We rarely ever punish our children. To this point (at age 5 and 2) we haven’t often had any reason to. We have relatively good-natured kids, I guess, but I also think it’s important to distinguish between a punishment and a consequence.
Consequences are natural, unavoidable events that result from any given action. If you jump off the couch, you might fall and hit your head as a consequence. Once you hit your head enough times, you probably won’t jump off the couch anymore. Punishments are arbitrary impositions of power meant to discourage a behavior. Punishment is needed to counteract the rewards of bad behavior. There is very little natural, short-term downside to hitting your little brother when he bothers you, especially since he can’t fight back (yet), so some arbitrary consequence, such as timeout, must be applied by the household authority to discourage it. But the arbitrary nature of punishment makes it dangerous if it isn’t applied in a fair or predictable manner, so it should only be used for clear wrongdoing that can’t be otherwise discouraged. Overuse will lead to contempt and rebelliousness even for good rules.
Whatever our methods, the goal of all parenting is basically the same. We want to raise children to do what is right and to love what is good. Exactly what each parent considers right and good is open to some interpretation, but it generally amounts to being kind, respectful, obedient, sharing, and the like. Basically everything kids normally aren’t. Anyone with a kid knows that selfishness is a defining characteristic, and that leads to all the other ways kids can be mean, cruel, destructive, disobedient, and everything else. That’s why you have to actively parent them instead of just letting nature run its course, but there are ways to encourage what is good and discourage what is bad without resorting to punishments that have little or nothing to do with the action.
When we punish them for not sharing when we tell them to, do they learn why it is good to share or do they learn to avoid punishment? Is it any more likely they will share when we aren’t there to tell them to? When we put them in timeout for getting upset and not calming down, are they learning how to handle their emotions? Or are they learning that emotions are wrong (in the eyes of parents)? Over time, they may make good habits by sheer repetition or avoidance, but that seems like a very long, painful, frustrating way to do it when they are more than capable of learning most things from their own mistakes, patient and loving instruction, and our (admittedly imperfect) example. In that way, a bit of punishment when warranted will go a long way and meet with much less practiced resistance.
Most of us want to shield our kids from consequences that cause pain or hurt feelings or disappointment or anger, but then we punish them for small violations or showing emotion or not doing what we say. We fight and wrestle with our kids to wear a jacket so that they never have to know what it means to be cold. We threaten and bribe our kids to play along so they never know what it’s like to miss out. The opposite should be the case. Let kids experience the consequences of their actions and be there to comfort them if needed, but punishment should be used only when nothing else will work.
We don’t punish Virginia for pouting when she doesn’t get a toy she wants (unless you consider not getting the toy a punishment). Pouting and disappointment are a natural reaction to not getting what you want. She’s both expressing her genuine emotion and trying to generate sympathy in order to change our minds. There’s no need to punish that, just don’t let it work. Nor do we punish Jackson for getting mad and crying when it’s time to put away the iPad (unless you consider going to dinner a punishment). Getting angry and upset is a natural reaction to losing something you like. Anger itself is not a punishable offense. Even if it is something harmful but not inherently wrong, such as throwing toys at the television, we don’t punish him just for doing it (unless you consider losing your television-hitting privileges a punishment). We tell him not to do it and try to get him interested in something else. If he continues, we may put the toys out of reach or take him into the other room, though it doesn’t usually come to that. He learns not to do it.
The same is true for not listening, which is another way of saying “not doing exactly what we want fast enough.” For most commands (come to dinner, put that toy away, get in the car, etc.), delay or disobedience doesn’t rise to the level of wrongdoing. The reason we pretend it does is that it violates our God-given Authority and causes us extra time and hassle. There may be other factors, such as being inconsiderate or willful, but those usually sound like excuses when I make them (after all, do I get to be willful and inconsiderate in my demands, or it that only a bad thing for my children?). Punishment is meant to control and assure easy obedience (how’s that working for you?) but mostly ends up being self-serving and counterproductive. The best way to secure cooperation is to make reasonable requests and follow through with them. I may ask three times to get the kids up to bed, but they understand that no matter how many times they make me ask, there is no getting out of going to bed. After a short grace period, I carry them up myself. Kids don’t want to go to bed. We all don’t want to do many things that are necessary. That’s not a sin for you, so don’t let your pride turn it into one for them. Let them learn to do what’s expected and hold them to it.
I’m aware this has the potential to create children who are less “under control,” but I’m not concerned with training my children to sit when I tell them to sit and to shake when I tell them to shake. My dog doesn’t even do that (unless you have a treat, of course, in which case she would dance the cha-cha if you asked). Sometimes it’s hard to keep them quiet at a restaurant or to stop jumping on the bed while we read a book, but I can live with that. For the most part, though, they do listen, because I don’t ask too much of them, and I don’t let them get away with the important things.
I don’t doubt that there are some kids who are so stubborn and strong-willed that it is impossible to get them to do even the simplest things without a fight or a bribe. But if that’s the case, consider whether you are asking too much from your child. Stubbornness, too, is not so much a sin (thank God) to be exorcised as a personality trait to be navigated. When you start punishing everything, all your requests start to seem arbitrary and baseless. Try giving them a little freedom instead. Take the temporary hit to your authority. Save the punishment for when it’s really necessary. Let them discover the consequences on their own. They might even begin to suspect that, sometimes, you know what you are talking about after all.