Parenting: Setting Limits Compassionately
By: Julie Gamberg
Dear Mr. Newman,
We have many areas of disagreement, yet also some important areas of agreement:
You and I agree on a central point of this discussion: Children need clear limits and parents who will enforce those limits for the physical and emotional health and safety of their children (and sometimes simply for the needs of the parents). I advocate setting and enforcing limits.
We also agree that using corporeal punishment and shaming does not achieve obedience or compliance in the long run. I, however, disagree that using disconnection and enforced isolation should be used to enforce limits.
You seem to be genuinely concerned that children who are parented without limits can develop a host of behavioral problems as children and as adults. I share those concerns. And yet I add other concerns. Children who are parented with disconnection and conditional love learn to disconnect emotionally and learn to treat others with a carrot and stick instead of with empathy and compassion. They struggle harder as adults to be emotionally present and they struggle with self-discipline issues and a lack of intrinsic motivation. Further, parents who use punishments learn that they must continually up the ante, increasing the severity of punishments as children get older, because their punishments do not curb the aberrant behavior; punishments eclipse the opportunity to understand the root cause and underlying unmet needs of a child, opening a possibility to stop the behavior in the first place, and to give children the coaching they need.
Whether it involves yelling, giving time outs, spanking, or taking away privileges, enforcing limits without resorting to punishment is challenging. It requires commitment, creativity and courage. Evolving one’s parenting techniques from time outs (or any form of punishment) to connection parenting – using empathy, dialogue and problem-solving -involves a learning curve. I recommend that instead of continuing to refine their time out technique, parents should learn how to set and maintain limits without using punishments (reading recommendations to follow and links provided below).
Some points of disagreement:
You write that I do a “good job of capturing the sentiments of the child-centered parenting movement, and in so doing laid open its many fatal flaws.” It’s not clear how you define a “child-centered parenting movement”. In your interpretation, empathetic becomes permissive and connection becomes child-centered. You argue that parenting without rewards and punishments is permissive parenting, but you do not provide evidence of this. Assuming that rewards and punishments are essential to good parenting does a disservice to parents who want to establish and enforce limits in a compassionate, empathetic way.
You attribute to me the belief that “parents must, at all costs, protect children from struggles and difficulty.” As anyone who has a child or who has worked with children knows, growing up is full of struggles and difficulty. From the crying of a newborn, to teething, to falls, to struggles with siblings and friends, to frustration over learning new skills to, most importantly, the extreme powerlessness that all children and youth feel, to the ultimate separation from parents that is part of a child’s development, children’s lives are rife with struggles and difficulty. It is impossible for parents to protect their children from every trial that life throws at them, but parents can and should help their children manage these difficulties so that they can learn appropriate and healthy coping skills to take with them into adulthood.
You also write that, “Parents must learn to allow their children to experience the consequences of their actions, to coach them through difficulties, rather than work to remove them.” I couldn’t agree with you more that we need to coach children through their difficulties (something that is impossible to do when you’ve sent them away from you), but I disagree that they unilaterally need to experience the natural consequences of their actions. We are constantly protecting children against the natural consequence of their actions, as children have no idea what the consequences are of, say, putting something poisonous or choke-able in their mouth, jumping off of a too-high structure, hitting someone, and so on. That is when we need to coach, as you wrote, not isolate and not allow them to experience unacceptable consequences, or apply consequences which make no sense and do not help them better understand what they do not yet understand.
Mr. Newman, if you knew that it were possible to set, maintain and enforce limits without resorting to disconnection and isolation, is that something you would advocate? Is it the time out itself that you believe is so important, or the need to maintain limits?
A New Approach: Connected Parenting
Many parents are told (by an endless stream of popular parenting articles and reality shows) to punish their children, and have not been exposed to alternate approaches of enforcing limits. Punishing a child feels instinctively like a misguided approach, so these parents flip back and forth between being too permissive and too harsh. They repeat empty threats, and they and their children dwell in a cycle of mutual frustration. This is not a productive situation for the parent or the child. These parents often feel like they’re drowning and are relieved to have the work of parenting taken out of the equation by applying a short-sighted, one-size-fits-all principle such as a Time Out.
If they are willing to do the work, parents can parent with empathy while also maintaining limits. In fact, establishing limits creates the space for empathy. Connected parenting establishes deep trust between parent and child, and it results in resilient, compassionate, grounded children.
