"Power based on love is a thousand times more effective and permanent than the one derived from fear of punishment." ~ Gandhi
Threats create an unfriendly and emotionally insecure culture for children, which can compromise a child’s drive to follow their parent’s guidance.
Punishments and threats of imposed consequences are not only unnecessary, they’re counterproductive; they incite rebellion or resentment, and are often the main cause of conflict in parent child relationships rather than the solution. Many believe that imposing a consequence is an alternative to punishment, but it can’t be compared with natural consequences. If a child forgets their lunch box, they may become hungry or will need to ask the teacher or a friend for some food, but that is a truly natural consequence, which the child is very aware is of their own doing.
Do you find yourself resisting those who try to coerce or threaten you? It’s instinctive for humans of all ages to have an urge to resist those who attempt to coerce or threaten them. Parents can only discover a child’s potential for more willing cooperation and more positive social skills when they model a truly respectful, threat free environment in the home. The same is true for teachers in the classroom.
It’s not what we say, it’s the way that we say it. Parents often believe that the child is being reactive just because they’ve been told what to do or what not to do. But in actuality the child’s resistance and annoyance is often initiated by the way that the limit or request is expressed by the parent, either in that instance or in general. If a child has come to fear their parent’s criticism when told what to do or what not to do, then the child generally resists or rebels against the parent at these times.
The child’s reaction is an instinctive protective mechanism, they learn through experience to associate requests and limits with criticism, they learn to fear the unpleasant feelings of rejection or shame that so often accompany limits and requests, so they resist or rebel, thereby unwittingly creating more of the same. But it’s overall the parent’s responsibility to take the tension out of such interactions, thereby modelling respectful communication.
Getting annoyed doesn’t justify using critical, labelling or shaming language or actions. A parent may think that surely if their child just did what they were told, the conflict between them wouldn’t happen. Parents tend to judge that the child is creating the parent’s criticism or threats of consequences because of their refusal to do what they’re told or refusal to stop when a limit has been expressed, but the truth is that we parents do have choices in what we do when we become annoyed. Regardless of what our child has done to “make us angry”, we can chose to own and take responsibility for our annoyance and anger (thereby modelling the same) or we choose to vent it at our child, or express it as sarcasm or criticism (thereby modelling the same).
Modelling taking responsibility for our emotions. Children’s actions tend to be more instinctive than rational. When they’re caught in the grip of frustration and anger, they tend to react from the stress response of fight, flight or freeze. Fighting can sound like “NO!” and their flight can look like storming out of the room, running away and their freeze can look like completely ignoring you, turning their head away, being nearly desperate for distractions like screens or sugary food.
Children are just learning about having a choice to respond constructively or react aggressively (or reject) and they learn it from us. Threatening children with unpleasant consequences is punishing and gives them the message that it’s ok to treat others disrespectfully when they’re doing “wrong” or whether it’s better to be responsible with our feelings and avoid hurting others.
What does work? Instead of inserting a threat into a request (e.g. if you don’t do what I say I’m going to get annoyed with you, or I won’t take you to the park today), it’s much more effective and kind to take a few moments to slow down and connect with your child, give them time to respond to their name and wait until you have their attention before making your request. Then ask them to tell you what they understand you’ve just said. This gives them time to hear, assimilate, understand and to seek further clarification if needed.
Better still, before giving the request, take a couple of minutes to tune in to them and show some interest in whatever they’ve been engaged with. It’s all too easy for us parents to feel compelled with a sense of urgency and importance around the tasks that results in a devaluing of our child’s play or interests.
We may be very clear that they should be jumping in the car because we’re running late, rather than picking up that stone or twig or flower that caught their eye, yet it’s important that we don’t continually give them the impression that our requests are always more important that their interests. Maybe we can diplomatically and sensitively show respect for our wishes and their wishes.
To invite their attention, we need to be more relaxed and friendly When the child feels from your body language and tone of voice that you’re being patient and warm, as opposed to impatient and demanding, they can start to move from a more fearful stress response (which disables the urge to cooperate), back towards feeling more connected and positive towards their parent (leading to more cooperation). Rather than pulling your child’s attention briskly away from where they were choosing to give their attention, take a couple of minutes or at least seconds, to connect and create a bridge between their world and yours.
I talk parent coaching clients through this kind of process quite a lot and parents report hugely decreased resistance when they practice this, even with babies relating to moving from play to nappy changing, meal time or car seat. It’s time consuming at the time, but in the end things can go a lot more smoothly as this approach invites rather than demands your child’s attention while showing them that you really value their activities and that which interests them.
Changing Patterns. It’s good to be aware that even when you start to reduce threats by expressing positive expectations of mutual respect and eliminating enforced consequences, you can still expect that your child will continue to feel threatened and assume that there’s an unspoken threat behind the politely and respectfully expressed boundary or expectation for some time until it’s become really clear through experience that expectations and limits really are threat free. You can help your child with their fears and resistance by reassuring them that you’re not forcing them and you’re not going to punish them or shut down the warm connection. It may take more work initially, making physical contact; a soft touch on the arm communicates trust more than words, make eye contact that’s encouraging rather than threatening. Calmly repeat your request, listen, repeat. Your patience will pay off in breaking down an old tug of war dynamic that is exhausting. Trust that your child will start to increase their level of listening, responding positively and cooperating as you increase your level of listening, responding positively and cooperating.
Understanding that asserting boundaries, limits and requests doesn’t need to be backed up with threats of enforced consequences requires a shift in mind-set for many. Traditionally asserting boundaries and threatening punishments were synonymous This is why most people interpret “no punishments” to mean “no boundaries”. Eliminating threats of imposed consequences in the parent child relationship is an essential element in fostering cooperation, trust, honesty and integrity in your family, just as it is in adult relationships.
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