How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk

3| Alternatives to Punishment


As you began to use some of the skills for engaging cooperation, did you find that it took thought and self-control not to say some of the things you usually say? For many of us sarcasm, lectures, warnings, name-calling, and threats were all woven into the language we heard as we were growing up. It isn’t easy to give up the familiar.

Parents have often told us how upset they were because, even after attending a session, they’d still find themselves saying things to their children they didn’t like. The only difference was that now they heard themselves. Actually hearing yourself represents progress. It’s the first step toward making changes.

I know for myself the process of change didn’t come easily. I’d hear myself using the old, unhelpful ways—“What’s wrong with you kids? You never remember to turn off the light in the bathroom.” Then I’d get annoyed with myself. I’d resolve never to say that again. Then I’d say it again. Remorse. “I’ll never learn this stuff . . . How else could I have said that? . . . I know . . . I should have said, ‘Children, the light’s on in the bathroom.’ Or, better still, ‘Kids, the light!’ ” Then I’d worry that I’d never have the chance to say it.

I had nothing to worry about. They always left the light on in the bathroom. But the next time I was ready for them: “Kids, the light.” Someone ran and turned it off. Success!

Then there were the times when I’d say all the “right things” and nothing seemed to work. The kids would either ignore me or—even worse—defy me. When that happened, there was only one thing I wanted to do—PUNISH THEM!

In order to understand more deeply what happens between people when one person punishes another, please read the next two scenes and answer the questions that follow them.

Scene One:

MOTHER: Stop running up and down the aisles . . . I want you to stay close to me while we shop . . . Why are you touching everything? Put those bananas back . . . No, we are not buying them; we have plenty at home . . . Stop squeezing the tomatoes! I’m warning you, if you don’t listen to me you are going to be sorry . . . Get your hand out of there, will you? I’ll pick out the ice cream . . . You’re running again. Do you want to fall?

   Okay, that does it!! Do you know you nearly knocked over that old lady? You are going to be punished. You are not going to have a single spoonful of this ice cream I bought for tonight. Maybe that’ll teach you not to behave like a wild animal!

Scene Two:

FATHER: Billy, were you using my saw?


FATHER: Are you sure?

BILLY: I swear, I never touched it!

FATHER: Well, then, how come I found it lying outside, full of rust, next to that go-cart you and your friend are making?

BILLY: Oh, yeah! We were using it last week and then it started to rain so we went inside, and I guess I forgot.

FATHER: So you lied!

BILLY: I didn’t lie. I really forgot.

FATHER: Yeah, the way you forgot my hammer last week and my screwdriver the week before!

BILLY: Gee, Dad, I didn’t mean to. Sometimes I just forget.

FATHER: Well, maybe this will help you remember. Not only are you never going to get a chance to use my tools again, but for lying to me on top of it, you’ll stay home when we all go to the movies tomorrow!

Questions. 1. What motivated the parents in each scene to punish their children?

Scene I



Scene II



2. What do you think might be the feelings of the children who were punished?

Scene I



Scene II



To punish or not to punish?

Whenever that question comes up in a group, I usually ask, “Why? Why do we punish?” Here are some of the answers parents have given:

“If you don’t punish them, kids will try to get away with murder.”

“Sometimes I get so frustrated, I don’t know what else to do.”

“How will my child learn that what he did was wrong and not to do it again if I don’t punish him?”

“I punish my son because it’s the only thing he understands.”

When I asked parents to remember their own feelings when they were punished, I got the following responses:

“I used to hate my mother. I’d think, ‘She’s such a bitch,’ and then I’d feel so guilty.”

“I used to think, ‘My father’s right. I am bad. I deserve to be punished.’”

“I used to fantasize that I’d get very sick and then they’d be sorry for what they did to me.”

“I remember thinking, ‘They’re so mean. I’ll fix them. I’ll do it again, only next time I won’t get caught.’”

The more these parents talked, the more aware they became that punishment could lead to feelings of hatred, revenge, defiance, guilt, unworthiness, and self-pity. Nevertheless, they still worried:

“If I give up punishment, won’t I be putting my children in the driver’s seat?”

“I’m afraid of losing my final method of control and leaving myself powerless.”

I understood their concerns. I remember asking Dr. Ginott, “At what point is it all right to punish a child who ignores or defies you? Shouldn’t there be consequences for a child who misbehaves?”

He answered that a child should experience the consequences of his misbehavior, but not punishment. He felt that in a caring relationship there was no room for punishment.

I pressed him further: “But suppose a child continues to disobey you. Isn’t it all right to punish him then?”

Dr. Ginott said that the problem with punishment was that it didn’t work, that it was a distraction, that instead of the child feeling sorry for what he has done and thinking about how he can make amends, he becomes preoccupied with revenge fantasies. In other words, by punishing a child we actually deprive him of the very important inner process of facing his own misbehavior.

This way of thinking—that punishment doesn’t work because it’s a distraction—was very new to me. But it left me with another question: What could I do instead?

Take some time now to think about how else the parents could have handled the two situations you read about. See what ideas you come up with.

1. What are some possibilities—other than punishment—for handling the child in the supermarket?






2. What are some possibilities—other than punishment—for handling the child who took his father’s tools and didn’t return them?






I’m always impressed by the ingenuity of parents. Give them a little quiet and some time in which to think, and they usually come up with a variety of ways to handle problems other than by punishment. For example, look at the suggestions that came from just one group:

Mother and child could have a rehearsal at home in a “pretend” store with props. As they playact together, Mother can review the finer points of supermarket decorum.

They could write a simple book together, with drawings, called Johnny Goes to the Supermarket. The book could include Johnny’s responsibilities as an active member of the shopping team—the one who helps to push the cart, load, unload, and sort.

Or Johnny, with Mother’s help, could work out a shopping list—in words or pictures—of groceries that he would be in charge of finding and putting in the basket.

Father and son could work out a library card system whereby each tool is checked out and must be returned before the next is borrowed.

Father might buy his son a starter set of tools for his next birthday. Or the son could start saving for his own set.

Notice, all of these suggestions stress prevention. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could always forestall problems by planning ahead? For those times when we have neither the foresight nor the energy, here are some alternatives to punishment that can be used on the spot.

