I don’t usually listen to podcasts (they’re uncomfortable to take notes on), but today I did. I started up Isaac Morehouse’s podcast episode entitled “Revolutionary Parenting” this morning just to hear what “revolutionary parenting” actually was. I was planning to Google whatever came up in the first 10 minutes of the discussion, turn off the podcast, and then keep reading what Google gave me. But I was completely entranced after a couple minutes of listening to Kevin Geary and Isaac bounce back and forth parenting philosophies that toss traditional ideas of punishment out the window.
“Parenting without punishment and reward” wasn’t a new concept for me when I started listening to this podcast episode. I meet a lot of educators and psychologists that practice NVC (nonviolent communication) and advocate primarily the use of empathy in child rearing instead of rewards and punishments. But the idea (and reality!) of not punishing your kids never gets stale for me. It’s incredible to consider what society would be like if we raised a generation of kids without punishing or shaming them for misbehaviors and so-called “bad choices.”
Why do we even punish kids?
According to conventional wisdom, when a kid does something wrong or bad, he needs to be punished. He didn’t do his homework? Grounded. He hit his sister? Grounded. He knocked over the china while playing ball? Grounded (or shamed with an unnecessarily brutal or accusatory talk). Maybe he’s spanked. Maybe he’s sent to bed without supper. Somehow, in some way, he’s punished.
We rationalize punishment by saying that all actions have consequences. We see ourselves, adults, as the judges of morality, good choices, and good behaviors. We uphold the law. If we don’t teach that actions have consequences, our kids will never learn that, right?
Wrong. Trust me, our kids will learn that all actions have consequences. It’s a universal principle. We don’t have to hit them or degrade them or shame them to illustrate this lesson. When I don’t shower, I smell bad. People don’t want to be around someone who smells bad. Action and consequence. When I don’t eat dinner because I’m busy playing video games, I wake up really hungry at 2am. That affects the rest of my day, and sometimes my whole week. Action and consequence. When I practice the piano everyday for several years, I eventually get good at playing the piano. I can then go impress the girls at the bar with my mad skills. Action and consequence.
Punishing kids as a means of teaching that all actions have consequences is ridiculous. Firstly, as illustrated above, this principle is so universal that they will learn it without your help. And secondly, the practice is completely artificial and inauthentic. It’s like doing everyday science experiments in a vacuum: it’s doesn’t truly reflect how the world works.
When you don’t do your job properly “in the real world,” you may get fired, or you may get a warning, or you may increase tensions with your coworkers, or you may get away with it completely. There’s a variety of possible consequences, and the consequence you actually end up with depends on a lot of factors. But you certainly aren’t going to be hit (well, maybe if you’re a professional boxer…). The “consequences” of mainstream parenting, and often times the scenario itself, are artificial and therefore ineffective.
Another reason we might punish kids is because we want to see them change their behaviors. I would argue that we actually get a sort of subtle pleasure from punishing someone. I don’t mean to say that we’re sociopaths or sadists at heart. But when we punish someone, we experience a feeling of activism. We feel like, “Look, I care about this issue. I’m doing something about it. I’m not letting it ‘go by unnoticed’. That’s why I spanked/grounded/punished my kid.”
But recognizing a problem and deciding to take action is only the first step in solving a problem. You have to intentionally choose how to react to bad behaviors, and not fall into the trap of punishing for the sake of doing something. Because, actually, choosing to punish a bad behavior (through spanking, grounding, or whatever) is a really poor reaction. To paraphrase what Kevin Geary said in the podcast, the only thing punishment is somewhat effective in is creating obedient children.
And obedience isn’t innately a good thing.
We want our kids to be empathetic, thoughtful, and independent — not obedient. Obedience is blind adherence. It’s quiet resign. It’s the sheep mentality. It’s the internalization of the idea, “You’re bigger than me, so you win.”
I certainly don’t want to be surrounded by soulless men nodding “yes sir” every time I speak. I want to be challenged. And I want to stand side-by-side with people who are going to think decisions through, people who are going to critically reassess everything they and others do. People raised with an iron hand in the name of obedience don’t become the kind of freethinking, empathetic individuals that society needs in order to flourish.
