Lessons for Everyday Parenting

The Connective Parenting Newsletter, August 2013

Lesson: How to Give Up Punishment and Blame
Lesson: How to Give Up Punishment and Blame

The good news is that more and more parents everyday are learning the benefits of a connective approach to parenting. The bad news is that many are unable to make the transition from traditional reward and punishment parenting because time and again they get stuck when their children are acting out. “What do I do if I don’t punish? Don’t they need a consequence? I can’t just let them get away with it.”

Connective parenting is initially appealing because it speaks to a parent’s natural instincts. There is always that, ‘Ah, that sounds so right’ tone. Parent’s who don’t want to raise their kids the way they were raised think they have found the answer. The beginning is the honeymoon. Then they get back in the trenches. How does this work, again?

Even parents who have learned problem solving will say, “Yeah. but what do I DO?” Our systems are so programmed to do something to our kids—take away a cellphone or an iPad, send them to a room or time out, withdraw a privilege (what we now consider consequences)—that it is out of the realm of our common sense that simply talking can be the answer. The hard part is knowing how the talk should go.

Finding the Balance Point
Humans are pendulum thinkers. That means we flip from one end of the continuum to the other and ignore all the gray area in between. The balance point is where we are headed. That place where it’s neither my way or my child’s way, where we can actually both get what we want. The balance point is where no one’s needs are any more or any less important than another’s. So when you experience conflict, when your child is doing something that is not okay with you, you can say so. “This is not okay with me.”

We are so accustomed to being blamed and to laying blame that we have lost sight (or never found it in the first place) of how to take responsibility for ourselves. I once said to a room full of parents I had been teaching for a long time, “How many of you can say to your kids, ‘This doesn’t work for me?'” Not one of them could.

So the first and most important step in shifting effectively to a connective approach is knowing that your needs are just as important as your child’s, that taking care of yourself is as important as taking care of your child. This is often the hardest step because so many of us did not learn our own worth growing up. Just the opposite—we learned that we were not good enough. From that place you are unable to be effective when you want to gain your child’s cooperation.

Problem Solving
Problem solving (the connective replacement for punishment) means stating your case, hearing, understanding, and considering your child’s case and then coming to an agreement—”How can we make this work for both of us?”

Problem solving is the time for questions—just when you’re tempted to tell your kids what to do and how to do it. Instead:

  • What is it you want? Here’s what I want.
  • How can you get what you want without hurting anyone else?
  • How can we both get what we want?
  • What would happen then?
  • Does that work for you?
  • That sounds like a good idea but it doesn’t work for me. What else can you think of?

It’s called compromise, making an agreement, negotiating, bargaining, a meeting of the minds, resolving a problem—and in the meantime it teaches your child life skills, empathy, respect. The essence is making sure that no one loses out, no one is dismissed, everyone is heard, everyone has an opinion. Then, and only then, will there be cooperation to compromise.

When your children say, “I don’t know” or refuse to bargain, it means they suspect they will lose because they’re used to being told what to do—and often prefer to be told what to do because it’s easier. It takes trust in your child and in yourself to stay with the process and convince your children to stay with it. Once they get that there is no more punishment or blame (and this trust of course comes only when there is no more), they will begin to see that they actually get something out of it.

Questions and Answers

I want your questions. Here’s how it works: You email me a question to bh@bonnieharris.com, and I answer pretty quickly. I put it in a newsletter at a later date. Please try to keep them brief without leaving out critical details.

Problem Solving for the Early Years

Q. I’ve been following you since before my children were born, they are now 20mo old (twins). I’m wondering if the negotiations and problem solving begin this young. We do all that we can to respect our girls needs and often do say “honey, that doesn’t work for me.” But still so little, the impulses are strong, and I don’t see that they have developmental capacity to actually choose something different (i.e. not picking all the green tomatoes off the vine, or flower buds from the garden) but perhaps I’m wrong there. What are your thoughts?

A. You are right. However, it’s good practice for you to get in the habit of facilitating problem solving. Just don’t expect them to be able to problem solve with you. But you are sending respectful important messages so they gradually learn that your desires are important too. And you’d be surprised how young they can come up with great ideas when you say, “You want this and I want that. How can we both get what we want?” They often do better the younger they are – but probably not before 2 ½- 3.

My favorite true story:
Mom was in a parenting group with me and we had been talking about depersonalizing the problem to get away from blame. She came in the following week with this: Her not yet 3 yr. old had intentionally spilled his milk. She told him to clean it up. He said, No. She angrily said, You spilled it, you clean it up. He answered with an attitude, No. You do it. She fumed and then thought about our class and said, Okay, the milk is spilled. You don’t want to clean it up and I don’t want to clean it up. What do you think we should do about it? He perked right up and said, I know! I call Sophie (their dog) and she can lick it up and then I’ll clean up the rest! Mom’s jawed dropped to the floor and all she could utter was, Okay. He happily called the dog who happily licked up the milk, then he got a paper towel and wiped up the slobber (well, some of it). True problem solving!

Consequences—What ones do children listen to?!

Q. Your work is very encouraging to me, a struggling mother! I have two boys, 5 and 7. We have been struggling with aggression, ignoring parental words, and acting out towards brother and house. It has been very intense, and although I have always thought of myself as an “attachment parent” (wearing child, co sleeping, prolonged nursing, and not spanking or punishing), things got out of control and my boys needed clearer boundaries. Simply telling them my boundaries was doing nothing. I was getting things thrown at me or kicked for telling my 7 year old that movie time was over, and it was time for breakfast, or bed or bath. I got a cart pushed into me at Target for saying no to a hotwheel car. I was unable to negotiate, because an unfavorable answer put him into a fit of rage. We have been reading “love and logic”: and “boundaries with kids”. Both suggest logical consequences. “Until I am quite sure you will not throw anything at me when it is time to turn off the tv, we will not be watching the tv.” “You can sit next to me until I can coach you on how to treat your brother.” At a family meeting, we came up with our family rules, but what do we do when they are not upheld? I know what I am doing is a consequence, and the locus of control is parental, but I am at a loss. I have to say I prefer the calm logical consequences to spankings or being hurt myself.

