By Karen Sabourin, M.A., Provisional Registered Psychologist

Few things will rattle us as parents like a moment when our child has done something “wrong,” especially when that something wrong is BIG. These moments can make us think that our child is “bad” and/or doubt our ability to parent (e.g., something has to be wrong with me or my child because this incident happened). These thoughts are often followed by a strong flood of emotion and swift action aimed at making sure the “wrong” incident is never repeated. However, the question still remains: is making sure that we stop our child’s “wrong” behaviour all that is required of us as parents?

I am going to warn you up front that some of the things I talk about in this article may make you uncomfortable. They may even cause that same flood of emotion I talked about earlier. This is actually good news. It means you are really thinking about what I am saying and weighing it carefully against your current parenting strategies. Kids and discipline are a sensitive topic so I understand that by tackling this I am potentially wading into dangerous waters. My aim is a thoughtful discussion of the issues involved so that no matter what your belief system is and the particular strategies you use, you will come away with some food for thought.

First, I want to create a clear distinction between punitive and restorative discipline strategies. In reality, these discipline strategies rarely exist in pure form but rather to differing degrees. So, when it comes to your own parenting strategies, what you are really evaluating is the degree to which you utilize each side of this equation. Let’s use the example of a six year old girl (Beth) who wants the toy that another child (Jane) is currently playing with. Beth walks up to Jane and rips the toy out of Jane’s hand saying, “It’s my turn now.” Jane starts crying.

  • A punitive philosophy is based on the idea that people are primarily motivated to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. The strategies that follow from this typically regulate behaviour with rewards and punishments. When things go wrong, someone is blamed and corrective action in the form of punishment follows. Using the example above, Beth’s parent may walk over to Beth, take the toy out of her hands and give it back to Jane. The parent may then say, “Beth, that was mean; don’t do that again. Go sit in the corner until you can play nicely.” Beth’s punishment is losing the toy, being told she is mean and being sent away from her parent and her friend. While this will likely be effective in stopping Beth’s behaviour in the moment, it does not teach Beth how she should have handled the situation. It becomes Beth’s job to sit in the corner and figure that out.
  • A restorative philosophy recognises that individuals have rights which must be respected (e.g., Jane has a right to play with the toy and to not have it just taken away); however, this philosophy also believes that this respect is best accomplished by increasing support to wrongdoers (Beth) rather than punishing and isolating them. Misbehaviour, within this framework, is seen as a violation of relationships, not rules. In the above example with Beth and Jane, a restorative approach might look like this: Beth’s parent comes over and says to Beth (calmly), “I can see you really want a turn with that toy. When we want a turn it is important to ask rather than just take the toy we want. Jane is crying because she wasn’t finished with the toy yet. I need you to give the toy back to Jane and use your words instead” (this is the consequence of Beth’s action; when you take something without asking you don’t get to keep it). Beth may “refuse” to do this. This doesn’t make her bad; it just means she really wants a turn now! Beth’s parent could then offer her a choice: “You can give the toy back to Jane or I will”. If Beth is calm enough, her parent could facilitate an apology when the toy is given back. If she is not calm, the apology is best left for later. This is where Beth repairs the damage to her relationship with Jane. Once the toy is given back, Beth may still have trouble waiting for her turn. Her parent could continue to provide support by using redirection; it might sound something like, “I know it’s hard to wait for your turn Beth. Let’s play hopscotch together to help the time pass faster.” This acknowledges that Beth was having trouble waiting for her turn (which is what led her to grab the toy in the first place, even though she may have “known better”) and teaches Beth that finding something else to do will help the time pass faster. With practice and time, Beth will learn to use this strategy on her own to help her wait her turn.

Before you put yourself in one camp or the other, I want to remind you that pure forms of these approaches to discipline are rarely found in reality, so please be honest with yourself about the degree to which you use each. The advantage of a punitive strategy is its short-term effectiveness in stopping the behaviour. The downside is the potential damage it can do to the relationship between parent and child, and the missed opportunity for teaching. If the parent does not provide enough support for the child to learn a different way to get his/her need met, over time the child views mistakes as something bad that should be hidden from the parent. A restorative strategy keeps Beth’s relationship with her parent intact (notice that the parent does not leave Beth), allowing Beth to learn what action to take to get her need met in a
respectful way while also allowing the parent to remain a safe and supportive person for Beth to come to when she has made a mistake. The downside to the restorative approach is that it is more time consuming in the short-term. As a parent, you will likely need to remind yourself regularly why you are committed to this strategy. The above example with Beth and Jane may make the solution seem obvious. Applying this strategy when our kids are older (and we think they should “know better”) or have made really BIG mistakes is much harder.

Going back to the question posed at the beginning of this article (is making sure that we stop our child’s “wrong” behaviour all that is required of us as
parents?) you may now guess that my answer would be “no.” For me, our job as parents is about teaching our kids to learn from their mistakes – making different decisions and apologising when the situation calls for it. It is also about teaching our kids how to be in relationship with other people – how to share their feelings, good and bad, in healthy ways, and as they grow up, to be appropriately vulnerable, letting others into the private places in their life without feeling the need to hide their mistakes. If these are your goals too, ensure that the discipline strategies you are using are actually supporting this outcome. If you feel unsure, Eckert Centre is always just a phone call

Karen Sabourin is a Registered Provisional Psychologist providing counselling services at Eckert Centre. Karen’s focus is on challenges surrounding the transition to parenthood and parent-child relationships. She makes a unique contribution to the Centre through her narrative approach to the issues her clients are concerned about which helps them construct a story that supports growth and empowerment.