So, my son recently turned two years old, and it occurred to me in this last month that as far as I can recall, my wife and I have never punished him. And that’s because he’s perfect.
… haha! Okay, that was a joke. He’s certainly not perfect. But thankfully he has perfect parents.
… hahaha! (Man, I’m funny). But in all seriousness, I cannot remember a time that we’ve actually punished him. And for that I’m actually really thankful. Because to a large degree that has been a conscious decision on our part. Oh, to be sure, he misbehaves and makes mistakes often enough. But, for a couple of different reasons, my wife and I decided early on that punishment would not be our style.
Now I know what a lot of you are thinking. “You’re terrible parents. Your kid’s going to grow up to be a spoiled brat!” And why are you thinking this? Because most people assume that punishment = discipline. And it’s true that a child that never receives discipline will be wanting for much in life. But I have simply stopped believing that I needed to punish my kid in order to instill discipline in him.
It may be helpful at this point to define my terms a bit. When I refer to “punishment” I am referring to the infliction of a penalty as retribution for an offense. This is where a child will do something wrong, and the parent imposes some outside consequence, which usually has nothing to do with what the kid did wrong. For instance, spanking is a prime example of this sort of punishment. Now, to be fair, I was spanked quite a bit as a kid, and it did me a world of good. But it wasn’t the spanking itself that set me up for success. It was the fact that my parents bothered to discipline me at all. Getting hit because of my misconduct was not the key to whole thing. In fact, for all the times that I got spanked, the only time that I remember actually learning something from it was when my dad sat me down on his bed afterwards and explained to me why I got spanked and the deep pain it caused him.1
By and large, however, striking a kid generally does more to confuse the child rather than condition them to be a well-adjusted adult in the future. I once saw a friend of mine get after his little boy for hitting someone. After yelling, “No! You don’t hit!” my friend then punctuated this by popping his son upside the back of his head. Now what do you think this kid learned from that? It certainly wasn’t that hitting others causes them harm and creates a breakdown in relationships. My guess is that he simply learned that hitting is something that you can only do if you are big and strong enough to get away with it. At the very least, he learned that hitting is something that dads can do but not sons, which creates a double-standard in his mind that he is nowhere near old enough to try to make sense of.2
In fact, how we punish kids has huge (albeit, unseen) impacts on their minds. As this article points out, when you punish a kid, you create a dichotomy in their minds where the caretaker that they are naturally inclined to go to for comfort and safety becomes the punisher that they want to avoid in those moments when they can’t make sense of their own emotions. Sticking a kid in “timeout” has the effect of isolating a child, giving them a sense of abandonment, precisely at the moment that they most need someone to pull them close and show them the way.
What’s more is that while parenting a child in this way will teach them to fear punishment, it will fail to teach them to reason through consequences. How many times have we heard about someone who left home, finally getting out from under the authoritarian ways of strong disciplinarian parents, only to immediately jump into all of the vices that mom and dad tried to condition them against? It isn’t because they didn’t get spanked enough. It was because for all the punishment they received, they never learned to think through the natural consequences of life. And, like it or not, spankings and timeouts are not the natural consequences of most anything in the adult world.
Furthermore, as a self-proclaimed pacifist and ardent proponent of a theology of non-violence, if I wouldn’t strike even my worst enemy, why would I strike my own child?
Now, all that being said, my wife and I do discipline our son? “How?” you might be wondering. Through the long, difficult, time-consuming process of explaining things to him. Rather than smacking his hand or spanking his bottom, we walk over to him, get down on his level, and explain to him the “why” behind why he shouldn’t hit people, play with breakable/dangerous objects, etc. Moreover, we ground our “why” in a value that we hold. We don’t hit people because it hurts them, and we don’t want to hurt people. We don’t play with glass objects because they could break, and we love him and don’t want him to get hurt. We listen to others because ignoring them hurts their feelings, and we don’t want to make our friends sad.
And, believe it or not, I have found that even toddlers have a surprising capacity to use simple reason, especially if they are brought up to engage their problems that way.
I once read this short article about the beautiful way one people group treats one another.3
There is a tribe in Africa where the birth date of a child is counted not from when they’ve been born, nor from when they are conceived but from the day that the child was a thought in its mother’s mind.
And when a woman decides that she will have a child, she goes off and sits under a tree, but herself, and she listens until she can hear the song of the child that wants to come. And after she’s heard the song of this child, she comes back to the man who will be the child’s father, and teaches it to him. And then, when they make love to physically conceive the child, some of that time they sing the song of the child, as a way to invite it.
And then, when the mother is pregnant, the mother teaches that child’s song to the midwives and the old women of the village, so that when the child is born, the old women and the people around her sing the child’s song to welcome it. And then, as the child grows up, the other villagers are taught the child’s song. If the child falls, or hurts its knee, someone picks it up and sings its song to it. Or perhaps the child does something wonderful, or goes through he rites of puberty, then as a way of honoring this person, the people of the village sing his or her song.
In the African tribe there is one other occasion upon which the villagers sing to the child. If at any time during his or her life, the person commits a crime or aberrant social act, the individual is called to the center of the village and the people in the community form a circle around them. Then they sing their song to them.
The tribe recognizes that the correction for antisocial behavior is not punishment; it is love and the remembrance of identity. When you recognize your own song, you have no desire or need to do anything that would hurt another. 4
That is beautiful. Imagine if that was our go-to response to misbehavior. Imagine if children grew up knowing that their mistakes and misconduct would be met not with punishment, violence, and abandonment, but with a gentle reminder that they are loved and cared for, and there’s no reason to act selfishly.
I think that it would make a world of difference in the sort of person that they develop into in the long run. I know that I can already see the good fruit of it manifesting in my own son.
Now. Here is what I am not saying: I am not saying that I never get after my son, or that I never have to manufacture consequences for him. But even then the consequences need to be related to the offense. Sometimes the consequences of not playing nice is that I stop playing with him, because that is a real life consequence of not treating others well. I am not saying that I will never punish my kid. There may come a day when I let the situation get away from me. But if that day does come, it will not be one I am proud of. I am not saying that kids who aren’t spanked will invariably become better adults, although I think the research shows a strong correlation. And I am not saying that parents who spank their kids and put them in timeout are bad parents.
What I am saying is that there’s a better way, and we should be eager to take advantage of it.
1: If I recall correctly, the reason I got in trouble was because I punched my little brother in the stomach during an argument. Seeing my dad with tears in his eyes explaining the need to cherish our family members and not harm them is still a vivid picture in my mind.
2: Not that such a double standard really makes any sense among adults either.
3: While there is some debate over the authenticity of this story, I think that even as a fiction it would nevertheless present a wonderful depiction of how discipline could be or ought to be carried out.
4: Adapted from “Sing Your Song,” from Wisdom of the Heart, by Alan Cohen (Hay House, 2002).