As a follow-up to ‘A Plea to Parents‘ – my emotionally evocative argument against ‘spanking’ (ie: hitting) as a strategy for raising children, I present a framework for the alternative that I advocate.
Anticipating the inevitable backlash when I, as a non-parent, give parenting advice, I’ve decided that this article is not going to be about what anybody else should do. This is about what I am going to do, when I have a kid. This is how I intend to create the kind of strong relationship needed to avoid the sticky situations where spanking and excessively harsh tones are common.
This is my own amalgamation of a few different strands of parenting advice, written, yes, by actual parents with actual parenting experience and a commitment to interacting peacefully with their children. Links to those sources are included at the bottom. I will also include a few examples of how these principles would be applied in real life situations, as I understand that the theory might sometimes seem obtuse or practically inapplicable.
Immediately, when I speak of not yelling and not spanking, concerns of permissiveness arise. Images of spoiled brats screaming and trampling over helplessly neutered parents strike fear into the heart of anyone who has seen what a terror an out of control child can be. Ensuring that children listen to and respect parents is no doubt important and essential. The safety, health, and emotional stability of the child (and the parent!) depend on it.
Why should my kid listen to me?
Seriously, what reason does she have? Sure, as a parents (ideally) I have far more knowledge, experience, wisdom, and understanding of most situations than my young child does, and that is the reason I want her to listen to me, but I ask again – what reason does she have? What will motivate her to listen to me?
Well. I could force her. I’m much bigger than she is, after all, and she is entirely dependent on me for pretty much everything. I could easily intimidate and dominate her. Threaten to take her stuff, or spank her butt. Yell. I could insult and distance myself emotionally from her like this charming parent chose to (and then upload the video to YouTube). These methods will earn me some measure of obedience, I’m sure, but could never earn me respect.
As essayist William Hazlet put it, “There is a secret pride in every human heart that revolts at tyranny. You may order and drive an individual, but you cannot make him respect you.”
If I want the respect of my child, I must behave in a manner that commands respect, not through force, but through integrity. Nobody, least of all my child, owes me respect a priori; I have to earn it. I want her to choose to love and respect me, not be so scared of me that she pretends to.
This means that I must follow through on my word, both with promises of benefit and with consequences, even if doing so becomes inconvenient to me at the time. Who can trust the word of somebody who is inconsistent? Who can accept that somebody who peddles contradictions is rational and respectable?
The authority figures in my life whom I’ve respected haven’t been the ones who issued arbitrary commands and expected arbitrary obedience. They were the ones who asked for my input, consulted me about my preferences, were flexible (yet stern, if needed), consistent, and always happy to explain themselves. This gave them credibility. I listened to them because I understood why they were asking me to do something.
‘Because I said so’ is not a reason.
Unless, of course, ‘But I don’t want to!’ is a valid response. They both stem from the same logic – that immediate emotional reactions count as a reason to do something – and yet some parents seem surprised when they proclaim the former, and get the latter as a response. Part of being consistent is living by the same standards I wish to impart on my children.
A child can certainly be unreasonable, but I know that isn’t an excuse for me to do the same. After all, where is he going to learn to be reasonable if not from me? What does demonstrating being reasonable mean if not clearly explaining ones reasons in a way the other party can understand?
I realize that isn’t going to be a cakewalk. Kids, after all, can’t think as well as (most) adults can. I’ll have to use age-appropriate language, and create simple analogies and metaphors, like this guy who explained debt based currency to an 8 year old. Maybe draw a picture or play a game. Will this process be time-consuming? You bet. Tedious? Uh huh. Repetitive? Probably agonizingly so. Worth it? A hundred fold. I will gain credibility by demonstrating that I know what I am talking about, and when it becomes vital that my child listen to me, he will, because he knows that I have good reasons for my instructions.
In addition to demonstrating that the things I ask for aren’t arbitrary dictatorial mandates passed down with no rhyme or reason (which is how some parental techniques must make them seem), explaining things to my child will also have the added benefit of teaching him useful knowledge about the world, as well as how to think and reason. This is not an innate ability, it must be taught, and its deficiency is something that is often carried forward into adulthood. I don’t want that for my child. I intend to foster his ability to introspect, and to communicate his thoughts, feelings, and preferences so that we can both participate in the decision-making process.
Relationships are a two-way street.
In any relationship, healthy decisions are ones made mutually, not unilaterally, that both parties can agree to – and the parent-child relationship is no different. This means taking her preferences into account. Negotiating with her.
I want my child to be able to understand, respond to, and form simple reasoned arguments at the youngest age possible. The best way to do that is to consistently reason with her, starting as soon as she is able to talk and understand words. I will ask my child for feedback as soon as she can give it — because if some aspect of my parenting isn’t working for her, it’s not going to end up working for me either, in the long run.
