How do you parent without consequences or threats?

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A relatively new member in my Facebook group asks:

How do you parent without giving consequences or threatening to give them? I’m at a loss. I want to change my parenting style and I’m failing. My son who’s 6 has been defiant lately and usually when he is I threaten to take away his daily video games time. I usually say that it seems like he’s not ready for games or it seems like his brain has had enough and that if he doesn’t listen he won’t be able to play for the rest of the weekend or tomorrow, etc. I’m trying to avoid threats but have no clue on how to get him to “listen”. We’ve had talks about this before and he even sets time limits for his games but when it’s time to stop (even with count downs “you have 15 minutes left, 5 minutes left, etc) he just says no and screams or cries. Says he didn’t have any fun and that it doesn’t count, etc. He will just continue to play despite me reminding him the time limit or why I don’t want him to play all day. If dad says to stop he will because he’s afraid that dad will give him huge consequences but he’ll come crying to me that he’s bored and nobody cares that he’s not having fun. If it’s me I have to repeat and negotiate. Dad says I need to “punish him” (give him more consequences). I’m trying to avoid that but it’s playing against me because now everything is a struggle. Bedtime, getting ready to leave the house, etc. If I struggle in front of dad I don’t hear the end of it. I must add that my son was recently diagnosed with ADHD (combined type) and mild ODD. He’s not on meds. Thanks!!

Note to the reader:  As this daunting switch from traditional discipline to respectful parenting—and the way in which it is or is not supported by both parents–is so commonplace and so challenging, I have asked this parent’s permission to respond here, so that the answer may benefit others who feel similarly or at a similar stage in their desire to shift to a more respectful model of discipline. In doing so, I am speaking as if I am speaking to this parent, rather than in the more generic global tense in which I usually write. If it applies to you, then when you read “you”, I am indeed speaking to YOU, so I think it works. Many thanks to this brave mom for allowing this to be answered in this format!

First off, at the risk of being too “pat” in my response, my answer to the first question is “You decide not to.” This is a conscious choice, an intention. It is a decision that people make, not something we magically know how to do, and certainly not something that is simple or can be practiced with a checklist of instructions. None of us do it perfectly, and even less so when we begin. The one thing we commit to, from day one, is intentionality—we have made a decision, based on what we know is right AND what child development research demonstrates, that we are determined to stop “giving consequences” or making threats. We make the decision every day to reject punitive discipline—sometimes we succeed, sometimes we fail, but with intent and determination, we proceed in a gradual upward direction that will lead us slowly but surely to a life with our children that is free of these coercive and authoritarian techniques. So intention is step one.

Beyond that, several thoughts:

I read two different questions in your post. You are asking how to do it, and at the same time saying that your spouse will not support it, and that you fear the fallout from your spouse if you do try to do it. That’s a relationship and communication issue between you and your spouse. What are the agreements that the two of you have about parenting?  Do you have similar long-term goals and dreams for your children?  What are the agreements you have about supporting one another, even when you disagree? What are the agreements that are in place so that no one has to feel frightened or intimidated by others’ reactions in your own home?   Even if we “teach” you how to do it, respectful discipline has as its focus connection and long term mutually trusting relationships and intrinsic motivation in our kids, not compliance. Your husband is right on one level–it does not and will not “work” in the moment in the way that punishment and threats do. It’s a trade-off, a decision…do you want what works immediately with long term negative results and increased struggle down the road, or do you want to put in the investment now with fewer immediate results and have fewer struggles and better relationships and decisions down the road? Again, this is about intention. Yes, it’s a TON harder to do it this way with a spouse who demands immediate compliance or obedience (and hard if that’s what we expect as well), because the goal of Visible Child is NOT compliance or obedience. Our goals are collaboration, connection, and cooperation.  If two parents are pulling on a rope in opposite directions, it is easy to see why that would not result in progress.

