What does a punishment-free home look like?

October 18, 2012 · 40 comments

punishments don't workI’m always a little surprised when people are horrified to hear I don’t punish my children.

“How will they learn right from wrong?” is usually the first question, and I can see them picturing a household run by unruly hellions jumping on furniture and swinging from the ceiling fans.

It’s not that we don’t have those moments (maybe not quite that extreme) — but as much as I want punishment-free to mean always calm, always peaceful, and rules always followed, that isn’t the truth either.

What we have in our home is a lot of love, a lot of respect, a lot of empathy, and a lot of communication.

I can’t remember exactly when I started time-outs in our home, but I definitely remember when we stopped them. It was after one or two efforts, and putting my son in the corner was like doing an exorcism. I stayed calm, I took a deep breath, I explained what the transgression was and how long he needed to sit there, and those were the worst thirty seconds of my life.

I could see that if I wanted a punishment to work on my strong-willed, spirited, and stubborn son, I would have to break his will and wield complete control over him. I needed to find another way. It’s been over two years since then, and we’ve traveled on our journey together as a family.

We have two hot-button issues in our house: hitting and sharing; not surprising considering my sons are 4 and 2. My goal is that some day not too far in the future, my boys will be self-motivated to share, and also have the self-control to not hit when they’re frustrated or angry. They’re showing signs of doing this — all without punishment.

When it comes to sharing, I want them to have control of their toys and their actions — I’m not an all-knowing, omnipresent being who dictates toy possession. They are responsible for working out who plays with what toys, for what length of time, and in what manner. When scuffles inevitably arise, I’m there to narrate, prevent feelings from escalating to the point of hurting each other, and suggest alternatives if they get stuck.

When I deal with sharing issues in this way, there is no room for punishment — it’s just all about learning. My boys are learning to control themselves. They’re learning to problem solve. They’re learning to negotiate, and to look at situations from different angles. Once we started working out conflicts like this, the idea of punishment seemed ridiculous.

With hitting, it’s not quite as clear-cut.

It pains me when one of my children hurts the other, and these are situations where my husband and I still learning how to effectively deal with it — mostly because we have to check our own anger. Sometimes we separate everyone until we all calm down, but then we still have to come together afterwards and talk about what happens. Usually it’s best when we deal with it straight away.

First, I attend to whoever got hurt, and I give kisses and cuddles. I include whoever the aggressor was. If they’re acting out, they need cuddles too. I narrate what happened, and if there is still anger and hot tempers, I firmly say, “I won’t let you hurt your brother again”. We talk about alternatives to hitting when our tempers rise, and we talk about how it hurts the other person.

In these situations, I can of course see how it makes sense to punish, but I don’t see how it would benefit my children.

I don’t understand what they would learn from a punishment, but I can see them learning when I bring them together. They’re learning that someone cares about them and doesn’t want them to hurt other people when they get out of control. They learn that they are the ones who control their actions, and they have different options. They learn that when they make mistakes, they have a safe, loving place to come to where they can learn a better way of doing things.

The result of not punishing my children is trust. 

While they still have occasional squabbles over toys they need me to help them work out, more and more they can play together for hours and regulate themselves. They still hit each other, but more and more they move away and say, “I’m so mad! I want to hit him” and come to me for a hug. They don’t run away from me, and they respect me.

Ending punishments was the best thing we’ve ever done for the relationships in our family. Now that we’ve had some practice at it, I really can’t imagine our life any other way.

Photo credit: xlordashx on Flickr

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{ 39 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Vanessa October 18, 2012

Sharing (or lack thereof) is a hot button issue here too except there is no sibling involved, which puts a lot of pressure for me and I think I end up second guessing myself and finding it so much harder to remain neutral and just describe what is happening since I really don’t know that many people who don’t make their kids share, I end up just having park playdates which is are so much easier…

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2 Suchada @ Mama Eve October 18, 2012

Vanessa, I feel the pressure when we go out in public too. It’s very, very hard to balance what’s generally considered socially acceptable and polite with allowing our children to learn and develop in an age-appropriate way. I wish I had a good solution for that, but navigating the playground is one of the most stressful experiences for me. When I get some insight on it I will definitely share!

