I’m the weird mom.
I’ve never grounded my teenagers (I have two of them). I’ve never taken away their electronics or banned them from the things they love in the name of punishment.
I don’t ground them for the same reason I didn’t put them in a Time-Out chair when they were little.
I must be one of those parents that just want to be my children’s BFF. I must let them by with everything! I must have feral children. Right?!
Let me explain. First, discipline and punishment are not synonymous. Discipline is teaching and instruction. The purpose of punishment, on the other hand, is to cause enough pain and discomfort to deter a certain behavior. And believe me, I tried punishment. When my firstborn was three, we wore out the Time-Out chair for a while. I tried counting to three and then sending him to his room. I tried behavior management charts. I took away his toys.
But then I went through a paradigm shift. Tired of the constant power struggles and the punishments that never had any effect, I began to learn about child development and positive parenting. That was the end of punishment for us because once I understood that misbehavior was really just a signal - a way for my child to tell me that he wasn’t feeling good inside, or that he lacked a certain skill and needed help - it didn’t feel right to answer his call with “you’re in big trouble!”
I turned my focus on reaching my child’s heart and teaching and guiding in ways that didn’t cause suffering. I have to say, it’s always been much more effective than any punishment I tried.
The Paradigm Shift
In our culture, we are accustomed to training children through pain. Harsh words. A slap on the hand. A smack across the behind. Physical pain. Emotional pain. We are fooled into thinking it’s good because it works, but it only works for a short time, and the reason it works is heartbreaking. Let’s look at some common punishments:
Children have a biological need for closeness and connection with their parents. When that is threatened, it’s frightening. Any discipline that uses their need for closeness and connection against them is harmful. Dr. Deborah MacNamara, author of Rest Play Grow and founder of Kids’ Best Bet says, “ Attachment is the greatest need a child has therefore separation is one of the most impactful of all experiences. Separation is especially provocative for young children because of their immaturity and high dependency needs. The experience of separation can stir up three primal emotions in a child – pursuit, frustration, and alarm. They may cling or clutch, erupt in frustration, or exhibit fear and anxiety, well after the separation has occurred.”
Physical punishment has been proven time and again to have lasting negative consequences. New research shows that spanking alters children’s brain response in ways similar to severe maltreatment and increases the perception of threats. In addition, “Preschool and school-age children - and even adults - who have been spanked are more likely to develop anxiety and depression disorders or have more difficulties engaging positively in schools and skills of regulation.”
“Gentle” Punishments Like Grounding and Reasoning
Alan Kazdin, director of the Yale Parenting Center, told the Atlantic that when parents punish their child, it doesn’t change the child’s behavior. Even when parents think they’re using the positive, gentle discipline of reasoning with their child, it doesn’t usually fix the problem.
He says, “It’s always good to do that with your child, to reason, because it changes how they think; it changes how they problem-solve. It develops their IQ, but it’s not good for changing behavior. For example, there’s probably not a cigarette smoker on the planet who would say, ‘What?! Smoking is bad for me? Why didn’t you tell me that?’ Telling people, it can help, but it usually doesn’t change much behavior.”
In addition, research shows that grounding does not change a teen’s attitude or behavior, and certainly not their heart. Instead, this approach backfires and our teens feel resentful. They resort to hiding, lying, and sneaking to avoid the punishment, but they don’t actually behave better, and I don’t need research to tell me that. I’ve witnessed it in my kids’ friends for years.
In Lieu of Punishment
There are two things you may be thinking:
1. Yeah, I get that my kid will resent me for the punishment, but I’m here to be the parent, not their friend.
The thing is, if your child doesn’t consider you friendly, you’ve lost influence. True authority lies in a trusted relationship with you. If they no longer trust you or feel close to you, you have no authority. You might have power, but power doesn’t change hearts, minds, or behavior.
2. Well, what am I supposed to do then?
I understand this sentiment because I felt it too, at first. The shift from authoritarian parenting to positive parenting wasn’t a simple or linear journey for me. I often felt confused as to how to best correct behavior.
When my children were young, I switched from Time-Outs to Time-Ins. During a Time-In, the child is invited to sit in close proximity to the parent or caregiver and is guided in calming down their brains and bodies so they can absorb the lesson. This is called “co-regulation” and is an important foundation for the ability to self-regulate. Children learn how to recognize, name, and process their emotions, and tools such as the Time-In ToolKit help children become emotionally intelligent. Once the child is calm, the brain is ready to learn, and the lesson can be taught.
Role-play and practice are effective tools as well. For tantrums, Dr. Kazdin recommends simulations, fake tantrum situations, like pilots going through a flight simulator. He tells children, “We’re going to play a game, and here’s how this goes: I’m going to tell you you can’t do something, but you really can. And you can have a tantrum and you can get mad, but this time you’re not going to hit mommy, and you’re not going to go on the floor.”
The mom then tells the child that he can’t do something, and the child has a fake tantrum. Why? Kazdin says, “Getting the child to practice the behavior changes the brain and locks in the habit.” After a few practices, the next time a real tantrum erupts, the brain responds differently.
As my children got older and their brains developed more, we tackled any issues with problem-solving. We would discuss what the issue was, why it was an issue, and how we could change it. We’d work through specific scenarios and agree on a solution together.
Discipline for Teens
If I’m not taking away their things or privileges, how am I correcting behavior? Well, if I’m honest, I haven’t had to do a lot of correction so far. (Knock on wood.) I think their foundation in positive parenting was fruitful. Of course, they aren’t perfect, but neither am I, and I’m much older and mature than they are. They make mistakes, and we discuss them. Never once have I believed that banning them from the things they love would make them better people. I don’t think forcing them to stay in their room for days or weeks on end will change their hearts and minds.
So, instead, I’m clear about boundaries. These are about what I will accept and what I will do. I allow natural consequences to take effect when appropriate. For example, if you don’t study, you fail. That’s on you. You’ll repeat the semester. If you bust your iPhone screen, you can pay for a new one. And I give grace because I realize that messing up is just part of growing up. I cannot punish them into maturity anyway, and so I teach, I guide, and I love them unconditionally.
I also focus on the good. Kazdin talks about positive opposites. He says, “Whenever you want to get rid of something, what is it that you want in its place?”
The example he gives is this: Your teen may be at the dinner table, being quiet without saying unpleasant or negative things. One of the positive opposites can be reinforcing the non-occurrence of the behavior. And you just say, “Marion, it’s nice having dinner with you; it’s nice that you’re here.”
What that does is reinforce the likelihood that Marion will be at the dinner table and not say negative things. It’s akin to “catching them being good” but I like to think of it more as expressing genuine appreciation for positive behaviors. When I say, “Thank you so much for taking down the trash for me,” it’s more likely he’ll take it down again. However, if I said, “It’s about damn time you took the trash out,” I just squashed it.
When we rely on punishments as a knee-jerk reaction to behavior, we miss what caused the behavior in the first place. We miss seeing our child’s struggle, their pain, and their experience because we never sought to understand what drove them to the action we are punishing. Furthermore, when we take away the privilege, we’ve taken away their responsibility to fix it. We’ve deemed it our job to correct the problem by making them pay the consequence, but in the child’s eyes, he’s now done his time and he’s scot-free. Sure, he may have lost a week with his friends, but did you reach his heart?
I always felt that children needed to learn how to fix their mistakes, not just pay for them. I thought that life’s messes were not fixed with a nose in the corner or the absence of an Xbox but by learning through relationships, modeling, problem-solving, and making amends. Those are real-life skills that benefit them for life.