Extremes in Parenting
Just as there is a vast difference between ‘punishment’ and ‘discipline’, so also between ‘punitive’ and ‘correction’. Likewise, some parents worry so much about becoming punitive, they become over permissive and neglect discipline. Learning this, and the dangers and outcome of punitive or permissive parenting is essential to altering the direction of relationship between parent and child from one of hostility and rebellion to warmth and cooperation.
Punitive patterns emerge when the parent enters into an oppositional relationship with the child. While it is expected that children become oppositional, parents make no gains, or worse yet, begin to make damages to the relationship when they are punitive. A parent needs to resist meeting a child’s opposition with their own opposition; this is not always easy to do, because our children know exactly how to ‘push our buttons’ to get us to react. And it is that internal, emotional negative reactivity that sets up the hostile and rebellious relationship, and leads to punitive parenting.
Parents often state the cliché: ‘I never punish when I am angry’. Nice try. If you can do that, you are superhuman and the only one on the planet to ever do that. The fact that you are punishing, not giving consequences is proof that you are angry. Let’s be honest: when our child is being ornery, we get angry and want to ‘get them back’.
When we punish children (or anyone, even our spouse), we create a contest with a scoreboard. And like any competitive event, the score gets higher and strategies get more elaborate to beat the other person. Punitive parenting is no different. If you choose a pattern of punitive punishment, you will never win. Why? Because your child has been learning all along from you how to punish and be punitive in a relationship. Your relationship begins to revolve around negativity. The punitive parenting creates a ‘behind in the score’ attitude for the child. The game is negatively personal.
Punitive parents often punish when they see ‘attitude’ in children. While they cannot tolerate attitude in children, they feel exempt from refraining from expressing negative, disparaging, hostile, threatening and rude attitudes of their own when interacting with the child. Another old cliché: Kids imitate what they see. Punitive parents eventually get desperate, often when the child begins to get older and less manageable, and is able to compare their punitive parents with the disciplining parents or friends. These are the parents that show up on sensational talk shows to enlist the show host in further berating the child and start threatening the child with ‘boot camp’. Remember Frankenstein’s monster? Punitive parents create their own monster, then blame the monster for it.
Permissive parenting often takes root right at birth. Permissive parents set up the process that will haunt them as the child grows older when they overindulge the infant by never allowing them to learn to self comfort. Many permissive parents pick up their infant at any sign of a gurgle or whimper; they cannot tolerate the dry, clean, fed, and healthy child to cry themselves to sleep. As the child gets older, they allow the child to continue to sleep in their bed (much to the discontent of one parent). Some single parents allow the sleeping with parent as a selfish alternative to sleeping alone.
Interestingly, permissive parenting produces the exact same result as punitive parenting: a hostile, oppositional, out of control child. The child of a permissive parent never really develops the respectful ‘disciple’ relationship with the parent because the parent is not consistent with boundaries (or has none at all). Once again, the older the child gets, the angrier the child becomes when they compare their peers disciplining parents to their own.
Essentially, as the child grows older, they are trapped by permissive parenting in that they feel the pressure to ‘grow up’ but have become dependent on the over indulgence of the permissive parent. At age ten, the child feels embarrassed that they are still sleeping with Mom, but can’t stop doing it. At age fifteen, the child is a demanding, helpless five year old. At age twenty, these are the young adults who should get jobs, but figure: ‘Why should I? I get everything I need for free!’ In many cases, the permissive parent continues to ‘bail out’ the child for decades, and the child develops a hostile, out of control stance with the parent. Permissive parenting is negatively personal in that the predominant attitude becomes one of entitlement by the child, and resentment from the parent.
Discipline and Consequence
On the other hand, discipline and consequence operate in the exact opposite manner. It is positively personal, meaning that correction, while not a happy and cheerful event, is at its core a positive relationship builder between parent and child. The root word of ‘discipline’ is ‘disciple’. Disciples follow older and wiser people, not out of fear of punitive actions, but out of respect and love. It is the job of the older and wiser person to interact with the disciple in a way that teaches them how to be in a positive relationship, accept correction, and maintain care and affection in the process.
Discipline and consequence may produce temporary hurt feelings and resentment, but when properly carried out, actually results in healing those same hurts and resentments in the process. Respect becomes a mutual experience for parent and child. The parent understands and accepts their role as the older and wiser person, and fully expects the child to strike out at the parent when the child is angry or hurt. The parent is able to control their own emotional reactivity and not enter into the scoreboard, punitive game. Without the ability to reduce reactivity and increase positive response, a parent will lapse into either punitive or permissive parenting, sometimes alternating between the two, which further confuses the child and creates animosity in the relationship.
Consequence becomes a relationship-neutral boundary that teaches, often through personal demonstration by the parent in their own relationship with others, that there are natural consequences to our actions or inaction. Consequence is just a fact of life. Non-punitive and non-indulgent consequences are fair and consistent. And, they produce positive results in the child's behaviors and self discipline.
The first task in ending punitive or permissive parenting and adopting the more effective discipline-consequence style is for a parent to recognize and admit their error. Then they must find the courage to set aside their ego in order to learn a new way. The third task is to learn to hold on to themselves emotionally well enough in the correction and discipline process to use the tools that work. And then, of course, practice, practice, practice.