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3 Justina October 18, 2012

I think that in public situations, it just takes more work on our part as parents. I have never had an issue with others parents judging me with how I handle sharing or even hitting (granted my kids rarely hit other kids, each other at home is a whole different story). I do feel like a do a lot more facilitating in public than I do at home or in a situation with like minded families, but I think most parents either do not notice my actions, ask me with intrigue about my parenting style, or appreciate that I actually helped my kids and their kids work out their issues. My kids have learned to be good problem solvers and and as a result my oldest (4) will often solve problems even before I have to intervene. My youngest (15 months) needs A LOT more help with problem solving, and when my 4 year old was younger I was involved a lot more in her play, but I also saw it as teaching her skills to work effectively communicate with people outside her family who may do things differently, and she is quite skilled now. I even see my 15 month old beginning to be an effective communicator and problem-solver (she’s been learning since birth with an older sibling).

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4 Teacher Tom October 18, 2012

Spot on! I want to have actual relationships with my child, not train her for a life of obedience. And today my “disobedient” teenager is one of my two favorite people (her mom being the other one). Honesty and “trust,” as you write, is the result of the kind of punishment-free home you describe. Thank you!

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5 Suchada @ Mama Eve October 19, 2012

Teacher Tom! I feel like I’ve been visited by a rock star :) I’m really enjoy my kids, and I love that other people enjoy them so much too. I wouldn’t trade “obedience” for the relationship I have with them, either. Thanks so much for stopping by.

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6 Danielle November 8, 2012

OMGeee, How awesome is it that Teacher Tom read this and commented!

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7 Darlene October 18, 2012

I had to laugh when you wrote, ‘ “How will they learn right from wrong?” is usually the first question…” ‘ I hear that one a lot too. And to me, it’s such a strange way of thinking. Why do so many parents hold the belief that all children are automatically these “bad” little people that “need” to be taught and “trained”. That is so wrong. Children don’t need to be taught anything, they learn it all on their own. We as parents only need to set examples and lovingly guide them.

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8 Wendy Jolliffe October 18, 2012

Wonderful post. The truthfulness of it all brings me to my knees. Our house is not perect either but we are striving for it!

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9 Liz October 18, 2012

I find it’s also helpful to brainstorm WITH them about other responses that would be more appropriate, once the heat of the moment passes. “If you feel frustrated and like you want to hit your brother, what could you do instead?” The 2 year old might need you to act out the scenario with 2 stuffed animals/toys: one hits the other (who then reacts by putting how it feels into words, “ow, that hurt my arm, and it hurt my feelings *fake crying*”), and then you ask your 2 y/o what that stuffed animal could have done instead. You will be AMAZED how well kids respond when you use this method. You will likely need to give some ideas when you ask them for alternative ways to act instead of hit (stomp your foot, count to 10 for the 4 y/o, tell them with words what made you mad, maybe make a calm down jar (look it up on Pinterest)). But I’ve found that even if my 3 y/o son doesn’t respond to this question, or if he says “but I don’t WANT to do something nicer!” (a knee jerk reaction), he still thinks about it and will start to make better choices.

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10 J October 19, 2012

How would you tackle issues with an older child like stealing? Or doing something that they know they are not allowed to do?

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11 Suchada @ Mama Eve October 19, 2012

Part of why we don’t punish in our home is because we want to avoid situations like that. We believe that staying connected and having close relationships with our children will prevent them from doing something as extreme as stealing. I think the first thing I would do if my child stole something is find a way to connect with them. I’m confident my children will understand that stealing is wrong, so the next step would be to ask how they think the situation should be remedied. If they know something is wrong, then they will know how to make it right, and I would work with them to make sure they followed through on that. And then I would take a hard look at my family and see how/why we’re disconnected. I strongly believe that if one person in a family is hurting, then something in the dynamic for the entire family needs to change to fix it. We are relationships. It might be that a child has too much responsibility, or not enough responsibility, or that we just haven’t been taking the time for each other that we need to take.

