3 WAYS YOUR CHILDREN PERCEIVE PUNISHMENT

Impulses

If you raise your children with punitive discipline, they are more likely to have tendencies toward anger and depression because you are teaching them that part of who they are — their emotions — isn’t acceptable.

Since parents aren’t there to help them learn to manage those difficult feelings, they’re left lonely, trying to sort out for themselves how to overcome their “not-nice” impulses. This makes it harder for them to manage their anger, and more likely that they’ll take it out on their siblings, who are often the closest target.

Power

Kids raised with punishment learn to use it against their siblings to increase their own power. When children know that their rival will be punished, they have an incentive to tattle, both to hurt their sibling and to be able to play the role of the “good child.”

When siblings are punished for fighting with each other, they become more resentful of each other and more focused on revenge. Often, they get into a negative cycle of inciting conflict while trying to make it look like the other child’s fault.

Punishment teaches fear. Kids learn what they live and what you model. If kids do what you want because they fear you, it’s a small step to bullying. If you yell, they’ll yell. If you use force, they’ll use force.

SPANKING

Research Shows that Punishment Doesn’t Work

Children end up learning some entirely unintended lessons from punishment — about wielding power, resolving disagreements, and handling upsetting emotions. So punishing children not only undermines your child’s development in general, but it also has a negative impact on your children’s relationship with each other.

Anger

The way you handle and express your anger is the most powerful teaching tool you have. Contrary to popular opinion, it is not a good idea to encourage your child to beat a pillow or other object to release his anger. It doesn’t work, and worse, it reinforces the notion that it is okay to act out anger with violence.

The only healthy way to express anger is verbally, exploring the cause of it and the fear that lies behind it, and then finding positive ways to use the energy and power it generates. Children need to know it is okay to be afraid and to express it to safe people (parents) and to explore what might be done about it. Often, just talking about anger diffuses it power, and having a parent listen with empathy, not interruption or interpretation, can make all the difference. The child can then solve his own problems appropriately, with a clear head.

An Example of Helping a Child Handle Anger

For example, your young child comes home in tears, angry that a trusted friend hit him and took away his toy.

Parent: “That must have felt awful! You probably feel very angry.”
Child: “Yeah! I’m gonna hit him!
Parent: “It would feel better if you could take back what he took from you, wouldn’t it? Hitting is one of your choices, but it might make things worse later, don’t you think?”
Child: “I dunno. But I’m not just gonna take it like a baby!”
Parent: “Hmm. This is a hard one to figure out, isn’t it? If you hit him, he could just hit you back, and pretty soon everybody’s hitting everybody, you lose a friend, you get in trouble with the teacher, and you get in trouble with us because we don’t hit in our family. So you know it would lead to consequences at home. But you don’t want to feel like you have no power at all.”
Child: “Yeah.”
Parent: “Let’s see, what other choices do you have?”
Child: “I dunno. If I don’t fight him everybody will say I’m a chicken.”
Parent: “Do you feel like a chicken?”
Child: “No! I’m just so mad!”
Parent: “You must feel sad because he was your good friend.”
Child: (sniffing, tears) “Yeah. I can’t believe he did that. Now I hate him!”
Parent: “It sounds like the whole thing is super-frustrating.”
Child: “Yeah! But what should I do?”
Parent: “You could just let it go, choose another toy, and let him know he can’t make you feel afraid or angry, even if he tries. Maybe he’ll be sorry and you can be friends again.”
Child: (looks doubtful).
Parent: “You can tell him what he did made you feel angry, and ask him if he meant to hurt you. Maybe he’ll tell you he didn’t mean it. If he doesn’t want to talk about it, then walk away. Sometimes we walk away strong on the inside, with a different kind of courage, and find other ways to fight back. People who hit  don’t have any courage, and they are usually scared inside. Anyway, I’m sure you’ll figure out what to do. Let me know if you want to talk about it some more. And thanks for sharing your feelings with me.”

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An Example of Modeling the Handling of Anger

Once my sister and her daughter witnessed a man beating his three boys, all under age seven, in a large department store. He slapped them hard across the face and slammed them into the wall. He was obviously out of control. My sister knew she had to do something about it, and at the same time model for her daughter how to intervene  safely in such a situation without getting caught up in it. She was very angry and felt helpless, watching this strong man throw his babies around like rag dolls. “God only knows what he allowed himself in private if that was the way he acted in public,” she said.

