Parenting Without Punishments…What?!

February 24, 2011 at 7:18 am (Attachment Parenting, Positive Discipline)

“Are you crazy?”  That’s what most people think when they hear that we don’t punish our kids.   Using punitive consequences are not in our parenting repertoire, and we are not alone in this approach to discipline.  We’re also not in the majority, either.  Due to a recent Facebook post, I’ve had to endure many surprised and less-than-tactful comments about positive discipline and its approach of not using punishments.  Here is a sampling of the comments I hear about the idea of non-punitive parenting:

  • So you let kids hurt others with no consequence. Are they supposed to magically learn how to behave when they grow up?
  • What?! I do not agree with that!
  • I need a great big “dislike” button for this.
  • No punishments? Well that would certainly give me a break, huh?
  • Sorry, when I became a parent I knew that I was in for the long haul which includes teaching them that actions have consequences that mom isn’t afraid of doling out.
  • Good luck on that one; positive discipline doesn’t really work with strong-willed children.
  • I’m not taking the easy way out of parenting by giving in to discipline.
  • And so many people wonder why America’s youth is so depraved.
  • Parents who think like this are why we have teenage pregnancies, school shootings, dropouts, teen alcoholism and drug abuse.  They are teaching their children that there are no repercussions for their actions.

That last one is especially nice, isn’t it?  Oh, the joys of the internet where people take the liberty to say things they would never say to someone in person.

How to respond to all of those comments?  And where to even begin?  Facebook is hard for things like this because it’s not conducive to lengthy thoughtful remarks.  It’s impossible to explain in a Facebook comment bar the psychology behind positive discipline, what the methods are, and why they do work.  Which is unfortunate since it’s so easy to make short, judgmental quips there.

Not using punishments giving you a break?  Taking the easy way out of parenting?  Um, no.  It kind of gives you the opposite of a break.  In fact, it is quite difficult and time-consuming.  Teaching kids without the use of punishments requires more time, patience, and effort than simply doling out a rote consequence.  It requires respectful communication and emotional connection and a deeper way of thinking about behavior.  Punitive parenting requires none of that.

And who said anything about “giving in” to discipline?  People seem to think that parenting without punishments means parenting without boundaries, expectations, or accountability for actions.  Not so.  Positive discipline parents have all of the same behavioral expectations as punitive ones; we just have a different approach to helping kids get there.

Parenting without punishments absolutely works.  It’s not that punishments don’t work to teach kids behavior, they do; it’s that they work for different reasons.  A punishment teaches a child to behave in a way to avoid the punishment.  I would rather teach my children to do what’s right because it’s right, not because of a fear of being punished (or, on the other side of the spectrum, a hope of being rewarded).  Someone once defined integrity as “the ability to do the right thing even when no one is looking.”  That is what I want for our kids; to be able to think for themselves and act appropriatly based on their own judgment and their own sense of morality.  And to not expect or need to be praised for it.

It surprises me that so many parents assume that no punishments means no discipline; no boudaries, no expectations, and no responsibilities for kids.  Now that’s crazy!  Also considering the fact that the above comments came from people who are fans and members of API, an organization that includes “Practice Positive Discipline” as a core principle for its approach to parenting, I am further surprised that non-punitive parenting is still so widely misunderstood.  If only all families could realize the benefits of positive discipline and know that it is so much more effective at reaching long-term parenting goals than simply dealing with surface behaviors moment-to-moment.

It just reminds me why I’m doing what I’m doing; why I work for API, lead parent ed groups, and why I publish articles on positive discipline. It also lets met know I have a lot more work ahead of me.


  1. Take Time For Training said,

    Thank you so much for this very eloquent post on Positive Discipline. I plan to share it widely!
    CPDT, San Jose CA

    • Kelly said,

      Thank you, Linda! 🙂

  2. Jan Morris said,

    This was a very heartfelt response to those who, I’m guessing, really want to raise children who are successful in life, have healthy relationships with their family and peers, and who do seem to understand that everyone learns SOMETHING from the consequences of their behavior. What I really like about this response is that parents who let their children learn from their mistakes without punishment have increased the opportunity that their children will most likely NOT be revengeful, resentful or retreat from fear or getting caught. They WILL be focusing on the result of their actions and not the person who punished them. After raising four children using punishment and seeing the results of those revengeful, resentful, retreating responses, I wholeheartedly give a cheer for teaching discipline over punishment.