Alternatives to Punishment

1. Point out a way to be helpful.

2. Express strong disapproval (without attacking character).

3. State your expectations.

4. Show the child how to make amends.

5. Offer a choice.

6. Take action.

7. Allow the child to experience the consequences of his misbehavior.





But suppose he behaves so badly that Mother is forced 
to leave the store. What then? On the following day, 
without lecturing or moralizing, she can let him experience the consequences of his misbehavior.





For many children any of these approaches would be enough to encourage them to act more responsibly.


But suppose the child continues borrowing and forgetting?


And if he still continues . . . ?


Now let’s look at another way that parents can handle a persistent disciplinary problem. At the end of one workshop a mother described the difficulties she was having getting her son, Bobby, to come home on time. She told us about his constant excuses, his broken promises, and his broken watches. From the groans of recognition when she spoke, it was clear that her problem was not uncommon.

Before our next session I prepared an exercise for the group. I took the original situation and restated it from what I thought might be Bobby’s point of view. Then I wrote three possible ways that parents might handle Bobby’s chronic lateness.

Please try this same exercise for yourself now. After reading Bobby’s story and each parent’s reaction to it, write down how you think Bobby might feel.

Bobby’s story: I like to play after school with my friends in the school playground. I know I’m supposed to be home by 5:45, but sometimes I forget. Yesterday and the day before, I came home late. My mother was so mad at me that today I made sure to ask my friend the time. I didn’t want my mother to scream at me like that again. My friend told me that it was 6:15. I stopped playing right away and ran all the way home. I explained to my mother that I did remember to ask the time, but it was already too late, and I ran home as fast as I could.

First Parent’s Response:

“I’ve had enough of your excuses! I see now you can’t be trusted. Well, this time you’re going to be punished. Every day next week you’ll come home after school and stay home. And don’t think you’ll sit around watching TV either, because even if I’m not home I’m telling the sitter that there’ll be no television for you. You can go straight to your room now, because dinner is over.”

What might Bobby say to himself?





Second Parent’s Response:

“Oh dear, you’re all overheated from running. Let me get a washrag and wipe your face. Promise me you won’t ever be late again.

“You’re making a nervous wreck of me. Now go in and wash your hands, and please hurry, because your dinner is getting cold. . . . Oh, maybe Mommy will warm it up for you.”

What might Bobby say to himself?





Third Parent’s Response:

“You’re telling me you made an effort and I’m glad to hear it. But I’m still upset. I don’t want to have to go through that kind of worry again. I expect that when you say you’ll be home at 5:45, I’ll be able to count on it.

“We’ve eaten already. There’s no more chicken left, but if you like you can make yourself a sandwich.”

What might Bobby say to himself?





Obviously there is no way of determining what the real Bobby would say to himself, but you might be interested in hearing the thoughts of the parents in the group who did this exercise. They felt that the first parent was too punitive. (The child would think, “She’s mean. I’ll get back at her.”) The second parent was a doormat. (The child would think, “I can get away with anything with her.”) The third parent was “just right.” She was assertive without being punitive. (Her child might think to himself, “Mom was really mad. I’d better get home on time from now on. Besides, she has confidence in me. I can’t let her down. . . . And I didn’t like having to make myself an old sandwich.”)

With this exercise in mind, the real mother went home and tried this last approach. And it worked—for three weeks. Then Bobby went back to his old habit. The mother was at her wits’ end. As she described her frustration, many questions arose in the group: “What can be done in a case like this?” . . . “Suppose you really have tried everything, and the problem goes on and on?” . . . “What can we do when there seems to be nothing left to do but punish?”

When a problem persists, we can usually assume that it is more complex than it originally appeared. For a complex problem, a more complex skill is needed. Parent educators, labor negotiators, marriage counselors have worked out some excellent detailed methods for resolving difficult conflicts. Here’s the version that I presented to the group.

To Problem-Solve

Step I.

Talk about the child’s feelings and needs.

Step II.

Talk about your feelings and needs.

Step III.

Brainstorm together to find a mutually agreeable solution.

Step IV.

Write down all ideas—without evaluating.

Step V.

Decide which suggestions you like, which you don’t like, and which you plan to follow through on.



Talk about the child’s feelings and needs.



Talk about your feelings and needs.




Brainstorm to find a mutually agreeable solution.



Write down all ideas without evaluating.




Decide which suggestions you like,
which you don’t like,
and which you plan to follow through on.


After outlining to the group the steps of the problem-solving approach, we decided that it would be helpful if we role-played the situation. I played the mother and the real mother played her son, Bobby. Here’s the script of the dialogue we had together, taken from the tape recorder that was on that evening. As you can see, the mother threw herself into her son’s role wholeheartedly:

MOTHER: Bobby, there’s something I’d like to talk about. Is this a good time for you?

BOBBY: (suspiciously) It’s okay. What is it?

MOTHER: It’s about the business of getting home on time for dinner.

BOBBY: I told you, I’ve been trying; but I always have to leave when we’re right in the middle of a game!


BOBBY: Nobody else has to go as early as me. Nobody!


BOBBY: And I have to keep asking everybody the time, cuz my stupid watch is broken, and they always tell me to “Shut up, pest!”

MOTHER: Oooh, that can hurt.

BOBBY: Yeah! Then Kenny calls me a baby.

MOTHER: That, too! . . . So what I hear you saying is that you’re under a lot of pressure from the other kids to stay.

BOBBY: That’s right!

MOTHER: Bobby, do you know how it is from my point of view?

BOBBY: Yeah, you want me home on time.

MOTHER: That’s part of it, but mainly I worry when you’re late.

BOBBY: Then don’t worry!

MOTHER: I wish I didn’t. . . . Look, let’s put our heads together and take a fresh look at this problem and see whether we could come up with some ideas that would be good for both of us. (Mother takes out pencil.) You start.

BOBBY: I’ll come home late, but you won’t worry.

MOTHER: All right, I’ll write that down. What else?

BOBBY: I dunno.

MOTHER: Hey, I have a thought. I could come to the playground and pick you up.

BOBBY: No . . . that’s no good.

MOTHER: We’re writing down all our ideas. Later we’ll decide which we like and which we don’t like. What else?

BOBBY: (long pause) I guess I could get my watch fixed.

MOTHER: (writes “Get watch fixed”) Anything else?

BOBBY: Why do we always have to eat together? Can’t you just leave my dinner for me?

