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Less Punishment, More Positivity - The Ultimate Parenting Hack?

by Sarah Hughes

I’ve been parenting for over a decade now. 11 years of blood, sweat, tears… and love.

My friends who had children later than me often call me for advice when they have problems with their kids. It’s clear they see me as some kind of expert, or at least a time-served veteran of the Great Parenting War.

“How can I get her to listen to me?” they ask.

“How can I get him to be kinder to his sister?”

These questions always catch me off guard. In fact, they flabbergast me.

Why the hell would I know the answers to any of these questions!?

I’ve been doing this for flipping ages and I still just cannot make them do stuff, you know? Because I’m going to be referencing many times in this article my eternal quest to make them do stuff, please allow me to shorten it to TTGTTDS: Trying To Get Them To Do Stuff.

Take this morning (but of course it could be any morning over the past few years, since the school run hours are a groundhog day like no other).

My eldest child was indulging in my pet hate; playing obnoxiously loud YouTube videos on his phone at the breakfast table.

My middle child, who is the closest thing to a human sloth as you’ll ever see, was doing his usual routine of blocking out my increasingly frantic requests to get dressed, remaining resolutely in his pyjamas.

My youngest, who had been blessedly quiet for the best part of the morning pulled out surely the most annoying of all four year old tricks when it came to getting dressed:

The ‘My limbs no longer function’ act.

You’re familiar with that one right? You know, where they choose to become a dead weight. They could not possibly be persuaded to lift their arm to pop it through the sleeve of their school jumper. And no there’s absolutely no chance they can hold a toothbrush or manipulate their foot into a shoe. That would be ridiculous!

My favourite part of the ‘My limbs no longer function’ routine is always the part where you have to lift your board-stiff child into the car seat and then forcibly fold them in half to allow those straps to be dragged aggressively over their arms. Then there’s the buckle. Ohhhh why oh why will the buckle never fasten on mornings like this?

Anyway, before 8am I had made more threats than your average despotic dictator, heartburn was flaring in my chest and I felt like I’d aged ten years. It’s just a really awful way to start the day.

This mornings response to me TTGTTDS was your basic, route one, screamy, stressed Mother. But these are not the only responses I have. Oh no. Over the years I’ve been known to employ various strategies, with varying degrees of success.

In fact you know what; I’ll list them in order and rate them for you:

● Crying.

Yep that’s right. As the actual adult who is supposed to be holding the whole show together, I’ve been known to just burst into tears on their particularly badly-behaved days. Because it happens so infrequently it seems to shock them (or at least the eldest and the youngest) into seeing how stressful this is for me. It usually results in a pretty quick turnaround in attitudes.


● Disengagement. You know this one:

“Right well if you’re going to treat me this way I don’t mind if you don’t make it into school/dance class/football training today I’m not going to help you when you won’t help yourself.”

Of course, it nearly kills us as the adult having to sit there sipping our coffee seething knowing we’ve paid for said activity and they’re now going to miss it. And I do find that this one becomes a bit like playing chicken… who’s going to crack first? But 50% of the time I’d say they (well, again, my eldest and my youngest) will give their head a wobble and get their behavioural act together.


● Get to your rooooom!

This is possibly my favourite… even though it doesn’t elicit any long-term behavioural change in my kids and is therefore on paper; pointless. It does however give me an immediate hit of peace and quiet while they’re ‘serving their sentence’. The sentence is usually only around ten minutes but it feels like an all-inclusive break in the Bahamas for me. Of course the transcendent bliss is shattered when they’re allowed to leave their rooms and I see that they have spent the time in there pulling out every toy, book, item of clothing that they have ever owned.


● Removal of privileges.

This is my go-to response when I have run out of polite requests in my endeavour of TTGTTDS. It usually involves no sweeties being allowed that day, no X-Box time, no TV time… whatever comes to mind first really. And whatever I think might bother them the most. This tactic usually runs like water off a ducks back for my eldest and youngest, who roll their eyes and accept their fate. However it’s the tactic that can send my middle child (are you sensing a theme here?) over the edge. It often results in him rolling around the floor, screaming, sobbing, frothing at the mouth at the sheer injustice of his life.


● The “Wait until your Dad hears about this.”

Possibly an effective strategy for those of us who have partners who are old-school authoritarians… but lets be honest who wants to be with one of them? And what are we actually saying to our kids here? That they should be frightened of their Father?

See… I know this is an awful tactic to use, and one which means I immediately lose the moral high ground. But I’m nothing if not honest with our readers. So yes, I have been known to use this one as a last resort. And also yes; you’ve guessed it… this one doesn’t work on my middle child either.


Is there a better way?

I realise that 11 years in, I’m late to the party. But I’ve got to find some other ways TTGTTDS that don’t make me feel like a bad parent, and don’t make my kids feel that they’re completely without autonomy.

Well, as is always the case, after discussing with my Mum my complete inability TTGTTDS, my clever/spooky phone that can read my mind, yesterday sent me an article at the top of my google search on ‘the shift between punitive to positive parenting’.

Now you might be able to tell that I’m really not a fan of airy fairy, new age clap-trap. Over the years I’ve rolled my eyes at many a parenting expert on TV or in magazines, suggesting things which are completely unfeasible in real life. But something about this ‘positive parenting’ is really appealing to me. Possibly just because I’m desperate…( and desperate people will seek out hope even if it sounds like airy fairy, new age clap-trap.)

So what exactly is positive parenting and could it work for me? After all these years of rehashing those same 5 responses I’ve listed above, I’m keen to give it a whirl.

Dr Jane Nelson, a child behavioural professor, explains that when children are punished they do not learn self-discipline. “Punishment provides ‘external’ motivation. Self-discipline requires ‘inner’ motivation.”

This statement really spoke to me because as well as TTGTTDS, I obviously want to raise nice human beings who are motivated to do good for the right reasons, rather than just avoiding punishments.

Dr Nelson says that positive parenting should follow two basic guidelines:

1) Connecting with your child before correcting them

2) Correction should involve the child coming up with a solution to the problem

Now I’m not a total convert yet, I need to do lots more reading and learning on the subject. But at least I’ve come to the realisation that my off the cuff, haphazard approach to discipline isn’t working, for any of us.

We’re off on holiday next week so I intend to put some of the principles of positive parenting into action. Maybe out of our usual surroundings and routine we’ll be able to implement some great changes.

Or maybe I’m just an ever-hopeful fool who needs to realise that TTGTTDS is a thankless and futile task.

I’ll update you in part two!

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