She found an onlooker nearby who was willing to go with her and follow the man to his car to take down his license plate number. They then called the police, and waited there to make statements. By that time, her willingness to step forward gave other onlookers the courage to give corroborating statements. When the man arrived home, there was a police car waiting for him, and officers ready to inspect his children for signs of abuse and arrest him for assault.

My sister modeled for her daughter and other bystanders the appropriate and dignified, middle-path use of the energy generated by her anger; it was neither the extreme of total non-involvement and abandonment, nor the extreme of reactivity — that is, hitting him over the head with a shovel, which is what she felt like doing!

THE PATH OF PARENTING: PRINCIPLE FIVE — BE RESPONSIVE

Note: I am using the principles that guide the martial art Tai Chi, with its foundation in Taoism. Like my book The Tao of Motherhood, these principles translate beautifully to what I call “Right Parenting.”

“In adulthood we often see responsibility as something dreadful. Why should we dig the ground when the weather is disagreeable? We see activities as obligations, and we strain against our fate. But there is a joy to working in harmony with the proper time. When we do things at just the right occasion and those efforts bear fruit, the gratification is tremendous.”

— Deng Ming-Dao, 365 Tao Daily Meditations

This principle follows closely on the heels of Principle Four. It deepens our awareness of how to respond rather than react to our children. It helps us learn how to accept and handle our responsibility to them throughout our lives, for being responsive also includes responsibility.

In Tai Chi, being responsive is the practice of learning to become sensitive to others without becoming enmeshed with them. It cultivates a balanced awareness of our surroundings and of the people with whom we interact. We are often so loaded with preconceived notions, family scripting, and social conditioning from the popular media or our social circle that it is difficult to approach anything new without filtering the new through the old.

The Tai Chi student’s most important work is to learn to be aware of the flow of chi and to work with it as he or she does the exercises and movements of the martial art, including sparring with partners or “opponents.” In the same way, we as parents are given endless opportunities to practice awareness about our children’s energy, their individual way of being — what comes with them — so that when we respond to them we are responding to them uniquely, not just as “my kid.”

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“When you master the outward by means of the inward, all affairs are unspoiled. If you can attain this within, your internal organs are peaceful and your thoughts are calm; your muscles are strong, your yes and ears are alert and clear. You have accurate perceptions and understanding, you are firm and strong without snapping.”

— Huai-Nan-Tzu

This principle relates to how we teach our children to respond to circumstances and people, and how we model and teach responsibility.

THE OPPOSITE

A lack of responsiveness comes in many forms, mostly unintentional. When you see an irresponsible, disrespectful child, you can look to the parents and the home environment where the child is constantly modeled adult interactions. Often the child is mirroring something going on in the home that is not apparent to the outside world, or even spoken of in the home itself.

Sometimes a particularly sensitive child will unconsciously take on the parents’ problems. Often, when a child goes from being friendly,  inquisitive, radiant, and loving to closed down, irresponsible, and difficult, he may be acting out the parents’ unspoken problems. That is why, when a child is taken in for therapy, many therapists want to see the whole family. The therapist knows the child is probably feeing the heavy weight of “something wrong” and is justifiably angry about having to bear the brunt of unspoken problems.

Some irresponsible parents may neglect their children, but it goes deeper than that. Setting up an environment of win-lose, wherein the parent is always right, and where blaming and helplessness prevail prevents us from using the principle in any way. When there is no mutual respect, boundaries cannot be set and negotiated as a child grows older. There is confusion about who is the child and who is the parent.

If anger and emotional and physical reactions are the only feedback a child receives from his parents, the child grows up with little self-motivation and less and less respect for the parents. As a teenager, the tables may turn. The parents become afraid of their children’s anger and cave in to his every demand. Eventually the child looks for other people with whom to have reactive relationships.

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So often this child never grows up; in her adult relationships she is either the controller or the one being controlled, by anger and reaction. The child never learns to be sensitive to other people — their feelings, their histories, or what they need. She becomes self-centered, narcissistic, and wants the word to revolve around her and her — by this time — endless need for validation from others.

Responsiveness is self-management, and sensitivity to the needs of others. It follows that it requires empowerment (Principle Three). A person who is disempowered cannot think of others, and cannot even manage his own choices. His chi or vital energy has been disrupted and siphoned off, so to speak, by the disempowering environment in which he grows. Building that back up as an adult is a difficult and usually lifelong process.

