Without a Net

Thus far, I think I’ve only mentioned this in passing — (drum roll, please) — Natalie and I do not use any praise with our girls, nor any punishment.  Recent themes of the parenting blogosphere remind me that this is considered ludicrous. So I don’t fool myself with romantic notions of leading a parenting revolution (just yet). I do, however, think that I will stay “ludicrous” on this one.

I don’t know “everything there is to know”, but I know enough about punishment and praise to know that neither are of real service to my children or to the relationship I share with them. I have lots of reasons for that, but the short list is basic:

  1. Praise and punishment don’t really work for what I want for my kids
  2. Using either of them means that I am not modeling what I want my kids to actually do.
  3. Both are completely unnecessary for what I hope to accomplish in parenting my kids, and likely even damaging.

If I wanted different things for my three daughters, then maybe I would consider using punishment or praise with them. It just so happens that the list of things I want for them as they grow into adults — things like: honesty, integrity, self-assurance, compassion, emotional intelligence, courage, creativity, passion for life, interest in exploration, and belief in their capabilities —  aren’t nurtured by praise or punishment. There is also solid evidence that both can actually impede the healthy development of all the items on the list above, as well as impeding self-motivation, trust in the parent(s), willingness to try new things, general enjoyment of activities, happiness, success, intelligence, proper motor skill development, potty training, and even “proper behavior”. As it turns out, whether you are praising them for everything from burping to writing their college thesis, and/or punishing them for everything from burping to smoking crack, both tend to be minimally effective at manifesting a reproduction of the preferred behavior at first, and both are less so with time (thereby necessitating perpetual escalation on the part of the praiser/punisher). Not to mention that the clearest message our kids get from our actions when we use praise or punishment, is that getting what one wants in life means using manipulation.

So if neither is in line with what I want for my children, and both may actually impede  what I want for them (and the development of other equally important traits, life experiences, etc.), and both send the wrong message about how to proceed in life, and they don’t even control the behavior they were set up to control, then why in the heck would I use praise or punishment? I’ll let you in on a little secret as well, although I am a rather precise man, and although I really do prefer that my children do what I would prefer to have done a lot of the time, I don’t care enough about making my children do just exactly whatever I say to even approach parenting them from that angle. What interests me more in my interactions with them is relating with them.

Don’t mistake me. I’m not out to be my kids’ “buddy” — though I do have a metric ton of fun with them, I am still clearly the parent. But I don’t have to be “the parent” by virtue of making my kids afraid of me, or by saying “Good girl” or “good job” every time they move. Parenting my children is much more about being with them as they embark on the journey of their own lives; helping them to find the right maps, collect the right tools, build a solid vessel; and more about showing them how things work, and what options there are; giving them ample opportunities to explore it all and make their own assessments; and making absolutely certain that they have at least one place and time in their lives wherein someone takes them absolutely seriously, supports them without question, loves them without condition, and isn’t trying to control them with every single interaction. I want more than anything for them to know how that feels.

So… “don’t praise, don’t punish — what do you do?” (Isn’t that an Adam Ant song?)

Well, it so happens that we actually do a whole lot instead. And again that is in part because controlling behavior is not our focus and because loving and enjoying relating with our children and helping them to grow into healthy adults is.