A. Thank you for this question. I will be talking more about consequences in Part 2 of this topic in September.

Logical consequences are just fine and often very important when you are faced with situations you speak of. The consequences you mentioned are logical and non-blaming. The “consequences” that I am trying to eliminate are the illogical, threatening ones, which are in fact punishments. “If you don’t stop hitting your brother there will be no TV for a week.” Threats are power held over the child and either motivate through fear or do not motivate at all. What you are speaking of are more specific ways of saying, “This is not working for me.”

“Come with me in the other room until you calm down and are able to come back without hitting,” is logical and non-blaming.

“I will not allow you to hit me, and I certainly hope you will never allow anyone to hit you,” while firmly holding the child’s arms, is saying, “This is not okay with me.” If you need more: “If you can’t stop hitting yet, hit this pillow as hard as you can. You are so angry it’s too hard to calm down.”

If he is hitting you, remove yourself (i.e. to a bathroom) and answer the pounding on the door with, “As soon as you are ready to keep your hands to yourself, I will come out. Are you ready now?”

“Do you want to turn off the TV or shall I?” works better than expecting him to do it. If he doesn’t choose to turn it off, you do it and allow his tantrum.

In Target: “We’re going to leave this cart right here and go outside until you are ready to come back in calmly.” Then go out and sit on the sidewalk. Let him know you understand how much he wants the hotwheel and how angry he is that you said no. In this way you acknowledge him without giving up yourself so he knows his feelings are normal. Wait until his tantrum is over and say, “Are you ready to go back in now?” Wait until he is.

You may argue you don’t have time for this, but there is no more important time to be spent. Make sure you know your needs and rights are as important as your child’s. A trap for many Attachment Parents can be giving your children more rights than you give yourself. You can stop angry behavior with a firm and loud word, still with no blame. When you say you were unable to negotiate because he would react angrily, you need to wait until his emotions are down before you do. We must understand that there is nothing wrong with the child’s feelings of anger, disappointment, sadness, etc. and that it is not your job to prevent or make those feelings go away. But when we take them personally, we don’t want to experience them so we do anything to avoid situations that provoke anger. The feelings are real and your child needs to learn he can have them and get beyond them without rescue or cheering up.

Does Lying Require Punishment?

Q. We have a rule in the house for our 13-year-old daughter: no ‘devices’ (ipods, cell phones, laptops) in her room upstairs plus she is limited to only 1 hour of sitcoms or movies per day (downstairs). We thought she was in compliance until today we heard a sitcom sound coming from the upstairs bathroom window. The fact that she broke the rules is not the problem but that she is lying to us—denying that she was doing this, yet we both heard it as clear as day. She has become increasingly angry and convicted in her stance. We have told her that we heard the sound, that we believe she is lying, and that there will have to be a punishment—but we haven’t decided what.

We really don’t see how punishments will get us towards the aim of her being truthful with us and maintaining our connection with her. At the same time we don’t want her to get away with lying and enable a pattern of deception.

A. You are absolutely right that punishment will not help to end the lying or build connection. Try reframing your perception from “she’s lying to us” to “she’s trying to find a way to get what she wants without us knowing about it.” The idea of lying is deceitful and will only arouse your anger. Understanding that she is trying to keep you from finding out that she is disobeying a rule means she doesn’t want to confront you, get angry about the rule or cause your disappointment in her. All kids who know that punishment is the “consequence” will get sneaky. Punishment of any kind—grounding, taking devices away—will only set you back further from the goal you want to accomplish. Problem solving is the way to go. Start off the conversation by telling her that you know she just wants to do what she wants. That will open her ears. Then let her know that sneaking the sitcom means that an evaluation of rules may be needed because you know she doesn’t want to disobey. Do not mention lying. You three need to sit down and tell each other your wishes and concerns. No one’s are more important than anyone else’s. She needs to know that she will be heard. Give her the opportunity to plead her case to you. Then tell her what your concerns are. Let her know from the beginning that the three of you will not stop this negotiation process until the rules work for ALL of you. Compromise is the name of the game. At 13 the rules may need to evolve. You need to listen to what’s important to her, weigh that against what’s important to you and come to an agreement. Are you willing to forgo one sitcom a week in her room for better connection? Remember teens value alone time. If she is sneaking into the bathroom, it means she wants it pretty badly. Perhaps all her friends watch and she feels out of it because she can’t. But once you all air your concerns, the final agreement will make sense.


I just wanted to send you a note of relief and HUGE thank you for all your patience and guidance during my struggles with my son. This morning I dropped him off with the Navy recruiter and he ships out for Boot Camp tomorrow morning. He has picked himself up, brushed himself off and taken complete charge of and responsibility for his life! I can’t tell you how relieved and proud I am. You helped put that little voice inside my head that kept saying, “Don’t give up. Don’t lose hope”. It was a tough road, but ultimately I kept reminding myself who he was at the core and no matter how negative and judgmental other people were and how many people told me to “Boot Him Out” so to speak, I held on. I am so glad I trusted my instincts and listened to my heart (and you).

What I learned and what I share is this: Sometimes all any of us ever need is just ONE person to believe in us; remind us to believe in ourselves and give us a chance and words of encouragement. Especially during those times when it seems we deserve it the least…that’s when we need it the most.


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