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The other day in a forum that I visit occasionally, a mom posted a question about discipline. She was having trouble figuring out how to handle bad behavior in her highly sensitive son. She wrote in the forum “I know this behavior can’t go unpunished.” Which started me thinking: what behavior has to be punished? And why?

There are several theories that underlie the idea of punishment. One is the idea of moral necessity: bad actions have to be punished in order to even out the scale of justice. To be perfectly honest, I can’t understand this theory when it applies to adult criminals, much less when applied to children. Revenge may be a normal human desire, but that doesn’t make it right. Retribution is different: when done by the person who committed the action, for the purpose of making things right or correcting a mistake, it makes sense. If you break a window, you should pay for it. Obviously. But if you broke a window, should your finger be broken, just to make things fair?

For some reason, this justice argument seems to hold a lot of weight in the (evangelical Christian) circle where I grew up. But as a Christian, I believe that the scale have been finally, absolutely, and unequivocally weighted on the side of good. The whole point of the cross is that it makes forgiveness possible. So I don’t understand this tendency to argue that guilt requires punishment on moral grounds, at least not in my own theology. If your theology argues that it does, then maybe that’s reason enough to insist that bad actions have to be punished.

But I think most of my readers will argue that punishment is necessary on more practical grounds: either because it deters bad actions in the future out of fear, or because it rehabilitates the person in some way and makes them better. There have been a lot of studies on the topic of punishment as it applies to crime, but as with many statistics, you can argue the data both ways (especially since it’s so difficult to create a truly random, controlled study on this topic). Even if results from these studies were absolutely conclusive, I’m not sure you could extrapolate studies on adult criminals to apply to raising children. Because there’s more to raising a child than getting them to behave well. Some punishments, no matter how effective, are not worth the cost. It doesn’t do you any good to have a well-behaved child if your methods result in an adult child who refuses to speak to you. The goal of parenting is not just to have a well-behaved child. It’s to raise a healthy, happy, responsible, kind adult. Who hopefully also still likes you.

Does punishment achieve that? Several intriguing studies (such as this one) suggest that rewards are more effective than punishments, especially for young children. According to this study, understanding a punishment–or any kind of negative feedback–and adjusting your behavior accordingly is a complex task: possibly too complex for young children. Which makes sense if you think about it. If you do something right, then it’s easier to replicate–you can do the same thing again. But if you did something wrong, you have to figure out what exactly you did wrong, which may be any number of things. Without very clear explanation, a child may not know what he did wrong, even if it seems obvious to an adult.

Even if he does know what he did wrong, that doesn’t mean he’ll be able to avoid doing it again. The impulsivity of the person committing a crime influences how effective the threat of punishment will be, and anybody who’s spent five minutes with a three year old knows how impulsive they are. So even if a child knows something is wrong, and even if they know they’ll be punished for doing it, that doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t do it. Sometimes they really can’t help themselves.

Some child behaviorists take the concern about punishment and turn it around, recommending that you reward good behavior and just ignore bad behavior. But then there are a handful of studies on education and grades that indicate even rewards may not be effective, at least not in the form of praise. And, of course, there’s the argument that even ignoring behavior is a type of punishment–maybe one of the worst types–because it’s a form of love withdrawal. Also, I’m sorry, but have you ever tried to ignore a child who is deliberately pulling your hair out for fun? Yeah. Good luck with that.

And so finally, there’s the argument that you should never use any type of reward or punishment at all, just talk through issues and work with your kids to come up with solutions.

And even though it’s easy to misunderstand this idea of “unconditional parenting” and interpret it as allowing kids to get away with everything, this is the approach that most resonates with me, at least at the age where my children are now. The whole idea of punishing assumes that a child is choosing bad behavior and that he has the ability to choose a better course–he just needs the motivation to do so. It also assumes that the fear of punishment will motivate him. But I’m not sure if any of these statements are true of a young child.

Before a certain age, it’s obvious that punishment of any kind is inappropriate. You shouldn’t punish a baby for hitting when he can’t even control his arms. And it’s also obvious that the physical ability to control your actions matures sooner than the social ability to choose the right action: a six month old can hit you, but can she understand that she shouldn’t hit? I don’t think so.

So at what point can you be certain that your child is really capable of making a better choice? Can a one year old choose not to grab a toy? Can a two year old choose not to throw a temper tantrum? Can a three year old sit still throughout a long meal in a restaurant? At what point do these actions become punishable offenses? And even if the child is capable of better, does that mean these things “can’t go unpunished”? Or do we as parents have other options?

