Lessons They Will Never Forget: Alternatives to Punishment

This article is part 3 in a 3-part series on punishment.

Not too long ago, my family and I went to the local library together to return our books and to renew our supply. All was well until we got back into the car to go home. Naomi (age 7) got into the backseat before Carter (age 12) and sat in Carter’s favorite spot. This ticked Carter off a bit, and he started to get agitated with Naomi. He demanded that Naomi move and she was more than happy to gloat about getting that coveted location.

Things escalated pretty quickly–as they often can in a family of passionate, emotional people–so Carter decided to use physical force to get his way. This slightly hurt Naomi’s body and really hurt her feelings. Being the protective Dad I am, I said to Carter: “What are you thinking?! It’s a spot in the car for a 5-minute car ride!” Then the lecture began.

About 10 words into the lecture Carter plugged his ears! That really made my blood boil and I increased the volume of the lecture (not quite yelling yet) and then I caught myself. I got in the driver’s seat and drove home–still upset about Carter’s actions and the perceived disrespect. Little did he know that I was saving the lecture for later when I could get him to listen.

Let’s take a moment to reflect here.

Parents, I’m just going to say it like it is. I did so many more things wrong in this situation than Carter. First of all, I’m 37 and he’s 12. Where much is given much is required. I can’t act or react in way that makes me guilty of a greater offense than he is…which is what happened. Second, lectures rarely work in the way we hope…and I mean rarely. Thirdly, the plugging of his ears was not intentional disrespect but a reaction to a useless pastime where I occasionally lecture and he tunes out. If anything I should see this as a signal that I am not teaching or connecting at all and so I need to get off my soapbox, chill out, and think rationally again.

You’re asking: “So what did you do?”

I’m glad you asked. Here’s the rest of the story.

When we got home, Carter went straight to his room. (I assumed he was upset about my mini lecture.) I waited a few minutes–not having calmed down all the way–and knocked on his bedroom door. When the door opened I started into a different type a lecture and I could tell he looked visibly upset. He stopped me and said: “Dad, I was praying for forgiveness and was about to come ask you and Naomi to forgive me but you interrupted me.” I felt like a piece of garbage.

We have tried to teach our children how to remedy a mistake over the years and here was evidence it was working. It is only through effective teaching and guidance that can help children “come to themselves” and then self-correct. You can’t force remorse–which is what most punishments are attempting to do. Real remorse has to be natural and from within. That’s why the apostle Paul wrote: “Now I rejoice, not that ye were made sorry, but that ye sorrowed to repentance: for ye were made sorry after a godly manner…For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation…but the sorrow of the world worketh death.” Worldly sorrow is being sorry because you were caught and something bad happened or is going to happen to you. This does not bring about real, heartfelt change.

What Carter needed was connection, not correction. (See the Parenting Pyramid for more details). Any type of punishment in this situation would have only made things worse.

We seem to want the behavior and we want it now. But connecting with and effectively teaching our children requires much more time, and care, and skill, and talent, and patience, and courage than any punishment demands of us.

Remember the Ping-Pong Parable? It would have been silly for me to punish Eleanor for whacking the table because I’d really be punishing her for having a pathetic teacher…me.

If you were taking tennis lessons and every time you hit a backhand poorly your instructor made you do 20 push-ups, you wouldn’t improve your backhand. Instead,  you’d just be more fearful when a ball came to your backhand. Yet we often do the same thing with children when they can’t control their emotions. We think that some sort of punishment will teach emotional regulation but instead it impedes it. Controlling emotions are much more difficult than hitting a backhand. (Trust me, I taught tennis for years.)

So before you use a threat, a lecture, a punitive time-out, a withdrawal of privileges, a grounding, or anything else that might fix the behavior temporarily consider the following alternatives–some of which I shamelessly stole from a variety of experts (see sources below):

  1. Be Mindful and Reflective.
    If something keeps happening don’t try to solve it in the moment. Sit down with your spouse and chat about what the underlying problem might be. Many times parents have created a problem with poor teaching or unrealistic demands and then punish the child for it. Be willing to reflect.
  2. Have Good Reasons and Teach Them.
    Example: If your child refuses to wear her seatbelt, don’t threat with death. You may have to get out of the car and connect with her and explain. Then show her by putting on your seatbelt.
  3. Talk Less. Ask, Listen & Observe More.
    As you take time to listen, your child will feel respected and will more likely respect you. Treating all people as agents to act rather than objects to be acted upon will help you see things more clearly. You will be more likely to respond rather than react. Example: If you are a Christian, I invite you to notice how God responds to Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis when they partake of the forbidden fruit. God, the Father, asks at least 4 questions (He already knows the answers to) before saying anything else.
  4. Look For the Problem, Not the Symptom.
    Acknowledge, accept, and listen to feelings. Try to put yourself in their situation. Example: If your teen refuses to go to church, don’t force them. This will only build resentment toward you and your church. Seek to understand before you seek to be understood.
  5. Reconsider Your Requests.
    Maybe your teen won’t do what you want because the problem lies not with the teen but with what you are demanding. Example: Instead of demanding that he clean his room exactly the way you want, consider that fighting will damage your home more than a slightly dirty room.
  6. Control the Environment. Not the Child.
    This is sometimes easier than trying to change the child. Example: If your child repeatedly takes things out of the kitchen cupboards, put a childproof lock on them.
  7. Let Natural Consequences Occur (when appropriate).
    This one could be it’s own book. There are natural laws that govern everything. Try to understand those laws better and teach them to your children. Don’t create artificial consequences that override natural laws. Natural law will always be there even when you are not. Don’t rescue too much.  Example: A child who does not hang up her bathing suit and towel may find them still wet the next day.
  8. Be Real. Be Authentic
    Let your teen know how their behavior affects you. Be honest and tell them you are sorry and don’t always have all the answers. Get off your perfect, parent pedestal.
  9. Use Actions When Necessary.
    Example: If your child insists on running across streets on your walks together, hold his hand tightly (while explaining the dangers). Example: If your child pulls a cat’s tail, show her how to pet a cat. Do not rely on words alone.
  10. Counsel Together.
    Away from the ongoing problem when you’re both rational, talk with your children, state your own needs, and ask for their help in finding solutions. Determine rules together. Hold family councils/meetings.
  11. Keep Their Ages in Mind.
    Young children have intense feelings and needs, and are naturally loud, curious, messy, willful, impatient, demanding, forgetful, self-centered, and full of energy. Try to accept them as they are.
  12. Take Your Own Time-out.
    Get out of there before you lose it. Explain to the child what you are doing so they know you aren’t just withdrawing love. This is a great example for children in teaching the right kind of time-outs. Example: pray, cry, meditate, or take a shower

By the way, bribes don’t work either. It’s just candy-coated control. For more on this see: Do You Bribe Your Children? God Doesn’t. Every disciplining strategy or technique can be measured against the following questions: Is this a “working-with” or “doing-to” approach? Is this more focused on teaching or correction? Am I keeping the long view of character or the short view of behavior in mind?

No parent is perfect; we all need to learn and improve. But don’t give up! You can do this!


Alfie Kohn. (2005). Unconditional Parenting.

Aletha Solter, Ph.D. (1996). Twenty Alternatives to Punishment.

Jane Nelson, Ed.D. (2006). Positive Discipline.



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