Parenting Without Punishment in a Punishing World

I will admit it. I’m a bit of a control freak. Actually, I need a lot of control, because I am “Type-A,” “Judgement,” “Gold color” or whatever those personality tests use to describe me. I need people to do things when I ask them to do it, and I feel frustrated when they don’t listen to me. It’s often hard for me to remember that my partner and children are not trying to drive me crazy when they don’t listen to what I ask of them, that it’s simply that my needs are just not on their radar for that moment.

About the Author

Judy ArnallJudy Arnall, BA, CCFE, lives in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, with her husband. She is the mother of 5 children and a cofounder of Attachment Parenting Canada (APCA).

A certified family life educator, Judy teaches Parent Effectiveness Training at The University of Calgary, leads parenting classes through APCA, and offers corporate and organizational trainings on family leadership and communication skills. She also co-developed the Terrific Toddlers course available through Alberta Health Services.

parenting with patienceShe is the author of the international bestseller Discipline Without Distress and her latest book, Parenting with Patience, which details child development, temperament characteristics and strategies to manage parental stress and children’s anger without the use of punishments. Read more about Parenting with Patience in this API Spotlight.

Both books fall squarely within Attachment Parenting International‘s Seventh Principle of Parenting: Practice Positive Discipline.

Like many others who grew up in the 1970s, my parents used bribery and punishment to control their children. In spite of changing societal views on spanking, they did what their parents did and hung a wooden board in the kitchen called “The Board of Education.” We were regularly spanked as small children.

As we grew older, we were given “lines to write” in a type of home detention. We were also grounded, and had important outings and possessions taken away from us. I still remember the Halloween that I was grounded and watched my siblings eating their stash, while I had none.

Punishment kept some of us in line, like me — but with the lifelong effect of being afraid of my parents. They were the last people on earth I would come to with a problem, or to share my feelings with. I could never relax or have fun with them, because they had an authority fueled by my anger and fear.

Read more about the effect that spanking can have on parent-child attachment

Punishment also served to egg on the more spirited children I knew, such as my brother. The challenge for him was to keep on doing what he wanted and just not get caught. It became a game. He had no fear of my parents, but he didn’t respect them either. He just didn’t care what they thought. No punishment was severe enough to deter his drive and persistence.

My parents’ goal was to raise obedient children, not to build relationships, and they halfway succeeded.

Read more about using positive discipline with spirited children

In the ’70s, the trend of spanking was decreasing. Physical punishment was considered not very “positive” in parenting. Parents became widely permissive until the 1980s when the pendulum swung back again. The move from authoritarian parenting to authoritative parenting really took hold in that decade with a plethora of parenting programs that told parents physical punishments were bad, but emotional punishments were “positive discipline.”

Read more about the 3 broad parenting styles, under which various parenting approaches are categorized

A total 75% of parents spanked in the ’80s. The non-spanking parents felt they really needed to do something when they were
angry, so the concept of timeout, or jail time, became immensely popular as the discipline tool of choice for young children. For older children, the biggest form of punishment was taking away privacy, telephone privileges and grounding — all issued under the guise of “logical consequences.”

Read more about determining whether a consequence is a teaching tool or really a punishment in disguise

Today, 85% of parents punish their children emotionally, while only 65% use physical punishments. And we wonder why teens dismiss their parents in the last years of childhood? The simple answer is: Because they can. They can withhold emotional involvement.


We don’t pick one style of parenting and stay there. We move toward our parenting goals in meandering ways.

In the 1990s, I had three children under the age of 4 and, like many parents, felt anger when they wouldn’t listen to me. But my parenting goal was to build strong relationships with my children. I vowed never to spank, and only did once — as I confessed in my first book, Discipline Without Distress. My 4-year-old son looked me in the eye and said with his saddest voice, “Mommy, you tell us that hitting hurts people. You hurt me.”  I never used physical punishment ever again.

Read about another mom’s decision to not spank

However, I did do the timeouts and logical consequences. Sticking a child in a room and telling them to “think about what they did” served one purpose: to give me enough space to calm down. This worked well with my two older boys, but then the spirited firecracker of a daughter came along and kicked, screamed and wrecked her room when I put her in timeout. I realized that timeout, as a “calming tool” was not really working for her or me. I was tired of holding the door closed and her throwing things at it from the other side, all the while no one was calming down.

Read more from Judy about why timeouts don’t work

I still believed in authoritative parenting, and still considered parents to be the “supreme rulers” of the family who would allow input from the children, but who still made all the rules. However, children have a way of challenging your assumptions and changing your parenting! I gave up the timeouts.

Read these 12 alternatives to spanking and timeout

When my children were 10, 9, 7, 4 and 1, I did it! I gave up the last
piece of punishment that I was holding on to from my authoritative parenting view: logical consequences.

Again, out of the mouths of babes comes wisdom. When I issued a consequence, my 9-year-old son said to me, “No, I’m not choosing this consequence! You are imposing it on me!” After much thought, I concluded he was correct. I already had decided the outcome to the situation, and it was painful in order to teach him a lesson. He would have chosen to fix the situation differently, had I let him.

Read more about logical consequences

I had been issuing logical consequences that I decided were “related,” “reasonable” or so I had thought and “respectful,” though it wasn’t respectful enough that I would do it to my partner, friend or neighbor. But my son felt that these logical consequences were definitely a punishment and stopped talking to me. I decided to never again use logical consequences on my loved ones. I didn’t take away cell phones, video games, bedroom doors or car privileges.