But I don’t think a punishment is helpful if a child is doing something they know is wrong — if that’s the only way they feel they can communicate, then it signals a deeper problem. And if they don’t know that something is wrong, that calls for teaching, not punishment.

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12 Me lizard October 19, 2012

I am very neutral of not getting too rapped up in people’s different parenting style what works for u works but however time outs art punishment they are discipline a punishment would be if they didn’t follow the discipline here’s a glimps of what I mean my 2 yr old we will call her z is sitting on the couch reading a book and here comes my 9 month old ( we will call her R) scaling the couch learning to pull her self up and Z pushes her down ( typical toddler being threatened by her now mobile baby sister ) she she goes to time out for 2 mins ( if she gets out of Time out prior to the timer she gets a one seat spanking : however she doesn’t get a punishment cause she listened roughed out 2 mins in time out timer goes off she comes to me I asker why she went to time out she tells me cause she pushed sissy and I explain that it’s not nice to push and that sissy is learning and needs to scale the couch to learn to walk she then tells me ok mommy I’m sorry then she goes to R and says I’m sorry rhylee and gives her a kiss she’s only had punishment once or 2x but she doesn’t need it any more she just gets discipline now … Discipline is the parent responsibility and there is many different ways and children need it the way I do it is biblical but there are variations of it and I’m all for different styles that work as long as the parent is doing something to discipline so my point is punishment is different to discipline and anyone who punishes before discipline those r the ones who take it too far and deserve to go to prison

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13 Suchada @ Mama Eve October 19, 2012

I disagree that timeouts aren’t punishment and are discipline. Discipline means “to teach”. Isolating and shaming children for their behavior isn’t teaching — it’s punishment. I really like this article from Dr. Laura Markham from Aha Parenting that explains why timeouts are punishment and are distinct from teaching: http://www.ahaparenting.com/parenting-tools/positive-discipline/timeouts

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14 toddler teacher October 20, 2012

i was shocked and saddened by your post. i am also a fan of tolerance, however hitting your children is NEVER the answer. i hope you take some time to reflect on how that is affecting your children, your relationship with them, and your relationship with yourself. best of luck on your journey.

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15 Andrea October 19, 2012

It’s so nice to hear different types of parenting and seeing what works for other families!

I certainly follow that to an extent, however we do use time outs. My son is a very passionate little boy and spirited as well, but when he gets worked up there is nothing we can do to calm him down outside of putting him on his bed to calm down. Once he calms down we go and talk to him. I want him to learn that if he feels he is getting out of control that it’s ok to take a break. We’ve talked to him about it when he’s calm and he is catching on and sometimes lets us know he needs a break and will go take one. That’s about the extent to what we do along with giving a toy a time out for not listening if he doesn’t stop chasing the cats with a certain toy. It’s a last option for us though if nothing else is working. He’s doing great so far!

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16 Suchada @ Mama Eve October 19, 2012

Andrea, I don’t necessarily think giving a child some time and space to calm themselves is punitive — it depends on the intent and how it’s carried out. If you explain to a child that you’re concerned they will hurt themselves or you, and you’re putting him on the bed so he has space to calm down but you’re available as soon as he’s ready . . . to me, that’s teaching. If it’s done in a way where he’s being punished for crying, and isolated because he’s making noise or because it’s not ok to express his emotion . . . that’s punishment.

