Some parents approach child discipline with the thought that “this is going to hurt me more than it hurts them.” But this sentiment prompts a pretty fundamental question about parenting and discipline in general: Whether it comes from a traumatic time-out, a smack on the bottom, or parental self-recrimination, why does anyone have to get hurt in the first place?
There are physicians, researchers, and child advocates who believe that discipline is completely unnecessary for parenting a child. In fact, they claim, discipline is only good for inculcating a kid with blind obedience to authority. These non-disciplinarians have created a variety of parenting methods that lean into respect for a child while turning away from punishment. These are the methods for parents ready to give up the power struggle.
The Kazdin Method
Dr. Alan Kazdin is the director of Yale University’s Yale Parenting Center and a storied leader in the field of child psychiatry. Much of his experience is in helping parents work with the hard-luck kids who are so violent or oppositional that they are an assault away from psychiatric commitment. But even when a kid is lashing out, Kazdin does not recommend punishment. In fact, Kazdin notes that according to research punishment is counterproductive to getting the positive behaviors from children that parents actually want to see. Does it stop the behavior at the moment? Sure. Does it stop it forever? Not likely.
The core of Kazdin’s parenting method is simply teaching a child the appropriate way to act — not through explanation or telling, but through actual simulation of the more appropriate behavior. Along with that simulation, Kazdin encourages parents to recognize and praise the good behaviors in a proactive way in order to reinforce what they want to see.
True, Kazdin’s parenting method isn’t necessarily easy. In fact, it requires a good deal of time and intentional interaction with a child. But, then again, all those time-outs takes time and energy as well. It’s really just a matter of where a parent wants to put the effort.
According to Dr. Laura Markham, discipline sets up an ultimately toxic power struggle between an adult and a child. And that power struggle is based on a parent attempting to bend a child to their will. The struggle results in anger, frustration and bad feelings on all sides.
The key to parenting, according to Markham, is to base the relationship on warmth, love and mutual respect rather than some intrinsic parental authority that must be obeyed. But, for the warmth and love to be communicated, parents need to be completely present and empathetic with their children. In other words, parents need to be peaceful.
So when a parent is confronted by behavioral adversity, Markham advises parents to react first by getting close to the kid, connecting and attempting to truly understand the concerns from the child’s perspective. Then parents can repeat that perspective back to the child to show understanding. That doesn’t necessarily mean a parent has to agree with the sentiment. They just have to recognize it and understand it.
From there Markham suggests that parents pivot into playfulness and problem solving to turn things around. Children then become an ally in a solution, rather than an enemy to be punished.
This is all well and good, but Markham’s parenting method requires that parents take stock of their own emotions. To be a peaceful parent, then, adults need to come to terms with their desire to control and supplant that with a desire to love and nurture. That’s much harder than creating hard boundaries that prompt a disciplinary reaction. For one, it requires a parent to admit they might not always be right. Also, it requires active self-work.
That may be a non-starter for some people.
Positive parenting is a method that grew out of the field of positive psychology. The method is built on the idea of nurturing talents, strength and abilities to help make someone a better person rather than attempting to correct perceived flaws. What that means for parents is helping a child build problem-solving skills and make appropriate choices, rather than asking for obedience.
This method is largely concerned with parents acting as a model of appropriate positive behavior. The idea is that parents who yell, scream, hurt and punish, ultimately raise kids who will behave in the same way. Positive parenting is essentially the golden rule of parenting methods: only parent the way you would want to be parented.
Rather than discipline, positive parenting suggests that parents look at problem behaviors through the lens of a child’s needs. Instead of punishing a kid for breaking a toy, then, a parent would attempt to decipher the underlying need a child is trying to communicate through that behavior and fulfill that need.
One central positive parenting tactic is the “time-in.” This is when parents confronted by a child acting out, brings the child closer to them and then sits with them to listen and attempt to discover the underlying issue. The idea is to make the pause a pro-social experience that focuses on a kid’s needs and fulfilling them in order to find a solution to the behavior.
The method created by Alfie Kohn posits that all discipline is essentially coercion meant to create a short-term behavioral change, rather than well-rounded humans that know how and why to make good choices. But Kohn doesn’t just cast a critical eye just discipline like time out and spankings. In fact, he also regards methods like withholding treats, voicing disappointment, or giving praise, as deeply problematic.
According to Kohn, the problem is that discipline and other coercive methods, including praise, make kids feel that they are only loved when they behave the way a parent wants them to. So the core of Kohn’s method is to offer children unconditional love regardless of what they do or how they behave.
A lot of this means casting aside widely accepted norms and conventional parental wisdom. It also means tossing away the idea of positive reinforcement, or what Kohn terms verbal doggie biscuits. Instead, Kohn says that parents should help the kid understand the why of things. Exploring the why a collective effort between parent and a child, meant to educate and help a kid understand the reasons behind ethical behaviors.
In other words, a kid doesn’t learn to share because it makes a parent happy. In fact, a kid will be less likely to share when a parent is there. However, if a kid understands that sharing makes the person they’ve shared with feel good, the consequences of their actions actually begin to make sense in a real-world way.
Adopting Kohn’s method means the end of sticker charts and congratulatory ice cream. But it also means coming to terms with things parents do “just because” that’s the way things have always been. It forces parents to think critically about why they are making a specific request of the child.
Kohns method is not didactic. There are no scripts. It all comes down to the “why.” And if there is not a strong ethical reason behind the why then there’s no need to ask for their compliance.