  3. Jane Nelsen said,

    Kelly, you are doing such a great job–and such a needed one. It is amazing to me that people still think there are only two options: punishment or permissiveness. We know that neither of those options are healthy long term for kids. It is also amazing to me that parents teach their kids in ways that wouldn’t work if someone did those things to them. We need your voice added to several who are learning for themselves (and then teaching) that kind and firm discipline is much more effective to teach children valuable social and life skills with their sense of self-worth still in tact.

  4. Meg said,

    I really like the concept and understand the rationale of no punishments. To be completely honest, in reality I really struggle to achieve this. I have a very spirited and strong willed six year old who constantly pushes the limits which is incredibly exhausting. Any advice on exactly how to move to a more ‘non punishment’ way of dealing with things would be greatly welcomed.

  5. Mary Ives said,

    Thank you for your post. The effect of punishment is so widely misunderstood that we really need to take advantage of opportunities to clarify this issue. People use punishment because it often “works” to influence behaviour. We need to be aware of the associated costs.

    There are two persistent MYTHS about punishment:

    1. Punishment is a necessary and effective method of socialization.

    2. Punishment (even physical punishment) is not child abuse. The two can be easily distinguished because the intent of abuse is to hurt while punishment is to teach.

    In fact, punishment is a blunt, disprespectful strategy with very high relationship costs. Punishment is not respectful and can very easily become an act of revenge. Our children are constantly learning and are deserving of guidance that is firm and respectful. For those who refer to “Spare the rod, spoil the child”, keep in mind that shepherds lightly tap the shoulder to provide direction, not beat across the back in punishment.

    One Jane Nelsen mantra I like to repeat is that “People do better when they feel better, not when they feel worse.” Actually Jane’s statement is that “Children do better when they feel better…” but I think it can be extrapolated to “People”. Punishment makes people feel worse and fear is a poor motivator. Research tells us that physical punishment results in powerfully negative outcomes.

    One of the most important things a parent can do when guiding children is to handle their own strong emotions. It’s okay to tell your child you need to think about how to respond to a behaviour.

    Calm yourself and apply the problem solving process. Your child will be learning from whatever you do.

    Involve your child in the problem solving so they can develop skill:

    1. Understand the problem.
    2. Generate some possible solutions.
    3. Apply a solution.
    4. Evaluate and try again if necessary.
    5. Understand the problem may not be solvable at this time.

    We need advanced relationship skills in this world because relationships and connection are what it’s all about.

    Our children deserve to grow up with their self-worth intact.

    Jane Nelsen’s Positive Discipline website has wonderful resources describing effective responses to children’s misbehaviours.

    • liz said,

      Hi I totally agree and am really trying not to punish my kids and my husband is not he thinks that yelling spanking and taking things away are an appropriate ways to deal with undesired behaviors and won’t listen to anything I have to say about it. He even went so far as to say that I’m a pushover and that the girls are going to hate him because he’s the only one who punnishes them. And I feel like everything I do durring the day to work with the kids is undone at night while I’m at work like if my 3yr old isn’t hungry at 5pm when they eat supper then she must then go to bed without anything at all to eat or drink and no story befor bed this just doesn’t seem like thi right way to parent to me. Do you have any advice about how to talk to him about it or maybe get him on board??????? Please help

  6. Genevieve said,

    Hi there Kelly,

    I want to thank you for sharing this article, it’s really clearly written and it’s just so important for those of us who don’t punish to be open and honest about it – there’s lots of myth breaking to be done. I want to support you and empathize with you in relation to all those crazy responses you received. I’m a parent educator and have also parented without punishments, enforced consequences or any other methods of manipulation from the beginning, my son is 14 and my daughter is 8 and they’re beautiful, loving, caring, free spirited, compassionate, fun and happy children as all children are when living in an emotionally safe, respectful and supportive environment. I have received these kind of responses a lot and at times it’s been really hard to not take it personally. I recently had a spate of media here in New Zealand advocating my parenting without punishment philosophy and these were exactly the kind of responses I received. One night I googled and discovered a few websites quoting my words of about peaceful respectful parenting and each website had pages of comments in response, mostly along the lines of what you’ve shared above, things like teachers contributing, it’s parents like this that make our job hell, and some much much worse. But, in some of those threads, some very brave parents voiced their advocacy of non-punitive discipline and each time, the thread went silent – how interesting, so many people were given the opportunity to possibly begin to open their minds to a different, a new paradigm.