Both my boys are big enough now that when they’re upset about something, they can hurt me if they’re flailing around. I have to explain to them that I’m available to them, but that I need to move away until they’re not going to hurt me or themselves. It gives them a chance to compose themselves before we cuddle and reconnect. Sometimes everyone needs a little time and space on their own :)

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17 Ariadne - Positive Parenting Connection October 19, 2012

This is a really lovely post. I totally believe positive/non punitive parenting works! Our family is non-punitive and it’s truly amazing to watch such character and cooperation emerging every day in my three children. I love how you talked about love, respect, empathy and communication – it really is what we do as well. We talk a lot about respect, team work and finding solutions. The children are really involved in our daily tasks and it’s working. If it gives any hope now that the oldest is 6yrs the hitting and sharing issues between sibs are pretty minimal too ;)

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18 Suchada @ Mama Eve October 19, 2012

Ariadne, I love to hear that! It really does feel like every day they work together and cooperate more. It’s always nice to hear from parents of older children who are having success with a non-punitive household :)

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19 ali October 19, 2012

Thank you for this well-times tid-bit. Over the last year, our family has gone from generic authoritarian parenting to “whatever it is we’re doing now” which is inspired by attachment parenting, love and logic, positive parenting, and all the rest. We are in the middle of some HUGE transition, and the kids are re-exploring the boundaries, which has been really, really, really hard on me as a SAH Parent. I’m honestly feeling really lost, sad, frustrated, and tired. I’m guessing a lot of it is just the changes that we’re making and the fallout and re-learning how to deal with emotions and behaviors. I’m really glad to hear that even in a household that has been doing this for a long time, there are still children “swinging from the ceiling fan,” children who fight over toys and who occasionally use their bodies to show their emotions through hitting and whatnot. Maybe there is some hope for us yet. Keep on keepin’ on!

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20 Suchada @ Mama Eve October 19, 2012

Ali, one of the hardest things for me about parenting in a different way than I was raised is that I have so much to learn! I feel a lot of pressure from writing the blog sometimes too, because of course I tend to write about the times when it works for me, and kind of gloss over how much my husband and I struggle with being the parents we want to be, and how often we’re stumped. Going through a transition with parenting styles is so hard! I feel like people judge my kids and I if we’re out in public and I don’t handle a situation well and we end up with screaming or meltdowns (sometimes I’m the one melting down!). Good for you for making the changes you felt were right and I’m rooting for you. It definitely gets easier, and the rewards are so worth it.

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21 Jenna Boettger Boring October 22, 2012

Beautiful story! We’re another punishment free home and I understand why people are reluctant to do it because in the moment it is much much harder because you can’t rely on a preset formula (5 minutes in the time out chair, etc) but when I look at the big picture I see the beauty in the path we’ve chosen and am so glad we found it. :)

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22 Amy October 22, 2012

This is a simple and genuine article written about a complicated and controversial topic. Thank you for your honesty.
I have lost a few friends due to the idea that I don’t care if my children misbehave, that I don’t react, in my opinion, what I do is very effective and replacing the hitting or yelling is an extremely thoughtful reaction, proaction. It is difficult to remain calm and loving. I am proud of this and I am willing to lose a friend, if it means that I have my children’s trust.
I like how you hug and talk to your children and they learn! Thank you for your insight and story.

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23 Suchada @ Mama Eve October 23, 2012

Amy, I’m so sorry you’ve lost friends over it. I think navigating relationships while being a parent is so tricky because the way we raise our children is so near and dear to our hearts.

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24 Amy October 23, 2012

Thank you Suchada.
You said it! It IS tricky.
It is unbelievable to some people that teaching love and respect nurtures love and respect :)
Thank you for your kind response!

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25 Megan October 22, 2012

I think it all depends on how you define “punishment.” When you say to your child “I will not let you hit your brother again,” whatever you are doing that prevents them from hitting IS a punishment (at least according to the dictionary – which defines it as a penalty for wrongdoing). So, if you put the two of them in separate rooms so they can’t play together (or hit each other), they are being punished. If you take away the toy they weren’t sharing or object they hit each other with, they have been punished by not having their toy.

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26 Suchada @ Mama Eve October 23, 2012

According to Dictionary.com, this is the definition of punish:

1.to subject to pain, loss, confinement, death, etc., as a penalty for some offense, transgression, or fault: to punish a criminal.
2.to inflict a penalty for (an offense, fault, etc.): to punish theft.
3.to handle severely or roughly, as in a fight.
4.to put to painful exertion, as a horse in racing.