There are a couple of things that confuse me, as the lead admin and founder of this group that focuses exclusively on respectful parenting and discipline.   You say you are “at a loss” about how to parent without punishment. That’s fair, most of us have felt that way at one point or another. And at the same time, I am confused. It looks as if you have been a member of this group for three months, giving you multiple daily opportunities to learn exactly what you are asking. EVERY SINGLE POST AND THE COMMENTS THAT FOLLOW IT answers your question about how to parent without “consequences” and threats.   Are you spending a good half hour or so reading every day (or nearly so) here? Spending time reading other people’s posts and the answers that are given? Searching the group under the word “consequences” and reading those posts? Have you searched and read old posts about challenges with screen time? How have those solutions helped you? Have you read the Visible Child blog (where we are right now,) perhaps one post a day, which also answers these questions? Last week you asked for “the best book suggestions”—did you get those books? What do you think of them so far? What has been helpful in them? The answers to your questions are all here, in the Visible Child group, but a single post will never be enough help or support. [Note: this paragraph is clearly specific to people who are in my group(s), but can be applied to anyone in a more generic sense…i.e., what resources do you have at your disposal for learning how to make this change? How are you making use of them? What supports exist for you on a daily basis, and how are you taking advantage of them in order to support your desire for learning a new way? These questions are the same, whether you are in one of my groups or whether your support and learning environments and tools lie elsewhere.]

It appears there may be a new baby in your household? That is a HUGE variable in children’s behavior–a genuine trauma and loss for many children–and it is not mentioned in your post. How have you shifted your expectations and increased support for your 6-year-old in light of this enormous disruption and loss in his life?  How is the 6 year old experiencing being prioritized?

It sounds as if you are falling back on what you know and perhaps what you were raised with, as default. There’s nothing so odd or wrong about that, that’s what happens for all of us in the absence of deliberate intention and mindfulness. We don’t know what to replace these methods with, and so we keep using them.   The problem is that we are still stuck in a mindset that makes us look for “replacements” that in some way resemble what we already know—and that’s just not the case here. Before you find other things to say and do, you must shift your mindset so that you do not see yourself as someone whose job it is to control your children, but someone who has the privilege of living with, learning with, and collaborating with this small person, sharing your experience and knowledge as you go.   Respectful parenting is not simply about abandoning traditional discipline, or replacing it with something that sounds different, but at heart has the same goals–it’s about turning those goals on their heads. It is about REPLACING traditional discipline with empathy and connection and cooperation and clear, firm, consistent limits, calmly and fairly applied.

In Visible Child, as you know, we focus on reframing, so I will offer the reframe here. You say you “have no clue on how to get him to listen.” I note that you did put “listen” in quotes, which means you’re partway there, because you are understanding that this is not about listening. So let’s go the rest of the way there. He IS listening. He just doesn’t want to do what is asked. I don’t think you’re wanting him to listen, I think you’re wanting him to be obedient. That might explain why you feel lost…because Visible Child does not support control or obedience….so if you’re looking for a respectful way to make him do whatever he is told, you’re not going to find that. What you WILL find is ways to understand him better, learn more about his needs and what he is communicating, and respectful ways to hold limits (which YOU are responsible for holding, rather than holding him responsible to “obey” them).

You mention that your son is “defiant” and that he has a recent diagnosis of ADHD and ODD and is not on meds. Do you know that defiance is a normal and expected part of being six? (It is even the subtitle of the Ames book on development for this age, “Your Six Year Old: Loving and Defiant”). What is he doing that is so far beyond the typical defiance of a six-year-old that has resulted in a diagnosis of ODD (a diagnosis, for the record, that I don’t really believe in, especially in young children)?