Connected Parenting does not rely on one-size-fits-all techniques, but instead acknowledges the uniqueness of every situation. Parents have concrete alternatives to punishments. Aletha Solter, Ph.D., lists twenty alternatives here . Alfie Kohn outlines ten principles for parenting without rewards and punishments here . Further, I encourage The Next Family to initiate a Q&A page where readers can present scenarios or struggles and request help from a parenting coach who can offer concrete suggestions that don’t involve rewards or punishments.
Connected Parenting in Action
There are, literally, thousands of examples in the communities where this type of parenting is the norm, of parents who have dealt with an array of problems, from pre-verbal toddler “tantrums” to teen issues of rebellion and defiance. Since there is not a one-size-fits-all solution, parents do have a bit of learning to do before beginning to understand what types of solutions make the best sense for their own situation. Still, I believe it is important to be as concrete as possible. So, what have I done with my child? I try to use an empathic parenting-style as much as possible. Neither of us is perfect, and my daughter is still young, but I believe in modeling the kind of compassion and problem solving that I hope she will use to treat others. I’m certain that the specifics of our interactions are unique to her age, our life circumstances, and her temperament, but the compassion and optimism that I use to approach challenges can be applied to other parenting situations.
For example, recently my daughter started biting me. I examined when and where it was happening and looked for underlying causes. Was she hungry? Frustrated? Bored?
First, I discovered that she was biting me when she was teething, so I began carrying a teething ring in my pocket. When she tries to bite me, I say, “No bite mama,” and hand her the teething toy or ring and say, “Bite this,” and then make a lion-devouring-meat sound, “arrr, grrr, arrr.” She laughs and says “arrr, grrr, arrr” as she bites the toy. It is a playful point of connection for us, and I don’t get bitten! (In a pinch if I don’t have a teething item, I fold up a sleeve of her shirt, or mine.)
Then, I discovered that she sometimes tries to bite me when I’m taking something she shouldn’t have out of her mouth or hands, when she bites me in anger. To identify the root of the problem, I had to understand that she wanted something she couldn’t have and was mad about it.
I also discovered that the times when she would bite were exclusively the times when I would take something away with very little warning, and often when I was frustrated: “Oy, you have my phone again?!?”
I tried a three-pronged solution. First, I used the teething toy, since that was already working. Second, I kept controversial items out of reach as much as possible. Lastly, I worked at creating more connection and giving her more warning before taking an object away. For example, this morning we were taking a walk and my daughter picked up a dirty spoon from the ground and tried to put it in her mouth. I reached for it, saying: “That’s yuck-yuck, not for baby. Give to mama.” Lately this is often enough and instead of trying to bite, she will hand over the object. This time it wasn’t. “Yuck, yuck, not for baby,” I said as I gently took it from her. I went one step further and handed her the wood ring in my pocket. She didn’t want it, but I could see that we had maintained a positive connection, that she felt heard and understood. Later in the walk, we passed a soiled plastic cup lid, an item she particularly likes. She bent over to pick it up and I said, “No, not for baby.” She repeated, “No,” and stood back up without the lid.
By repeating these steps, my daughter has not only stopped trying to bite, but she is learning to give things to me when I ask for them. This is much more effective than yanking them away. And, or course, imagine if I were to have tried to treat all of this biting with a time-out? If I had treated her biting as something that needed to be “controlled” by applying an external punishment or “consequence,” she would likely still be biting me, and I would still be doling out punishments. And even if the punishments “worked,” I still would be missing an opportunity to teach and model problem-solving skills, one of the most important life skills. So I made an effort to understand the roots of her behavior in order to nip it in the bud, and teach her more appropriate behavior.
Time outs, on the other hand, teach children to deal with conflict by using force and coercion, as opposed to using dialogue and understanding. If we use time outs with our children, they will attend school and, when faced with a schoolyard dispute, have one tool in their kit for solving a conflict over turn taking on the swings: Time Outs. Assuming that our kids do not succeed in sending each other to time outs, their lack of tools may lead to frustration, anger, and ultimately further misbehavior. Modeling conflict resolution through forced dismissal is presumably less effective than teaching the tools of dialogue, good listening and creative problem solving.
So I ask, parents, what would be the connected way to handle the issues that you are currently having with your child? If we can maintain limits and connection simultaneously, is that worthwhile? Is it something worth reading up on, or going to classes for, worth learning how to do?