Creating boundaries or enacting consequences is very different than “punishment”, and it has to do with intention. I set boundaries for my children, but it’s not with the intention of hurting them, or shaming them, or giving them a penalty — it’s with the purpose to keep them safe and to guide them. These lines can be blurred quite a bit, and it often takes a lot of thought and discussion for them to be clear, but there is a clear difference. Separating my children and giving myself a time-out to calm down before we come together to talk about something isn’t punishment, but the exact same act with a different intention behind it certainly could be. It’s one of the toughest things about explaining “punishment-free” to some people, and also why it’s often a struggle to do in general.

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27 Molly Overton November 1, 2012

Well technically “giving your children space” would fall under your definition since it lists confinement. If they aren’t free to go in whatever room they want to, they are cofined to a certain area.

I don’t say this to be argumentative, but as a single parent of 11,13 and 15 year olds, there are things on your horizon that you can’t even imagine yet. It was lovely when our home was the basis of all of their interactions and influences. I have very loving and open relationships with all of my children. I am curious what all you consider punishments. I don’t hit my children and set very very clear guidelines ahead of time so that they are responsible for their choices. For instance grades at school….I can check online as can they and I do several times a week. They know that if there are any missed assignments or averages below a B regardless of the reason that whatever social plans they had for the weekend are cancelled and they lose any video game time they have. This in their eyes is cruel and unusual punishment……they would much rather me offer them a swat on their behinds!! My children have certainly been punished by your standards, but I suppose when they were 2 to 4 years old I couldn’t have imagined it either. I wish you much luck.

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28 Emily October 22, 2012

I loved reading this – it strikes a chord with me. In our house we use no rewards and no sanctions. They do not work. Empathy is definitely the way forward. My son who was attacking and lashing out 6-7 x a day at Schl a year ago has gone to 1 meltdown in the last three months. I removed him from school, took the pressure from him and worked on problem solving. I also have a business advocating the same approach in healthcare and education settings. We have a long way to go but I know this way is always the best way. X

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29 Suchada @ Mama Eve October 23, 2012

Good for you and your son for making progress! It’s so exciting to me when I see positive changes in my children that stem from positive changes we’ve made at home.

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30 Rachael October 22, 2012

When my 2 yr old gets frustrated and hits me or scratches us – I ask her if she needs a moment. As we’ve gone along, we’ve always tried to make her room her safe place so if she needs a moment, we’ve given her ideas that she can go in and draw on her easel, jump on the bed, lie down and take deep breathes or just play away from whatever is upsetting her. Generally this works – she goes in and comes out 10 minutes later, on her own, and explains that she is feeling better. We ask if there is anything we can do, or if she wants to talk about why she hit or scratched and sometimes she knows and sometimes she’s just done with it. I don’t know if offering this “moment” to her (we never “send her to her room”, but give her the chance to go and take that moment for herself) is punishment but I know that when it works, it works well. Other times, it is hard for me to reign in my own frustrations – do I take away toys that she uses to hit with? Sometimes and with warning. Do I yell? Yes, I try to take a deep breath myself but I sometimes get in my own way. Can I do better? Always – the biggest thing is that this is a learning experience for us all. Thank you for the ideas and the support.

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31 Suchada @ Mama Eve October 23, 2012

Rachael, I love hearing from other moms who are working like me to be better. I often think my blog posts give the impression that I always get it right as a parent, but I definitely don’t. Just because I believe in a certain philosophy and work to practice it doesn’t mean I don’t throw a tantrum or two myself occasionally. It sounds like you’re cultivating a beautiful relationship with your daughter.

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32 Diana October 22, 2012

Thanks for this! My first baby is only 7 months old, so of course I haven’t had reason to punish. I’m happy to have read this and have something to consider before he gets to that age. My brothers and I seemed to be endlessly punished when we were kids and I’m not sure it helped at all…

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33 staci c October 22, 2012

Hi. I like what you are doing! I have a question. What about consequences. Do you ever use that term in your house? Consequences are logical occurrences to an action or behavior. There are good and bad consequences. When your children are grown, and driving for example, and they are speeding. They get a ticket for not following the rules – not driving within the speed limit. The ticket is the “punishment” or consequence of the action of disobeying a law, correct? I try not to “punish” (although I do) but rather show that there is a consequence for an action. That works very well. I do not like punishing my kids. However, they must learn that every action has a reaction…..good or bad.

