By Jillian Lauren, TODAY Moms contributor
My husband and I have tattoos from our toenails to our eyeballs. We still sleep in the same bed with our 3-year-old and have no intention of kicking him out of the bed anytime soon. Our son has been going to rock concerts since he was eighteen months old. We're not forcing him to potty train until he feels ready. We don't believe in sticker charts or gold stars or any other kind of reward system. We make plenty of choices that some would consider controversial. But nothing, absolutely nothing, gets people fired up quite as much as hearing that we don't punish him.
Yup, that's right. We don't punish him. Ever.
Now before you scroll down to the comment box, hear me out. People often respond to our choice with confusion and indignation. They immediately have a vision of my husband and me gaffer-taped to the couch while our toddler watches COPS and throws Twinkies at our heads. But kids need discipline, is the way most people will begin their argument. Kids need structure and limits.
Well, of course they need limits. My son in particular desperately needs structure and limits, and our days are pretty much defined by them. I just don't use punishment to enforce those limits.
So what do I do when my kid misbehaves? Take a Valium and give him a pat on the head? Not at all. I try to shift my focus from his behavior to the needs behind it. My son is only three, so there's still a fair amount of guesswork involved in this process. Sometimes I'm better at it than others. But I attempt to meet those needs with love and empathy. I also attempt to help him identify his feelings by putting words to them. Now, meeting his needs doesn't translate into giving him whatever he wants. Sometimes it just translates into me getting down on the floor with him and connecting with him while he has a big tantrum about not getting chips for breakfast.
At which point he totally calms down and asks me if I want to pick up where we left off reciting Shakespeare and drinking herbal tea.
Actually, he usually just jumps up and down and screams "CHIPS!!! CHIPSCHIPSCHIPSCHIPSCHIPS!!!" Until he gets sick of screaming, accepts a cuddle and settles for oatmeal.
But the point of the interaction isn't the chips or the breakfast or even my desire to not get hollered at early in the morning. The point is what kind of values I want to teach him and what kind of person I want him to become. I might be able to sit him in time-out or yell at him or spank him or take away his favorite toy or otherwise coerce him out of this completely annoying habit, but in exchange for his compliance, I've lost an opportunity to connect with my child. And I've taught him that it's OK to wield your power to get what you want -- that essentially the biggest one in any given interaction wins. Which doesn't increase his emotional intelligence or give him any tools to deal with the fact that it is incredibly frustrating to not get what you want in life.
The other reason we don't punish him is that it doesn't work to create good behavior in the long term. Punishment might get results in the short term, but it ultimately undermines your relationship with your child and hurts their self-esteem, which will only fuel the fires of misbehavior. I believe that treating my son with respect and empathy will in turn teach him to be empathetic and respectful, which are traits that I value far above mere obedience.
Jillian Lauren is the author of the memoir, "Some Girls: My Life in a Harem." Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Paris Review Daily and Vanity Fair, among others. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, musician Scott Shriner, and their 3-year-old son. She blogs about motherhood, adoption, writing and being a rock wife at http://www.jillianlauren.com/blog/. Her novel, "Pretty," comes out in August 2011.
April 22, 2011