In my home, my husband and I do not use punishment with our daughter, nor do we ever intend to use punishment with any of our children, because we do not believe in punishment. Although this statement may sound radical, we are completely confident in the way we have chosen to parent.
To some ears, saying that I won’t use punishment sounds like I will let my children run wild. It sounds like
I’m too lazy and indifferent to discipline or teach them anything. It may even sound like I am incredibly naive and believe that my children will never misstep because they were born perfect angels. Maybe it sounds like a combination of all of those things, but hear me out.
Our home has boundaries. Our home has rules. But our home does not have control, fear, or punishment because these three things are one in the same. In our home we strive for perfect love and Perfect love casts out fear, because fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears has not been perfected in love. 1 John 4:18
Punishment is an attempt to control a child’s behavior. For example, if my daughter were to get angry and she hit me, and I punished her by hitting her back, that was an attempt to control her action. I would be controlling her through fear. She wouldn’t hit me because she would fear me hitting her back. Even though she may never hit me again, the issue isn’t solved. She just learned that when someone hits you, even if you aren’t threatened, the correct response is retaliation. She also learned not to hit me in order to avoid punishment. I controlled her behavior, but I did not change it. I didn’t even get close to her heart, which is what matters most.
Punishment only works from the outside, it only solves the external problem. The child will only behave when someone is watching. I am not content with solving a problem externally, I want to solve Laila’s problems internally. That is how she will learn self discipline.
I was listening to a podcast on parenting from bethel church the other day. A mother called in and expressed her frustration with feeling like she wasn’t in control of her children in her home. The pastor replied that when we feel like we should be in control, we feel like we can be in control.
Control is toxic in any relationship because control is rooted in fear. Fear is a thief. It steals away the here and now and forces us to live in a perpetual what if. If we as parents allow ourselves to live in fear of our children’s negative behavior, to try and control it, and punish it for existing rather than to view is a problem that we can solve alongside our children, we become locked in a power struggle. We live in fear that our children won’t learn the lessons we want to teach them. When fear really takes it’s hold, we miss out on the lessons they are learning.
Parenting can be scary. It’s a monumental responsibility. Every parent wants to see their child mature into a healthy, happy, and successful person. It’s comforting to think that there is a formula that can make that happen. It’s simple to believe that through punishment we can control and shape a child. But that’s not how it works.
The true goal of parenting is to teach discipline. Discipline is different from punishment. To quote one of my favorite parenting authors, L.R. Knost, “Discipline is helping a child solve a problem. Punishment is making a child suffer for having a problem. To raise problem solvers, focus on solutions, not retribution.”
Discipline also has a biblical meaning. It comes from the word disciple. I want my children to be my disciples, I want them to follow me. How did Jesus gain followers, and how did he teach his followers? Through reaching their hearts, and through giving grace, not through forcing their behavior.
Think of the story of zachaeus, the corrupt tax collector. Did Jesus punish him by taking all of his wealth and publicly shaming him? No! He reached the heart of zachaeus and zachaeus chose to give back all that he had stolen. Jesus did not seek to control zachaeus, he sought to make a relationship with him and teach him through a heart encounter.
Yesterday Laila got very angry with me. She hit me and threw my phone across the room. My response was not to punish her by hitting her back, by separating her from me, or by yelling at her. Instead I held her hands and explained to her that God did not make hands for hitting, he made hands for helping. I told her that I would hold her hands for her until she could control herself, that I knew she was just angry and didn’t really want to hurt mommy because she loves mommy, and mommy loves her. She cried for a minute and I held her. When she was done crying she brought my phone back to me, wrapped her little arms around my neck and showered me in sweet little kisses. No more tantrums for the rest of the day.
Holding Laila’s hands, validating her feelings and explaining the situation was discipline, and discipline reaches the heart. It solves internal problems. Laila apologized to me because she chose to. An apology from the heart is a thousand times more valuable than an apology coerced through punishment.
Every misbehavior has a root issue. Punishment is like cutting the branches off a of a tree. For every branch that is cut, a new one will grow. Discipline is cutting the roots. When we focus on cutting branches and ignore the roots, we miss the opportunity to permanently solve a problem with our child. In my post When parents throw the first stone, I gave the example of the mother who punished her daughter for posting promiscuous photos, but failed to address the girls lack of self respect and self esteem. Through punishing her daughter so severely, she may never post a photo like that again while under her mothers roof, but I can almost garuantee that she will act out promiscuously in other ways. A branch was cut while the roots of her poor self image were left to deepen.
Punishment and control are so ingrained into mainstream parenting, it can be terrifying to let go. Using gentle discipline can be emotionally exhausting. Trying to reach out to the hearts of children is difficult. They don’t always know how to express their feelings, wants, and needs, and sometimes we have to do it for them. In the same podcast the pastor also said, parenting is 90% the parent, and 10% on the part of the child. As a parent who practices gentle discipline, I spend more time analyzing myself and my own behaviors, because what I model to Laila is how she will behave. If I want to teach her not to hit, and see it sink into her heart, I have to control my own temper, and model to her the appropriate reaction when she hits me.
A few weeks ago she was playing with her cousin who is about 22 months. The 22 month old hit Laila several times. I expected Laila to hit back, or run away, instead she wrapped her arms around her cousin and tried to calm her down, just like I did with her the times that she hit me. Punishment would have taught her to hit back, discipline taught her to reach for her cousins heart.
Parenting is not about controlling a child’s behavior. Parenting is about teaching a child self discipline through reaching their hearts. Eliminating punishment allows the parent and the child to focus on solving the internal problems. It frees them to build a stronger, deeper relationship without fear, based on perfect love.