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34 Suchada @ Mama Eve October 23, 2012

Hi Staci,

I actually don’t really ever use particular terms about anything in the house (with my kids, anyway — I would never say to them, “This is your punishment” or “This is your consequence”), but yes I consider what we do instead of punishments consequences or boundary-setting. As I replied to another comment, the difference between most consequences/boundaries/punishments is the intention behind it. As for the speeding ticket example, I would say getting pulled over and taking longer to get to your destination is a “consequence” of speeding, but the actual ticket and fine that go with it are a “punishment”. I also get uncomfortable with the idea that my children “need to learn a lesson”, because I think that sentiment encourages punishment. Children learn all the time from every interaction with their parents. Boundaries and consequences should be about safety and consideration of others — not about making sure children know their place.

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35 melton November 2, 2012

some body is definitely smoking some good stuff here. First off the Bible says it all; “Spare the rod and spoil the child”.. In other words, if that kid gets out of line, bust that rear end. It was done to me, i came out great and with no trouble with the law, ive done it with my niece, and she had no trouble with the law. I have seen so many of the whiners that say, “i was whipped but i dont want to whip or punish my kids”.. First off most of the ones that were whipped growing up didnt have problems with a smart mouth or have run ins with the law. Yet their kids may be some of the ones that show no respect to other adults or are the ones online that are bullies to others. Remember folks, if you put your kids in front of a computer, you dont know what they are doing most of the time unless you are watching them like a hawk.

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36 Louisa November 8, 2012

It brought tears to my eyes when a friend told me this story: Your middle son came into the kitchen and I gave him a brownie, I immediately saw him run outside to share it with his brothers waiting in the car. When I was a kid (he also had two brothers) it was each for himself, there is NO WAY we would have shared…..
Having said that, at 11, 9 and 7 they still hurt each other….testosterone…..it drives me CRAZY……I still deal with it the best I can, and hopefully one day the message will sink in……just saying – as it might be awhile for you……

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37 melissa January 28, 2013

Time-out doesn’t have to mean holding a child’s head in the corner until they acquiesce! We do the same thing you do- separate our boys and send them to their rooms to calm down- but we call it time out. :-)

My boys are 6 1/2 and just turned 4. They seem to be getting more and more physical with each other, which is not behavior they see modeled in any shape form or fashion. We don’t even let them watch shows that have fighting (power rangers etc.). I think it is just part of being boys. The problem with how to handle it, though, is complicated. If my son punched a kid in the face at school he would be sent home. There are consequences for those types of actions in the real world. I think it’s important to teach them there are consequences. The school principal isn’t going to snuggle my son and say, “Now, I know you wanted a turn on the swing, but punching isn’t the right thing to do. What could you have done instead?” It IS our job to have those conversations with our kids. To teach them, as you already said. But consequences exist and kids need to know that.

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38 Madeleine Cook February 12, 2014

I think I’m in love you, mamaeve! Again, my husband and I don’t punish either. We also tried a time-out chair (but we HATED that word, so we called it the simmer down stool) and the few times we attempted to place our kids there, it felt like we were doing obedience training. The worst feeling ever! Of course every family does what works for that particular unit, but we also never used the word “no”. Utilizing no punishment strategies took a lot of time, a lot of patience and a great deal of love. Of course it wasn’t easy, but that’s what I expected when I decided to bring humans to this planet. No quick fixes, so I could get back to what I wanted to do. My first job is being a mom. And here we are, at 11 and 7 with the most respectful kids ever. Adults enjoy them, strangers enjoy them and most of all my husband and I enjoy them. Our daughter and son are the best company we can think of =)

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39 Suchada @ Mama Eve February 12, 2014

Sounds like a lovely family to be a part of! Thank you for the kind words :)

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