MOTHER: (writes “Leave dinner”) The days are getting longer now. I suppose we could have dinner fifteen minutes later.

BOBBY: Only fifteen minutes!

MOTHER: You’d like it to be more. Hmm. (writes “Eat 15 minutes later”) Any other ideas or should we look at our list now and see what we want to cross out and what we want to keep?

BOBBY: Let’s look.

MOTHER: (reads) Possible Solutions 
Bobby comes home late. Mother doesn’t worry.
Pick up Bobby at playground.
Get watch fixed.
Leave dinner in oven.
Eat fifteen minutes later.

BOBBY: Cross out where you pick me up every day. Kenny would really tease me if you did that.

MOTHER: Okay . . . Well, I have to cross out. “Come home late,” because the fact is I do worry. But let’s look at this next one. I suppose I could move dinner to six fifteen. Would fifteen extra minutes help?

BOBBY: No . . . Well, maybe a little.

MOTHER: And I suppose I could leave dinner in the oven for you occasionally, if I knew ahead of time.

BOBBY: Yeah, and leave in “Get watch fixed.”

MOTHER: Well, the problem with that is that this is the second time the watch has been broken, and I think I’d resent having to pay for the repairs again.

BOBBY: I have money saved. Almost four dollars. Would that be enough to get it fixed?

MOTHER: Not really . . . but it would certainly help. I suppose Dad and I might pay the rest.

BOBBY: I’ll be careful, I swear. I’ll take it off if me and Kenny do arm wrestling. . . . And I’ll look at it while I’m playing so I know when to leave.

MOTHER: You will? . . . Hmm. (looks at list) Well, let’s see what we’ve decided so far. I’ll move dinner up to six fifteen. That’ll give you fifteen extra minutes to play. We’ll put our money together and get your watch repaired. And occasionally, if you let me know in advance, I can keep your dinner warm for you. How does all that hit you?

BOBBY: Good!

At our next session everyone immediately asked Bobby’s mother, “Did you try problem-solving? . . . What happened?”

She smiled and told us that she had tried it that same night, and that Bobby was intrigued with the idea. “It was almost funny,” she said. “What our whole discussion boiled down to was that he hated wearing a watch, but that if the family could eat fifteen minutes later he’d listen for the six o’clock whistle from the firehouse and that would be his signal to start for home.

“And so far,” she said, “he’s kept his word!”

Doesn’t sound too hard, does it? But it is. And the hardest part is not the learning of the separate steps. With a little study, that can be accomplished. The hardest part is the shift we have to make in attitude. We have to stop thinking of the child as a “problem” that needs correction. We have to give up the idea that because we’re adults we always have the right answer. We have to stop worrying that if we’re not “tough enough” the child will take advantage of us.

It requires a great act of faith to believe that if we take the time to sit down and share our real feelings with a young person, and listen to his feelings, together we’ll come up with solutions that will be right for both of us.

There is an important message built into this approach. It says, “When there is conflict between us, we no longer have to mobilize our forces against each other and worry about who will emerge victorious and who will go down in defeat. Instead, we can put our energy into searching for the kinds of solutions that respect both our needs as individuals.” We are teaching our children that they needn’t be our victims or our enemies. We are giving them the tools that will enable them to be active participants in solving the problems that confront them—now, while they’re at home, and in the difficult, complex world that awaits them.


I. This coming week, use an alternative to punishment. What alternative did you use? What was your child’s reaction?







II. Think of a problem that comes up regularly in your home that might be eased by the problem-solving approach. Find a time that is good for both of you, a place where you won’t be interrupted, and problem-solve with your child.

III. Read Part II of Alternatives to Punishment—Comments, Questions, and Parents’ Stories.

A Quick Reminder . . .

Instead of Punishment


“I’m furious that my new saw was left outside to rust 
in the rain!”


“I expect my tools to be returned after they’ve been 


“What this saw needs now is a little steel wool and 
a lot of elbow grease.”


“You can borrow my tools and return them or you 
can give up the privilege of using them. You decide.”


Child: “Why is the toolbox locked?”

Father: “You tell me why.”


“What can we work out so that you can use my tools when you need them, and so that I’ll be sure they’re there when I need them?”


Questions About Punishment

1. If a small child who doesn’t talk yet touches something he shouldn’t, isn’t it all right to slap his little hand?

Just because children aren’t talking doesn’t mean they aren’t listening or understanding. Little children are learning every minute of every day. The question is, what are they learning? The parent has a choice here. She can repeatedly slap the child’s hand, thus teaching him that the only way for him to learn what not to do is to be slapped. Or she can treat the child as a dignified, small human being by giving him information he can use now and for the rest of his life. As she removes the child (or the object), she can tell him firmly and clearly:

“Knives are not for licking. You can lick this spoon if you like.”

“This china dog can break. Your stuffed dog won’t break.”

She may need to repeat the same information many times, but repeated information conveys a far different message from repeated slaps.

2. What is the difference between punishment and natural consequences? Aren’t they just different words for the same thing?

We see punishment as the parent deliberately depriving a child for a set period of time or inflicting pain on him, in order to teach that child a lesson. Consequences, on the other hand, come about as a natural result of the child’s behavior. A father in one of our groups once shared an experience that to us sums up the difference between punishment and consequences. Here it is in his words:

My teenage son asked to borrow my navy blue sweater, because he said it would look “neat” with his new jeans. I told him, “Okay, but be careful,” and forgot about it after that. A week later when I wanted to wear it, I found it under a pile of dirty laundry on the floor of his room. The back was covered with chalk and the front was spattered with something that looked like spaghetti sauce.

I was so mad, because this wasn’t the first time, that I swear if he had come in at that moment I would have told him that he could forget about going to the ball game with me on Sunday. I’d give his ticket to someone else.

Anyway, when I saw him later I had calmed down a little, but I still bawled him out. He told me he was sorry and all that, but darned if he didn’t ask me for it again a week later. I said, “Nothing doing.” No lectures. No speeches. He knew why.

Then, a month after that, he asked for my plaid shirt for a school field trip. I told him, “Look, before I lend anything again, I need some reassurance—in writing—that my shirt will be returned in the same condition in which it was borrowed.” That night I found a note on my pile of mail. It said:

Dear Dad,

If you let me borrow your shirt, I’ll do everything I can to keep it clean.

