Discipline without punishments.
My daughter hit me yesterday. I was holding her in my arms when she looked me in the eye, slapped my face, and laughed. Later, when I gave her some milk in a glass, she picked it up and poured it all over her eggs. When we were in the garden, I asked her not to put the sand in her mouth, she put it in her mouth anyway.
Traditional parenting might tell me to address her behaviour; maybe label it “bold” or “naughty”. I could tell her sternly that it’s “not acceptable”, that “we don’t throw food” or that “slapping isn’t nice”. Then again, I could ignore the behaviour, tell my daughter I won’t talk to her when she behaves like this – after all she is just seeking attention so by not giving it to her I am showing her these actions won’t get her any.
Hands Off Parenting does not subscribe to any of these punishments – instead, it recognises that children are not the problem. They don’t want to annoy or upset us; when they laugh after hitting it’s not because they get joy from hurting others, when they scream out loud all the way around the supermarket it’s not to embarrass you and when they throw their food on the ground it’s not simply being naughty.
I believe there are three main reasons children act out.
1. They are trying something new: Children are literally experimenting all the time; through their play, through their interactions – everything is so new to them, they need to see how things work, what happens when they do x, y or z, how people will react to their actions etc. This might mean throwing a ball at the cat, banging their plate with a spoon or screaming at the top of their lungs for no apparent reason. While this “research” is normal, it is also completely acceptable to set boundaries around these experiments – “I can’t let you throw balls at the cat, you can bring the balls outside and throw them there instead.”
2. Testing us to make sure we are their confident leader: Children need to feel safe; they want clear and consistent boundaries. And they need to know that you are going to enforce them. How do they find out if they can trust you to set and keep boundaries – by testing. So, when you tell your son that you won’t let him slap you and he does it again, he might be testing to see if you mean it. Your reaction will let him know if he can depend on you; you will need to keep calm and hold the boundary.
3. A need they have is not being met: Babies and toddlers cannot communicate a need the same way an older child or adult can – if we want something, we will probably tell another person. For example, if our other half keeps fecking off to the gym every night we might tell them “You’re not spending enough time with me.” Toddlers who are thinking the same might act out with destructive or defiant behaviour – refusing to let you change their nappy by wriggling, screaming and/or kicking, hitting etc. Or they might throw tantrum after tantrum for even the smallest things. If this is happening regularly you probably need to take a moment to find out why your child is feeling less connected to you; where can you make changes in your interactions with your children, so they feel better listened to and understood.
When we change our perception of “bad” behaviour and start to see it as a symptom or indication of something else, we can approach the situation calmly and come up with a respectful solution. Making what would have been a stressful and upsetting confrontation become a moment for both children and parents to learn from and connect over.