carob chips I'd brought along for a treat.  She still wouldn't budge, and the bathing suit stayed on.

 When we got downtown, the atmosphere was less formal than I had pictured.  It was, after all, a weekend, and all the business people were at home in the suburbs.  Vanessa patiently pointed out to me a couple of times that no one was staring at her or otherwise acting as if she were dressed inappropriately.  But I wasn't ready to listen yet.

 That night, as I lay in bed, I started thinking over the day and the more I thought about it the more I realized that she had been more grownup than I had been.  There really wasn't anything wrong with her wearing that bathing suit home from the water park.  Yet I had felt so sure that I was right and that I as an adult knew best.  But what I had actually been attempting to enforce with her was my mother's concepts of propriety rather than society's.  I had been stubborn and petty, and she had been patient and mature about the whole thing.

 So the next time I saw her a few days later I apologized for how I had acted, and gave her the entire bag of carob chips.  She accepted the chips and my apology with the serene equanimity of someone who knew all along that she was right, needed no validation from me, but was quite content to receive it anyhow.

 5)  Steer Around Battles of Wills Rather Than Win Them.
     Like many other cooperative discipline techniques, this requires more thought, effort, and presence of mind in the short run, but pays off in the longer run.  Look ahead to see if any potential battles of wills appear on the day's horizon and take proactive steps to avoid them while they are still avoidable.  An example which comes to mind was when I had an appointment with a lawyer to discuss a legal matter while Vanessa was in my care.  I knew that we would be discussing boring grownup stuff, possibly for a long time in child terms, so I made sure she had plenty of drawing paper and pencils and other things to occupy her.  The alternative would have been that she became bored, then fussy/whiney, then restless and unwilling to sit in her chair as opposed to exploring the lawyer's office and getting into things she shouldn't.

      I once bought an aerobics trampoline for $10 at a yard sale.  Instead of telling Vanessa, "don't jump on the furniture or you will be punished," I told her, "the furniture is not for jumping on, but this particular piece of furniture is for jumping on!"  By providing her with an acceptable outlet for her rambunctious energy I avoided a battle of wills over furniture jumping, and avoided any reason to be tempted to resort to punishments to discipline her.  She got to jump to her heart's content, I got to protect my furniture from damage: win/win.

     There were occasional times when I really needed Vanessa to be in extra-good behavior mode.  At times like these, I would get down to eye level and earnestly explain that the place we were about to go into was a special place, and explain exactly what I needed her to do and not do while we were there.  It is essential to make such a request humbly and respectfully, without the subtlest trace of threat in one's tone.  One's attitude should show that adults as well as children must be on their best behavior in this special place.  I rarely made these kinds of special requests for angel-like behavior, but on the occasions I did, it worked every time.  I can't think of a single example of this nature when she wasn't good as gold for the duration!

 6) Ease Children Into Transitions.
     I know I dislike having to abruptly stop an activity in which I am engrossed and then forced attend to something different.  Small children tend to have even more difficulty with transitions than adults, since children tend to live more in the present moment than adults do.

     With Vanessa, I often let my digital watch alarm be the "heavy," giving her updates about how many more minutes until it beeped and she would need to stop what she was doing because we had to leave, etc.  I would work into my conversation the fact that "we have to go in seven minutes" holding up seven fingers, then later mention a smaller number of minutes, letting her see the number of fingers dwindling.  Sometimes, by the time we reached minute number one, she would be huddled over by my wrist watching the seconds count off until the alarm sounded.  By then, she was psychologically adjusted to the transition and things would proceed smoothly without conflict.

 7) Make Rules Together.
     Children want their relationships with the adults in their lives to be harmonious.  Thus, when a child persists in some sort of behavior which creates conflict and trouble with the adult, there is always some sort of need in the child which this behavior is filling.  Listen closely and determine what the need is.  Clearly explain why the child's current way of filling that need creates a problem for you.  Then mutually negotiate a win/win solution both of you can live with.  Children frequently surprise adults who use this sort of technique by the intricacy and creativity of the rules they will suggest imposing on themselves if doing so enables them to get their need met while keeping the parent happy.  In some respects, they may be more strict with themselves than we would have been.  An added benefit is that children, like everyone else, are much more likely to obey a rule which they themselves helped make.

      An added benefit, is that children who have seen you go out of your way to negotiate win/win solutions when you have a problem with their behavior (instead of just "pulling rank" and forcing the issue) are also much more likely to compromise and negotiate similarly when they have a problem with something you are doing (instead of just yelling "NO!" and throwing a defiant tantrum).  This is due both to simple reciprocity, and to the fact that mutual creation of win/win solutions to problems is being modeled to the child, and, like all children, they are imitating how the adults in their life behave. 

    Those interested in learning more about win/win cooperative discipline techniques are strongly urged to read "How To Talk So Kids Will Listen And Listen So Kids Will Talk" by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, and "Discipline That Works: Promoting Self Discipline In Children" and "P.E.T.  Parent Effectiveness Training" both by Dr. Thomas Gordon.  For an explicitly Christian approach to the same concepts, try "You Can Have A Family Where Everybody Wins: Christian Perspectives on Parent Effectiveness Training" by Rev. Earl Gaulke.