Parenting Without Punishment

Oh yes you can.

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Photo by Sai de Silva on Unsplash

“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” Source unknown. Attributed to Benjamin Franklin

I took more of a natural approach to parenting, which to outsiders sometimes looked permissive. As when he was crowing joyfully in a restaurant, but not crying, so I didn’t take him out. So if permissive means letting a toddler and young child be themselves as long as it wasn’t hurting others, then, yeah, I was permissive.

But don’t stop reading here, just because you despise permissive parents.

I don’t apply that word to myself, and I don’t think you would either, if you had seen my son and me in action. What I believe works best, in trying to shape a tiny human into an adept social creature, is natural consequences.

What are natural consequences?

Natural consequences are what actually happen in life when we make bad choices. And consequences are not punishments. Punishments are stuff we make up to deter an action. Natural consequences are what naturally follow an action. Try this little thought experiment.

What lesson from your childhood do you remember the most? I don’t mean what punishment was memorable to you. I mean what did you actually learn? What punishments do you remember without remembering what they were for?

My own experience was when our neighbor came over to complain to my Dad that we, along with his kids, had used crayons to color in all the grouting in the bricks on the front of his house. My Dad didn’t yell and he didn’t punish. He simply gathered a bucket, soap and water, and led us next door where we scrubbed all the colored grout back to its original shade. It was hard work in the heat, and took some time. What did I learn? Not to vandalize. And I never did again.

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Photo by Markus Spisk on Unsplash

Mom, on the other hand was a spanker and a shouter when we did something wrong. I can think of only one of those punishments where I actually remember the crime and what I was supposed to learn. But I didn’t learn it, because those approaches just made me angry and rebellious, and want to keep doing the objectionable behavior, only not get caught.

See the difference? If you, a grown-up, are speeding, and a police officer gives you a ticket, that’s a punishment. How long after a ticket do you wait to start speeding again? You probably at least wait until the police officer is out of sight. But what if you are speeding and cause an accident? That is a natural consequence which sticks with you, sometimes in the form of PTSD.

I’m not suggesting we let children do whatever they want and let the world teach them the lesson, if and only if they are caught.

That’s how criminals are created. Instead, think of the outcome of a behavior and help them understand the consequences that follow those behaviors. If a toddler throws things across the room, they have to be the ones to pick them up. Or maybe you tell him ahead of time that if he throws his toys, you will put them away until he can play with them without hurting anybody or the toys. Even though you are intervening here, throwing things when he is grown is likely to lead to their loss when he goes to jail for domestic violence. Better to learn the easier way.

Basically, the consequence needs to be related to the action. If she makes a mess, she cleans it up. Of course, this has to be something she can actually accomplish. It’s okay if you help, just don’t do it for them.

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Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Sometimes it means letting children make their own decisions, if it doesn’t endanger them. My son would argue with a rattling fence post when he was younger. When it came to clothes, I solved it by giving him two or three outfits to choose from. But he only had one coat, and one day he refused to wear it. Plus he wanted to argue that it wasn’t even cold outside. Rather than argue, I let him get in the car with me and headed out. I took my sweet time about turning on the heater. It only took three blocks for him to say, “Mom, turn around. It’s cold, I want my coat.” In a calm voice I told him we didn’t have time to go back. He was never in danger. It doesn’t get that cold in Texas. But he never argued with me about weather and coats again.

Jane Nelsen, Ed.D. says, “Kids don’t learn when they’re feeling threatened.” Since what we really want is for them to learn good behaviors, and not repeat bad ones, we need to help them learn what to do and not do. Scaring them doesn’t work. When we become threatening to kids, they don’t learn. They might respond and act the way you want, but they won’t have learned why. And the “why” is what is important.


I always answered my son’s “why” questions. One way for the child to understand what natural consequences can follow, is to explain why we want them to do or not do something. When I worked in a school, and asked kids why they weren’t supposed to run in the halls, they didn’t know. I told them it was so they wouldn’t get hurt in case someone opened a door suddenly and they ran into it. That made sense to them.

When we explain how most rules are put in place to protect them, they are more likely to follow that rule. It’s even more effective if we ask the child, “Why do you think we have this rule?” They can usually figure it out. And anytime they figure something out, they are learning to think, and you have less explaining to do. Anytime a parent can do less and get more and better results, the happier that parent should be.

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Psychotherapist, Hypnotherapist. Leans Left. Mindfulness practioner before it was cool. M.Ed., LPC.

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