No Praise - No Punishment

If there is one thing I've learned over the past four years of parenting, it's that parenting is a learning experience. Ideally, the more you do it, the better you get at it. In reality, however, we often start out trying to be the best parents the world has ever seen- "I hand wove all the babies diapers" - and somehow fall into bad habits and parenting pitfalls that we swore would never befall us - "If you don't stop bothering your sister, Halloween will never come again".

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to attend an afternoon class with Carol Peat, an amazing childbirth and parenting educator. The "Calm Mum" session has challenged us to work towards some exciting changes to our daily parenting. The biggest change we're working towards is a no praise- no punishment approach. That's right folks, no praise - no punishment. *Cue the screaming of gold stars as they meet their doom*.

But guys-  you're thinking - don't we need to praise our kids? Won't they have low self esteem if I don't tell them that everything they do is amazing?

I like to think of it like this...

Situation a: Jude builds a really tall block tower. My first impulse is to say, "Good job, Judah!"
Situation b: Neve is hitting Judah because she wants a toy Judah has. My first impulse is to say, "No hitting. You can use another toy."

In both instances, I've made a judgement about my child's actions, I've imposed that judgement on what they've done and I've left him out of the equation completely, except to say that the only thing that matters here is what I think.

In these situations we are communicating to our child that a.) you are dependent on another person's praise of your actions to feel you've accomplished something. This is where actions get their value. Or b.) that what we are feeling isn't valid, unless someone tells us it is.

If we approach this with a no praise- no punishment mindset, the focus shifts from telling them they are loved (or making them feel unloved), to showing them they are loved, no matter the situation. We can change these situations to look something like this...

Jude builds a really tall block tower. I say, "Wow. That tower is as tall as you and you used so many different colours!"
Neve is screaming, and wailing on her big brother. I get down to her eye level and say, "I hear you, but I won't let you hurt your brother."

In both instances I am withholding my personal lens on the situation. Instead, I am recognizing what they have done and validating their experience. Judah can now think, "My mom cares enough to really notice what I've done here." And Neve can hear, "What I'm feeling is okay," while we also validate Judah's experience as the victim of her frustration.

So far, the results of this approach have been amazing. I feel like the attachment between us and the kids has only grown deeper. They don't have to worry about our reactions being conditional based on our view of their behaviour. Instead, they have parents who are armed with the skills to remain calm and consistent, regardless of the decibel level of a meltdown.

The benefits are huge, but setting the pattern is hard. It's easier to just tell our child that everything they do is amazing. It's easier to give in to our own frustrations and shout or give time-outs when they are "bad."

It's harder to stay calm, to step back, to say "this isn't about me".

Not praising or rewarding or bribing kids for everything they do will eventually allow them to do and enjoy things for their intrinsic value. Not punishing our kids for everything we perceive as a deviation from the perfect child, allows us to step back and see that our kids, especially the little ones, are only acting in a developmentally- appropriate way for their current situation; and allows them to understand that their emotions are okay and they can be processed and translated in healthy ways.

When children feel heard, understood, and unconditionally assured that their parents will remain a calm, loving, presence they can be calmer and happier too.

Want to learn more? Check out the Babies Naturally blog and read it direct from the expert.


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    1. I hear ya, sister! I'm with you on the apology front. I think making them apologize is, as you said, a form of punishment. If they don't feel sorry then we aren't respecting their emotions about the situation and we're telling them what's more important here is that they make us feel better. I'm trying to approach situations thinking, how would I want to be treated in this situation. It makes for some interesting parenting choices :). As for the hitting one, I'd just hold their hands and tell them you won't let them hit so and so. If they continue to, I think it's fair to remove the toy, it's all part of you following through with what you've told them.

  2. Yikes! This post is a good reminder of the value and weight of the words we say. It's so easy to go with the default, "Good job," or, "No," because it's easier. Taking the time to really listen and respond well is far more effort -- and not just with kids, but in every relationship.

  3. You had me at "Calm Mum". Wouldn't that be nice? It's a great point that the way we frame our feedback determines how our children view themselves. Definitely something I try to keep in mind with my two girls, as well as my students. Thanks!