  • To start off with, we do more than your average amount of just watching and celebrating what our girls are doing, what they’re into, making, being, pretending, and/or performing. Just watching (without slathering on some buttery praise to encourage the behaviour) is usually enough to let them know we care about what they’re doing.
  • When they do something they enjoy, we focus our comments (if we make any) around their feelings and enjoyment — not praising them but noticing them. We may use phrases like, “I see you… (running, or writing your name, etc.),” and “Is that so much fun for you?” But we won’t call any of them “good girl” for doing any particular action.
  • When they do something we like, we let them know we appreciate it, and why, instead of praising them or giving them rewards. Again, we don’t want their “goodness” to be linked with what they do so much as with who they are, so we keep actions and goodness separate in this context.
  • When we want our girls to do something, we first consider our own request(s) — whether or not it makes since to even ask for it in the first place — then we ask them politely: “Will you please…”; then if necessary we answer their questions about the request; reiterate: negotiate; and/or wait.
  • We also give our girls oceans of information. I’ve said this before, but we give them information about everything that happens to them in their lives — whether it be what we are planning to do in five minutes, or what life would be like on Mars, or why humans like to be thanked. So, for instance, before we ask them to put on the shoes and coats they use, they will have heard at least a few references to our impending exodus from the house, including probably a ten and two minute notice about our departure.
  • When they don’t do what we want, we ask questions, listen, and discuss. We may re-negotiate and/or re-reiterate. We will do this as long as it takes to come to a mutual understanding.
  • When they do what we don’t want (which is different from the above), we ask questions, listen and discuss. We may let them know we didn’t like it, negotiate, and/or make a request. What we won’t do is punish them, or threaten them, or any other action that we don’t want to model for them — i.e. anything we don’t want them to do when dealing with others. So for example, when Echo runs off with something with which Bella was playing, we don’t run over and yank it right back from her (thus proving the soundness of her method) — that would be counterproductive (not to mention dumb), right?
  • If they knew we didn’t want them to do it, but did it anyway, we will still ask questions, listen, and discuss. (You may want to do the last one most, but you really don’t want to skip the first two, as they are more important to your relationship with your children.) If there are potential/impending consequences from their action(s), we may let those play out (as long as everyone is safe). If there is more information they need, and/or another request we want to make, we will follow up.
  • When they don’t want us to do what we are doing (and often by proxy “making them” do) we give them lots of very genuine empathy. We acknowledge that they wanted something else, or that they had an uncomfortable feeling about what happened, or that they didn’t like it. We may not change what we are doing (like leaving the park) but we at least make time and space for them to have whatever feeling they have about it.

Big proponents of the two P’s may want to say we are being permissive, or that we must have lawless kids, but I can guarantee you, our kids are more closely monitored than the majority of children you know, and more likely to be considered “good” than most of their peers. That’s because the actions we all attribute to being “good” don’t need to be instilled with praise or punishment, and abstaining from the two P’s neither prescribes permissiveness, nor ensures lawlessness. “Good” or “morally right” or “compassionate” actions all come from seeing them done, experiencing them fully, learning about why they are considered such, and having a properly developed emotional intelligence. Period.

So we don’t use these two mainstays of modern parenting. In fact, we avoid them like the plague. And we don’t see any need to reconsider. We may not have the world’s most obedient kids, but we don’t want them to be simply “obedient” when they are adults — we want them to think for themselves and go with what feels right for them — so we have to prepare for that now. If we wanted sheep, we’d raise sheep. But we want strong, tender, compassionate, self-realized, powerful, courageous, empathic humans, so that’s what we’re raising.

How about you?


Be well.

P.S. Want more info? Check out two of Natalie’s previous posts about it here and here… And check these two links for posts of mine about avoiding corporeal punishment and time-outs in particular.

About Nathan M McTague, CPCC, CPDPE

I am a full-time parent of three, Writer, Life Coach, Lecturer, Parenting Mentor, and Shamanic Practitioner. In all of the above, I am seeking to assist my fellow humans in their processes of claiming and unleashing their highest potentials.
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10 Responses to Without a Net

  1. martha says:

    really helpful, i like the suggestion of “i see you…” we just returned from an extended family vacation with 8 other kids and three other families that were all whole hog praisers and punishers, so it’s taking a few days to recalibrate our insides. not that we were involved in the p & p, but it was striking to be in such an atmosphere 24/7. one thing i noticed was other parents prompting our toddler to say please and thank you when he didn’t, which was partly disconcerting and partly a relief, just feeling internally: “yeesh, i’m so glad he’s not experiencing that from us all the time at home.” what i’m wondering is whether, when your kids spontaneously say please and thank you on their own, you draw any attention to them having done that. our 2 year old will occasionally say ‘pwease’ and ‘no shanks’ on his own accord, which he does have modeled for him around here.

    thanks for all your time and effort with the blog.

