Letting Kids Pick the Punishments

foodforthoughtA few weeks ago, the New York Times staged a little debate on the subject of letting children choose their own punishments (and rewards) as a method of discipline. Two folks who write about child-rearing bandied the issue about—Bruce Feiler, who came to the practice reluctantly in his own house but has seen huge benefits, argues for it; KJ Dell’Antonia, who hasn’t tried it, argues against it. It’s an interesting conversation, whichever side of the disagreement you think you land on—you take a minute to go read it before you read this rest of this.

Okay, you’re back. So, the two sides of the argument they present go like this. Feiler says it turns out that letting children make choices in their rewards and punishments, in his experience, produces better behavior from the children than standard models of rewards and punishments do. Dell’Antonia argues that, even if that’s true (a point she doesn’t really dispute), it’s important to her to be the boss of her kids, and she think opening everything to a discussion undermines her authority. It’s kind of a false dichotomy, actually. Feiler’s approach works for his goal: to improve children’s behavior, but it doesn’t work for Dell’Antonia’s goal, which is to be the boss.

That’s where the thing breaks down for me: I don’t understand Dell’Antonia’s values. Why does she care so much about being in charge? If you can get your children to do the behaviors you want (behaviors that may include completing chores, getting along with siblings, communicating respectfully, or any old thing), why would you care about looking like the authority figure? In fact, it doesn’t even actually undermine your authority—a good leader must lead via the consent of the governed (Immanuel Kant, here we come!), and anyone who’s tried to forge a consensus about anything knows that it’s not just about giving in, it’s about listening and problem-solving and communicating as a part of your leadership approach. But I digress…

Really, my problem with this debate is not just about the mis-matched goals the debaters have: my problem is with the frame of the question itself. The assumption is that bad behaviors must be punished and good ones must be rewarded, so the debate is about how the punishments and rewards should be determined. But I would argue (hold on, I HAVE argued) that punishment and rewards aren’t the most effective way to get where you’re going. Punishment only works to change behavior as long as the punisher is around to do the punishing. But your goal is to get your children to behavior well ALL THE TIME, not just when you’re watching.

And what Feiler is describing in his house isn’t actually about punishments at all. Sure, punishments are a part of the conversation, but look at his example of addressing the “overreacting” behavior: the punishment hardly ever gets used! His children have come up with a system by which they regulate themselves, changing their own behaviors without the need for actually enforcing punishments. You could say that the children are changing their behavior because of the FEAR of the strict punishment they themselves have chosen, but I think that’s a mis-reading of the situation. First, the punishment isn’t actually very serious (push-ups?!). Second, what stops the overreacting behavior in its tracks isn’t coming up against the 5-minute time limit; it’s having the behavior pointed out. That’s all. Essentially, when the older sister says, “Overreacting!”, she’s really saying, “Hey, remember how we talked about this behavior, and you agreed it was a problem? Well, knock it off.” It’s the conversation that does the disciplining, not the punishment.

As a preschool teacher who has used conversation-based discipline techniques to enormous success for years, I promise you, it really works. The conversation isn’t a lecture or a harangue or a guilt trip. It’s an honest communication, where you say, “Hey, this thing is a problem for me, and I think it’s a problem for you too. Let’s come up with a solution that works for both of us.” The “works for both of us” part is key—you’re not giving up your right to veto proposed solutions, you’re not letting the monkeys run the zoo. You’re sharing control with the other major stake-holder in the situation. And yes, there are times you put your foot down: “I see you are very angry, but I will not let you hurt your brother.” There are also times when you try out a solution the child proposes that you think is sure to fail. Often it fails, and you revisit the problem and try again, and that’s a learning experience for the child. Other times the solution works, and you’ve learned a little something yourself!

It’s not a cure-all, but the way children respond to this approach can be remarkable—they gain confidence and self-control, and really step up to the plate in terms of changing their behavior. When they see that they are respected, they work to be worthy of that respect. And that’s really what it comes down to: Dell’Antonia says she wants her children to be “just a little afraid” of her, as though that’s the key to getting the behaviors you want. But having your children respect you is a WAY better way to get things done.

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If you’re interested in trying this approach to discipline in your family, but don’t know where to start, I can help—I’ve coached many families to a more collaborative and successful approach to improving children’s behaviors. Check out my website for more information.

And if you’ve tried anything related to this approach in your home, I’d love to hear about it! Put your stories in the comments (link at the top of the blog post).

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