If you grew up in a home where you were neglected or constantly on the losing end of a win-lose situation, you will try to build the responsiveness and responsibility of Principle Five in yourself at the same time that you try to maintain it in your household — not an easy task by any means, but one you can handle.

CHOOSING TO BE RESPONSIVE

You can make the choice to turn your family dynamic toward health and spirituality. It is up to you. Look forward to it as a tremendous challenge and opportunity, as another important aspect of your path of parenting, if you choose to see it that way.

The foundation you lay now, even though you may slip back sometimes, will only grow stronger in the future. By the time you are a grandparent, this will all come much more naturally to you, so you can help your kids even more, and your grandchildren’s foundation in these principles will be taken for granted by them.

When you leave this earth, it will be with the knowledge that though your struggle, you have changed generations of unhealthy, unskilful ways of being and have affected all the people that come within the circle of influence of your children, your grandchildren, and future progeny. That is quit a legacy.

RESPONDING VS. REACTING

The moment between stimulus and response is the precious moment when trust is built or broken We need to train ourselves to pause in that moment, reflect, and respond rather than react to what is being done or said. Sometimes this means we need to take a time out for ourselves, to calm down, relax, remember our principles, and choose our response consciously, rather than reacting like we would to a bee sting or snake bite.

Chungliang Al Huang states, “One principle in the practice of Tai Chi is understanding that your energy will reb found naturally unless you interrupt.” This principle, perhaps more than all the others, requires us to be grown-ups, to intentionally re-script ourselves to respond in a deep thinking, empathic way to the people around us — even if we seem to be the only “grown-up” present in a room full of adults.

The great psychologist Carl Rogers said that the true communicator enables the other person to explore feelings and to mature. He was the first to describe the core conditions necessary for a positive, helping relationship. These include unconditional positive regard (respect), genuineness, and empathy (true understanding, from the other person’s point of view).

Respect means you accept the other person as she is and you care about how she feels. She does not need to change in order to earn your respect.

Genuineness means you come across as a real, authentic person, not a “role.” You are straightforward and sincere. You let people know who you are and what you stand for in ways that are kind and compassionate rather than judgmental or argumentative.

Empathy is the ability to feel what others feel and to accept others’ experiences as valid. You can trust an empathic person with your feelings. An empathic person doesn’t judge how you feel, tell you how you feel or should feel, analyze you, or gossip to others about your feelings told in confidence.

When you learn how to practice being responsive, you will also get a good handle on Principe Three (Empower), and become far more empowered. As adults we have the choice to move from childlike joy, wonder, and fun to adult reasoning, sensitivity, and the ability to set boundaries.

Principle Five — being fully responsive —  includes learning to easily and naturally move between these poles — of our own volition, not because outside forces trigger it in us.

Being responsive is more than the ability to respond sensitively to your environment. It is the ability to take responsibility for your life, to refrain from gaming circumstances and other people for everything that happens in your life. This is also a “grown-up” principle to practice, because often it certainly appears that circumstances and other people are responsible for a lot of what happens t you. But you are responsible as well. The challenge is to take responsibility for your part in whatever happens, and to see the part of you that must change in order for the externals to change.

If you have been subjected to a lot of shame and blame in childhood, this principle may be difficult to master. There may be unconscious processes going on that you don’t even understand that help create problems for you — still, putting the responsibility for them squarely on your own shoulders is the first step. The beauty of it is that you also get to release the things you are not responsible for to those who are.

We are not responsible for the words and actions of our parents. Yet, we can only blame our parents for so long if we cannot control our temper. At some point, we have to take the responsibility to earn how to do it, and then to teach it to our children if it was not taught to us. The same principle applies in many other areas of life, physical, emotional, and spiritual.

© 2015 Vimala McClure

THREE WAYS TO MAINTAIN CHILDRENS’ EMPOWERMENT WHEN USING “DISCIPLINE”

1. Discipline

How do we discipline our kids? There are plenty of violent prisoners in penitentiaries who were disciplined as children with spankings, beatings, screaming and neglect. Though I had my children take “time out” sometimes, now I question the popular use of that as a disciplinary technique because it links quiet time alone with punishment.

