I am going to say something incredibly controversial and entirely counter-culture to what centuries of parenting pop culture considers to be the mark of a “good” parent.
I am no longer interested in disciplining my children.
I will not do time outs, rewards charts, take away privileges, send them to their rooms, take away their toys, ground them, or do anything else to punish them for their “bad” behavior.
I know what you’re all going to say. I am (not) sorry to say that I no longer care what you say about it.
My Kids, MY Choice!
Much as I chose to breastfeed my children on demand and not force them to wean, or as I chose to bed-share rather than “train” them to sleep through the night, and much as I didn’t push the potty training issue with my son and let him set the pace, I am going to do what FEELS right instead of going by the “status quo”.
I am going back to how I parented when they were babies. Remember: babies cry because of unmet needs.
My babies rarely cried except when I was trying to placate the other adults in my life who seemed to think they knew better than I did about what my child needed.
When I tried to force my son to sleep in a crib instead of my arms, because of the external pressure from other parents who looked at my son’s need for my arms as a “problem”, I suffered the pain of hearing him cry. My heart hurt as I forced the disconnection against every instinct I had and against everything I knew about attachment theory.
I eventually decided after three days that I wasn’t willing to put in the work to sleep “train” my child. I wasn’t willing to do it because I didn’t believe in it. I was only doing it because people told me that I was “supposed to do it” and thankfully my stubborn and intuitive nature and temperament served me and my children well. I was able to say “fuck that shit” and go back to what worked.
My children thrived, eventually slept through the night while in my arms, and at four years old my son was willingly sleeping in his own bed in his room with fewer and fewer nights of climbing into bed with me.
Potty training was much the same. The more I pushed the issue in deference to the other adults who told me that my two year old “should” be pushed into it, the more he resisted. It was a battle with this little guy who would show such emotional distress every time I tried to get him to sit. I didn’t agree with the methods, knew they weren’t working, but I kept at it because that was what other people told me I “needed” to do.
When I backed off and focused on HIS feelings, he came to the decision almost overnight at three years old that he was ready. And I didn’t have any of those “regression” moments that were considered to be commonplace for children. He just decided “I’m ready to face this and Mom says it’s okay to wait if I need to” and that was it.
Because “Discipline” Doesn’t Work and Never Has
The one holdout though was discipline. I KNEW that no matter what I did, it wasn’t working. I have been blessed (NOT cursed) with a child who is smart enough to know his own mind. He KNOWS just as I do that all those discipline strategies are quick fixes. They are slapping Band-aids on the actual problem while not addressing the root cause. You can’t slap a Band-aid on a cut finger and expect it to heal if there’s still a splinter embedded in the skin, and you can’t expect a time-out to “work” when the child still feels like they haven’t had their true need addressed.
It took me going to see a child development specialist about my son’s behavior to figure out that my problem isn’t me OR my son. Not really, anyway. My problem is that my attachment parenting strategy was working as it was supposed to, but then when he began to “act up” as was appropriate for his age, I fell back into a terrible pattern of behavior: I started subconsciously trying to appear “good enough” for OTHER people and stopped being “good enough” for the only one that mattered: my son.
I stopped listening to what he was telling me with his behavior: “I’m sad/hurt/frustrated/overwhelmed” and instead focused on extinguishing the behavior itself. I didn’t address his feelings, I told him “no, that’s bad. Stop.”
No, REALLY! It Didn’t Work The Way You Think It Did!
And then I put him in a time out. Or I took away his toys. Or I yelled at him to stop crying and carrying on. Or in my worst moments, I would spank him. I HATED when I would get to that point because I don’t believe in spanking. I don’t care what any of my relatives say, SPANKING DID NOT WORK!!!!
They’re about to say “well you stopped the behavior! We only had to warn you…”
Yes. I stopped the behavior. I disconnected from you, stopped caring what you thought, decided you were “mean” and didn’t want to behave for you. My name calling and sass-back was my way of showing you just how much I didn’t give a damn what you thought. I openly rebelled against YOU because I wasn’t interested in “earning” your praise. I didn’t see your love as unconditional. And if I “stopped” misbehaving, it was only on the outside. On the inside I was thinking ugly things about you. I HATED you. I might still harbor some resentment toward you, which is why I don’t tell you things and why we aren’t as close as we could have been.
I learned to behave in your presence to avoid punishment. I didn’t have any desire to behave for you if I didn’t perceive your authority and I didn’t have any desire to behave for you without that “fear”.
I don’t want my children to behave out of fear.
Contrary to Popular Opinion, I Am NOT “Fine”!
Do you know what “fear” gets you as an adult?
It manifests as a desire to sacrifice your own needs and happiness in order to keep people around.
It means not telling your boyfriend that you are struggling to pay half the bills every month because you don’t make as much money as he does. So instead you silently suffer and go into debt until finally you’re in way over your head and he says “why didn’t you just come to me sooner? I would have helped you.”
It means not telling your parents when they’ve stepped over the line and made you feel less than capable as an adult, and instead you bottle up all that resentment and hurt and feelings of not ever being “good enough”, and then you overcompensate for that by trying to do MORE than you’re actually able to do. And then you fall short in some way and they say “well clearly you can’t handle that much stress” and you take it as an attack and get immediately defensive. Or you don’t unleash it on THEM, but instead your spouse says something that triggers what THEY would say, and you attack out of fear that your spouse is also criticizing your ability to handle things.
It means deferring to the “expert” midwife who tells you that you “have to” have a hospital birth, so you don’t question it even though your gut instincts are telling you that something isn’t right about what they’re telling you. And then you give up your power and regret that choice for the rest of your life.