I won’t lean against the blackboard. I won’t put my ball point pen in the pocket. And when I eat lunch I’ll cover myself with paper napkins.



Well, I was very impressed with the note. I figured that if he took the trouble to write it he’d probably take the trouble to do what he said.

P.S. The shirt was returned to me the next night on a hanger, and it was clean!

To us, that story showed natural consequences in action. One natural consequence of returning borrowed property in damaged condition is the owner’s displeasure. Another natural consequence is the owner’s reluctance to lend you anything again. It’s also possible that the owner might change his mind if he gets some concrete evidence that it won’t happen again. But the responsibility to change is clearly the borrower’s. The owner doesn’t have to do anything to you to teach you a lesson. It’s a lot easier to learn from the hard realities of people’s real reactions than from a person who decides to punish you “for your own good.”

3. Last week I found a pile of orange peels and pits on the sofa. When I asked my boys, “Who did it?” each one pointed to the other. If it isn’t a good idea to find out which child is guilty and then punish him, what can I do?

The question “Who did it?” usually leads to an automatic, “Not me,” which in turn leads to “Well, one of you must be lying.” The more we try to get at the truth, the more loudly the children protest their innocence. When we see something that angers us, it’s more helpful to express that anger than to locate the culprit and punish him:

“I get furious when I see food on our sofa! Orange peels can stain it permanently.”

At this point you may hear a chorus of “But I didn’t do it.” . . . “He made me” . . . “The dog did it” . . . “It was the baby.”

This is your opportunity to let everyone know:

“I’m not interested in knowing who did it. I’m not interested in blaming anyone for what happened in the past. I am interested in seeing improvement in the future!”

By not blaming or punishing, we free the children to focus on taking responsibility, rather than on taking revenge.

“Now I’d like both of you to help clear the sofa of all peels and pits.”

4. You say that one alternative to punishment is to express your disapproval. When I do that my child looks so guilty and is so miserable for the rest of the day that I get upset. Is it possible that I’m overdoing it?

We can understand your concern. Dr. Selma Fraiberg in her book The Magic Years says, “A child needs to feel our disapproval at certain times, but if our reaction is of such strength that the child feels worthless and despised for his offense, we have abused our power as parents and have created the possibility that exaggerated guilt feelings and self-hatred will play a part in this child’s personality development.”

That’s why we feel that whenever possible, along with our disapproval, we should point the way toward helping a child to make amends. After his initial remorse, the child needs a chance to restore his own good feeling about himself and to see himself as a respected, responsible family member once again. As parents, we can give him that chance. Here are some examples:

“I’m furious! The baby was playing happily until you took her rattle away. I expect you to find some way to end her crying now!”

(Instead of “You made the baby cry again. Now you’re going to get a smack.”)

“It really upsets me to come home to a sink full of dirty dishes when you gave your word they would be done. I’d like them washed and put away before bedtime!”

(Instead of “You can forget about going out tomorrow night. Maybe that will teach you to keep your word.”)

“A whole box of soap powder emptied on the bathroom floor! It makes me so angry to see such a mess. Soap powder is not for playing with! We need a bag, a broom, and a dustpan. Quick, before it gets tracked all over the house.”

(Instead of “Look at the work you made for me. No TV for you tonight!”)

Statements like these say to the child, “I don’t like what you did, and I expect you to take care of it.” We hope that later on in life, as an adult, when he does something he regrets, he’ll think to himself, “What can I do to make amends—to set things right again?,” rather than “What I just did proves I’m an unworthy person who deserves to be punished.”

5. I don’t punish my son anymore, but now when I scold him for doing something wrong he says, “I’m sorry.” Then the next day he does the same thing again. What can I do about it?

Some children use “I’m sorry” as a way of placating an angry parent. They’re quick to apologize and just as quick to repeat their misbehavior. It’s important for these youngsters to realize that if they’re genuinely sorry their feelings of remorse should be translated into action. The “repeat offender” can be told any of the following:

“Sorry means behaving differently.”

“Sorry means making changes.”

“I’m glad to hear you’re sorry. That’s the first step. The second step is to ask yourself what can be done about it.”

The Experts Speak Out on Punishment

Every once in a while an article appears singing the praises of punishment and telling us how to do it. (“Explain the punishment ahead of time” . . . “Punish as promptly as possible” . . . “Let the punishment fit the crime.”) Often, to angry, beleaguered parents this kind of advice seems to make good sense. What follows are quotes from a variety of professionals in the mental-health field who have another point of view about punishment.

Punishment is a very ineffective method of discipline . . . for punishment, strangely enough, often has the effect of teaching the child to behave in exactly the opposite way from the way we want him to behave! Many parents use punishment simply because no one has ever taught them better ways of disciplining their children.

(How to Father, Dr. Fitzhugh Dodson, Signet, 1974)

The act of disciplining a child can be a frustrating one. However, at the outset it needs to be stressed that discipline means education. Discipline is essentially programmed guidance that helps people to develop internal self-control, self-direction, and efficiency. If it is to work, discipline requires mutual respect and trust. On the other hand, punishment requires external control over a person by force and coercion. Punishing agents seldom respect or trust the one punished.

(“The Case Against Spanking,” Brian G. Gilmartin, Ph.D., in Human Behavior, February 1979, vol. 8, no. 2)

From a review of the literature it is concluded that physical punishment by parents does not inhibit violence and most likely encourages it. Punishment both frustrates the child and gives him a model to imitate and learn from.

(Violence and the Struggle for Existence, Work of the Committee on Violence of the Department of Psychiatry, Stanford University School of Medicine, Edited by David N. Daniels, M.D., Marshall F. Gilula, M.D., and Frank M. Ochberg, M.D., Little, Brown & Company, 1970)

Confused and bewildered parents mistakenly hope that punishment will eventually bring results, without realizing that they are actually getting nowhere with their methods.

The use of punishment only helps the child to develop a greater power of resistance and defiance.

(Children: The Challenge, Rudolf Dreikurs, M.D., Hawthorn, 1964)

There are a number of other possibilities in learning which spanking provides, none of which are intended by parents. The child may learn how to avoid successfully any guilt feelings for bad behavior by setting up a cycle in which the punishment cancels the “crime” and the child, having paid for his mischief, is free to repeat the act another time without attendant guilt feelings.

