Positive Parenting: Punishing Misbehavior Doesn’t Have to be the Answer

August 15, 2015 8:40 am 2 comments Views:

One morning my four year old daughter and I were getting ready to leave the house when she suddenly yelled “Idiot!” Right at me.

As I processed the word, I saw my little girl’s cheeks flush. Tears streamed down her face as she half whispered – half yelled “you are an IDIOT Mama.”

Total silence followed as we looked at each other. We stared so long, I nearly forgot to breathe out, and in again.

Idiot. My daughter called me an idiot.

There are many behaviors that really push parent’s buttons. Disrespectful, rude words tend to top the list.The default response for such rude remarks is often a stern “Don’t talk to me like that.” “Mind your words.” Or “How dare you speak to me this way?”

But I didn’t offer any stern remarks. I didn’t ignore, lecture, walk away or consider consequences.

Name calling is not a regular part of our family life. And in this moment, I recognized that my daughter wasn’t aiming for disrespect. She was expressing the disconnect. And punishment doesn’t solve disconnection. It creates more of it. 

“Misbehavior and punishment are not opposites that cancel each other – on the contrary they breed and reinforce each other.” ― Haim G. Ginott

Her choice of word said it all. She was frustrated. She sensed the stress. She was overwhelmed.

I needed to hear her.  Idiot.  I was being careless. Disconnected. I was the one being rude to begin with.

“Let’s go. A bit faster please. I don’t want your brothers to be late. Why didn’t you put your shoes in the shoe box last night to begin with?!?!”  Not exactly words that inspire capability and cooperation!

Children have a lot of feelings. Big Ones. So big, they often fumble when trying to find the right words to express those feelings. There are many words our children say when overwhelmed, frustrated or discouraged that we tend to dislike as parents:

  • “No.”
  • “You can’t make me”
  • “Poopoo head”
  • “That’s stupid”
  • “Idiot”
  • “Go away”
  • “I hate you”

Behind our parental dislike for such words is usually a wish for our children to be respectful, level headed, polite, kind, calm, collected little people. Now and as they grow.

Idiot Mama!

Would I have preferred to hear  “Hey mom, you are rushing me, I’m getting overwhelmed, and could we slow down?” over “Idiot Mama!” Yes, of course. But my daughter was four when this happened. At age four, staying cool, calm and collected under stress isn’t easy.  Actually, most adults I know struggle quite a bit at staying cool, calm and collected under stress.

So, why is it default to punish our children when they need guidance? To ignore them when they need presence? To hush our children when they need a listening ear? Why is it so normal to disconnect and push away when connection, compassion and kindness is needed the most?

The words we use matter, and become our children’s words too. Including the words we use to handle emotional overload.

Idiot is a word I regretfully must admit to using when extremely frustrated. Not AT my children, but yes, they have heard me say it. So, instead of punishing my daughter for misbehavior, I chose to focus on her real message. Idiot = Mom, You are stressing me out!

This is how we moved passed idiot and onto a better morning:

No blame. No guilt. No insisting the meltdown stop. No punishment for honest feelings of overwhelm.

No criticizing her choice of words.  Just focusing on our relationship. 

“I’m not listening to you.”  I said.  “No you are not.” she replied, wiping tears away.

“You aren’t listening to me either.” I said, and she nodded in agreement.

“You need more time. You need me to look at you, not rush you.”

“Yes. Mama.”

“Let’s try again. Want to bring your clothes onto my bed?”

“Can we get dressed together mama?”  “Yes.”

We exchanged two hugs, one kiss and we shared lip gloss.I walked into my daughter’s play school with interest and ready to see all her current projects. I trusted our drop off routine to work even if just slightly slower that particular day.

And then the surprise that made it all worthwhile.

“Sorry I said Idiot” my daughter whispered.

“Sorry I rushed you.” I whispered back.

“Idiot is not your word. Love is your word mama. I love you.”

“I love you too” I said with a tear filled smile.

No punishments or demands for respect and apologies were needed.

My daughter used a word that morning I didn’t like, but she wasn’t being rude, sassy, demanding, spoiled or being “furiously four”. She was just communicating with the tools she had.

I taught my daughter that overwhelm and the word Idiot go well together. That morning, I had the opportunity to model relationship repair too. And empathy and validation. Forgiveness and kindness. The value of admitting mistakes and starting over. The value of focusing on relationships. Focusing on love.

Love really is my word. How special that at age four, my daughter knows that. Even if sometimes I’m not so good at it.

Don’t be afraid to focus on your relationship, to show kindness, to model forgiveness. Don’t be afraid to look beyond misbehavior, find the true message and trust the power of connection.

Peace and Be well,

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  • Aadil Rashid

    Why would a four year old be so stressed ok she may be a bit ,but you sound like ,like she is 18 and got accidentally pregnant. Stop being melodramatic.

  • Roger Mendoza

    Judging from the behaviors and fouled mouth youths of today, this kid is on her way to be a fine member of the “modern” soceity. For thousands of years disciplines, manners, conducts, charity, etc. all started at home at a very young age and history will tell us people of long ago (even up to the ’60’s) are polite, kind to others, respectful, well mannered, has class, etc. With all the understanding, considerations, love and affections showered to young entitled kids of today our soceity has become selfish, “barbaric”, happy go lucky, anything goes and “i do whatever i want” mentality all contributing to the moral decline of the nation. No thanks but I’m raising my kids the traditional ways such as dealing with varying offenses with less talk more “action” (spanking) when they’re still young; more talk less “action” when the’re about 7 yrs old and then more talk and no “actions” at 18 and above. My eldest has just graduated college a gentleman with no vices.