Raising Healthy Children without Physical Punishment
It takes many years for children to learn everything they need to know. Their brains develop over time,
along with their ability to express their feelings, control their impulses, and learn social skills. When we
think of children as learners, we can figure out how to support their learning, rather than punishing their
mistakes. As their skills develop with our help, they become more confident and competent, and our
relationships get stronger. There are many ways of teaching children without hurting them.
Children learn what to do by watching us. If they see us resolving conflict without hurting the other person, they learn from that. If we get frustrated and solve the problem successfully without shouting or swearing, they learn from that. We have numerous of opportunities every day to show them how to resolve conflict, manage frustration, cope with fear, and treat others respectfully. By watching us, they will gradually learn how to do these things themselves.
Young children often touch things that are dangerous. This is because they don’t understand electricity, poison, injury or death. These are complex ideas that take years to understand. As we explain these things, children will gradually learn. In the meantime, we can keep them safe by putting dangerous and breakable objects onto high shelves, placing furniture in front of outlets, and locking up poisonous materials (e.g., bleach, air fresheners, antifreeze).
Over time, as we teach children about danger, they will learn how to keep themselves safe. But this takes several years to learn. While they are gradually learning, we can keep them safe by shifting their attention to something else. For example, if a toddler is reaching for an electrical outlet, a parent could say, “Look at this picture! Can you find the doggie?” When her brain is developed enough to understand why outlets are dangerous, she’ll learn why she should not touch them.
Just like adults, children learn when they have information. Punishing a child by hitting or by
sending them to another room doesn’t help them understand. When we calmly explain why something
is dangerous, disruptive, or hurtful, we help them understand it better. The more information a child
has, the easier it is for him to learn and understand.
People who live together often do things that annoy those around them. By letting the little things go, we avoid many unnecessary conflicts and power battles.
Children’s days are filled with moments of being told what to do and what not to do. This can be frustrating. Children’s frustration comes out in their behavior – in crying, tantrums, and saying “No!” We can actually help children to learn by giving them choices. When they can make a choice, they learn that they have some control and they get practice in decision-making – a very important life skill. We need to be sure, however, that we are ready to accept the choice they make. For example, we would not give them the choice to run into the street! But they could choose what they want to wear, what song they want to hear, or what game they want to play.
When children have emotional outbursts, it is usually because they are overwhelmed by their feelings. It takes many years to learn how to regulate our feelings. We can help children in these moments by regulating our own feelings. If we ‘lose it,’ the situation will only get worse. We can show children how to deal with intense feelings by breathing deeply and staying close-by so the child feels safe. After the outburst is over, we can talk calmly with the child about their feelings. These moments give us opportunities to build children’s understanding of their feelings, which is very important for healthy social relationships.
For example, one late afternoon, your child is tired and hungry. She’s building a tower with her brother while you prepare dinner. When her brother knocks the tower down, she bursts out crying and screams at her brother. In these moments, it’s easy for parents to ‘lose it.’ Instead, you can breathe deeply and sit quietly beside the child so she knows she’s safe, and when she is calm again you can talk about it. You can help her understand her body by talking about how hunger affects our moods. You can help her understand her feelings by talking about what frustration feels like. And you can show her how to respect others’ feelings by listening to her.
Children learn a lot from seeing and experiencing the natural outcomes of their actions. For example, if a child goes outside without a coat and feels cold, she learns why wearing a coat is a good idea. If we control the impulse to say, “I told you so,” she will be more likely to wear a coat next time, learning from her own sensations. Of course, we can’t let children learn everything this way! That would put their health at risk. We need to use good judgement. But when it’s physically and emotionally safe to let children make their own decisions, they can learn a great deal from those experiences.
You can see examples of all these ideas in action here.