The child who does everything possible to provoke a spanking is a child who is carrying a secret debt on the “sin” side of the ledger which the parent is invited to wipe out by means of a spanking. A spanking is just what the child does not need!

(The Magic Years, Selma H. Fraiberg, Scribners, 1959)

Researchers believe that one in five parents have suffered . . . abuse at the hands of their children, an expression perhaps of the adolescent turmoil that can bubble over: objects lobbed at their heads, shoving, pushing, furious verbal abuse . . . there is “stark evidence” that physical abuse of the parent is actually learned at the knee of the parent.

(Newsday, August 15, 1978)

Instead of Punishing

(Experiences Shared by Parents in Our Groups)

My four-year-old daughter, Marnie, has always been a very difficult child. She gets me into such rages that I can’t control myself. Last week I came home and found that she had scribbled on the wallpaper in her room with crayon. I was so furious, I gave her a good spanking. Then I told her I was taking her crayons away, which I did.

The next morning I woke up and thought I’d die. She had taken my lipstick and scrawled all over the bathroom tile. I wanted to strangle her, but stopped myself. Very calmly I asked, “Marnie, did you do this because you were mad at me for taking away your crayons?”

She nodded her head.

I said, “Marnie, I get very, very upset when the walls are written on. It’s a lot of work for me to have to wash them off and get them clean again.”

Do you know what she did? She took a washrag and started to try to wipe the lipstick off. I showed her how to use soap and water and she worked on the tile for about ten minutes. Then she called me in to show me that most of the lipstick was off. I thanked her and then I gave her back her crayons and some paper to put in her room for whenever she wanted to draw.

I was so proud of myself, I called my husband at work to tell him what I did.

It’s been over a month now, and Marnie hasn’t written on the walls since.

No sooner had I walked in through the door after last week’s session than I received a phone call from Donny’s math teacher. She sounded very angry. She told me that my son was falling behind in his work, that he was a disruptive influence in class, that he still didn’t know his times table, and that maybe what he needed was more “discipline” at home. I thanked her for calling, but inside I was shaking. My first thought was “He should be punished. He’ll watch no television at all until he learns those multiplication tables and starts to behave himself in class.”

Luckily, I had an hour to cool off before he came home from school. When Donny came home, we had the following conversation:

ME: Mrs. K. called today and sounded very upset.

DONNY: Oh, she’s always upset about something.

ME: I consider it a very serious matter when I get a call from the school. She said you were disruptive in class and you didn’t know your times table.

DONNY: Well, Mitchell keeps hitting me on the head with his notebook. So I hit him back with mine.

ME: You feel you have to retaliate?

DONNY: What’s retaliate?

ME: Get back at him.

DONNY: That’s right. And sometimes he writes me a note and cracks me up. And then he kicks my chair until I answer him.

ME: No wonder no work gets done.

DONNY: I know my table up to six. I just don’t know my sevens and eights.

ME: Hmm . . . Donny, do you think it would help your concentration in class if you and Mitchell didn’t sit near each other?

DONNY: I dunno . . . Maybe . . . I could get the sevens and eights if I studied.

ME: I feel Mrs. K. should know that. Suppose we write her a letter. Okay with you? (Donny nodded.) I took out my pencil and wrote:

“Dear Mrs. K.,
I discussed our phone conversation with Donny and he says—”

 —Donny, what shall I tell her?

DONNY: Tell her to change my seat away from Mitchell.

ME: (writing) “He says he would like his seat to be changed so he doesn’t sit so close to Mitchell.” Is that right?

DONNY: Yeah.

ME: Anything else?

DONNY: (long pause) Tell her I’ll write out my seven and eight times table and say it out loud to myself.

ME: (I write and read to him.) “He also plans to write out his seven and eight times table and drill himself.” Anything else?


ME: I’ll close by saying, “Thank you for bringing this matter to our attention.”

I read the entire letter to Donny again. We both signed it and he brought it to school the next day. I know something must have changed, because when he came home the first thing he told me was that Mrs. K. had changed his seat and was “nice to him today.”

This story was reported by a mother who had sat grimly through our first few sessions shaking her head. On the fourth session she came in and claimed the floor to tell us the following:

I didn’t believe anything here could be applied to my child. Van is so stubborn, so unmanageable, the only thing he understands is punishment. Last week I almost fainted when my neighbor told me she had seen him cross a busy intersection that he had been strictly forbidden to cross. I didn’t know what to do. I had already taken away his bicycle, his television, his allowance . . . what was left? In desperation, I decided to try some of the things you’ve been talking about in the group. When we came home I said, “Van, we have a problem. Here is how I think you feel. You want to get to the other side of the street when you want to without having to ask someone to cross with you. Is that right?” He nodded his head. “Here’s how I feel. I worry when I think about a six-year-old boy crossing a dangerous intersection where there have been so many accidents.

“When there is a problem, we need a solution. Think about it and tell me what your ideas are at supper.”

Van immediately started to talk. I said, “Not now. It’s a very serious problem. I’d like us both to give it a lot of thought. We’ll talk at supper when Daddy is here.”

That night I prepared my husband in advance to “just listen.” Van washed his hands and was in his seat promptly. As soon as his father came into the room he said very excitedly, “I have a solution! Every night, when Daddy comes home, we’ll go to the corner, and he’ll teach me how to look at the lights and when to cross.” Then he paused, and said, “And on my seventh birthday I’ll cross by myself.”

My husband almost fell out of his chair. I guess we’ve both been underestimating our son.

Nicky, ten, reported in an offhand way (while I was rushing to make dinner and go out) that three of his textbooks were missing and I had to send in nine dollars. I totally blew up. My first impulse was to hit him or punish him. But, even though I was over the edge with anger, I somehow managed to get hold of myself and start my sentences with the word “I.” I think I was screaming as loud as is humanly possible:

“I am furious! I am enraged! Three books are lost and now I have to cough up nine dollars for it! I’m so angry I feel like I’m going to explode! And to hear this when I’m rushing to make dinner and go out, and now I have to stop and take the time to write down the homework problems over the phone!! I AM BOILING!

When I stopped screaming, the most concerned little face appeared in the doorway and Nicky said, “Mom, I’m sorry. You don’t have to cough up the nine dollars. I’ll cough it up out of my allowance.”

I think the biggest grin I’ve ever grinned appeared on my face. I have surely never stopped feeling angry so fast and so completely. What are a few lost books to a person who has a son who really caresabout her feelings!


