The three year old is yelling and hitting his brother again. I can’t let this go on because his brother is crying and then hitting back, and the three year old has to learn that he can’t behave that way, doesn’t he?

Five years ago, I would have smacked the three year old. Two years ago, I would have instituted a ‘naughty chair’ and made him sit there, think about it, and then apologise to his brother. This year, I wouldn’t do either of those things.

This year, I’m asking the questions: Why this? Why now? What do both children need?

From being a ‘smacking mum’ five years ago, my ideas have changed drastically and I now don’t believe ‘punishment’ achieves what we think it achieves.

Yes, smacking and naughty chairs might bring about apparent ‘better behaviour’ in the short term, but in the long term I am doubtful if it changes the heart.

In fact, I think punishment is counterproductive in many cases. I know from my own experience, punishment often taught me to hide my feelings, needs and behaviour. These traits have not gone away as I’ve become an adult.

So what do I do? Well, grace, guidance and a great example do much more for me than punishment.

But aren’t we supposed to be responsible parents who train up their children in the way to go? Surely we can’t just ignore bad behaviour. That would be irresponsible.
Of course, and I agree. But I think a lot of the time, the stuff we parents get cross about is not actually ‘bad’.

A lot of what I formerly considered to be ‘naughty’ is often just behaviour that doesn’t suit me. Children are often careless, slow, impulsive, forgetful, neglectful or just immature – that’s because they are children. Most of the time that kind of behaviour is not ‘naughty’.

I’m far more interested in locating the source of the behaviour, listening or discerning, and seeing if we, together, can solve the problem that’s at the root of the issue. In a lot of cases recently, I have found myself having to make changes rather than trying to change the children – for example, in giving everyone more time, listening more closely to what they are actually saying and slowing down rather than making them race to my schedule.

Of course, children do do ‘bad’ things sometimes. We all do. Where there is sin, calling attention to it and identifying it is probably the best thing I would think to do. From there, my approach changes from what is traditional. Whereas before I would have thought of an ‘effective’ punishment, now I’m more interested in finding a solution in which everybody wins, and through which we all grow.

I saw this illustrated really well with my husband recently. I was snippy, cranky and hard to get on with for a few days in a row last month. He finally had enough and said, “Why are you doing this? Please stop”. I straight away knew the answer – I was having a really tough time with my autistic child and felt at a loss with what to do with him. By picking on my husband, I could make myself feel better, and not have to address the fact that I am not completely wise, capable or together.

After a bit of sulking around, I finally admitted this to my husband, and was blown away by the lack of judgment, anger and effectively ‘punishment’ in his demeanour and actions. It made me feel much more able to be honest and open with him in the future. To me, that’s grace and that’s what I want to be showing my children.

So what would I do with the hitting and yelling three year old?
First of all, I can make sure that I’ve been listening well enough to their play to make sure that he’s not just retaliating to some unseen crime by his brother.

If that’s the case, I try to remember that he’s only three. At about four or five is when he will develop more empathy and the ability to relate to the other person. He has a little of it, but still not enough. I can’t make him develop more quickly than he will, but I can give him a great example of empathy to store in his mind for the future.

I can make a big fuss of his brother’s ouchies and kiss them better. I can say, “Oh, it really hurts when someone hits you doesn’t it. I wouldn’t like that.”

I can give his brother words like, “I don’t like that. Please leave me alone. Let’s play something else” to help him protect himself.

I can hold his flying fists and say, “That’s not ok. Hitting your brother makes him sad. He doesn’t like it. Please be gentle with your hands.”

Then, I can give both of them a book and help them find separate rooms for ‘calming down’ time.

Does it work? Yes, for many reasons. It’s a low-stress solution for me. I don’t have to fight either of them to make them take their punishment. Generally, all the problem has been is a little too much build up of excitement, and the solution is simply for them both to calm down. And afterwards, I’ve been touched to see the three year old say, “Sorry for hitting you” to his big brother. Lesson definitely learned, and I know it’s a real apology when I didn’t make him say it!

What do you think about punishment?  Does it achieve discipline or escalate conflict?  Is it possible to discipline without using punishment? How have your ideas about discipline changed over time?

(View Cecily’s blog here.  Order Cecily’s latest book here.)