My child won’t obey without punishments and threats. What can I do?

April 24, 2009 by  
Filed under Articles, Parents, What's Troubling You

Ask Venus a QuestionQ: 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.”
  3. 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.”

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2 Responses to “My child won’t obey without punishments and threats. What can I do?”
  1. Cora says:

    RE: Overall, as adults, we must observe our own need to have “control” over children

    This is absurd. Of course we have to have control over them — many of them do dangerous things all day long. Some kids are more passive, and if you’re a parent of one of those, you don’t understand the need to have control. If a kid breaks away from your hand in a parking lot or a store, you have to have control. If a three-year-old stage dives off a chair, you have to have control, or try to have it.

  2. Venus Taylor says:

    We do have Authority over our children, but, personally, I see that as different from having Control over children.

    The goal of parenting is not to have control over your children, but to teach them to have control over themselves. Remember: You won’t be there always.

    As Dr. Phil says, “We’re not raising children, we’re raising adults.” If our ultimate goal is to produce young adults who make smart choices, we parent in a way that teaches that. If our ultimate goal is to produce young adults who obey authority, we parent in a way that teaches that.

    What’s your ultimate goal?

    You can handle the kid who breaks away from your hand in a parking lot in at least two ways.

    ONE: You can yell at the kid, perhaps even swat the kid’s bottom, and let her know that the behavior is in no way acceptable. Desired Outcome: The kid learns to bow to your authority.

    Other Possible Outcomes: If the kid is young enough, she may not even understand fully why you were yelling. She may just be scared by your face and tone of voice. Instead of learning that her joyous traipse across the parking lot could put her in danger, she may simply learn that her joyous traipse across the parking lot could make you angry and scary.

    TWO: You could grab her (firmly, to save her and perhaps get her attention, but not to punish her). You can tell her in as few words as possible, “We hold hands when we’re near cars,” or even, “I feel scared when you do that. Please hold my hand when we’re near cars,” or simply, “That’s not safe!”

    The highest goal here is to teach safe behavior, and even natural consequences. The natural consequence of running off is that she could get hurt – not that she’ll make you mad. The natural consequence is the one that will happen even when you’re not looking, even when she’s an adult.

    In the HEART-Based approach to parenting (Honesty, Empathy, Appreciation, Respect, and Trust), parents work WITH kids instead of AGAINST them. Kids want to have fun and express themselves. They don’t want to do bad things and put themselves in danger. Knowing that, we can use our Authority to teach kids how to have fun and express themselves safely, without having to shame and intimidate them into obedience.

    As a Family Healing Coach, I describe the parenting approach that emphasizes Control over kids as POWER-Based: Prioritizing Obedience While Encouraging Resentment. One of its guiding beliefs is that parents must force kids to behave properly.

    I’m not criticizing that approach. I’m simply saying there’s another way. The best choice for you depends on your ultimate goal.

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