Lastly, to the example you gave. It sounds like you’re expecting HIM to obey the limit around screen use. You say “He will just continue to play despite me reminding him the time limit or why I don’t want him to play all day.”   How is that possible?   How is it possible for him to continue to play when you are present?   You ask him once and let him know that his time is coming up (after working collaboratively to decide together how much time is appropriate, a key step.) If he doesn’t respond, you let him know, calmly, that it’s time to turn it off, and give him the choice of him doing it or you doing it (not as a threat, just as a simple offer – “Would you like to turn it off, or would you prefer that I turn it off?”). Either he does it or you do. Done.  That’s a clear limit held. Yes, he may be upset. That’s okay. You empathize and reflect and offer him comfort, and you accept his feelings as valid. Yes, he may say he’s bored. Boredom is a very good thing—it’s where creativity and initiative are born. He cries and says he’s bored, and you say (empathically) “Sometimes it’s hard to figure out what to do. You have such good ideas, I’m sure you’ll figure something out.” And you make sure he has plenty of open-ended materials, plenty of vigorous outdoor time, plenty of options for things that he can create…and you leave him to it. Again, he may be upset, and that’s perfectly okay. Empathize, listen reflectively, be present with his emotions without trying to change them, let him work it through. Trust that he will find good solutions. And of course, you keep in mind and keep discussing that video games are actually engineered to be addictive and to trigger the addictive response in people who may have that predisposition–you let him in on the “trick.” This is hard for him—physiologically and psychologically. He’s not alone—many children find it VERY difficult to disengage from video games, social media, and screen time. Maybe that means that you need to return to problem solving with him. Maybe it means that you need to commit to actively helping him through those transitions, perhaps as they discuss in this incredible article.   Maybe it means that you discuss with him how the games impact his brain and about what addiction is, helping him understand why it’s so hard to put it down, without judgment. Maybe if it continues to be too hard for him, you need to take a complete break from all screen time and video games and get him outside and into nature more.   There are so many solutions—never just one. This is what we do in the Visible Child approach. We seek to understand what is going on in those transitions for the child, figure out what our part is in helping or supporting them with those challenges, and making choices and setting limits that will set children up for success.  There is no need or use for threats or “consequences” in any of that.

Please know that it’s good that you’re asking these questions—asking is the first part of starting on this wonderful and challenging journey. It’s admirable that this is something that you want. It sounds as if some conversations with your spouse are in order—at the very least, an agreement about how you will back one another up, even when you disagree. You do not say what “huge consequences” means, but I assume that means that your son is currently motivated by fear. When a child is motivated by fear, they lose trust in the adults in their lives, and children who do not trust us will not cooperate with us—this is how people wind up in destructive cycles of punishment.

Use the resources available to you. Read. Even if it’s only for 10 minutes each day. Read in a facebook group. Read four pages in a book. Ask a friend who has embraced respectful parenting. Meditate so that you can remember your goals. Tell your child that you have made mistakes and you want to try something different, and you may not do it perfectly, but you’re going to try. Listen to them and their fears.   Breathe. Try to remember that this is a change in mindset, in the lens through which you see your role and your children. When you make mistakes, apologize, be accountable, ask for forgiveness, and try again. Devote yourself to learning as much as you can about what “typical development” looks like at your child’s age, which normalizes behavior and helps us see children in a better light. Remember that this is a long run game, and that parenting respectfully requires a great deal of faith and trust from YOU, not just trust in your child. Remember that all human beings are wired to resist control, and as long as you remain in a position of “control over”, you will experience “defiance” from your child. See through your child’s eyes, not through yours. Take a piece of paper and write “He’s not giving me a hard time, he’s HAVING a hard time” and put it on your refrigerator so that you see it every day…and then ask yourself what you can do to help him so that he “has a hard time” less frequently. Reject negative attributions and labels. Remember that 6 is so very young. Remind yourself of what John Holt tells us:

“To trust children, we must first learn to trust ourselves…and most of us were taught as children that we could not be trusted.”

Yeah. Whew. That’s a long list. A tall order. I know it’s tough—no one ever said this would be easy. You don’t have to do all of those things today, or every day.   But it might be a good idea to READ all of those things today, and every day. Let them seep in. Let your child in. Lead with your heart. Allow this lens shift to grow. Keep listening.

This works. Trust and collaboration really works. It is possible to live with your children and experience genuine joy and relaxation. And there is a lot of unlearning to do.

It’s never too late. Start now.

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