    It’s crazy that it’s so foreign, so new, so misunderstood, when this method of parenting is also the most natural and instinctive method if a parent is to really follow their heart. But our conditioning overrides our instincts until that conditioning is changed.

    Thank you again for sharing, I’ll share this on my fb page The Way of the Peaceful Parent. 🙂

    • Karelys Davis said,

      oh this sounds like unicorn land to me!!!

      I grew up assuming my parents were such good parents. And they weren’t bad. It’s just that they weren’t the parents I needed. I am still working through emotional mess that came out of certain interactions with them. I just never understood it well until I started reading up on positive parenting. Then a light went off! On top of that, it’s changing my relationship with my husband.

  7. Genevieve said,

    Yes, you’re absolutely right about the assumption that no punishment equals no boundaries, no discipline, no morals. I come accross this again and again and it still slightly mystifies me, but yes, it’s so true, this is the general misunderstanding. It’s because we’ve only had the two paradigms of parenting, either authoritarian or permissive and this model is a new concept.

  8. Steven Foster said,


    This brought tears to my eyes. It is so eloquent and clear. I am delighted that I know you and grateful that you are doing this work. With your permission I’d like to post a link to your blog in my Early Childhood Program in-house newsletter. I know many people who will pass this needed message on to parents and teachers of young children.


  9. CeeNoEvil said,

    I only very recently began reading information on Positive Parenting and discipline. I was at my wits end with my kids 11 and 8. Punishing them for when they did something wrong always felt wrong so then we tried the “enforced consequences” but really it’s semantics, the word “consequence” became a substitute for “punishment”. I couldn’t distinguish the difference and when it came down to it I couldn’t even think of really good consequences that I felt would “really teach them a lesson.” It didn’t feel like they were learning anything at all and I was terrible at really following through so half the time my kids would just get a brief scolding, and a silly “consequence” like no TV for 3 days but by day one we were all watching a show together nicely and whatever the incident was, it had already blown over. Did I still want to have to enforce it? Not really. It didn’t really feel natural to me but I didn’t know what to do instead. I knew I had to do SOMETHING but what? I have recently switched over to responses based on Positive Parenting reading and I feel so much better, and I’m sure my kids will now really start “learning a lesson” but in a constructive way.

  10. Murasaki said,

    So true. I find when I am feeling lazy or want to focus on something else is when I will use traditional punitive type parenting on my kids. Teaching them right and wrong without using carrots on strings is infinitely harder and doesnt always “work” immediately. I get so many annoyed stares from others when I listen to my children, respond to and acknowledge their needs and feelings and dont scream at them or threaten them. Sometimes I do. I lose it, I forget, I revert to that old thinking or I just want an immediate fix it right now. When I do that I try to reconnect by saying sorry, talking about it later – both the behaviour and my reaction to it.
    I think its a real stretch when people suggest that all the criminals, addicts and teen pregnancies must be children that were gentle parented. Yeah right? Hardly anyone does it for one thing and we already know that the majority of violent criminals were abused as kids. Permissive parenting is one thing – but I would bet the majority of young adults struggling were punitive parented – only when sticker charts, grounding and smacking no longer worked the parents were left with no parenting tools and the kids had no respect for them either having always been treated like a second class citizen.