  2. Lynn says:

    Really interesting post (popped up in my google reader because I subscribe to wordpress posts tagged with ‘attachment parenting’). I try to use a lot of the methods you describe, also. And I don’t know yet if I’m just lucky that my son seems to have less tantrums than other kids his age, never has a problem with sharing (no siblings yet, though!), etc. I like to think it is because we treat him respectfully, like a small person (as he is), rather than control him constantly. We don’t use “time outs” or other forms of punishment, and it kind of drives me nuts to see them in action at the playground all the time. BUT, I admit that I praise him all the time. I find articles like yours very persuasive. He just seems to respond so well to the praise, and really crave it. When he does the simplest puzzle, he beams up at me waiting for me to say: “great job!” I could try rewording my praise to some of the phrasing you suggest. But I still think he just seems to thrive on it. I wonder if that is intrinsic or if we have made him that way.

  3. Lindsay says:

    oh, my…as always, a well written, complete post. i am conscious of these strategies all the time, even if i fail to employ them all the time. and on the eve (almost) of starting school, what now? can one parent like this and send children off to a traditional school?!?!?! ugh. i am so torn.

    • Hi Lindsay, thanks for the comment, and the quandary. You probably aren’t going to like this answer, however. In my experience, even montessori school comes with kids who have been parented “poorly”. The downer about this is that your child(ren) will spend 8 hours a day 5 days a week being inundated with other kids’ parenting crud. This is when children’s innate tendency/ability to immitate anything modeled to them totally stinks! At least in “nontraditional” schools, there is often an emphasis on emotional intelligence, and compassionate action. In your run-of-the-mill public school, however, there isn’t even that — so the kids wind up spreading dysfunctional habits the same way they spread colds, chicken pox, and lice. (Deep breath…)

      The good news (and the important thing for you as the parent) is that if, and as, you nurture the relationship you share with your child(ren), then you get the chance to process all the weird stuff that happens in school, and help make sense of it, and (hopefully) counteract at least the worst of it. Be vigilantly loving. Be even more devoted to your parent/child bond. And use “the crud” as your opportunities.

      Good luck, Lindsay, to you and yours.

      Be well.

      • Lindsay says:

        thanks for the reply. the phrase “be vigilantly loving” has been running through my head ever since i read those words, and today…well, today i totally sucked at that. everyone is crabby, irritable and highly emotional today…i think because of the SCHOOL that is happening tomorrow. we have decided to try it out (my son doesn’t want to go), and even as i write this, i am thinking WHY ARE WE DOING THIS?!?!?! anyway, i so appreciate kris’, natalie’s and your posts… i will muddle through and see what comes of it all in the next few days.

      • Yeah, there are those days when we suck at what we want to do most — even days when we suck at what we are really great at doing normally! But I also hear you looking under that to see what is going on for you guys, and there is something there for you to notice, so you are getting your message(s). Remain attentive to your heart (and gut) — and be bold in following what feels right to you.
        Goooo Mama!

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  5. Camar says:

    Thank you, Nathan, for your posts. I’m familiar with many of the parenting principles you work with and I’m committed to, or at least aspire to, being/becoming a parent who lives by those principles. I have a question with regards to the methodology “ask questions, listen, and discuss.” Do you have thoughts on a similar process we can practice with a two-year old who cannot yet communicate in the way necessary to work with such methodology?

    I recently moved my son away from a scenario I didn’t like, sat him on my lap, and spontaneously asked him “are you ok?” (when I was in fact planning to say the usual “you have to be gentle…you can’t…”) and he pouted. I knew he was not ok, and in a way he answered the question. I feel that neither asking “are you ok?” nor saying “you have to be gentle…you can’t…” are the best ways to approach situations in which I want my son to stop doing something. The majority of parenting writings I come across with refer to parenting children older than toddlers.

    Redirection is a method often mentioned in working with toddlers. I practice that method and “it works,” for example, when he wants to continue throwing a toy I don’t allow him to throw. But I have noticed (most clearly after my recent experience mentioned above AND reading your post–good timing!) that it doesn’t open room for working with current feelings (and/or implicit interests) in situations when feelings should be acknowledge and honored. I have found oftentimes those feelings are related to being tired or hungry, but sometimes is not clear to me. As many must know, a two-year old feels a lot more than just tiredness and hunger in a day!

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