It means that when you finally start to find your voice at nearly thirty years old you have this overwhelming need to “prove yourself” and tell off everyone who questions you because damn it, they never listened to you as a child but they are sure as fuck going to listen to you NOW! You WILL NOT be ignored!!!!
I Just Needed to Be Heard
When I was a child growing up in my dad’s home a constant phrase I would say in the face of an unfair punishment was “I just want to be heard.” I would say it and scream it and write it. I would feel this sense of betrayal whenever I wasn’t “heard”. My dad didn’t have the benefit of the knowledge I have available to me now. When he was going to university and studying attachment theory it was still in the early stages of discovery. He was able to do better for me and my brother. I benefited from his learning from the age of eleven to adulthood and my brother benefited from the age of seven to adulthood. The difference between him and I is so profound. He was this explosive, volatile little boy when he was younger. He would tear apart his bedroom, scream, throw things, threaten me with actual weapons, and was just incredibly frustrated and temperamental. We were all worried he would end up in prison if he continued like this.
My dad worked with him. He used the new-found knowledge of child development to emotionally regulate my brother. By the end of his teen years he was transformed! Today you wouldn’t guess that my brother was ever like that as a child; he is a completely different person. He is calm and able to handle any conflict without violence.
I was late to benefit from these lessons. I spent the first eleven years of my life not being able to trust in my attachments. My dad gave me the psychology textbooks and I was able to understand the WHY of my fears of abandonment and my need for approval even as it warred with my need to be my own person apart from what everyone “expected” of me. It would often result in me doing the bare minimum of what was expected with no real desire to do any more, and then I would explode “it’s NEVER enough for you!”
It took becoming a mother for me to address this, and even today I am still trying to work on these issues of being “good enough”.
When You Know Better You Do Better
And so it came to my seeking help outside of the family that believed in discipline/extinction of behavior and turned to the child development specialist. She gave me three books to read: “Rest, Play, Grow”, “The Whole Brain Child” and “Discipline Without Damage”. Each one of them came out long after I left college and I have discovered that my learning of attachment theory was on the right track, but there’s so much more that has been discovered since I last cracked open the textbooks.
There’s been plenty of studies brought to light that spanking doesn’t work and is actually damaging. I know very well what a lot of my relatives have to say about that because they love to share those memes about how kids don’t “respect their elders” anymore because of all these parents “refusing to spank”. Well, I have news for them: it DOESN’T work! And spanking ME did NOT earn you my respect. In fact, if you spanked me often for any misbehavior and you’re wondering why I don’t have a strong relationship with you, that’s why. Nobody RESPECTS a bully; they FEAR the bully. Big difference.
Here’s WHY kids aren’t showing “respect” anymore: they aren’t connected to their adults. They also lost their fear because that big invisible man in the sky that some people believe in no longer holds any fear for them either. Yes, I went THERE. What is the concept of God if not a bigger “parent” for the adults who grew up only knowing how to “fear and obey”? That’s not true morality; that’s being good out of fear of punishment. And people then justify their asshole tendencies as being from a “moral” standing.
We Can No Longer Deny That There IS a Better Way
Well I don’t want to parent my kids to fear and obey. I don’t want my kids to behave just to please others. I want them to develop moral character out of an innate desire to be kind and loving and to do that I have to address their feelings. I can’t stifle them or stomp them down or ignore their needs to “be heard”. I can’t “make them” behave. I will NOT force my kids to comply and I will not impose my will on them. I will treat them like people. They are little people with big feelings who need to be heard so that they can cry and then move on to the learning part of the experience that caused them distress.
Mental illness is so prevalent in our society and is blamed on everything from technology to toxins to GMOs, but then a book comes out that states that MAYBE the way we were taught to parent our children might be causing these issues, and it’s backed up by studies and brain scans that were not available to us twenty years ago, and yet people dig in their heels and say “but I’m FINE!”
No, you’re not. If you think about your feelings when you were a child, and I mean REALLY think about them, you will realize that you didn’t learn how to handle your emotions; you learned how to “suck it up” and bury them. You learned to just follow orders. And then you grew up and either blindly followed the status quo or you “un-learned” that obedience but might struggle with your emotional regulation when faced with stress.
I’m Going Back to My Instincts
I have always been introspective. I know instinctively when something isn’t working. I knew even as a child that any punishments weren’t “teaching anything” and that I would just do what I was going to do the second I could get away with it, or else I’d think “they just don’t get it” and close myself off emotionally. I put up walls of ice and it has taken a husband and two children for me to bring those walls down and start to identify my triggers and where they’re coming from. I can stop and think about the WHY of my feelings and address that need so I can come back to myself. My children are still too young to do that work themselves. Their brains are not developed enough to stop and think before they do something and considering how even adults can fly off the handle when they’re overwhelmed it is RIDICULOUS to think that children were EVER actually capable of controlling themselves. They can’t. They need our help to do that.
When I address my child’s need for me to “hear” them and validate their feelings, I get a better response. My kids calm down faster, they hear me, and I can redirect them to doing what I need them to do.
When I yell and threaten and punish, my kids yell and scream and act out. Hitting them teaches them to hit me back when they’re angry. Yelling at them causes them to scream at me. Taking their toys causes them to no longer care if they have any toys to play with. They disconnect from me, harden their hearts and put up the same walls that I did decades ago.
I don’t want that for them. I have the knowledge that discipline in that way doesn’t work. I don’t want to bully or bribe my kids into behaving for me; I want to address their emotional upsets so that they can stay connected to me and feel safe to come to me. I want them to want to be good for me because they can safely express their emotions as is developmentally appropriate.
So thank you, but I won’t be disciplining them anymore and I no longer care what you think about that.
My children don’t “need” a spanking; they need to be heard and loved.