  11. Rhonda Teasdale said,

    Of course! Punishment went out with the arc! It is violence. Why, with too much violence in our world would we wish to teach children that “violence is a helpful problem solver????”
    Discipline comes from the word disciple, which means “the learner”. We need to pro-actively teach our precious “charges”. Labelled praise is effective: “I really like it when you…….”; “Thank you! It’s so helpful to me when you do…….”; “I would find it more helpful if you ………(did)……., and we would have more time to…..(do)….” etc, etc.
    Helpful also to avoid the ideas of “good” and “bad”…if you’re a “good boy” then there is also a “bad boy”???? Besides “That’s a good boy!” is not really clear about what is being praised???
    However, most of all, role model what it is you want to see.
    Dear parents, we are all “limited” by how we have been parented, so feel not guilty. We are all doing our best.
    However, we go get a licence to drive, for our careers, etc etc….. and there are many very helpful parenting programmes in every state and country. We can improve our skill…and our happiness as parents.
    Parenting is the hardest and most intensive “task” we will ever take on…remember to be as gentle with yourselves as with your dear children. Help each other whenever you can ❤

    • Karelys Davis said,

      Also I think it brings people up with the just world mentality. I grew up thinking that if I was good everything would come out alright and I could control life that way. I could control even God I thought!

      Because I was good I had no chance of anything bad happening. Sad thing is that good and bad are labelled by others and rarely, in punitive parenting, the individual (child) is given the chance to decide for themselves. Can you imagine the heartbreak when despite sacrifice and trying my best and wearing myself thin trying to be “good” all kinds of bad, sad, and downright wrong stuff happened to me!?

      It was a time of adjusting everything. It was really hard. I had to relearn that I will be good and do the right thing because I’ve decided that’s the person I am not because there’s a dangling carrot in front of me. If that is the case, once the carrot is gone then there’s no reason to do the right thing.

  12. Megan said,

    You are doing such important I work. I enjoy and have learned a lot from your blog. Thank you!

  13. Ankima said,

    Amazing and true artical.

  14. justme said,

    I would love to have respectful communication with my daughter, but she does not listen to anything I say, yells at me and kicks me while I am trying to talk to her. Won’t even look at me. She has even told me it is fun to make me mad, and I do try so hard to keep my cool.

  15. Raising Children Through Grace | The Mommy Experience said,

    […] Parenting From Scratch: Parenting Without Punishment […]

  16. Heather Scholl said,

    Late to the party…..but have been practicing positive parenting for many years now with my daughter. I did not have a name for it, though. I just noticed the difference between how I parented and how others do. I witnessed a “strange” discipline moment between a parent and child the other day and it took me 4 days to come to terms with it! I began researching different parenting techniques on-line and realized that my family really IS different and it is working well for us all. I can’t really remember the last time I punished my daughter for something……might have been age 4 or 5. She is 10 1/2 now. We have not too many moments of behavior issues at our house….so few that when I speak with other moms, I often wonder why our house is so calm and theirs must not be. When my daughter goes for an overnight somewhere or other…..I always get the report back that Marni is a polite, friendly child who they would have over again in a heartbeat. She is an only child….so I DO realize that must account for some of the calm…..maybe this would be much more difficult if I had 2 or 3 kids…or good heavens TWINS! But, still….I think there is really something to this whole positive parenting movement. I wasn’t punished much as a child. My mom was a single mother and she honestly was just too tired most of the time to punish me for much. I grew up fast and was a latch-key kid….I learned to be independent quickly and think and do things for myself. My daughter has more hands-on care and more boundaries but I think I did pick up some positive parenting techniques from my mom. I want Marni to be able to navigate her world, speak up when things are injust, know when she is being coerced, follow her heart and mind….not the nearest leader, and grow up able to choose her own life path.

  17. Emily Slingluff said,

    Wow! What a thrill to find this page! I have written two (small) books about this subject! And would love to email or talk to anyone who thinks that a child learns more from a parent who punishes than from a parent who talks with the child about everything.
    My newest, very short, book is “Parenting without Punishment” by Emily Hunter Slingluff. When I wrote my first book about twenty five years ago, I felt I was almost alone in these thoughts, but now am thinking that parenting without punishment is really on the way to becoming the mainstream parenting! I hope so! A world full of children who have been taught with kindness by the parent would be almost Utopia, but in striving for it, we can help make this a better place! Right?! Emily Slingluff

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