My child won’t obey without punishments and threats. What can I do?
Q: My 3-year-old daughter is constantly getting time outs at daycare and at home.
I have to basically put the fear of a “butt pop” into her to get her to do what she is asked to do - anything from “come here” to “stop stomping.” When given a directive, she just takes her time (purposefully moving slow or ignoring me altogether).
Her daycare provider stated to me that “she doesn’t know a child’s place.” …Any advice to offer?
A: The toddler’s biological mission is to explore and establish her independence. It is her job to learn how to exercise power over her own body - from toilet training, to jumping, to figuring out how far to walk away from mommy and still be safe.
It is our job, as parents, not to squash that independence, but to support its healthy development. In order to do that, we must first change how we PERCEIVE our kids.
Kids Are Good
When we see kids as “bad” or “oppositional” or “manipulative” we interpret their behavior in a negative way. We perceive “battles” and “power struggles,” where there are none. We pit ourselves against our children and believe we must “win,” and therefore, they must “lose.”
When we believe, deep down inside, that kids are ALWAYS good and well-intended - even when doing something we find inconvenient - then we can interpret their behavior as an expression of need or desire. We can study their behavior to understand what they need or want at this stage of their lives, and then teach them appropriate ways of getting it.
For instance, what is your daughter’s behavior, at daycare and at home, telling you about what she most needs at this time? [I just heard a chorus of readers say, "What she needs is a good whack on the behind." I beg to differ. Read on.] Is she showing you that she needs more time to run and play, more freedom of movement? Perhaps, given her age, she’s simply showing you that she needs a greater sense of independence - more power over her own actions - more time and space to explore the world on her own terms.
Observing her behavior non-judgmentally can show you what’s important to her - an important clue into her personality. Then you can teach her better ways to express her needs - like how to say, “Mommy, five more minutes please?” Or you can structure her life to give her more of what she’s seeking - like leaving her more free time, or getting her into a mommy and me dance class or drama guild.
Dangers of Punishment
Punishing children carries with it 3 negative consequences:
- Missing out on the opportunity to teach children to better ways to express themselves and meet their needs. By punishing the behavior, we completely ignore the need behind the behavior (the need to be heard, the need for exploration). That need continues to go unmet…often leading to a kid who’s shut down and frustrated, or more desperate misbehavior later in life.
- Externalizing the motivation for good behavior. When kids learn to do what’s right out of fear of punishment, how do they develop the internal guidance system they’ll need later in life so they’ll do what’s right simply because it’s right? How do they learn to do the right thing even if no one’s watching? Even if they could get away with doing wrong? Connecting with them by teaching them better ways to meet or express their needs keeps them connected to themselves, so they are motivated from within to do what’s right.
- Damaging our relationship with kids. Punishing creates distance vs closeness; it promotes lying vs honesty. Every time we hit or yell at our kids, we pull apart the fabric of our relationship one thread at a time. Then, in later years, our relationship wears thin, or rips apart.
What to Do Instead
Here are 3 ways to support kids in discovering healthier ways to meet or express the needs underneath their (mis)behavior:
- Acknowledge the Need Behind the Behavior. As in, “I know you want to run & have fun, sweetheart, but our that really annoys our neighbors.” or “Yeah, it’s frustrating to stop doing what you’re doing when I call you. Show me your ‘angry’ face.” Habit 5, in Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, is, “Seek first to understand, THEN to be understood.” A kid who feels understood has less of a need to “act out” to get his/her point across.
- Provide More Choices. Giving young kids choices gives them a greater sense of control over their lives. Try to turn as many daily “commands” as possible, into choices. “You can have broccoli or carrots, which do you choose?” Or “You can either run on your tippie-toes, or walk on your feet.” Even, “Are you coming on your own, or do I have to carry you?” Giving kids choices allows them to experience their growing control over their lives and bodies without having to be “contrary.”
- Ask, “Is what I’m about to do going to bring me and this child closer or push us farther apart?” In the book, Choice Theory, Dr. William Glasser explains that it is more important to maintain a healthy relationship with a child than to force that child to obey your every command. When kids feel close to us and respected by us, they are more inclined to do good things.
Overall, as adults, we must observe our own need to have “control” over children. They are not objects, they are people. Our job is to help them explore the world safely and to figure out who they are and who they want to be. Our job is not to bend them to our will.
Beware of adults who believe your child’s will should be broken, or that she should be taught to “know her place.” That kind of language reminds me of Sophia’s (Oprah’s) famous line in the Color Purple: “Beat her.”
An environment where kids are respected as people - where adults help kids learn healthy ways to get their needs met - supports kids in feeling seen, heard, and understood. Therefore, they feel less of a need to “act out.”