Generally speaking, when my kids were young, they were well-behaved. Yet, they were little kids. Occasionally they behaved in ways that were hard to be around. They whined, bounced around, refused to sit still, got into sibling spars, and had tantrums. In my attempt to be a great parent, I learned all I could on how to nip these behaviors in the bud.
Back then, sugar-coated punishments and rewards were all the rage. I implemented sticker charts, point systems, planned ignoring, praise, removal of privileges, and time-outs.
None of it worked.
When I sought out parenting advice from well-meaning advisors, they told me I was not being consistent enough and that I was applying the strategies incorrectly. After over a year of so of consistency, and fine tuning, I noticed that my their behavior was not improving. In fact things were getting worse. I became the behavior police and parenting became overwhelming.
It turns out I am not the only one who experienced this frustration as a parent. Advances in neuroscience and attachment research are helping us understand why rewards and punishments do not work. The act of inflicting pain upon your child is not the best way to prevent poor behavior. Nor is the practice of bribing children to behave well with treats, stickers, points, or small toys in anyone's best interest.
Yes, I know that most adults today were raised on rewards and punishment. I also know that most parents rely on these methods in some form. I am included in this group. But as a therapist focused on working with parents, and one that hears about all the pain and suffering that has occurred within parent-child relationships, I assure you there is a better way.
Being controlled by rewards and punishment erodes the parent-child relationship. Great parenting includes structure, guidelines, and limits that aid in developing connection, emotional regulation, and emotional safety.
In addition to my struggle with rewards and punishments, I notice there are many behaviors parents exhibit, that are hurtful to children, yet somehow culturally accepted as "discipline". Behaviors like yelling, grabbing, spanking, forcing, scolding, isolating, and shaming have been passed down from parent to child, generation after generation. These behaviors would be unacceptable in any setting outside the home. Yet somehow if they are directed toward children we write it off as discipline. This is true despite the research, and logic, showing us that treating children in this manner will only make their behavior worse and will be detrimental to their development.
Years ago I was assisting at a personal development course where a dad was sharing about the mistreatment he received as a child. Today he found himself mistreating his own children the way, and was struggling to do it differently. He heart and intentions were in a good place but he could not get his behavior to follow.
One of the course assistants, kindly, firmly and compassionately, looked into this father eyes and proclaimed, “It stops with you”.
He was not speaking to me, yet I took his words to heart. If the old-school way parenting way stops with me, the new way starts with me too. I vowed to raise my children in environments free of harshness and punishment. I also dedicated myself to teaching other parents how to address challenging kid behavior in an emotionally safe and responsive manner.
Many parents repeat the actions of their own parents. Even if they set out to do things differently, when triggered, they speak the words or act out the actions of the parenting they received. All parents find themselves here at some point or other. Most parents have had moments of overwhelm where they yell, scold and the like. We are humans, we have our limits, and sometimes we are pushed beyond our ability to keep our cool. I am not suggesting perfection. I am suggesting that our generation of parents learn how to handle challenging kid behavior without resorting to manipulation or harm.
I know it can be incredibly challenging to refrain from exhibiting our own poor behavior when our kids act in maddening ways. Yet, being able to master responsive parenting will lead to pro-social behavior in our children.
Meaning, that when we are able to well-behaved our children will be well-behaved too.
It starts with you. It starts with me. It starts with us.
Hello! I am Cristina Trette. I am a Couples Therapist, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, and Certified in Perinatal Mental Health. I write on all things related to relationships, parenthood, and connection.