Let’s Get Rid of Trick or Treat!

trickortreatPAIDThe last twenty years or so have given us many new insights into child development and what is required for optimal brain wiring.  Neuroscience and social research are showing us that a secure attachment and the quality of the parent-child relationship are what influence our child’s behavior the most.

Armed with research findings that favor relationship-building over behavior modification, many parents are veering away from using “tricks” (punishments) and “treats” (rewards) to discipline children.  After all, discipline means to teach—not to coerce with punishment or to convince with rewards.

In fact, “tricks” or “treats” override children’s natural willingness to do what’s right based on intrinsic learning and instead, motivate them to “behave” based on extrinsic motivations–to avoid punishment or to receive a reward.  While it may “work” in the short term to get you the desired behavior, it will not teach your child to go inside and decide for himself what is right or wrong.  Disciplining our children in a way that nurtures their self-discipline will pay off in the long run when they are teenagers and we’re not around to put them in time-out or present them with a sticker for their sticker chart!

But how is it possible to discipline without punishment or reward?  Won’t kids run wild and play with matches and kill each other?  I’m not saying children don’t need limits.  They do.  But setting loving limits and letting your child feel the feelings that come when they bump up against them is not the same thing as punishment.

Punishment is time-out (sending into isolation), or taking away privileges, or spanking.  Discipline is setting limits, holding those limits, and letting natural consequences teach the child. It’s viewing behavior as communication and using dialogue to dig for what’s under the behavior.  What is your child communicating?  What does she need?  It’s talking it through, putting the issue on the agenda for the weekly family meeting, and collaboratively problem-solving together.  It is teaching, which is mostly with words and always through modeling.

With our gentle guidance, we can help our children develop their own moral compass and regulate their impulses and behavior.  It takes time.  After all, they’re just kids.  They’re learning. When we give up the tricks and treats and use discipline to teach our kids, we invest in building a relationship based on trust and mutual respect.  As they grow older and our influence pales in comparison to the influence of their peers, this relationship becomes uber important. When we honor the natural growth in our children as their conscience develops from the inside out, they are able to make better choices, even when no one is looking.

(For a deeper understanding of how to discipline without punishment or reward with lots of concrete examples, I recommend No-Drama Discipline: The Whole-Brain Way to Calm the Chaos and Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind and/or The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind…both by Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson.)

I was hit with a “switch” as a child and I turned out okay

adrian-peterson-child-abuse-4Or did I?

The media is abuzz with the recent off field violence of NFL players Ray Rice and now Adrian Peterson.  As horrific as the events may be (Rice punching his wife unconscious and Peterson hitting his child with a “switch”), I’m hopeful that they will raise our consciousness around these issues that are still lingering in the shadows–the issues of domestic violence and child abuse.

When someone uses physical punishment to manage their child’s behavior (like spanking, switching, slapping, whipping) it is often rationalized or even glorified with statements like, “Harsh discipline made me the man I am today,” or “I was spanked as a child and I turned out okay.”

Except…when I look around me, I’m not sure we have turned out okay.  There seems to be a LOT of violence in the world.  There’s seems to be a LOT of people who believe that the way to solve problems is to control someone, terrify someone, or punish someone.

So I’m not at all convinced that any of us have turned out okay.  To be okay, we sure have made a mess of this civilization thing.  Collectively, we seem to treat each other with less than respect, especially when we don’t agree with someone or hold the same opinions or beliefs as they do.

Largely, the way we treat others is directly related to how we were treated as a child because that’s what got hardwired into our brains.  So when 61% – 80% (depending on the survey) of U.S. parents report using physical punishment on their children, it creates a cycle of violence that’s never-ending until someone sticks their stake in the ground and proclaims, This cycle stops with me!

But I also know how hard it is to stop these generational patterns.  I was hit with a “switch” when I was little.  Growing up in the south, my parents disciplined in thespare the rod, spoil the child fashion without realizing that the rod in the bible is a tool that shepherds used to guide their sheep, not hit them! Remember, the psalms? “Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me.”

I was not comforted by my mom’s version of the rod.  “Switching” was how my mom disciplined me in the most severe cases of when I defied her rules, or when she was just tired and exhausted and didn’t know what else to do.  And to add insult to injury I had to go out back and cut my own “switch” off the tree.  I would spend a considerable amount of time trying to select the branch that looked like it would do the least harm to my legs. Do I leave the leaves on or take them off?  Do I cut it short or cut it long?

I can remember the stings, the raw welts that rose up, the heat that emanated from the wounds for several hours afterward.  But mostly I remember the anger in my mother’s voice and in her hands.  It didn’t sound or feel anything like love to me.

But I turned out okay, right?

While I’m “okay” by many standards, I wonder….  If I had been treated with moreunderstanding and compassion as a child when I “misbehaved,” might I have been spared the many years of emotional and verbal abuse I endured in a past relationship?  Might I not have spent more than a decade recovering from co-dependency?  Might I have known, deep in my core, that I didn’t deserve to be mistreated and would not allow it?  Might I have loved myself and taken care of myself more?