Read more about positive discipline vs. punishment-based discipline

In retrospect, I realized parents can’t give up some bad habits without filling the space with good habits. To tell parents not to do something, you have to give them something to do instead. At the same time that I let go of authoritative parenting, I took a communications skills course  and practiced the three “must have” relationship communication skills. I became very practiced in:

  1. Acknowledging people’s feelings
  2. Asserting my needs through I-statements
  3. Managing conflicts with win-win collaborative problem-solving.

Every person needs these skills for every relationship that they value. Married couples do it. Bosses and subordinates do it. Neighbors who want to stay amicable do it. Why not parents and their children?

Parents don’t have to choose between the three traditional parenting styles: authoritarian, authoritative and permissive. More and more, I believed that parents can choose a fourth style: collaborative parenting, under which Attachment Parenting falls. Problem-solving can replace punishment.

Read more about problem-solving with our children

After teaching years of classes, I’ve seen parents change over time in accordance with their goal of building a lifelong relationship. Current research indicates that children need nurturing and structure. They don’t need punishment.

Read more about spanking research


Many so-called “positive” discipline programs and books still incorporate emotional punishment such as timeouts, logical consequences and taking away possessions. For children, there is nothing positive about them. If these techniques are things you wouldn’t do to your partner, why would you do them to your kids? Many times, I would have liked to soak some towels and leave them on my partner’s side of the bed, for all the times he leaves his wet shower towel on my side. Hey, it’s reasonable and related, but is it respectful? Certainly not.

Most of what we do to kids in the form of punishment is not respectful. If we wouldn’t want it done to ourselves, why would we do it to them? As much as we like to tell ourselves that logical consequences are positive discipline, ultimately children will decide what kind of relationship they will have with you, and you can influence that by focusing on your goals in parenting: using truly positive discipline by teaching while respecting our children.

Read more about what respecting our children looks like in positive discipline

As a control freak, I still order my kids around. They now range in age from 13 to 23, and for the most part, they do what I say because our relationship is engulfed in mutual respect. The odd time they will push back, and that’s my clue to move into collaborative problem-solving with them. Does this make my authority weak? Not at all. In many ways, negotiation makes me human with real needs and the right to get my needs met, just as the kids have the right to get their needs met. We are very influential to each other.

Research shows that although punishment sometimes works in order to get obedience, it does nothing for the relationship. Fear and anger enter the parent-child relationship, and that affects communication, trust, respect and the simple joy of being together. So why do parents keep clinging to it in spite of the research? We do it to relieve our anger.

Read more about obedience

It takes practice, but when we separate our anger from our discipline, we make much better decisions.

Read more about managing your own anger as a parent

How can we tell if consequences are punitive or solving a problem? If there is only one solution and its coming just from you, it might be punitive. If you are soliciting ideas from your child and you both choose win-win solutions together, then it is problem-solving.

There is help. We are now seeing parenting programs teaching collaborative parenting such as Attachment Parenting, Terrific Toddlers, Nonviolent Communication and Parent Effectiveness


I have met with a lot of resistance about my non-punitive parenting throughout the years. Relatives questioned my stance. My parents felt I was judging their ways, and friends agreed that the topic was off the table if we wanted to remain friends. Now that my oldest children are young adults and pretty decent human beings, the comments have lessened.

Read more about what to do when relatives criticize your parenting approach

When I teach parents about dropping punishments, I can see the look of surprise and skepticism on their faces. No parent ever goes home after a class and drops all punishments. It is a process. We let go of punishments one at a time. We see how much harder they are to implement and how much effort it takes from us to continue them. We also see how much it affects our children’s relationship with us.

Read more about how a secure parent-child relationship makes positive discipline easy

A comment I hear often is, “The world is full of consequences. They have to learn them sometime!” My response is to let the rest of the world punish. You don’t have to. You are building a lifelong love relationship with your child — which the rest of the world is not doing — and don’t have to punish.

Just provide nurturing and love with structure and teaching. You will raise a caring, responsible and good citizen. No fear and no anger toward parents yields high communication, less rebellion, less stress and much less attitude. You can be close and trusted enough that they will come to you with their problems. You can enjoy activities with your teen, because they want to spend time with you.

Read a mother’s reflection on her 18-year-old’s childhood with Attachment Parenting

So every day, take a little baby step closer to nonpunitive parenting. Young children get better self-control with increased age.  It’s a brain development issue, not a discipline issue. You will have many, many, moments to teach your child in the school-aged years.  Don’t project ahead: A child who hits at 3 will not be hitting at 13. Even if your kids are teens, start today.

Read more about teaching self-control

First, work on trying to curb your anger. Go outside and take a few deep breaths, go yell in the toilet or drink a glass of water to calm down. Once everyone’s calm, then take action. If your child is under 3 years, teach and redirect. If your child is older than 3, help them to problem-solve possible outcomes with you.  Aim for win-win solutions that meet their needs and your needs.

You have my guarantee: With collaborative parenting, you will enjoy the teen years!

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2 thoughts on “Parenting Without Punishment in a Punishing World”

  1. For me there are 4 building blocks to positive, peaceful parenting. 1) Connect with your child, 2) Listen to them! Without judgment or criticism. 3) Acknowledge how they feel, and 4) Accept them for who they are.

    I’ve never hit, spanked or caused physical harm to my son and never will. I’ve also never punished or shamed, and do not intend to either. He’s 4 years old now and he’s as well behaved – or better – as any other kid his age. We also have a closely bonded relationship.

  2. I love this concept. I really struggle with my now 6 year old she is extremely determined and intelligent. She also hurts others when she gets upset. The only thing I give a time out for (in a chair) is for hitting. I do not know what else to do. We talk about why she should not hit and although she understands she still does it to her little sister when upset. If I notice them fighting I can quickly diffuse the situation but sometimes it will be out of nowhere. Any suggestions would be great because I would love to elk mate timeouts completely.

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