Previously, I posted about time-outs and the disservice I think they do to parent-child relations, and to children’s sense of security, as well as, the miserable failure of time-outs to effectively teach children anything about how we would prefer that they act, react, or consider others (when they act). I thought that this might cause a more noteworthy uproar than it actually did, but perhaps the relative reticence I met was more indicative of its effect than any particular argument would have been. The general silence notwithstanding, there were two comments I wanted to take some time to address today.
The first one comes from Michelle Purvey, Psy.D.. She writes:
Although I have recommended time-outs and used time-outs with my own children, I agree with your stance on time-outs. My time-outs (even for myself) are for break/rest/calm-down time, for a few minutes, on a chair/couch in the same room with me, with blanket/pacifier/stuffed animal, using firm and kind words (“You can’t hit bc it hurts and hurts feelings; I still love you a lot.”), I ask for an apology for the chance for both kids to experience forgiveness/ acceptance.
What do you think of this approach? What do you recommmend for discipline?
In addition, one of my consistently thought-provoking virtual village-mates, Kloppenmum, asked, “just out of curiosity Nathan…when one of your girls point blank refuses to do something that you or Natalie ask them to do (a reasonable and age appropriate task) what do you do?”
I’m going to respond mostly in order, but could condense the discussion into one basic assertion, that is: no matter what we choose to do in any particular situation with our kids, we resist turning it into an adversarial confrontation, and we supply copious amounts of empathy for all parties involved. That’s the basic structure of our response whether the scenario is one in which sisters are at each other in anger, or when one or more of them is simply not wanting to go along with a request we’ve made, or when we’re doing something they don’t want us to do and they’re upset about it. So if that’s enough information for you, you can stop here, otherwise, let me begin with Michelle’s query…
First, although I like the additions of the parent remaining in the room and allowing the child to still have “security items” with him during the time-out, it still strikes me as just a kinder, gentler punishment. That’s generally enough to dissuade me, because I don’t like the idea, nor do I believe in the efficacy, of doing something to the kids to convince or train them not to do certain actions (or to get them to do other actions). It’s not necessary, it doesn’t actually work, and it wreaks havoc on the bond that is so important between parent and child. The fact is that if we punish, even if its not as bad as other punishments, we are still treating our children as though they were dysfunctional and in need of correction. And generally, if that were the case, then we’d likely use a different, more appropriate approach, instead of punitive reinforcement.
On the other hand, as Michelle points out, there are some times when the parent actually feels like she needs a break from the intense emotions she is having about what the child is doing, and wants to give herself a time-out. Although, generally speaking, I think the parent is still at risk of sending the wrong kind of message to the kid (i.e., “I can’t be around you because of how you are behaving”), if the kid is really allowed to still be in the same room while the parent takes a moment, then I see no larger issue with that. And honestly, if you are really so worked up that you need a moment away from the kid to cool out, well then, you should probably take that, regardless of the potentially troubling message it carries, just to keep everyone safe.
That potential trouble is the same, though, in both versions of time-out, and again, enough to dissuade me. I don’t want to risk it — regardless of how mad I feel about it, or how much I really want them to stop doing the particular action(s), it isn’t worth it to me to abandon them (which is how they see it, regardless of the actual proximity), or to turn adversarial in approach, or to use pain (whether it’s physical, psychological, or emotional) to “teach” them something. And the bottom line for why I don’t want to risk any of the above is that they all damage the parent-child bond, which is, as it turns out, the primary line of defense against what parents usually call “misbehavior”. More on that in a minute…
The other thing I want to respond to in the scenario Michelle gives is the talking that she describes. I think it’s really helpful to remind our kids that we love them, even when we’re really not liking what they did or are doing. And I think it’s also really useful to give socializing information about how humans tend to interact — e.g. humans generally don’t like to be hit, or your sister doesn’t like it when you take the toy she’s using, or when we bonk into someone it’s appropriate to apologize, etc.. The trouble is, when we turn adversarial, and when we force them into some punishment for their actions, we lose the opportunity to communicate either of those things. Our professions of love are lost in the fact that we are seen to be hurting them — even though we may be being polite, and calm, they are still perceiving pain — making us seem as though we are lying about loving them. And any message we want to convey about “proper behavior” is likewise tossed out of the cognitive window, because of the amount of cortisol and other brain chemicals they have diffusing their ability to absorb our instruction or rationally apply it. In fact, if we are going to pull our children out of the situation and make them stay put for a few minutes (whether it’s to calm down, or feel punished), then we’d be better off not saying much of anything to them until we reconcile and they are calm. Otherwise we are just wasting words, or worse.
