Punishment and Permissiveness

I am reading a youth novel with my ten year old daughter, Molly. Alice, the teenager in the book, gets pressured into hiding her friend, Pamela, in her bedroom, so that Pamela's parents will think their child has run away. Big mistake. The plot is discovered. Alice is remorseful. Alice's father is furious. He grounds her for a week. She cannot have any friends visit and she cannot leave the house.

"Wow," I spontaneously comment, "a week without social contact would be really hard on a teenager."

"Yeah," Molly agrees.

"She's probably going to be really frustrated with her dad by the end of it," I speculate. "I'd feel miserable if I had to enforce a punishment like that."

"Do you think you will ever punish me like that?" Molly asks.

I reflect on her question. The answer depends on what one means by "punishment". If punishment means imposing harsh, extended, irremediable consequences with the intent of making a child suffer in order to teach them a lesson, then I can honestly say that I have never punished Molly and I never intend to.

This is not to say that I have never gotten mad, acted impulsively and scared the daylights out of her. I have. But I have never believed, once I had time to think about it, that the fear of punishment is the tool I want to use to ensure my daughter's cooperation. Psychological researchers have concluded that fear of punishment is effective in controlling behavior only when children believe that they might get caught. I do not want my daughter to fear me when I am around, and disobey me when I am not.

A parent can err in the other direction as well. I have often seen the unfortunate results of overly permissive parenting. Children who are not taught proper behavior through clear and consistent limit-setting suffer as much as those who are parented too strictly. A permissive parent may intend to offer her child the freedom to express himself. The resulting misbehavior, however, sets the child up for conflict, disapproval, and punishment outside the home, where cooperation, sensitivity to others, and self-control are necessary for social success.

How can a parent find a healthy balance between permissiveness and strictness? As I planned this article I tried to think of specific examples of good parenting solutions to common behavior problems. The uniqueness of each real life situation, however, defies any pat solutions. Instead, I offer the following principles. The art of applying these principles, I leave up to you:

  • When children are helped to understand and agree to the principle behind a given rule, they own the rule and follow it because it makes sense to them.
  • Children have a drive for mastery. This includes mastering the demands of good behavior. Believe in your children¹s potential for success in this quest. Notice and comment on their victories. Make sure they identify themselves as people who can behave well.
  • Provide whatever support and supervision a child needs to successfully keep the limits you set. Do not abandon them to fail in situations where they have limited self-control. Rather, watch closely, provide just enough help to ensure that they succeed. Then let their success experience build their confidence in themselves as competent rule followers.
  • Never try to prove to children that they can¹t be trusted. If they sense your lack of faith, they may give up trying to prove you wrong. They may settle, instead, for the rewards of misbehavior.
  • Never change a limit in response to a child's misbehavior. Rules and limits can be changed through respectful dialogue, but never in a way that rewards whining, sulking, or tantrums.
  • Do not overly protect children from the natural consequences of their decisions. Unless their safety is at risk, allow them to experiment sometimes with choices you would not advise. If it is always a struggle to get them to take a coat with them, consider letting them experience being cold.
  • Be honest and consistent in your words and actions. If you tell your child, "We have to go now, don't stand and talk to another parent for fifteen more minutes. Or if you do, recognize that it is you who are teaching the child your definition of "now".
  • Children have a drive to please you. When you appear to them to be a beacon of fairness, honesty, and responsibility they will respect your opinion of them even more. When you are a vital source of empathy, understanding, and compassion for them, they will crave your approval.

So my answer for Molly is:

"No, I don¹t intend to ever turn our home into a jail and hold you prisoner. I trust that you will be able to understand whatever it is I need from you in one heartfelt conversation. And I hope to be able to do the same for you."

"Yeah," she said. "Me too."

© 2007, Tim Hartnett

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Your children need your presence more than your presents. - Jesse Jackson

Tim Hartnett, Ph.D. is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice in Santa Cruz, CA. He specializes in Individual Counseling, Couples Therapy, and Divorce Mediation. He can be reached at 831.464.2922 or through his website:

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