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When children, even toddlers, are given explanations for rules, allowed to voice an opinion, and even to disagree, they become more skilled at exercising their power, their social “muscles,” when they relate to others and learn to cope with problems by reasoning out the right responses. It may take more time to talk than to hit, but, in the long run, the lessons you are teaching will be more far-reaching and will develop a broader range of social skills in your child. Use reasoning to help your child understand the concepts of restitution and making amends, to understand that apologies don’t automatically excuse them from out-of-control behavior and that words can hurt as much as punches. Many research studies have concluded that the use of reasoning and discussion as disciplinary tools is one of the most effective ways to foster a child’s positive moral development.

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One inventive mother went to a nature store and purchased several small rocks with words carved on them such as: sisters, brothers, family, love, kindness, peace, truth, forgive, gentle, cooperation, and so on. When one of her children misbehaved, she chose one of the rocks and gave it to the child, explaining the word and what it meant in this particular situation. She repeated the word several times, having her child repeat it back and explained its definition. The child was the led to his room or a “safe place,” and asked to think about what that word meant to him for fifteen minutes. Then his mother would retrieve him and they would discuss the word. In this way, the child was not punished, but an “intervention” took place, which allowed the child to learn values and connect those values to his behavior.

2. Learned Powerlessness

There are many ways we unknowingly teach our children to be helpless rather than empowered. Helplessness is taught by:

  • Doing things for children ins teach of teaching them, in steps, how to do it themselves.
  • Explaining poor performance in school in terms of intelligence or inability, instead of effort or motivation.
  • Explaining the cause of difficulty as internal (“You’re not good at that”) rather than external (“You can try harder next time and do better”).

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Girls are socialized to be more vulnerable to criticism and tend to interpret it as permanent and pervasive rather than temporary and external. The are more likely to explain difficulty as their fault, due to their character defects, whereas boys are socialized to attribute difficulty more to outside circumstances or temporary lapses. So with your girls be especially conscious of explaining, when disciplining, that when they’ve done something wrong it does not mean there is something wrong with them. Explain that wrong behavior is something that is temporary, related only to the subject at hand and is something that can be changed. Remember also that we all need to feel we have some control over a situation and/or our feelings about it in order to develop resilience and resistance to adversity. Helplessness robs us of resilience.

3. Reasoning

Tai Chi’s “listening power” can be used to reason with your kids at any age. In this practice, you stay with them and feed back to them in your own words what you hear them saying about something they have just done, felt, or experienced, from their point of view. Stay with them long enough to be able to act like a mirror, helping them reason their way to the conclusion that delineates right from wrong. You can help them “be their own boss,” and evaluate their own feelings and actions. You can help them see how consequences are tied to actions, and how, if they have done something wrong, they can make amends with dignity. At first you may sometimes have to take the role of teacher and guide them firmly through this process. When you do this, try to refrain from filling in silent spaces with lectures. When your feedback is wrong, they will let you know. Be patient and ask them with sincerity to explain again what they mean.

Dr. Suzette Hadin Elgin says that “Talking to a child, especially after the age of five or six, is essentially the same as talking to an adult you outrank.” They understand much more than they are given credit for. She also says, “You have to let a child choose and introduce the conversational topic. You must support that topic every few sentences. And, hardest of all, you have to listen while the child talks, with your heart, your head, and with full courteous attention.” 

When you ask your child to do a chore, be sure you include all the information he needs. For example, instead of saying, “Jack, take out the trash,” you could say, “Jack, please take out the trash right now because the garbage truck is coming at noon.” Tone is important. Try as hard as you can to use a respectful, relaxed tone that assumes your child wants to help. Along with your tone, smiling eye contact or a touch can help communicate your positive intention. If you mess u-p, apologize. Say, “I didn’t mean to sound harsh” (angry, impatient, and so on). “I’m kind of stressed out right now and could really use the help.” Be sure to thank the child when the task has been completed. At dinnertime, you could say, with an eye-contact smile, “Jack, it was a great help to have the garbage taken out on time. Thanks a lot.”

Try to be alert to whether your child is hearing what you are saying the way you want her to. If you feel a negative reaction, you can say, “I’m not sure I said that right. Let me try again.” Or, “Did I say that in a way that didn’t feel good to you?” Again, communicating respectfully with your kids help them learn respectful communication and empowers them to take responsibility for themselves and the way they communicate. You are laying a solid foundation for their future relationships, so it is definitely worth the time.

© 2015 Vimala McClure