I would not force her to abandon her needs by walking all over her, but, of course, I cannot abandon my own needs and let her walk all over me, either. It is equally important to teach her to value my needs and preferences as it is to teach her the value of her own. By not doing the former, I would run the risk of raising a narcissist who is unable to compromise. By not doing the latter, I risk raising a non-person who erases themselves in order to avoid conflicts with others.
Again, I’m the adult and I will generally know more about most things. Her brain isn’t set up to understand long-term consequences, and it’s my job to assist her with long-term thinking. This means that sometimes I will need to put my foot down, so to speak, and assert my authority, but only in the most dire of circumstances would it ever be ‘my way or the highway’.
I will always do my best to prepare for potential conflicts so I can avoid situations where our interests appear diametrically opposed before they even appear.
Prevention, not cure.
Alleviating conflict has almost nothing to do with the actual moment of conflict, by then it’s basically too late, it has everything to do with the preparation that has led up to that conflict. An emotionally precarious conflict with my child almost invariably means that I have failed to prepare him in some way for some situation, unless the situation was incredibly unique and could not possibly have been foreseen. Once a conflict has begun, presenting my case becomes far more difficult than it would have been before, when the issue isn’t pressing and the emotional stakes are lower.
This means I will be having detailed, age-appropriate conversations that prepare us for potential conflict situations before they happen. This idea will play a large part in the examples at the end of this article. Establishing agreements of appropriate behavior, managing expectations, and consistent and interested interaction will all form a solid base from which conflicts can be anticipated and resolved before they have the chance to become overwhelming.
If conflicts do happen, it is my job to remember whose fault they ultimately are – my own. I am the adult. A child is by definition still developing, and this means he is still developing the ability to act rationally and respond appropriately to disappointing situations.
My child’s well-being relies on my ability to remain calm, even when he isn’t. It is my job to manage my emotions and resist the urge to succumb to anger and anxiety, or vindictive retribution. This does not, and could never mean, simply giving in to his tantrums and sliding into permissive parenting. Actions have consequences, and in most instances it is my job not to shield my child from those consequences and to allow him to learn from his mistakes.
Consequences are inescapable.
I know that if I took the permissive approach of shielding my child from natural consequences, she might have an easier time in the moment, but I will be setting her up for future failure. By refusing to let my child fail, I would be robbing her of any authentic ‘wins’ as well. Attempting to avoid consequences has consequences.
Creating artificial consequences, like spanking and ‘time out’, also has consequences. Most bad actions will naturally be followed by bad consequences. If she takes too many cookies, not only will she not feel good, but I may feel compelled hide or stop purchasing them because I value her health. This consequence follows naturally from my own rational reaction to what she is doing. It is very much different from saying ‘If you eat too many cookies, no TV for a week!’ or ‘If you don’t come inside now, I’ll break your kneecaps!’. Whoops. Got this mixed up with an article about the mafia…
In other words, if my child insists on doing something in a way that might hurt herself, I may no longer feel comfortable facilitating that activity for her. This might feel like a punishment to her, but it is a fundamentally different kind of consequence from creating some unrelated artificial backlash. Withholding unconnected privileges or intentionally inflicting some mild discomfort is unnecessary, and despite good intentions, is often perceived as vindictive or spurious to the child (or as they might put it, ‘mean’ and ‘unfair’).
I do have to recognize that the real world has some vindictive and spurious consequences in it, but that doesn’t mean that I should recreate that injustice in my own home. I do not believe that I must prepare my child for future wrongs by inflicting them on her now. On the contrary, I believe that by raising her in an ethical environment, I will foster her ability to recognize and cope with future corruption appropriately. I will act justly because I want my child to act justly. I set the tone for all of her future interactions both with myself, and with others.
My child is my mirror.
Children model our behavior (and this video portrays that beautifully). We all know this intuitively and the research bears it out, but it seems like there is a disconnect between that and what we think of as good parenting. Hitting and yelling my child will teach him that hitting and yelling are how to solve problems. Withholding love and emotional closeness will teach him those strategies.
He will respect me to the same degree that I respect him. If he is disrespectful towards me, it will be because I have been disrespectful to him, or to others in his presence. Or, it could also be that I’ve failed to form a strong attachment with him, and he has begun taking cues from peers or other authority figures. But if there is a solid foundation of respect and connection to begin with, there is no reason to think my child’s inevitable testing of the borders of respect will become the norm.
I know that the very oppositionality many fear may spin out of control should we cease to dominate our children is actually generated by that domination. Oppositionality is a method children use to attempt to dominate their parents. If my child becomes used to being dominated and controlled, he will take every available opportunity to dominate and control.
