Boundaries provide a child with mental and physical safety. Clear and consistent boundaries protect the child from matters that he or she is unable to understand or process. Common ground rules make daily life easier for the parents. The boundaries should be in proportion to the child’s stage of development. This helps the child to understand what is expected of him or her at different ages. Consistency, calmness and discussion play a key role in setting boundaries.
Children may react strongly and loudly to boundaries set by the parents. Naturally, parents do not feel good about disappointing their child, but this is unavoidable at times. Feelings of inadequacy, tiredness and uncertainty are common in the daily life of families with children, and they are nothing to be scared about. If you feel like you are lost, there is plenty of help, support and instructions available.
Source: psychiatrist Ben Furman, MuksuoppiAppi
All children sometimes break the rules by doing something wrong or forbidden. They may, for example, snatch something, lie, destroy property, bully another child, act violently, swear or spit at a teacher, etc. When children do such things adults often think that it is their responsibility to punish the child in order to ensure that the child understands that they have done something wrong, and does not do it again.
The problem with punishment is that it does not always have the expected effect (stop the child from doing it again) and it can, under certain circumstances, be counterproductive.
Punishment doesn’t seem to work if
1. the child doesn’t understand why it was wrong to do so
2. the child feels that the punishment is unreasonable or unfair
3. there is a delay between the wrongdoing and the punishment
4. all the adults who are important to the child do not agree on the punishment.
When this is the case punishment may trigger opposition rather than compliance in the child, which tends to increase, rather than decrease, the chances that the child will do the same thing again.
Not bad but lacking a skill
I like to think that children don’t do wrong things because they are bad but because they lack some skill. For example, children who hit other children are not bad but they lack the skill to communicate their disappointment in a more mature way, or children who steal are not bad but lack the skill of asking for what they want and accepting that they cannot always have what they want.
If you sympathize with this way of thinking, punishing doesn’t seem like the best way to respond to children’s unacceptable behaviour. It makes more sense to help the child develop the skills they need in order to be able to handle challenging situations in a socially more appropriate manner.
An alternative approach
Punishing is not the only way to try to prevent children from doing the same thing again. One alternative, which is often more effective, is to coach children to take responsibility for their action. I have listed the six steps of taking responsibility in the table below. You can find more information, including case examples, about the Steps of Responsibility approach at the Kids’ Skills website under the heading ‘Steps of responsibility’.
If a child has done something wrong or forbidden, instead punishing them, coach them to take responsibility for their action use the following steps as your guide
- Talk with the child about what the child has done and explain to the child that you are not going to punish them but help them to take responsibility for their action.
- Help the child to understand why it is wrong, or forbidden, to do what the child has done.
- Help the child think of a good way to apologize to whomever they hurt, or offended, with what they did.
- Encourage the child to talk to the person they hurt to find out how that person would want them to compensate, make up for, or repair, the harm that they caused.
- Help the child think about what it is they need to learn, or become better at, in order to avoid doing similar things again.
- Ask the child to think of what they could do to prevent also others from doing similar things.
Kahdeksan kysymystä lapsen median käytöstä, Mannerheim League for Child Welfare (in Finnish):
Sopivaa etäisyyttä etsimässä, Mannerheim League for Child Welfare (in Finnish):