Another reason I think punishing kids isn’t a smart practice is because it creates a power difference. You’re putting yourself over the kid. You’re overemphasizing the authority, power, and intelligence difference that already inherently exists. This can have the metaphorical effect of pushing the child underwater. Their thoughts mean less. Their opinions weigh less. It paves the way for a codependent relationship to form.
And other times the power difference leads to a power struggle. You know what that means? Your kid is going to unleash hell to have their way. They’re a fighter. They’re not going down with a fight.
So you see, punishment creates problems. It doesn’t solve them.
If you want good behavior, model good behavior.
I know someone who’s been under a lot of pressure lately, and the tension she feels sometimes bleeds through in her interactions with her kids. Sometimes she gets caught up in the emotions she’s experiencing, and then she’ll yell at her kids when they get too rambunctious. It doesn’t happen very often because she tries to be aware of what she’s feeling, but it does happen sometimes. And so the last time she lost it and yelled at her 3 year old to stop making so much noise, she realized that she should apologize for her outburst. When she calmed down, she sat with her daughter and gave a sincere apology. “I’m really stressed out by this and that, and the noise sent me over the edge. But I shouldn’t have yelled at you like that. I’m so sorry. I really love you and hope you can forgive me.”
Something crazy happened after that. Her daughter started apologizing for her meltdowns too. Seriously.
The girl was especially stressed out one morning. It was just a bad morning, and she cried and whined a lot. Later that afternoon, the girl apologized to her mom. “I’m sorry I was sad at you, mommy. This morning I was too sad.”
And this introduced an opportunity for her mom to love her, accept her, and encourage her. The model apology created this awareness of emotions and emotional outbursts. Rather than having to be told, “You shouldn’t yell or scream or cry like that,” the girl saw firsthand how her mom viewed emotional outbursts. She saw how her mom handled it, and then internalized it all.
In response to her daughter’s apology, the woman said. “Thank you, and that’s okay. It’s okay to be sad. I get sad too. Everyone gets sad. The important thing is to try to not let your sadness control you. It’s hard, but you’ll figure it out.”
Now they’re starting to explore self-compassion, self-awareness, and the complexity of emotions. A woman and her three year old. It’s really incredible how much kids pick up on without our knowing — and how much they’re able to understand.
If we treat someone like a dumb kid, they’re going to act like one.
It’s really a shame how often we undermine and underestimate what kids are capable of. That in itself can be what causes so much of the disconnect, secrecy, and immature development in kids. It’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy. As discussed in the podcast, when you say hi to a child you don’t know at the supermarket, and then say, “Oh, they must be shy,” when the child doesn’t respond warmly, you’re projecting something onto that kid that they’ll likely internalize.
Speaking from experience, I definitely did this. I spent the first 18 years of my life thinking that I was shy and anti-social because that’s what other people labeled me. I experienced intense cognitive dissonance when trying to rationalize why I felt so drawn to polemical topics in contemporary politics, pop culture, theology, and philosophy. Why would a quiet, unassuming kid like to read about the Ukrainian civil war, the essence of God, and the universal right to privacy? Turns out that I’m not shy or anti-social or quiet at all. I just had to find my voice and practice using it. The labels and projections slowed me down a lot.
A call for authentic parenting.
Kevin Geary promotes this idea of “authentic parenting.” Are you parenting through your subconscious and doing things because “well, that’s what my parents did?” Or are you making intentional decisions about how you interact with your kids? Are you questioning conventional wisdom and mainstream parenting? Are you reassessing those things that are so instinctual that you don’t really register that you’re doing them?
Parenting is hard. And as Kevin Geary said, practicing authentic parenting doesn’t turn your home into a utopia. But it certainly helps propel your kids into becoming the kinds of active, courageous, empathetic, and thoughtful people we want in our communities. It’s time to get out of the “thank God little Jimmy isn’t a murderer — hooray, we succeeded as parents!” rut. Instead, we should be intentionally changing the paradigms of mainstream parenting and toss out the traditional practice of punishment. We’ll all benefit from the shift.