Another mother and I had a surprising conversation about a year ago. That is, it was surprising to her. While we were chatting mother to mother she shared how she had just discovered the idea of understanding her children instead of punishing them. She had five children. She had always thought that immediate consequences, that is, punishment for misbehavior, was commonsense. But she had a revelation after our many conversations—if she showed her child she understood him, misbehavior stopped, and there was no need for punishment after all.
She was shocked and delighted. Could it be true that you could parent without punishment? She had described a repetitive situation. One occasion she referred to was when her eleven-year-old had an outburst in a restaurant. This occurred over and over. This led to embarrassing situations not only for her, but for this boy’s older siblings. They complained bitterly that their youngest brother was ruining their lives!
Sadly, the mother was as distraught as the kids who spoke of their lives being ruined. She honestly felt similarly. She learned to leave the restaurant quickly when anything she said to the eleven-year-old fell on deaf ears. She was trying to save herself and her other children further humiliation. Once home, she would send her son to his room yelling at him for not considering others or respecting her. Sometimes she’d take his technology away but there was little left for her to take away after a while and such punishments were clearly failing.
All I said to her while she vented over and over was, “What do you think is the matter? Why is your child so upset all the time?” She quickly shared with me that the older kids didn’t want to share their friends or their time with their youngest brother. They ignored him, pushed him around, and made fun of him frequently. She shared this situation without realizing how significant it was until I said, “No wonder he’s upset so often. He must feel very hurt, excluded, and rejected.”
Behavior as An Invitation to Understanding
After our discussion, she thought about this notion of understanding her youngest son—thinking of his behavior as communicating something. She shared with one of the older kids that his little brother’s outbursts were because he was feeling so alienated from all the kids in the household. With five kids in the house, this meant four against one! The older sibling was taken aback and immediately started including his youngest sibling in a video game.
After the next outburst, she took the eleven-year-old aside and asked him what was going wrong. He shouted that nobody liked him. He was stupid and weird and hated himself. Listening to such pain was so different than thinking of an outburst as bad behavior. Her son was defeated, lonely, and sad even though he sounded so angry. His anger hid his melancholy. How do you punish feelings like that?
Parenting Without Punishment
This mother’s revelation shifted her outlook about her approach to parenting. She found she was listening more than yelling and punishing. She felt pained by her child’s despair and the parenting work she needed to do or undo with all her children in order to find some common ground. But she felt somehow lighter inside and hopeful because she had a new direction.
Understanding certainly isn’t a panacea to all the woes children and parents have but it’s a huge step in a different direction that pays off over time. A year later, this mother seemed so much calmer and closer to her kids. She was finally enjoying parenting her many teenagers.
Laurie Hollman, Ph.D. is a psychoanalyst with a new book, Unlocking Parental Intelligence: Finding Meaning in Your Child’s Behavior, found on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Familius.com and wherever books are sold.