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Column: 12 alternatives to timeouts when kids are at their worst

It’s been almost six years since my husband and I went cold-turkey on punishments.

One day we were trying to steer our daughter’s behavior by imposing timeouts and taking toys away and limiting TV time whenever she went astray. And the next, we weren’t.

READ MORE: Why you should never use timeouts on your kids

Did she start running roughshod over our house, our feelings and our rules? She did not. Did we discipline her? Absolutely. But our tool of choice was our words — and still is. Today, when problems arise, we talk things through. We have family meetings. We negotiate (a lot) and compromise (a lot). Sometimes we argue. Sometimes she wins.

It’s not always smooth-sailing. My husband and I make lots of mistakes, and I have endless empathy for other parents trying their hardest to raise their kids right. It isn’t easy for any of us. On the best of days, it isn’t easy. But I can report to you that while my daughter has all the markers of a 10-year-old (for better or worse!), she also has more self-esteem than I know what to do with. She is resilient, well-adjusted, kind, compassionate and happy. And she is the most honest person I’ve ever met.

On Thursday, I joined a growing chorus of voices calling for parents to stop punishing their children — particularly through the employment of timeouts. Today I’m going to tell you what to do instead.

First, let me reiterate that punishment is not the same as discipline.

Discipline is setting limits and teaching those limits to your child. For example:

  • “You have to keep the safety vest on in case you fall in the water.”
  • “No, you can’t draw on the walls. That ruins the walls.”
  • “It’s time to do your chores. We all help out around the house.”

Punishment is enforcing discipline by inflicting physical or emotional pain — often by withholding or seizing something of value.

  • “If you don’t keep your safety vest on, we’re going home.”
  • “You drew on the walls again — timeout!”
  • “If you don’t do your chores, you can’t go to the birthday party.”

Disciplining our kids is the rent we pay for the privilege of being loved by a child; it’s vital. The trick is to stay in the realm of empathetic discipline without crossing over into the land of painful punishment. Here are just 12 of many, many ways to manage discipline without punishment.

  1. Set your boundaries within reason. There are things that you will not — cannot! should not! — allow your child to do. Just be sure your boundaries are fair and achievable. Saying “You can’t scream because it’s disruptive and hurts people’s ears” is reasonable. Saying ”I’m not willing to be disrespected” or “I’m not willing to have you embarrass me” is ridiculous. These are kids; they will disrespect and embarrass you at times. Don’t set set them up for failure.
  2. Prevention, prevention, prevention. You know your kid, so use that knowledge to your advantage. Your kid always begs for toys in the grocery store. So before you leave the car, explain that this is not a toy day, then stay in the car until she agrees to no toys. Or role play scenarios in which you say “No, you can’t have that toy” and your daughter says, “Okay!” and you say, “Great job! I loved the way you said ‘okay’ and didn’t get upset.” Positive reinforcement goes a long way.
  3. Know what’s developmentally appropriate. There are things your kid is doing because it’s developmentally necessary; he literally can’t help it. In these cases, no amount of lecturing is going to stop it. So calmly remind your child of the rule and let it go. Parenting is hard enough without going to battle with Mother Nature.
  4. Let them cry. So often we parents are triggered by our kids’ emotions. I know I am. It’s hard when they are full of rage and taking it out on us. But children can’t just turn off their emotions; they need to be allowed to “feel their feels.” Wait it out. Help them take deep breaths and calm their bodies. Don’t lecture. Ride it out. You can talk later.
  5. Name that emotion — and empathize. This one comes courtesy of Tracy Cutchlow, author of “Zero to Five.” “Naming what our kid wants, thinks, says or feels — without judgment — is the most powerful step in positive parenting,” she says. “‘You want ice cream. You want ice cream right now. You want vanilla with sprinkles! And I said we must eat dinner instead. That is making you feel really sad. Aww, sweetie. It feels soooo disappointing.’ We have to see our role as helping our kids have their emotions.”
  6. Stay with them. When you walk away or ignore children, you withhold your love. (Experts call this emotional detachment.) You send the message they are bad and don’t deserve you. But they aren’t “bad” — they have just made a mistake or reacted unwisely or acted out. (We parents do it all the time.) And, frankly, those are the times they need connection most of all.
  7. Be a Jedi. The worst thing you can do when your kid loses her shit is to lose yours, too. If your daughter gets angry — even if it’s hittin’, spittin’ angry (the worst kind!) — try to stay calm. If you are angry and can’t keep your cool, parenting instructor Linda Hatfield suggests “putting yourself on pause.” If you need to leave the room for a bit, that’s fine; self-imposed timeouts are A-okay. Just make sure you tell the kid, “I need a minute by myself, but I’ll be right back and we can talk.” We all have a Dark Side; that doesn’t mean we need to give in to it.
  8. Discover what is really going on. As Hatfield says, all behavior is communication. So what is your child trying to communicate? Is he tired? Hungry? Lonely? Bored? Jealous? Overstimulated? Disappointed? Hopped up on sugar? Only by helping to identify the underlying problem can you help your child to fix it. You can ask: “How could you/I/we do that better in the future?”
  9. Be willing to change your mind. When your child disagrees with a limit you’ve set, talk about it. Consider why you have set that limit and whether it’s necessary. Even if your child is not expressing herself appropriately — spoiler alert: she probably won’t — be willing to change your mind. She may be dead-on right.
  10. Let there be consequences. But try to let them be natural consequences, in which a child suffers the consequences of her own actions without intervention on your part. The child won’t put on his coat = the child gets chilly. Unless safety is an issue (which it will be if it’s 60 degrees below zero outside) or it’s something that the child doesn’t have the forethought to care about now (bad grades), it’s perfectly appropriate to use natural consequences as a mode of discipline.
  11. Hold family meetings. Schedule weekly family meetings where you can talk about what’s going right and what’s going wrong. Air grievances and celebrate victories. Reach agreements about rules. Getting buy-in from kids up front is key. Then, when it’s time to affirm a rule, you can say, “Remember, this was your rule, too. We all agreed on this.” Also, instead of escalating an already-stressful situation, you can say, “I’m putting this on the list for our family meeting.” It’s a great way to table the discussion, cool off and get perspective.
  12. Be prepared to do it all over again tomorrow. Laying down a rule one time won’t cement the thing in your kid’s head. She may flat-out forget the rule; or she may be testing that boundary a little to see how serious you are about it. Both are totally normal! So don’t be surprised when you have to repeat a rule several times before it sticks.

One of the best things about freeing my daughter from punishment is that it provides endless opportunities to teach her skills she’ll need as adult. She is learning to talk through problems, listen to others’ points of view, speak out against injustice, negotiate for what she wants and find solutions. She is learning that her worth as a person is not dependent on whether she makes mistakes and that it’s okay to show emotion. Best of all, she is learning that her parents love her unconditionally and will never turn their backs on her — even when she’s at her worst.

Especially when she’s at her worst.

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