Punishment ≠ Discipline
Until becoming foster parents, we understood punishment and discipline to be largely synonymous. Discipline meant spanking, isolation, chores, etc… It implied pain. Our case manager started us thinking differently when she asked, “What will discipline look like with your foster kids?”
“Um, (nervous exchange of looks), well, we know we can’t spank. We will use time-outs, consequences, chores, and …”
Sensing our ineptitude she cut in, “you do understand that discipline is more than punishment, right?”
“Well, sure…Yeah of course!” we said, trying to grasp exactly what she meant.
What was she proposing? Was she suggesting that we shouldn’t respond to misbehavior with punishment? Ha! There was no way we were straying into permissive parent territory! Punishment, in our minds, while not desirable, was the necessary, finishing tool in our parenting toolbox. A child who chooses to misbehave is a child who chooses punishment!
We have worked with many wonderful, experienced, desperate biological parents. The same punishment based strategies that they successfully used with their bio kids simply made their foster/adoptive kids become defiant and distant.
Why the difference? It’s fairly simple. Punishment doesn’t address the why behind behaviors, it simply demands that behaviors change.
Imagine if my child broke his leg, and then I punished him the next day when he refused to run with his track team.
Would my punishment help him heal quicker? Would it draw us closer relationally? The answers are obvious, and yet, this is what we do with our kiddos. They have a “broken leg.” It’s called complex developmental trauma. It isn’t nearly as tangible as a visible injury, and that makes it scary and hard to understand. Ironically, as parents start understanding how hopeless punishment is, we often start punishing even more intensely. We simply don’t know what else to do.
The first step is start focusing on discipline instead of punishment. Most of us already incorporate a combination of the two. Some of us are discipline heavy and some punishment heavy. Many of us believe we are using “loving discipline” but in reality, we have just given punishment a prettier label. Here is a question I like to ask myself to clarify the difference between the two.
Are my words or actions about to cause my child fear or shame?
If the answer is yes, it’s probably a punishment, and it’s probably damaging my relationship with my child. Foster/adoptive parents can see the effects of fear and shame a whole lot quicker than the average parent. The same parenting strategies that seemed to work with our bio kids trigger our kids from hard places into fight, flight, or freeze mode. The fear and shame they internalize from our punishment is too much for them to bear, and they jump into survival mode.
For biological parents, this topic might be a whole lot harder to understand. In fact, it probably feels like I am pushing permissiveness. Please know that this is not a call to permissive parenting. We have to teach our kids right behaviors, and that there are natural and logical consequences for our actions. But I often find myself focusing so much of my time and energy on the behaviors, that I ignore the needs driving the behavior.
As I learn to redirect my attention on addressing the underlying need, many of the behaviors just disappear.
One of our house rules is: No bouncing balls in the kitchen. The playroom (carpeted) is right next to the kitchen (hardwood) and the basketball often rolls in. While retrieving it, our 6-year-old’s urge to bounce the ball is strong. He violates the rule repeatedly. Sometimes it is willful, sometimes it is legitimate forgetfulness, and sometimes it is simply a lack of impulse control. I could threaten a consequence, “How many times have I told you this? Do it again and you are done playing basketball for the day.” He does it again. I take the ball. Maybe he gets an attitude. I get upset at his disrespect. I send him to his room. I threaten to take the ball for the week and so on. This example employs both fear and shame, and most of us would recognize it as a punishment.
How can I build connection in the midst of correction?
Try and see the situation from his perspective. What are his needs? He is only 6 and the decision making part of his brain is nowhere close to developed. He loves basketball and that kitchen floor looks just like a real court! How can I train him to make better decisions without threatening him? Each day, when there is a first violation, he gets a gentle reminder (not a warning) and we do a re-do. If it happens again, we have a short chat about why the rule exists, and what he thinks should happen the next time the rule is broken. He helps make his own “consequence.” If it does happen a third time, it almost never does, we take a short break and game plan together. It’s not unusual for him to choose to stop playing at that point, recognizing that it is just too hard for him to follow the rules that day.
Which situation best empowers the child to choose obedience?
Discipline comes from the same root word as disciple. It means “to teach”, and if we embrace the mindset, it will transform us from dictator to coach. It is connection focused proactive work, instead of correction focused reactive work. It produces trust and security instead of fear and shame. Discipline trains kids to focus on learning, negotiating, and building right relationship, which naturally leads to right behavior.
Look, this is not a message of condemnation. It is simply an invitation to consider if there is any room to improve your current parenting strategies. Growing up, the vast majority of my community, including my parents, used punishment as one of their primary parenting tools. I highly value and respect those people and value my upbringing, but there is always room for growth. I, unfortunately, will probably never be able to let go of punishments completely. In the midst of extreme stress or frustration, I gravitate back to them. It’s what feels comfortable. But I am moving forward, and that’s important.
To be frank, I resisted this whole conversation for years. I am a proud, proud person, and the idea that I should reconsider most of what I knew about parenting was daunting, somewhat insulting, and appeared permissive. I was worried about creating disrespectful, entitled kids; and I was nervous about the reaction of my family and friends. As much as I tried to dismiss the conversation, I couldn’t get this question out of my head:
If I can learn to raise well-behaved, respectful kids without causing them fear or shame, what reason do I have to keep on using punishments?
I couldn’t think of a good reason. Can you?
Foster/Adoptive Parents: The Connected Child
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