Lessons They’ll Never Forget: Alternatives to Punishment

Family-Good things to come-330

This article is part 3 in a 3-part series on punishment.

Not too long ago, my family and I went to the local library together to return our books and to renew our supply. All was well until we got back into the car to go home. Naomi (age 7) got into the backseat before Carter (age 12) and sat in Carter’s favorite spot. This ticked Carter off a bit and he started to get agitated with Naomi. He demanded that Naomi move, and she was more than happy to gloat about getting that coveted location.

Things escalated pretty quickly–as they often can in a family of passionate, emotional people–so Carter decided to use physical force to get his way. This slightly hurt Naomi’s body and really hurt her feelings. Being the protective Dad I am, I said to Carter: “What are you thinking?! It’s a spot in the car for a 5-minute car ride!” Then the lecture began.

About 10 words into the lecture, Carter plugged his ears! That really made my blood boil. I increased the volume of the lecture (not quite yelling yet), and then I caught myself. I got in the driver’s seat and drove home–still upset about Carter’s actions and the perceived disrespect. Little did he know that I was saving the lecture for later when I could get him to listen.

Let’s take a moment to reflect here.

Parents, I’m just going to say it like it is. I did so many more things wrong in this situation than Carter. First of all I’m 25 years older so I am more accountable. I can’t act or react in a way that makes me guilty of a greater offense than he is . . . which is what happened. Second, lectures rarely work in the way we hope — and I mean rarely! Third, the plugging of his ears was not intentional disrespect but a reaction to a useless pastime where I occasionally lecture and he tunes out. If anything, I should see this as a signal that I’m not teaching or connecting. This means it’s time to get off my soapbox, chill out, and think rationally again.

You may still be wondering, “So what did you do?”

I’m glad you asked. Here’s the rest of the story.

When we got home, Carter went straight to his room (I assumed he was upset about my mini lecture). I waited a few minutes–not having calmed down all the way–and knocked on his bedroom door. When the door opened, I started into a different type a lecture and I could tell he looked visibly upset. He stopped me and said: “Dad, I was praying for forgiveness and was about to come ask you and Naomi to forgive me but you interrupted me.” I felt like a piece of garbage.

We’ve tried to teach our children how to remedy a mistake over the years, and here was evidence it was working. It is only through effective teaching and guidance that can help children realize their mistakes and then self-correct. You can’t force remorse–which is what most punishments are attempting to do. Real remorse has to be natural and from within. Being sorry because you were caught and something bad happened to you doesn’t bring about real, heartfelt change.

What Carter needed was connection, not correction. (See the Parenting Pyramid for more details). Any type of punishment in this situation would have gotten in the way of what needed to happen and only made things worse.

We often want the quick fix that punishment provides. Connecting with and effectively teaching our children, on the other hand, require much more time and effort than any punishment demands of us.

Remember the Ping-Pong Parable? It would have been silly for me to punish Eleanor for whacking the table because I’d really be punishing her for having a pathetic teacher (me).

If you were taking tennis lessons and your instructor made you do 20 pushups every time you hit a backhand poorly, you wouldn’t improve your backhand. Instead, you’d just be more fearful when a ball came to your backhand. You’d be even more likely to mess up!

Yet we often do the same thing with children when they can’t control their emotions. And controlling emotions is much more difficult than hitting a backhand! (Trust me, I taught tennis for years.)

We think that some sort of punishment will teach emotional regulation, but instead it impedes it.

So before you use a threat, a lecture, a punitive time-out, a withdrawal of privileges, a grounding, or anything else that might fix the behavior temporarily, consider the following research-based *alternatives:

1. Adjust Your Expectations.  

If a problem keeps happening, take the time to analyze the situation with your spouse. Do you need to make any adjustments? Many times parents have created a problem through poor teaching or unrealistic demands, and then the child is the one who gets punished. Take time to reflect on your expectations and be willing to make adjustments as needed. (Make sure you’re keeping the age of your child in mind as well. You shouldn’t expect the same from your 5-year-old that you expect from your 10-year-old.)