He will unconsciously internalize the emotional states and relational strategies I display. This is why calm, attuned, unstressed parenting is key to raising emotionally healthy children. Whether interactions are stressed and combative or relaxed and interactive are determined by the tone the parents set.
I have to come first.
This may sound counter-intuitive at first, but that advice we hear on airplanes – in the event of an emergency to secure our own oxygen mask before assisting our child – is actually quite wise. If I don’t have enough oxygen, I won’t be able to fasten either of our masks. I have to take care of myself first, because if I’m not taken care of, I can’t take care of her.
I have a responsibility to not get angry and let my anxiety define my actions. Of course, actually achieving this zen-like quality, I’m sure, is easier said than done. In order to do this successfully, I need to be able to focus on and manage my own emotions first and foremost, before looking at my kids. I will not have children until I am relatively certain of my own emotional stability and maturity. My kid is relying on my calm and cool, even if the situation become problematic or a conflict arises.
This self-discipline will help me empathize with my child’s complaints, and not view them as personal attacks. For example, if we start a long car trip, and I hear ‘Are we there yet? I’m bored!’ after 5 minutes of driving, instead of grouchily replying ‘Of course we aren’t there yet! We just left! This is gonna be a long trip!’, I’ll say ‘Yeah, I’m getting bored already too. it stinks, huh? What do you think we can do to pass the time?’. This puts us on the same side against the negative situation, not her on one side versus me and the situation.
Maybe, due to my ability to manage my own emotions, instead of a bitter power struggle we’d think of some fun games to play
How does it apply?
Sound pie in the sky? Like theory and not reality? To the uninitiated, to those who’ve never encountered a child who was reasoned with and therefore knew how to reason, it would sound that way. This next section will take these philosophical principles and apply them in a couple real world situations.
My son doesn’t want to come inside for dinner. I can’t let him play alone in the streets because it is dangerous. I ask him nicely to come inside and he refuses. I explain that it’s dinner time, that it will get cold, they still refuse. I get angry. I tell them to come inside right now or they won’t get any dinner. They stomp, yell, cry, and run away from me. I catch them. Swat them on the butt. Subdued, they come inside and eat dinner, glaring at me.
Next, let’s imagine the above situation for the child’s perspective and see whether we can gain some perspective into the mistakes that were made:
He’s outside playing with his toys, having a great time, running around, when all of a sudden he is asked to come inside for dinner. He’s not hungry, he wants to play, and they asked nicely, so he says no. Quickly it becomes apparent that he isn’t being asked, he is being ordered. And now threatened with not getting any food at all. It unfair. He feels violated and angry and experiences an outburst of emotion. He gets hit. He feels humiliated and ashamed. He submits and comes inside, still entirely unhappy.
So how am I going to handle this kind of situation? Well, I understand that my kid may not want to stop playing at exactly the time I want him to stop, so before he even goes outside, I am going to have had conversations with him about time, and clocks, and dinner. We would talk about how food tastes better when it’s warm and fresh. I’d talk to him about how we’d both like to have time after dinner to play before bedtime.
I’d let them know, before they go out, that I’d like to have dinner at 6PM, in two hours, and ask whether that will work for them. Two hours seem like forever to a kid, so he’d probably agree, but if not, we can negotiate and maybe end up at 6:15. I’ll show them what the hands on my watch will look like when it’s time for dinner. 6:15 pm.
After an hour, I mention that the time playing is halfway over. I show them my watch again. I ask them if they’re getting hungry at all, talk about how I am getting hungry. Half an hour later, I show them my watch again. 5:45. 30 minutes left. This creates a sense of inevitability and involvement, reminding them multiple times what they’ve already agreed to (because kids are spacey… they’ll forget when they see something shiny). At six I mention that I’m really getting hungry and I’d like to go have dinner, but I remind them that we negotiated and that I agreed to wait until 6:15 so that they could keep playing. At 6:10 I tell them to start wrapping up, that there’s only 5 minutes left, and mention how excited I am to have dinner so we can get back to playing afterwards.
At 6:15, they still might not want to come in, but they’ve been thoroughly prepared for it. It’s not a surprise. It doesn’t feel unjust or arbitrary. They helped make the decision.
I imagine this will be enough, but if even after all of this, the child still creates problems with coming inside, I would first wait until any anxiety or anger I am feeling is gone, until maybe the next day, and then have a conversation about it. I would explain that I won’t be able to come and play outside with him before dinner any more if this continues, it’s just too stressful for me. It’s not a punishment per se, it’s just that I have my own needs and if we can’t make this work, I won’t be able to. I like playing outside with him and I want to, but I don’t like having these conflicts.