As for men who were “whipped” or “switched” when they were boys.  If they had been shown more understanding and compassion as a child, might they be more respectful and gentle to women?  Might they use their strength to model, for their own kids, self-control, understanding, and problem-solving that doesn’t include violence?  Wouldn’t these be great life skills to pass along to the next generation?

One day as she watched her grandkids play, my mother said, “I can’t imagine hitting either one of these boys.  I don’t know how in the world I did it to you when you were young.  That’s just what people did back then and I didn’t know any different.  I’m sorry I hit you.  I could never hit a child now.”  Those words were like healing balm for the scars on my soul.

I know my mom loved me and I’m glad she eventually became aware of how hitting hurts children–their souls even more than their bodies.  I’m also glad I learned alternate ways to discipline my children and mostly broke this generational pattern for my family.  Even though I swore not to spank my children, it happened a few times.  So I know the huge effort it takes to break these generational patterns, these reactions that are hardwired in our brains from early childhood.  If we were hit as a child, it’s very difficult NOT to pass this treatment on to our children. So I committed to do the hard work, to put my stake in the ground, and declare that this generational pattern ends here!

Ultimately, what I long for is a world where we don’t just turn out “okay.”  I want children to thrive, to flourish, to know their own worth and to feel loved, wholly loved, mistakes and all.  I want parents to be gentle guides with their children by setting loving limits, and modeling how to handle frustration and anger that arises.  Not with physical violence, but by saying, “Hey buddy, I can’t let you hit your brother or push him.  In our family, everyone is safe.  So come over here and sit by me and tell me what’s going on with you?  Why did you push him away from that video game?  How could you handle that differently next time?”  That’s how I wish my mom had responded when I “misbehaved”…with curiosity and a sense that she had my back even if she didn’t like my behavior.  That’s what I try to model for my kids.  Because I want them passing on these important peace-building and problem-solving skills to my grandchildren someday.

Research on Physical Punishment

In 2008, the “Report on Physical Punishment in the United States: What Research Tells Us About Its Effects on Children” by Elizabeth T. Gershoff, Ph.D. was published. This report was endorsed by over seventy U.S. organizations including the Academy on Violence and Abuse, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children, and American Medical Association. The report synthesizes one hundred years of social science research and hundreds of published studies on physical punishment conducted by professionals in the fields of psychology, medicine, education, social work, and sociology.

The research supports several conclusions:

  • There is little research evidence that physical punishment improves children’s behavior in the long term.
  • There is substantial research evidence that physical punishment makes it more, not less, likely that children will be defiant and aggressive in the future.
  • There is clear research evidence that physical punishment puts children at risk for negative outcomes, including increased mental health problems.
  • There is consistent evidence that children who are physically punished are at greater risk of serious injury and physical abuse.

In recent years, scientists have found that even spanking–the most widely accepted and allegedly humane form of corporal punishment–has alarmingly negative consequences for childhood development. Spanking can increase a child’s risk of aggressionantisocial behavior, andmental health disorders later in life. It slows cognitive development and decreases language skills. Spanking may not leave outward signs of injury, but the mental scars it inflicts can last a lifetime.

Do your kids have to fight for power?

In my parenting classes we often have lively discussions when we start to consider the partnership parenting approach that I teach.  What does it mean to share power in your family?  Can kids really handle more choice and power?  Isn’t it our job to make most decisions for them while they are very young and limit their choice-making to wearing either the blue or the red socks? In my experience, children can handle way more power than we, as the adults in their lives, are willing to give them.  In fact, I believe we unconsciously foster, to a great extent, powerlessness in our children.  And when children feel powerless, what options do they have but to submit or rebel? Submission turns them into nice dead people and rebellion turns them into very challenging children to raise.  If you see submission or rebellion in your kids, put yourself in their shoes and ask yourself honestly, “Do I feel power-full?  or do I feel power-less?”

In my own family, I know that my life would be so much easier if my kids would submit to my power and just do what I tell them to do.  But I’m not interested in just getting compliance if it’s going to come at a cost, if it harms the relationship in the long-term.  Plus, I want my children to realize they are powerful beings and to recognize and be in touch with their own needs–even if it means disagreeing with me and what I think is best for them.  After all, it is their life and their journey.  I don’t want to stand in the way of what they are here to learn.

Do your kids have to fight for power?

The shift to a power-sharing parenting paradigm can be mind-boggling and a lot of inside resistance can come up.  it usually goes like this, “If I open that can of worms, if I let my child have some power in making decisions that affect him, then all hell will break loose and I’ll never get back any control.”

So you start white-knuckling it, trying to keep control at all costs.  And, eventually, it does come at a cost.  They don’t stay young and pliable forever.  And that’s if you’re lucky enough to start out with a compliant child.  I didn’t start with a compliant child so my learning came early and quick!  Within the first year I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that control was just an illusion.  Once I loosened my grip on that illusion, things started to shift for the better.

