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When my second daughter was two weeks old, we had a long night of no sleep, and finally, she was asleep in her bassinet beside my bed. My husband and I had finally closed our eyes, and suddenly, my 3-year-old walked in. She walked straight to the bassinet, shook it, and woke up the sleeping baby. This wasn’t the first time this had happened – she had been struggling since we brought home her baby sister.
My first reaction to being startled awake by the baby shrieking was rage. I was feeling angry and helpless. I thought to myself, “She needs to learn this isn’t ok.” Although I am a therapist known for punishment-free parenting, at this moment, I felt a strong desire to punish my daughter.
Why did I want to punish her?
We punish kids because we don’t know what else to do. We feel helpless. We often react.
“I don’t know what else to do!” or “They just need to learn” are common phrases I hear from my clients. For many of us, it’s the only way we know how to respond to challenging behaviour. We repeat what we don’t repair, and we often do the same thing that was done to us. It makes sense that parents all over the world use punishment… but punishments aren’t nearly as effective for long-term behaviour change.
Behaviour is Communication
Instead of giving in to my desire to punish my daughter, I followed my advice (even though it was really hard…) When I realized my daughter had woken up her sister again, I sat up in my bed, took the deepest breath I possibly could, and used the framework I teach in my Parenting Little Kids course.
First, I narrated what was going on.
“Stop, I can’t let you shake the baby. See how she is crying now? She needs sleep, and so do me and Daddy.”
Taking this time to narrate gave me a moment to bring myself back to reality before deciding how to respond to this behaviour. I had to remind myself that behaviour is communication. If I had punished my daughter by spanking, I knew I might not see this same behaviour again because she feared my response, but her NEED would still be there.
4 Reasons Why Punishment Isn’t As Effective
They don’t learn NEW ways to get their needs met – the underlying need is still there.
They learn to fear your response to their behaviour – they don’t learn why it was wrong.
You are modelling the behaviour you don’t want them to do.
You will get stuck in punishment cycles.
Picture this: You spank your child for shaking the baby’s bassinet, and they don’t do it again – but now they are name-calling and yelling at you. You spank them for this. Now they are kicking the baby, and you spank them for that. You are stuck in a punishment cycle. Your child isn’t learning new skills, and the behaviour isn’t getting better; you start to yell and use timeouts or threaten to take away things. Your child’s behaviour escalates and gets worse.
If we don’t focus on teaching children how to get their needs met, they will continue testing boundaries, and we will continue to see challenging behaviours.
What can we do instead?
Get Curious! “Why is this happening, and how can my child learn new ways to communicate with me?”
Let’s go back to my story.
Later that day, after a very frustrating two weeks with my daughter, my husband and I sat down and re-watched my Parenting Little Kids course. We were in survival mode and needed a reminder of the tools we had in our parenting toolbox. After watching the curiosity lesson, we felt ready to handle our daughter’s behaviour. We were reminded that we needed to start by identifying her needs.
NEED #1: She needed to learn to interact with her baby sister in healthy ways.
First, she didn’t know how to interact with a baby – this was entirely new for her. We decided to stop saying “No!” to her all day. Instead, whenever there was a behaviour we had to say “no,” we would try to show her a “yes” that she could do instead.
If we said, “No touching the bassinet,” we also said, “Yes, you can look at her while she is sleeping.”
If we said, “No hitting the baby,” we also said, “Yes, you can use your soft hands on the baby.”
We spent SO MUCH MORE time helping her learn new “yes” behaviours than we did scolding her for the “no” behaviour.
NEED #2: She desperately needed connection time.
She didn’t know how to tell us she needed to connect with us, but she knew that we gave her attention when she hurt the baby.
We realized she had hardly been spending any quality time with us. The most interaction she got from us was when we got angry or yelled when she wasn’t gentle with her sister. We were so focused on the new baby, the news of the ongoing pandemic, and we were exhausted! We knew we needed to prioritize spending quality time connecting with our oldest!
We started building in quality time with her by checking in early and often. For example, we would give her a little wink or hug if she was playing nicely, and we would each take a turn holding the baby while the other gave 15 minutes of quality time to our oldest.
We saw a massive change quickly!
Within a few days of making these changes, the behaviour stopped. This would not have happened if we punished her. She would NEVER have learned new ways to get her needs met if we spanked her or sent her to time out.
By intentionally taking the time to connect with her, she got her needs met. PLUS, the whole family was brought closer together through these simple changes. This is why gentle parenting works! We are getting curious about our child’s needs and helping them get those needs met. We aren’t just shutting down feelings and behaviour – we are getting to the root of it!