Before Problem-Solving

We’ve discovered that for the problem-solving process to work, we have to, as the kids would say, “psych ourselves.” We tell ourselves:

“I’m going to be as accepting and tuned in to my child as possible. I’m going to listen for information and feelings I might not have heard before.”

“I’ll steer clear of judgments, evaluations, and lectures. I won’t try to persuade or convince.”

“I’ll consider any new ideas—no matter how far-out.”

“I won’t be pressured by time. If we can’t come up with an immediate solution, it may mean we have to do more thinking, more investigating, more talking.”

The key word is respect—for my child, for myself, and for the unlimited possibilities of what can happen when two people of good will put their heads together.

Cautions About Each Step 
of the Problem-Solving Process

Before you begin, ask yourself, “Am I still seething with emotion, or am I calm enough now even to begin this whole process?” (You can’t problem-solve when you’re boiling.) Then check out your child’s mood. “Is this a good time for you to talk?” If she says “yes,” then:

1. Talk about the child’s feelings. (“I imagine you must be feeling . . .”)

Don’t rush this part. Let your attitude be: “I’m really trying to get clear on how you feel about all this.” Only when the child feels heard and understood will she be able to consider your feelings.

2. Talk about your feelings. (“Here’s how I feel about it.”)

Keep this part short and clear. It’s hard for a child to listen to a parent who goes on and on about his worry, his anger, or his resentment.

3. Invite the child to work on finding a mutually acceptable solution.

If possible, let the child come up with the first few ideas. The crucial point here is to refrain from evaluating or commenting on any of those ideas. The instant you say, “Well, that’s no good,” the whole process ends and you’ve undone all your work. All ideas should be welcomed. Very often the most unlikely ones can lead to some fine, workable solutions. The key sentence is “We’re writing down all our ideas.” It’s not essential to write, but somehow putting each idea in writing gives great dignity to each contribution. (One child was overheard saying, “My mother is so smart. She writes down all my ideas.”)

4. Decide which ideas you like, which you don’t like, and which ideas you want to put into action.

Watch out for “put-down” statements (“That’s a dumb idea”). Instead, describe your personal reactions:

“I wouldn’t be comfortable with that because . . .” or

“That sounds like something I could do.”

5. Follow through.

The danger here is getting so carried away with your good feelings at having come up with a workable solution that you don’t bother to make a specific plan to follow through. It’s important to add:

“What steps do we have to take to get this plan into motion?”

“Who’ll be responsible for what?”

“By when shall we have it done?”

6. Don’t permit the child to blame or accuse you at any point.

CHILD: Yeah, but that wouldn’t work because you always . . . You never . . .

It’s important that the parent be firm when this happens.

PARENT: No accusations or talk about the past. What we’re trying to do now is focus on a solution for the future!

Questions About Problem-Solving

1. Suppose the plan you and your child agree upon works for a while and then falls through. What then?

These are the times that test our determination. We can either go back to lecturing and punishing or we can go back to the drawing board. For example:

PARENT: I’m disappointed that our approach isn’t working anymore. I find myself doing your job, and that’s unacceptable to me. Shall we give the old plan another chance? . . . Shall we talk about what’s getting in the way? . . . Or shall we work out another solution?

As adults, we realize that few solutions are permanent. What would work for the child when he was four may not work for him now that he is five; what worked in the winter may not work in the spring. Life is a continual process of adjustment and readjustment. What’s important for the child is that he continue to see himself as part of the solution rather than as part of the problem.

2. Do you always have to go through all the steps to resolve the problem?

No. A problem can be resolved at any step along the way. Sometimes a simple description of your conflicting needs can lead to a very quick solution. For example:

MOTHER: We have a real problem here. You want me to take you for sneakers now. I want to finish sorting all the laundry and then I have to start supper.

CHILD: Maybe I could finish the laundry while you get ready to go, and then when we come home I’ll help you make supper.

MOTHER: I think that would work.

3. Suppose we go through all the steps and still don’t come up with a solution we can both agree on. What then?

That can happen. But nothing has been lost. By discussing the problem, each of you has become more sensitive to the other’s needs. In a difficult situation this is often the best that can be hoped for. And sometime it’s just a matter of needing more time to think, to “let the beans cook,” before a solution can be reached.

4. Suppose a child refuses to sit down and problem-solve with you. What then?

There are some children who are uncomfortable with this approach. For these youngsters, a note, based on the same principle, can be an effective substitute.

Dear Johnny,

I’d like your ideas on solving the problem of . . . You probably (want, need, feel . . . )

I (want, need, feel . . . )

Please let me know of any solutions you can think of that we might both agree on.


5. Isn’t this an approach that works best for older children?

Parents of young children have reported great success with this approach. On the following pages you’ll find stories in which parents used problem-solving skills with children of various ages.

Problem-Solving in Action

Situation: The cradle I lent to a friend was just returned to me. I put it in the bedroom. Brian, age two, examines it and is fascinated by the swinging basket.

BRIAN: Mommy, I go up in cradle.

MOMMY: Sweetheart, you’re much too big for that cradle.

BRIAN: Yes, I go up in cradle. (begins to climb into it)

MOMMY: (restraining him) Brian, Mommy said you’re too big. The cradle might break if I put you in it.

BRIAN: Please, Mommy! I go up in cradle—NOW! (begins to whine)

MOMMY: I said, NO!! (Poor move on Mommy’s part. I realized it as soon as I said it, and as Brian’s whining turned into a minor tantrum. I decided to try problem-solving with him.)

MOMMY: Sweetie, I can see how much you want to get into the cradle—right now. It probably looks like lots of fun to swing in. I’d like to swing in it, too. The problem is that it won’t hold me, and it won’t hold you. We’re too big.

BRIAN: Mommy too big—just like Briney. (Brian leaves the room and comes back with Goover, his stuffed bear, and puts him in the cradle. He begins to rock the basket back and forth.)

BRIAN: See, Mommy? Briney rocking Goover, okay?

MOMMY: (Whew!) Goover is just the right size.

After much frustration with the whole toilet-training process, I decided to try the problem-solving technique with my son, who was three at the time. We sat down together at the table and I said, “David, I’ve been thinking about how hard it is for a little boy to learn how to use the toilet. I’ll bet sometimes you’re so busy playing that you don’t even notice that you have to ‘go.’”