There are sometimes very good reasons not to share power.  But I believe that are more good reasons to share power with our kids, starting when they are young.  Allowing them to have choice and leadership in their lives (within safe limits) in ever larger doses as they age, instills in them confidence that they can manage their lives, make decisions–even bad ones–and bounce back when they make mistakes.  It instills in them a knowing that what they think and need matters in this world.  This inner trust in themselves (or the lack of it) will be their guide into adulthood and will impact every relationship they have, especially the one with themselves.

There are too many grown-ups walking around today with this harsh voice inside that says things like, “You’re not worthy.  You’re not enough.  You’re not loveable because you are flawed.  You don’t really matter.”  Wouldn’t it be nice if our kids grow up to hear a different voice inside, a nurturing one that says things like, “I’m not perfect but I’m still worthy and loveable.  I am enough; I don’t have to be something I’m not.  I matter.  I have the power to create the life I want.”

How do they learn this power and how to manage it if we never give it to them?  Or if they have to fight so hard for it that they never learn the give and take of sharing power with others?  I don’t have the “right” answer, but I sure do love the questions!  We encourage our children to share with others.  Are we modeling the same when it comes to power?

What to do when your child says “no!”

I don’t believe there is a parent on the planet who hasn’t heard the word “no” coming from their child’s lips.  It seems that almost as soon as they learn to speak, this word becomes a mainstay for kids.  Particularly during those early years, when they are discovering they have their own preferences and testing the limits with how far they can go in making their own choices. 

Often, our impulse is to get them to change their minds.  We try to get them to say yes to our requests through convincing, cajoling, or coercing.  We persuade, we try to reason and when all else fails, we either use power over them or we give up, we submit.  Power struggles are very common when our child says “no!”

What if there was a better way to respond when you hear a “no”?   A response that discharges the power struggles and leads to connection with your child instead?  Well, guess what?  There is and it’s simple.  You just have to hear the “yes” behind the “no.”  Would you like to give it a try?

Here’s how it works. The next time your child says “no” to a request you have made,  listen for what she is saying “yes” to instead.  For example, if you ask your child to pick up the toys and put them in the toy chest, and she says “no,” perhaps she is saying “yes” to playing longer.  Or “yes” to deciding for herself when she will pick up the toys.  Or “yes” to ease and efficiency.  Make a guess and see if it’s right. 

“When I hear you say ‘no,’ I wonder if you want to play a little longer?”  If  you guess wrong, she’s likely to let you know and give you more information, such as, “I’m just going to get them out again in the morning.”  Go with the new information and guess again, “So you want it to be easy in the morning and have your toys right here on the floor ready to play?”  “Yes!”  Surely you can relate to that “yes”; aren’t there times when you want ease and efficiency in your life?

Now that you know what she’s saying yes to, validate her yes.  “That would be so easy, wouldn’t it?  To walk in here in the morning and everything is right here, ready to play!”  With this new understanding maybe leaving the toys on the floor will work for you.  Or maybe it still won’t.  Maybe you have a need for order so you can relax at bedtime.  Maybe you’re concerned that someone will trip on the toys and get hurt. 

Then you can share with her what you are saying “yes” to.  “I understand that would make it easier for you when you come in to play in the morning, not having to get the toys out again.  And I will be up later than you tonight and would like the room to look nice.  When things are in their place, it helps me to relax.  I’d like to be able to walk through the room without tripping.” 

When you share the “yes” behind your request, you allow your child to consider if she wants to contribute to making life more wonderful for you.  You are planting a seed in her, which, if watered gently over time, will blossom into consideration and regard for others. She will learn not to do something just because she is told to do it, but because she is in touch with her natural capacity to contribute to others.

Perhaps she will choose to pick up the toys because she knows it will help you relax.  Or perhaps she will still insist on leaving them out.  Don’t worry; your child’s capacity to care for others grows over time with lots of practice.  If the latter is the case, you can still water that seed of consideration in her by modeling it for her.  You lay all the “yeses” out on the table to be considered and together you brainstorm how to make it work for both of you.  “I hear you want it to be easy to start playing right away in the morning and I want the room to look nice and not have to worry about tripping over toys.  What can we do?”

First let her explore ideas and then offer your ideas if needed.  This will help her develop the skill of collaborative problem-solving.  You just might be surprised at the creative ideas that bubble up from both of you.  “How about I put my toys on this blanket and slide it over in this corner?” 

“Thanks for trying that.  Hmmmm, it still doesn’t look tidy enough for me.  I really enjoy looking at an uncluttered room.  How about we bundle the toys up in the blanket and put it inside the toy chest?  That way, it will be easy to pull it out in the morning and lay it back on the floor.  Will you try that?”  Thus begins the dialogue, the connection, the consideration of everyone’s input.

It can become a game, guessing at the “yes” behind the “no.”  The more you can develop your curiosity and the less you take the “no” as a rejection of your request, the more joyful your interactions with your child will be around that dreaded word.  🙂