Replacing Punishing with Coaching

What if most of the work of parenting was not to correct our children when they did something wrong, but an ongoing effort to help children learn about themselves and their place in the world so that they naturally chose to do good things for themselves and others?

It’s a bit of leap of faith to trust that children have an internal compass that will guide them to do good things. But it’s true. We all have this internal compass.

Will children make mistakes? Yes. We all will. But what strengthens the internal compass is not someone else pointing out your mistakes or punishing you. This actually weakens it.

The internal compass gets strengthened when children are allowed to make mistakes and reflect upon them in a non-judgemental environment. A skillful parent listens to the child, empathizes, and holds up a mirror for the child. A skillful parent helps the child connect his feelings to his actions, so that he can understand for himself how he feels.

If allowed to develop properly, our feelings and internal compass can guide us better than any authority ever could. It doesn’t mean that as parents we can’t set any limits or that we can’t have rules and responsibilities in our homes. It doesn’t mean we cannot be clear and assertive with our children. Don’t get it twisted.

The idea is that when we constantly correct (Or reward) a child, it’s not as effective as helping them understand for themselves what is good behavior, or what behavior feels genuinely good.

When we simply punish a child for what he did wrong and make him feel bad for doing it, we take away the opportunity for him to have his own experience of the situation. Punishing takes away any natural remorse the child might have as the focus shifts to an externalized form of shaming. If you never allow a child to naturally feel bad for something, if you are constantly jumping in and telling the child he should feel bad for being bad, the child will eventually lose the ability to feel a natural sense of remorse.

Can you think of children who have forgotten how to feel and care about others? They were trained to do so, if only inadvertently. Random punishments not only weaken the child’s internal compass, it weakens child’s self worth and the parent child relationship.

I understand that we think we are doing our job by pointing out mistakes and punishing, but so often just helping our children understand the impact of their actions would be the best course of action. BTW telling them what they did wrong does not count for helping them understand the impact of their action. It’s a guided process that involves curiosity, trust and patience.

For example:

  • Tell me about what happened.
  • How did you feel as a result?
  • How do you think the other person felt?
  • How would you like to address this?
  • Do you think you’d like to do something different next time?
  • What have you learned?
  • What help do you need in order to be successful?

This is a way of coaching children so that children come to know themselves and trust themselves. If you have a really good understanding of yourself and what genuinely feels good and what doesn’t, what is authentic and what isn’t, you don’t actually need punishment or steering. There is no better teacher than than a strong internal compass that tells you that, “I am good, and I feel happy, true and fulfilled when I do good things.” This is powerful!

I believe that helping children reflect upon their own feelings and actions is a stronger and more enduring motivator for positive behavior than punishment could ever be.

The child who is invited to think about his own actions gets to ask himself important questions. He gets to ask the questions: Is this who I am? Is this who I want to be? What could I do next time? This is powerful and enduring…and it all happens without yelling, shaming, and disconnecting from your child.

Although anecdotal, I have seen the difference between children who were blamed and punished and those who were empowered to know themselves. The difference is staggering. The amount of maturity in children who have a well developed internal compass far exceeds the children who were always told what to do.

So, I invite you to think about parenting in a different way, non traditionally. Take the leap of faith that the real job is to draw out and strengthen the internal compass that already exists in our children. This is hard to do, because it de-centers the parent from the conversation. We become the supporting cast. It’s a tough one for the ego to swallow. And it flips things on it’s head. For example, it’s not what you know as a parent that matters, it how you help your child know themselves that matters.

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