He looked at me with his big eyes but didn’t say anything. Then I said, “I’ll bet that sometimes even when you do notice it’s hard to get to the bathroom in time and climb onto that toilet.”

He nodded his head, “Yes.”

Then I asked him to bring me paper and crayon so that we could write down all the ideas that we could think of that might help. He ran into his room and brought me a yellow paper and a red crayon. I sat down with him and began to write.

I started by listing two ideas.

Buy a step stool like the one Jimmy has in his bathroom.

Mommy will ask David if he needs to “go.”

Then David piped up, “Barbara and Peter will help me.” (Peter is his friend, who is trained, and Barbara is his mother.)

Then he said, “Peter wears ‘big-boy pants.’”

I wrote, “Get big-boy pants for David.”

The next day I ran out and bought him a step stool and a pile of training pants. David was delighted with both and showed them to Peter and Barbara, who were reassuring.

We talked again about recognizing when he has to “go”—the pressure in his tummy—the need to get to the bathroom and get his pants off in time.

He knew that I was sympathetic to the difficulties involved.

Anyway, it’s been about three months now and he’s just about completely trained. And is he proud of himself!

I waited impatiently for our next session; I had something exciting to share with the group. I had been liberated! And so had my three-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Rachel. It started early Tuesday morning when the telephone rang.

“Susie, could you take Danielle for me this afternoon?”

“Sure,” I said.

We hung up, and I realized I had shopping to do and now I would have to drag two children around with me. Or—Rachel had been attending a forty-five-minute morning outdoor preschool group. However, she would go only if I sat on the bench outside within view. Other mothers dropped their kids off and left. I stayed!

I said to Rachel, “I must go shopping today while you’re in preschool. Danielle will be with us all afternoon, and I won’t have time to shop.”

Tears from Rachel. Here was my opportunity to use my problem-solving skills. I said to Rachel, “I see you’re sad. How can we solve this problem? Let’s write this all down.”

Rachel’s eyes lit up as I wrote:

Problem: Rachel doesn’t want Mommy to leave and Mommy has to buy milk. She doesn’t have time after preschool, so she has to do it during preschool.

Suggestions to solve problem:

(Mine) 1. Go during school and run back.

(Rachel’s) 2. Not buy milk.

(Rachel’s) 3. Go after school.

(Mine) 4. While Mommy is shopping, Rachel could sing, draw, and play.

(Mine) 5. Rachel will stay at preschool while Mommy is shopping.

(Rachel’s) 6. Mommy only buys one thing and will run back fast.

(Rachel’s) 7. Tomorrow we will buy gum together.

(Rachel’s) 8. If Rachel wants to cry, she will cry.

We read the list, and I explained that if I didn’t buy milk Rachel and Daddy would be disappointed. So we crossed that off our list. I reexplained that I wouldn’t have time to go after school—so that was crossed off, too. Rachel seemed content.

We walked to preschool. Rachel hugged and kissed me goodbye. She reminded me to go to one store only, and then sat down in the circle with the other children.

I dashed to the store and was back in plenty of time to see Rachel happily engrossed in a game with her friends. School let out. Rachel greeted me with “Did you go?”

“I sure did. You must be proud of yourself—staying here by yourself.”

Rachel nodded.

Wednesday morning.

RACHEL: (looking tense) Is there preschool today?

ME: (expecting, “Are you staying?”) Yes.

RACHEL: Oh, Mommy . . . Well, if I want to cry, I’ll cry. And if I don’t want to cry, I won’t!

ME: Let’s write that down.

I did. She added that she would sit next to a friend. Then she said, “Mommy, when you come back, come back fast. So fast that you fall down. Run!”

I brought her to preschool. She gave me a hug, a kiss, and a reminder to run and run.

I returned forty-five minutes later.

ME: You stayed by yourself!

RACHEL: Yeah, I’m proud of myself!

Friday morning:

RACHEL: Mom, is there preschool today?

ME: Yes.

RACHEL:  Well, write this down: I’ll sit next to a friend.

Problem resolved. Rachel goes to preschool. Mommy shops! Now that I look back on it, I realize that it took a great deal of effort to discipline myself to spend the necessary time to sit with Rachel and work through our problem. I’m glad I did. Rachel is, too!

My son, Michael Howard, is five and a half and in kindergarten. He reads third- to sixth-grade books. He has a large vocabulary and has decided he wants to be a plastic surgeon. He likes it when I read to him from medical books on different parts of the body. Michael comes into my bed quite often at night. I have tried everything to keep him out without making him feel unwanted. I tried staying up until 2:30 A.M. When I was fast asleep he would come into my bed with his pillow, slippers, and robe and crawl under the covers in the middle of my king-size bed. I would find him there in the morning curled up next to me. He even suggested that I sleep in his bed and he would sleep in mine. After coming home from a workshop, I decided to try another way.

I asked Michael Howard what could be done so that he would not come into my bed at night. He said, “Let me think.” He went into his room. About ten minutes later he was back with a yellow pad and a pen. He said, “Dad, take a memo.” Then he told me what to write.




He left the room and returned with a yardstick and Scotch tape. He measured 44 inches (on the door outside my room), took the memo, and taped it to the door.

Michael said, “If you don’t want me to come in, leave the note down. If it’s okay to come in (tape was on back bottom of memo), tape the bottom over the top of the note. That would mean it’s okay for me to come in.”

I said, “Thanks.”

At 6:02 A.M. Michael came into my bed. (I get up at approximately 6:00 A.M. on workdays.) Michael said, “See, Dad, I got up when it was dark and started into your room but your note was down and I couldn’t see a thing, but in my mind I could read it. So I went back to bed. See, Dad, all you have to do is ask and I’ll help you solve your problems.”

This has been in effect for two weeks with very good results. This is the better way. Thanks.


Tuesday night, still fired up from last night’s session, I broached the question to Jennifer (age five):

MOTHER: Do you have time to talk?


MOTHER: I’d like to talk about our “middle of the night” problem.

JENNIFER: Oh, okay.

MOTHER: Do you want to tell me how you feel about this situation that is making us both so unhappy?

JENNIFER: Something gets in me, Ma (grimace on face, fists clenched), and I can’t stay in my room. I just want to come into your room.

MOTHER: Oh, I see . . .