My mother once told me that my job as a parent is to set my children up for success. I love this idea, because it implies that the burden of controlling my child’s behavior is a shared responsibility, partly mine and partly hers. When I think of it that way, it’s obvious that the meltdown in the grocery store after a long morning without a snack is at least as much my fault as my child’s–maybe more. Punishment doesn’t seem like an appropriate response, especially since it does nothing to stop the behavior. Whereas a snack will stop it immediately–and probably prevent it in the future as well.

But when you offer your kid a snack in the middle of a meltdown, it feels like you’re rewarding bad behavior.

Are children so Pavlovian that this kind of reward is a problem? Will my daughter come to associate snacks with tantrums and therefore throw a tantrum in the future whenever she wants a snack? Honestly, I don’t think so–and so far, the (anecdotal) evidence of my experience indicates that she won’t. Maybe I’m the one who’s Pavlovian, because the evidence so far suggests that what will really happen is I’ll prevent a meltdown by having snacks at the ready before the tantrum begins. Which you can call bribery if you want. But it works a whole lot better than a time-out.

Ultimately, though, I’ve got a lot more to worry about as a parent than a few grocery store meltdowns. Effective parenting doesn’t mean just stopping or preventing a behavior in the moment; it means teaching a child to behave right when you’re not around. And to do that, you can’t just punish. You have to coach behavior. You have to give them tools.

And this is why I lean toward the idea of avoiding punishments. Because punishment–even gentle punishments like time-out–don’t help a kid choose better behavior. They might tell you what not to do, but they don’t tell you what to do. And they certainly don’t help you do it.

So far, the technique we’ve used more than anything else is time-ins. Rather than forcing our daughter to sit somewhere by herself to think about what she’s done or to cool down, we sit with her. We remove her from the situation where bad stuff is happening, and then we sit with her until she calms down. Then we talk about what happened, and we discuss better ways to handle that kind of situation in the future.

Which all may sound rather complex for a four year old, but really, it’s not.

The only big challenge for me lately has been that I can’t go sit down with her and help her calm down when I’m also holding Teddy, especially if her interaction with Teddy is the problem.

Yesterday, for instance, she scratched Teddy. This is the second time in her life that she’s done this, and honestly I have no idea why. But obviously it’s a behavior that absolutely can not happen. If any behavior can’t go unpunished, this is it.

But yesterday we were at the playground. I was wearing Teddy, and there were tons of other kids and parents around. So how exactly would I enforce some sort of punishment? If I were into corporal punishment, I guess I could have spanked her (although that certainly would be frowned on in my neighborhood, but if I believed in it I would do it anyway). I can’t imagine trying to enforce a time-out in that circumstance. But I guess if that were my standard, I could try.

Instead, I told her “No!” firmly, and I held her hands so she couldn’t touch Teddy, and then I turned my back to her so she couldn’t reach him. She screamed for a second or two, but then she walked away. Which at first frustrated me, but after I thought about it, I realized that she was actually doing what we’ve always helped her do: she was removing herself from the situation. She didn’t go back to the playground to play; she went to a tree and sat there by herself for a little while. Essentially, she put herself in a time-out. And she calmed down.

A few minutes later, she came back carrying a bouquet of wild flowers. “Here, Mommy,” she said, “These are for you.”

Should I have punished her then? Should I take her peace offering as an opportunity to enforce a lesson?

What kind of lesson would I have been enforcing, exactly?

I didn’t, of course. I accepted the flowers and thanked her. Then I said goodbye to my friends, because the whole incident made me think she was probably too tired (or hungry, or both) to stay at the playground. So we walked to lunch. As we were walking (holding hands, I might add–by her initiative), we talked about what had happened.

“Why did you get mad?” I asked her.

“I don’t know,” she said.

“Did something happen that upset you?”

“No.” She thought about it for a few minutes. “I think I was just too hot so I got mad.”

“What do you think you could do next time if you start to feel yourself getting hot and mad?”

“I could ask for a drink of cold water,” she said.

Would cold water have prevented her attack on Teddy? Maybe not. But I’ve been starting to see this technique–this encouraging her to recognize her feelings, both emotional and physical–pay off. Not too long ago at the playground, she had been playing with friends when she suddenly ran over to me.

“My friend called me stupid!” she said, almost in tears. “I’m not stupid!”

“No,” I agreed, “I know you’re not stupid. That’s not nice that he called you that. I’m sorry.”

She sat on the bench next to me. “I need a break,” she decided. “I’m feeling overwhelmed.” After a swig of water and a handful of strawberries, she returned to the playground and chose a different friend to play with.

Crisis averted.

Best part? She averted it. Not me.

And any technique that encourages that is one that works for me.