Connected parenting gets much easier with verbal children, where you can practice problem-solving together. As you can see, parenting without rewards and punishments involves creative problem solving and is not as black and white as using the same method of punishment for each “infraction.” Yet the rewards are vast. When parenting this way, the parent-child relationship gets stronger over time instead of more strained. When parenting this way, the solutions get easier and easier instead of more challenging. When parenting this way, teens are able to individuate in a developmentally appropriate way without having to resort to some of the more difficult common teen behaviors. And the benefit is not just for us, as parents. It’s not just about a more effective way of solving problems we’re having with our children (although it is more effective as well). When parenting this way, children learn intrinsic motivation, self-regulation, and problem solving skills. We have the opportunity to model compassion, empathy, integrity, and responsibility and as we know, children are excellent at doing what we do, not what we say.
Mr. Newman, you and I are after the same goals. We want to see our own kids, the kids we work with, and all children raised in such a way that allow them to be happy, healthy, productive, honorable members of society. I have seen so many parents achieve that through empathy and connection, and without the use of rewards and punishments, a parenting journey well worth exploring.
“Instead of child-centered parenting, let’s try relationship-based parenting,” you write. I couldn’t agree more.
This reading list is taken from a response to a comment I wrote in my article, “Time Outs Are the New Spanking.” I’m adding a couple more books to that list here.
Po Bronson, in his fabulous book Nurtureshock (co-written with Ashley Merryman) compares parenting-by-a-book to the old paint-by-numbers kits and talks about how we all have an aversion to feeling like we’re parenting in a mass-produced, one-size-fits-all way. With that said, there are some books that are very worth reading: Books that are thoughtful; books that are based on substantial and impressive research including well thought-out longitudinal studies and other good science, and books that are totally paradigm-shifting. True, these are not “how-to’s” with quick and easy answers, but they are books that will get you to the answers, I believe, in a much more substantial way — one you can sustain through all of the situations that children and youth bring to us. While these are not parenting guides, they are thoughtful and amazing books:
1. If I had only one to recommend it would be, hands down, “Unconditional Parenting,” by Alfie Kohn.
2. And then: “Playful Parenting” by Lawrence J. Cohen
3. “Parenting From the Inside Out” by Daniel Siegel and Mary Hartzell
4. “Parent Effectiveness Training: The Proven Program for Raising Responsible Children,” by Thomas Gordon (an amazing book with an unfortunate title)
5. “Raising An Emotionally Intelligent Child: The Heart of Parenting ” by John Gottman
If you twisted my arm to recommend one more, the aforementioned Nurtureshock, while I don’t always agree with the “what should we do now” conclusions that Merryman and Bronson make in relation to the science they write about, I do love reading their science journalism and learning what good research has shown us.
ADDENDUM – MORE ON READINGS
I am concerned that Mr. Newman is basing many of his ideas on intersubjective psychoanalytic theory, and in particular, Jessica Benjamin, to explain child development and support his position. He and I interpret Jessica Benjamin very differently from each other. Benjamin, a feminist, psychoanalytic theorist who is looking at Freud and, to a lesser extent, Lacan through a feminist lens, argues against female submission and male domination. She also uses Nancy Chodorow’s (another feminist theorist) work on object-relations theory, as well as Daniel Stern’s research on “attunement” (often cited by attachment parenting theorists), and supports the argument for increased connection and, by extension, against the disconnection of time outs.
Benjamin does not take on the topic of time outs directly, nor, as far as I am aware, does she look at any specific parenting philosophy, advice, techniques, studies, or theories. What she does discuss is the need for the child to understand itself as separate and other, to know it has its own will apart from its mother’s, and to know that the mother has her own will, apart from the child’s, so that the child does not ultimately come to see his or herself as dominant or submissive. Benjamin’s work is highly theoretical and abstract and it is difficult to see how her work could be used to support time outs. Because her work is so far removed from practical application, Benjamin is not a useful resource in helping parents digest and apply recent studies in neuroscience, psychological research, or parent education.
This has been an ongoing debate between Julie Gamberg and Joe Newman. If you have missed any of the previous articles you can find them in order below.
The Modern Time Out by Joe Newman
Time-Outs for Impulsive Behavior by Joe Newman
Time-Outs Are the New Spanking by Julie Gamberg
Parenting: Being Mean to Kids by Julie Gamberg
Child-Centered Parenting is Dangerous by Joe Newman