Example: Maybe your teen won’t clean his room because of your unreasonable demands. Instead of demanding his room is cleaned exactly to your specifications, find a healthy compromise. Your home will be better off with a slightly messy room and less fighting than it would be with a perfectly clean room.

2. Have Good Reasons and Teach Them.

Don’t have a rule just because you feel like it. Make sure you have good reasons behind what you ask of your children, and make sure your kids understand what those reasons are. (And for the record, “because I said so” isn’t a good reason.)

Example: If your child refuses to wear her seat belt, don’t threaten or bribe. You may have to get out of the car, connect with her, and explain why. Then show her by putting on your own seat belt.

3. Talk Less, Listen More.

Don’t assume you know what the child was thinking, feeling, or deciding. Ask and observe without interrogating! Listen to, acknowledge, and accept feelings. Try to put yourself in their shoes. It’s likely that the misbehavior is merely a symptom of a larger problem. As Stephen Covey teaches, seek to understand before you seek to be understood.

Example: When your child didn’t do his homework, take time to listen. There’s probably more to it than simply willful rebellion. Maybe they’re struggling with the subject or having other difficulties that need to be addressed.

4. Counsel Together.

Find a time when you’re both rational to talk with your children. (This probably won’t be while the conflict is happening.) State your own needs, and ask for their help in finding solutions. Determine rules together. Hold family meetings.

Example: If your teen keeps breaking curfew, decide on a time to come together and talk about the issue. Work together to determine the best solution.

5. Take Your Own Time-out.

Get out of there before you lose it. Explain to the child what you are doing so they know you aren’t just withdrawing love. This is a great example for children to learn how to deal with emotions and have the right kind of time-outs.  

Example: When you’re starting to get overwhelmed or frustrated, take time to go for a run, cry, take a shower, or whatever you need to do to cool down.

By the way, bribes don’t work either. It’s just candy-coated control. For more on this see: Can I Bribe Character into My Child? Every disciplining strategy or technique can be measured against the following questions: Is this a “working-with” or “doing-to” approach? Is this more focused on teaching or correction? Am I keeping the long view of character or the short view of behavior in mind?

Learning Process

As evident by my example, we are always learning. Now that you have a few alternatives to punishment, put them into practice! It won’t come all at once, because good parenting is a process. When you start to get discouraged and fall into habits of punishing, remember: there are other options. You can do this!
*Points were largely taken from Unconditional Parenting,Twenty Alternatives to Punishment, and Positive Discipline.


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Teaching vs. Punishment: Discipline Lessons from Ping-Pong


This article is part 2 in a 3-part series on punishment.

Punishing and threatening my children is my go-to method. What do I do instead?!

I have no idea.


One parenting expert responds to this question by saying: “What’s the alternative? Such a question is more complicated than it seems because there isn’t one particular practice that serves as a replacement for punishments and rewards.”

What I will be suggesting is the creation of an entirely different view of the parent-child relationship. The “alternative,” in other words, doesn’t consist of specific techniques; it consists of a new lens and truth-based principles.

Keep in mind that there is no quick and easy answer to this. (This really needs to be in a book form rather than an article.) In our buy-now-pay-later world, it’s easy to want happy, obedient children — and to want them now.

However tempting it is, our child won’t be helped by quick, behavior-focused solutions. In my first blog post, Parenting isn’t Rocket Science…it’s Harder!  I warned against this quick-fix approach to parenting. Most punishment is like a credit card — get the behavior now and pay later with interest.

Our Discipline Motives

So what is it that motivates us to threaten, punish, and otherwise coerce our kids? Often, we want to fix behavior so we can feel like successful parents. We let those behavioral indicators impact how we feel about ourselves and our children, even when those indicators aren’t the healthiest and most accurate measuring tool.

With threats, bribes, and punishments, we can almost force the indicator for how I’m doing as a parent–my child’s behavior–even though what we really hope for is deep, abiding character in our kids. When a child is compelled to start or stop doing certain behaviors–whether through withdrawing privileges or bribing–it is the parents that are rewarded for such methods. We get the desired action. You might say we get the evidence that tells us we’re doing okay as a parent.