I would ask him if he has any ideas for how we could work this out and make it more fun for everyone. Having these conversations includes him in the decision-making process, and creates an emotional connection between us. Eventually we would create a new agreement, and the next day I would repeat all the same reminders and gentle nudges until we have a set pattern that works for both of us.
Here is one more example:
My daughter and I are grocery shopping. I just picked her up from school she doesn’t want to come, but I’m running late, my partner is waiting for me to bring home the groceries so we can have dinner. The store is crowded and the line up is long. Finally, as we reach the register, I load my purchases onto the counter. My daughter spots the candy bars. She wants one. I say no. She whines. I repeat myself. She starts crying loudly. I feel embarrassed. I give in and buy it just to shut her up. In the car on the way home I fume at her for making a scene and make sure she knows she won’t be getting another chocolate bar anytime soon.
Once again, let’s look at this from the child’s perspective:
She’s waiting to be picked up from school. Dad’s late. She’s bored. Then she has to go grocery shopping which is even more boring. She’s dragged around the store in a rush, surrounded by giant adults, none of whom are paying any attention to her. Finally, waiting in the line-up, she sees something that might make her feel better. Her favorite candy bar. She asks for it and is refused. Nothing is going right today. She feels incredibly sad and starts crying. Dad gets even madder, but buys the candy bar anyway, acting like it’s all her fault. Then he yells at her more in the car even though he’s the one who brought her to the store anyway.
First of all, I know that if I’d rather not go to the grocery store, my daughter probably doesn’t want to either. When I pick her up from school, I’d apologize for being late, and ask her how she’s feeling and how her day was. I’d let her know that I’m tired too, but that I need to stop at the grocery store so we can have food for dinner. When she complains, I’d empathize with her. It sucks! I don’t want to go either! Is there anyway she thinks we could make it more fun?
On the way, anticipating the check out line, I’d ask if there’s any special food she might want. I’d suggest an apple, or orange.. something sweet. She suggests candy bar. I’d let her know that I wouldn’t feel good buying her a candy bar today, because she just had one two days ago, but what about some of the sesame sticks she likes? We negotiate. She says apple and almond butter. Okay with me.
While in the store, I’d try to engage her and interact with her as much as possible. Let her grab things from the shelf and participate rather than just being dragged around. That might be difficult because we’re already late, but it’s worth it to keep the interaction fun and friendly.
I doubt she would, but if, when we get to the checkout, she still makes a scene about the candy bar, I’d do my best to calm my anxiety and embarrassment. Let people look. Be calm. Tend to my own emotions first and foremost. I’d ride the situation out with as much maneuvered pleasantry as I can manage, without giving in to her demands, reminding her she already got a treat. I would empathize with her for how unfair the situation feels to her.
Later, after emotions have calmed and dinner’s been eaten, I would have a conversation about keeping promises, and point out that I kept up my side of the agreement.I would explain how it makes me feel when she goes back on her agreements, and ask her whether she would like it if I went back on mine. Together, I would try to strategize together about ways, next time, we can both make it through the situation happier.
Of course, none of this is a guarantee that everything will go perfectly every time, but neither is spanking or yelling. The benefits of establishing this kids of relationship with my child, I feel, will be immense.
One final disclaimer
Real life is messy and there are many parenting situations already well underway may never be able to fully conform to this framework. Laying the groundwork for my parental relationship with the preceding principles, I believe much of the strife and conflict many parents experience can be avoided entirely. If that groundwork is already missing, or the relationship has been built on something less solid – the situation is entirely different and more difficult.
Restructuring less than optimal relationships, deconstructing old habit and modes of relating, and overcoming past mistakes are far more complex topics which are highly individual and far above my area of knowledge. Seeking help from a professional councilor who understands the above principles would likely be of a large benefit. Each situation is unique, but for the purposes of what I’ve written, it is assumed that both parents are emotionally healthy, capable, and ‘on board’ with this approach. Inconsistency will undermine much of the foundation of this structure, although any pieces of it which can be practically implemented should have a beneficial effect.
As you can see, my solution for how not to spank is not quite as simple as the ‘hit them on the butt’ alternative. This is a subject that can, and has, filled many books, and as such, this is only a cursory review of the principles involved. I think these strategies make for a healthy parent-child relationship in which both parties are respected, and in which the child respects and obeys the parent’s legitimately demonstrated authority, possible.
I would like to recommend the following resources for those parents looking for further information about these and similar parenting ideas:
Freedomain Radio – Philosophical Parenting Podcast Series
Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason – Alfie Kohn
Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers – Gordon Neufeld, Gabor Mate M.D.
Screamfree Parenting: The Revolutionary Approach to Raising Your Kids by Keeping Your Cool – Hal Edward Runkel
Peaceful Parenting Blog
Aha! Parenting – Blog / Books / Podcast Series – Dr. Laura Markham
Attachment Parenting International