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22 Alternatives to Punishment

Many parents recognize the harmful effects of physical and verbal punishment. They know that yelling, slapping, hitting, and spanking teach violence, destroy self-esteem, create anger, interfere with learning, and damage the relationship between parent and child.

But knowing what not to do is only the first step; parents wonder what they should do instead. Unfortunately, most current parenting books and articles recommend "alternatives" which in reality are merely alternative punishments. These include time-out, denial of privileges, and so-called "logical" consequences.

All of these methods have much in common with physical punishment, and all give the same messages: that the parent has no interest in the underlying unmet needs that led to the behavior, and is taking unfair advantage of his greater size and power over the child. Most significantly, these approaches tell the child that someone he has come to love and trust wishes to cause him pain. This is a "crazy-making" message, because it is so alien to the child's intuitive understanding about what love should look like.

Finally, all of these approaches miss the best opportunities for learning. They sidetrack the child into fantasies of revenge, where he is too distracted to focus on the real issue at hand. True alternatives to punishment are those that help the child to learn and grow in a healthy way. There are few greater joys in life than allowing our child to teach us what love is!

Here are twenty-two alternatives that give positive, loving messages:

1. Prevent unwanted behavior by meeting your child's needs when they are first expressed. With her current needs met, she is free to move on to the next stage of learning.

2. Provide a safe, child-friendly environment. There is little point in having precious items within the reach of a baby or toddler, when they can simply be put away until the child is old enough to handle them carefully.

3. Apply the Golden Rule. Think about how you would like to be treated if you were to find yourself in the same circumstances as your child. Human nature is human nature, regardless of age.

4. Show empathy for your child's feelings. Even if a child's behavior seems illogical, his underlying feelings and needs are real to him. A statement like "You seem really unhappy" is a good way to show that you are on your child's side.

5. Validate your child's feelings so she knows that you understand and care, and that she will never be rejected for having any particular kinds of feelings. For example, "That scared me too when I was little."

6. Meet the underlying need that led to the behavior. If we punish the outward behavior, the still unmet need will continue to surface in other ways until it is finally met. Questions such as "Are you angry because I've been on the phone so much today? Would you like to go for a walk together?" can help a child feel loved and understood.

7. Whenever possible, find a "win-win" solution that meets everyone's needs. To learn effective conflict resolution skills, consider a course in Nonviolent Communication.

8. Reassure your child that he is loved and appreciated. So-called "bad" behavior is often the child's attempt to express his need for love and attention, in the best way that he can manage at that moment. If he could express this need in a more mature way, he would.

9. Shift the focus away from a situation that has become too stressful to resolve at that moment: "Let's take a break. What would you like to do instead?"

10. Be sure that you and your child have had nutritious food throughout the day so your blood sugar levels stay high. Frequent, small meals are best.

11. Breathe! When stressed, we need more oxygen, but tend to take shallow breaths. Even a few deep breaths can help us to calm down and think more clearly.

12. We don't expect a car to start unless the gas tank is filled, and we shouldn't expect a child to function at her best if her "emotional tank" is running low. Give the three things that fill a child's emotional tank: eye contact, gentle touch, and undivided attention.

13. Chamomile tea is very relaxing for both adults and children. Taken an hour before bedtime by a nursing mother, it can also help to calm her baby. Older children might like iced chamomile tea or popsicles.

14. Take a time out - with your child. A change of scenery - even if it's just a short time outdoors, can make a real difference for both parent and child.

15. Pick a Parenting Card for inspiration and encouragement or create some of your own reminder cards.

16. Offer a massage. A bedtime massage can help a child to sleep more soundly, giving her more resilience and energy for the following day.

17. Give choices. Children need to feel they have a voice. Offering choices, even if they seem unimportant to you ("Do you want the red cup or the blue one?") will help a child feel that he has some say over his life, especially if he has had to cope with recent changes.

18. Try whispering. When tensions are high, whispering can help to get a child's attention and also help to calm the parent.

19. Give your child time. A statement like "Let me know when you're ready to share the toy / climb into the car seat / put on your jacket" will give the child a sense of autonomy and make it easier for him to cooperate.

20. Give yourself time. Count to ten (silently) or ask for time ("I'm not sure what to say. Please give me a moment while I think this over." Sometimes we just need a bit of time to think more clearly and to see things more objectively. 

21. Remember that children create images from our words: "Slow down!" is more effective than "Stop running!". The first statement creates an image of slowing down, while the second creates a picture of someone running (the word "don't" is too abstract to overcome the more concrete and compelling image of running). Similarly, a specific request is more effective than a general one: "Please put down the glass" instead of "Be careful".

22. Ask yourself "Will I look back at this later and laugh?" If so, why not laugh now? Create the kind of memory you would like to have when you look back on this day.

In these ways, we can best bring about the genuine cooperation that we seek at the moment. But our greatest reward will be a life-long, mutually loving and trusting bond with our child.

Expanded from "Ten Alternatives to Punishment", The Natural Child: Parenting from the Heart by Jan Hunt.

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Jan Hunt, M.Sc., offers counseling worldwide, with a focus on parenting and unschooling. She is the Director of The Natural Child Project and author of The Natural Child: Parenting from the Heart and A Gift for Baby