But if we want to really help our kids, not just fix their behaviors, we may need to re-examine our discipline practices.

“Stop Whacking the Table!”

I mentioned in part 1 of this article that we often think that punishment is a form of teaching; we hope our children learn the lesson loud (sometimes literally) and clear. Yet too often, our punishments are corrective actions, not teaching moments. While the following story won’t show any dramatic crimes or mistakes (you can watch Supernanny for that), I hope it provides a backdrop to illustrate several principles or lessons about teaching.

Recently I was playing ping-pong in our basement with two of my daughters, Eleanor (age 4) and Naomi (age 7). (If you’ve guessed that I spent more time picking up balls off the floor rather than hitting them, you’d be right.) Naomi was on one side of table and Eleanor and I were on the other. I can serve balls right to Naomi’s sweet spot so she will often hit two or three balls in a row. With Eleanor, I have to drop a ball right in front of her and she waves her paddle around until she makes contact with the ball . . . sometimes with the backside of her paddle.  

I noticed that Eleanor’s first attempt was to swing down at the ball and then whack the table on her follow through. So naturally, for the sake of the table and the paddle, I told her to stop doing that.

Pause the story!

Whenever possible, ask and invite rather than tell or command. Following this principle will show more respect for your children and acknowledge their ability to choose. So instead, I should have asked: “Eleanor, could you stop hitting the table?”

Okay. On with the show.

The next two attempts from Eleanor produced the same result. She actually hit the ball, but again the paddle came down on the table. So I thought that if I made it clearer, she would stop.

“Please don’t hit the table. Try it like this.” I swung my paddle from my side showing how to hit a forehand.

Pause again!

Telling and lecturing is not teaching. Many parents complain that they tell their kids what to do but still can’t get the desired behavior. They conclude that talking is ineffective. That is like saying “I type and I type and I can’t still can’t produce a good novel. Obviously typing is ineffective!” I think you get the point.

But there are more principles on the way.  

Am I keeping her age and level of understanding in mind if I just repeat myself over and over? Do I really think that repeating something often while increasing in volume will really create a master ping-pong player? No. But this sort of “teaching” happens way too often.

It could be easy to assume that Eleanor is just being stubborn or obstinate.

In reality, her actions can indicate a lack of understanding, which means I need to learn to teach more effectively.

Back to ping-pong.

After demonstrating (modeling is key, but not enough) how to swing the paddle I noticed she was really trying, but struggled to hit the ball. Even though she had more success making contact with the ball swinging down, she still tried to do it the way daddy was doing it.

I decided to be more involved in the teaching moment and stood behind her. Then I put my hand over her hand that was holding the paddle, and as balls came our way we swung together. I also had fun with it so every time she hit the ball–with my help–I lifted her arm in the air and made a strange victory growl.

Interestingly, but not surprisingly, the bond between us increased and Eleanor started understanding what it felt like to swing the paddle correctly. I let her practice on her own and I saw improvement, but more importantly I saw her confidence grow in her ability to learn and my ability to teach.

You may think that this is a silly story that doesn’t help you know what to do with your teen who has defied you for the umpteenth time; or that hitting the ping-pong table with a paddle is not a big deal (which it isn’t). If this is the case, then perhaps you are missing point–the bigger picture. Learning to control emotions is more difficult than learning to hit a ball. No punishment ever taught emotional regulation.

I’ll give a more serious example in part 3, Lessons They Will Never Forget: Alternatives to Punishment and show the negative effects of punishment and the positive effects of connecting, patience, and effective teaching.

Moral of the Story

But for now, the moral of the story is that we may need to adjust the way we view our child’s misbehavior. Are we really helping them understand how to handle things appropriately? Or are we just telling them to not hit the ball instead of the table?


Please help us strengthen families by sharing this article with your friends and family! Likewise, to see more of Dr. Tim’s articles (as well as articles by Dr. Rob), please also check out the rest of our blog and our Facebook page.