JENNIFER: I know you hate it, right?

MOTHER: Well, let me tell you how I feel. After a long day I look forward to getting into bed, snuggling under the warm covers, and falling fast asleep. When I am awakened, I’m just not a very friendly 


MOTHER: Let’s see if we can come up with a solution that can make us both happy, okay? (taking out pad and pen)

JENNIFER: You’re going to write it? Is it going to be a list? (vividly impressed)

MOTHER: Yes. Can you start us off?

JENNIFER: I’d like to come into Mommy and Daddy’s bed.

MOTHER: Okay (writing). Anything else?

JENNIFER: I could just wake you instead.

MOTHER: Mmm . . . (writing).

JENNIFER: I could read by my night-light if I scrunch down.

MOTHER: I bet you could . . .

JENNIFER: But if I had a lamp—could I have a lamp?

MOTHER: (writing) What would you do with a lamp?

JENNIFER: (getting excited) I could read a book, play with my tongue depressors (Father is a doctor), write my letters . . .

MOTHER: Somebody sounds excited.

JENNIFER: Okay, what about number 4 (on list)?

MOTHER: Have you any more ideas?

JENNIFER: (quickly) I could ask for a drink.

MOTHER: Mmm (writing).

JENNIFER: And number 5 could be sneaking out to check if you’re okay.

MOTHER: We have some list! Let’s go over it.

Jen promptly put x’s next to the first and second solutions. She talked about buying a lamp, a pad, and crayons the next day. We picked out an atrocious orange lamp (her choice) to match (?) her red-and-white room. That night went beautifully, with me receiving a shoebox (her idea) full of drawings the next morning. It’s been a whole week now that she’s let me sleep. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

Parents told us that once their children became accustomed to problem-solving, they were more able to work out their differences with their sisters and brothers. This was a big bonus for the parents. Instead of having to step in, take sides, play judge, and come up with a solution, they restated the problem and put it right back where it belonged—in the lap of the children. The statement that seemed to activate the children to take responsibility to resolve their own conflicts was: “Kids, this is a tough problem, but I have confidence that you two can put your heads together and come up with a solution that you can both agree to.” This first example is from a father:

Brad (four) and Tara (two and a half ) were outside. Brad was riding Tara’s tricycle and Tara wanted to ride it. Tara started to get hysterical and Brad refused to get off.

Normally I wouldn’t have hesitated to say, “Brad, get off. That belongs to your sister. You have your own bicycle!” But instead of taking Tara’s side, I said, “I see you both have a problem. Tara, you want to ride your tricycle. Brad, you want to ride Tara’s tricycle and she doesn’t want you to.” I then said to both of them, “I think you should try to find a solution to the problem that would be acceptable to both of you.”

Tara continued to cry, and Brad thought for a moment. Brad then said to me, “I think Tara should stand on the back of the tricycle and hold on to my stomach while I ride.”

I said, “This solution should be discussed with Tara, not me.”

Brad then asked Tara and Tara agreed! They then both rode off into the sunset.

What never ceases to surprise us is the kinds of solutions children work out. They’re usually completely original and far more satisfying than any suggestions the parents would have come up with.

When I returned home after our last session on problem-solving, my two children were in the midst of an argument about a red jacket they both wanted to wear. The jacket used to be worn by my six-year-old daughter and is now used by my three-year-old son. They were getting ready to go out and were fighting and screaming about who should wear the jacket.

I got their attention and said, “I see two children who want to wear the same red jacket.

“I see one child who used to own the jacket and still wants to have it.

“I see another child who wants to wear the red jacket because it belongs to him now.

“I believe you can both come up with a solution to this problem. I’ll be in the kitchen when you’re ready.”

I went into the kitchen and my husband and I listened in amazement as we heard a discussion between them begin. Five minutes later they entered the room and said, “We came to a solution! Josh will wear the jacket to the restaurant. And when we leave the restaurant to go to the fair, I will wear the jacket and Josh can wear my new yellow one!”

This final story shows a young boy grappling with the problem of how to deal with his own strong emotions:

Scott (eight years old) has trouble getting out his feelings of anger. This particular evening, something set him off and he stormed away from the dinner table with fists clenched, not knowing of an acceptable way to get rid of all his fury.

On the way to his room, he accidentally knocked down one of my favorite vases. As I saw it smash and break on the floor, I became furious and, unfortunately, began screaming like a maniac. He ran into his room, slamming the door.

After my husband managed to glue the vase together and time had eased the angry feelings I had, I went to his door and knocked. When he said, “What?” I asked him if it was all right if I came in and was it a good time to talk.

He looked at me with gratitude and said, “Yes!” It was as if he was reassured, merely by my presence, that I still loved him and thought of him as a human being, not as a clumsy, uncontrolled child.

I began by asking him how he feels when he gets so-o-o angry. He told me that he wants to punch someone or break something, to storm around and to slam things as hard as he can. I told him that when he shows his anger that way I want to go into his room and take his favorite toy and tear it apart. Then we both looked at each other and kind of said, “Hmmm.”

I asked him (with my paper and pencil in hand) if we could work out some way of showing or releasing anger that we could both live with, and he proceeded to give me suggestions:

Daddy could hang up my punching bag.

Put something on the wall to throw my ball at.

Hang up my beanbag chair.

Turn on my radio as loud as it goes.

Get a chin-up bar.

Smash a pillow over my head.

Slam doors.

Jump hard on the floor.

Jump on the bed.

Turn the light on and off.

Go out and run around the house ten times.

Rip up paper.

Pinch myself.

I said not a word, but wrote it all down. It was interesting that, after he said those things he knew he wouldn’t be allowed to do, he giggled a bit, as if to let me know that this is what he’d really like.

As we went back over the list, I eliminated some things and explained to him why they wouldn’t work for me. We settled on four possibilities.

Daddy would have to give a definite time that he would try to repair and hang up the punching bag.

The chinning bar would be used in the doorway to his room.

He would be able to run around the house only in the daylight.

When I questioned ripping up paper, I said, “There’s only one problem with that.”

He said, “Oh, I know. I’ll pick it up afterward!”

By this time, we were sitting closely and touching and talking very calmly. I finally said to him, “There’s only one thing I’d like to add, and it’s something that’s always available to you when you feel so full of anger.”

“I can talk about it,” he said immediately.

We both went to bed feeling really good.