Also, when it comes to helping them “experience forgiveness [and] acceptance”, I think there are better ways to get our kids there than requesting or forcing them to apologize. A forced apology contains little or no empathy, and tends to provide only the most shallow experience of forgiveness or acceptance. This is where an education in emotions and empathizing with others comes in very handy. It’s also primarily the domain of my favorite parenting tactic — modeling. The best way to teach politenesses like asking “please”, saying “thank you”, and apologizing when you’ve made a mistake or hurt someone is by virtue of being flawless at modeling it. So every time we ask our kids to do something, we model the way it’s most generally appropriate to do so; when they help us, we model gratitude; when we accidentally bump into them or forget something we said we’d do, etc., we model apologizing. In our home, that is all we have ever done, and our girls are exceptionally polite. The only place they have had what an adult might call “trouble” in this area, is with disingenuous politeness, like pretending to like something that they don’t, but that’s mostly because they still think of it as not telling the truth…
Now, on to the second comment, for a moment. What we do instead of time-outs and other punishments actually begins well before any behavioral infraction. We started with ourselves, on this one, by reprogramming our focus and intention — away from behaviors that need encouragement, distraction, or dissuasion; and toward the humanness of our children, instead. When we see them as developing people, it’s easier to look at the situation as simply a transaction of feelings and needs, rather than bundles of desirable or nefarious behaviors to be weeded through. So if we don’t like what they are doing, we don’t have to jump up, catch them, and curb the behavior (in order to have the most behavioral success). We can approach them with a curiosity, an openness, and (again) empathy. We seek to discover what they are feeling and needing in the situation, instead of how to maximize their training. We ask them to think about what’s happening, rather than attempting to instill responses in them.
There are a host of reasons why that feels more appropriate to us, but the basic notion centers around two “poles”. The first pole is emotional intelligence. By helping them to direct their energy toward feelings and needs (both their own, as well as, those of others), we have created a culture of awareness about people’s feelings (including their own) and awareness of the needs that underpin and motivate people’s actions (including their own). This means that when they see someone else having feelings, they can identify those feelings, and are primed to consider the needs that might be leading to the feelings they are witnessing. They are then more likely to empathize with the other as well. Emotional intelligence and the ability to empathize with the person across from us is, in the end, what motivates and informs all politeness, kindness, fair play, compassion, and equality. Emotional intelligence is an understanding and a set of skills that we can actually impart to our children, and more importantly, that preclude the need for stricter rules, more effective training, and “teaching discipline”.
The other pole is the parent-child bond. As I’ve mentioned already, I don’t think punishments of any kind are good for the inestimably important love-trust-safety-link that is the relationship we build and share with our children from the moment they are conceived through every single interaction we have with them. And it is that same bond, and it’s integrity in particular, that informs the types and intensities of behaviors that any child exhibits, as well as, their health, general mood, motor and cognitive development, and willingness to oblige the many varied and bizarre requests of their parents, day in and day out… It’s the developmental and behavioral psychology version of “the chicken or the egg” — either we punish them, injure the relationship, and interrupt their natural tendency to take their cues from us, as well as, rerouting their natural drives to explore and connect into more problematic expressions, and thereby, necessitate and justify increased use of punishments; or we (beginning at the beginning) nurture that bond with all of our might, rely on it’s natural processes, trust our children, and give them every reason to trust us, and thereby facilitate a natural state of safety and security in them sufficient enough that when we model empathy, and politeness, and honesty, and compassion, they are able to absorb it and reciprocate in the precise manner in which nature intended. They are designed to take all of their cues from us, and they will if we support the natural design. And if we nurture the bonds we were given to share with our children, and lead them to a feeling of safety and connection with us and with the world, then they have no need to act out in ways that adults label as “defiant”, “naughty”, “attention-seeking”, and the like.
Those poles and the thoughts and concepts surrounding them are the brightest points in the constellation of reasons why we want to look toward treating our daughters’ feelings and needs rather than attempting to modify all of their less desirable behaviors via punishment. And frankly, it just feels better, and easier at this point in our paths as parents to steer passed behaviors and go straight for the feelings, then see if there is still a need beyond the feelings, and if so, help address that if possible.
SO, when one (or more) of the girls does something that we don’t like:
- We first seek to empathize with her. We might ask or assess:What’s going on for you? What are you feeling, needing, showing us? What’s your point of view?
- Then we extend empathy to her. Ask questions about her feelings, recognize them, identify with them, hear them out, let them be. Allow her to be with her own feelings in our safe space. We attempt to change nothing. We address nothing. We just remain with her while she has those tough feelings. Hold her if possible.
- If the feelings go on for a long time, or if she seems stuck in an emotion loop wherein she keeps stoking the emotion, we will switch to the Boring Cuddle. We bring our own energy levels down extremely low and calm. Then just hold her and hold her until she processes and shifts.
- Once the feelings have shifted, we will see if we can figure out together what she was really needing in the first place. However, we often find that the initial need has also shifted — either into it’s more basic state or into nothing. The empathy-connection alone settles more “issues” than all the other things we do put together.
- Then we repeat the request with more information and perhaps more emphasis. Again, we aren’t assuming that she is “defying” us, but rather that she needs more information, or that she didn’t get the original message clearly.
- If she still doesn’t want to do whatever it is, we go back to empathy. For ourselves and for her. Why wouldn’t she want to comply with our request? Why do we want her to? What are the needs at stake? Who’s got wiggle room? Often, just our identifying with the fact that she “doesn’t wanna go to the store…” is enough to allow her to shift into a different perspective.
- If she still won’t do what we ask, we try to see if there are some needs of hers that we are overlooking. If so, we attempt to create a mutually satisfying agreement about how to proceed so that her needs are met and our request is fulfilled.
- If she still won’t go for it, we wait and discuss some more. Unless it’s an emergency or some actual (not just imagined, or pretend) time constraint exists, we will not force anything. And even if we have to resort to that (which is just so rare as to hardly require mentioning), we still refrain from punishment, and return immediately to empathizing.