A parenting expert shares the common mistake that psychologically damages kids—and what to do instead

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When parents want their kids to follow an order, and their efforts at skillful communication aren't working, they often "put their foot down" to enforce a solution. The immediate result? One person "wins," getting his or her needs met, while the other "loses."

This outcome might work for you if you subscribe to an authoritarian parenting style, which stems from the belief that in order to develop properly, children need to be punished for bad behavior and be rewarded for good behavior.

It's a familiar and sensible concept to most parents, but those who follow it pay a high price for obedience.

Why punishment does more harm to your kids

After years of studying the psychology of parenting — and through my own experience of being a mother — I've learned that punishment doesn't work.

According to Alan Kazdin, director of the Yale Parenting Center, while punishment might make a parent feel better, it won't change a child's behavior.

"Parents might start out reasoning, but they're likely to escalate to something a little bit more, like shouting, touching, firmly dragging their child — even if they're well-intentioned," he said in an interview with The Atlantic. "Even wonderful, gentle punishments like a time-out or reasoning — those don't work."

Kazdin isn't alone in this theory. Many researchers agree that, instead of teaching anything helpful, this is what punishment can do to kids:

How to raise good humans—without punishing them

So how do we hold boundaries without punishing? The key is to communicate with your children and help them understand why their behavior is unacceptable. But you must put careful consideration into the words you use, and how you use them.

Let's say your kid just left a messy pile of toys all over the living room floor, after you both agreed that he or she could play with them — only if they clean everything up after they're done.

Here's what not to say:

  • "Pick these up right now. I don't want you leaving a mess like that again." When children are given an order, they're more likely to resist being told what to do. (Imagine how you'd feel if you were given an avalanche of orders every day. It can get pretty overwhelming.)
  • "If you don't pick these up immediately, I'm going to take away your screen time." Threats cause a similar resistance. They can make a child feel coerced and manipulated. While it may work in the moment, it's still likely to cause resentment and make them less likely to cooperate in the future.
  • "You should know better." Blaming is a put-down, and it can easily cause children to feel guilty, unloved and rejected. Even worse, it prevents you from developing a positive relationship with them.

Instead, invite your kid to make changes from the inside out. Gently, without exhibiting any signs of anger, explain how their unacceptable behavior makes you feel. Always start with the word "I" (e.g., "I feel disappointed when I see this big mess.").

Even wonderful, gentle punishments like a time-out or reasoning — those don't work
Alan Kazdin
director, Yale Parenting Center

Next, help them understand how their behavior affects you both: "With all these toys on the ground, we can't stretch out our legs like this" — and then lay down on the floor with your arms and legs expanded. When you lighten the mood and inject some humor, feelings of resentment, anger and guilt are less likely to take place.

Model the language you want your kids to use

A conflict can be resolved peacefully when you speak with kindness and show that your true intention is to get everyone's underlying needs met.

Before responding to your child's bad behavior, it may help to ask yourself: How can I demonstrate that, with a little more effort and understanding, there are ways for us all to win?

Remember, this is a more mindful alternative to punishment — and the goal is to coach, not control.

Hunter Clarke-Fields is a parenting coach, mindfulness coach, host of the Mindful Mama podcast and creator of the Mindful Parenting online course. She mentors mothers on how to cultivate mindfulness in their daily lives. Hunter is also the author of "Raising Good Humans: A Mindful Guide to Breaking the Cycle of Reactive Parenting and Raising Kind, Confident Kids."

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*This is an adapted excerpt from "Raising Good Humans: A Mindful Guide to Breaking the Cycle of Reactive Parenting and Raising Kind, Confident Kids." Reprinted with permission by New Harbinger Publications, Inc. Copyright © 2019 Hunter Clarke-Fields. Used by permission.