How Do I Get My Child to Behave without Spanking?

How do I get my child to behave? How do I teach my child to be polite or thoughtful of others?  Is spanking ever O.K.? How do I get my children to practice the piano or do their homework? How do I get them to do anything or even listen to me? What do I do when they’re bad? What kind of discipline should I use?

Do I back off or get in their face like a “tiger mom?” How can we exercise parental authority so that our children will become authorities themselves? It’s actually not hard; it’s just tricky. Don’t get mad; get creative.

Actually, maybe it is hard, but if so, what is hard is the growing we adults have to do.

A mother once told me that one of the most important things I taught her was: “Don’t get mad; get even.”

“Really?” I replied. “I mean, that doesn’t sound very professional of me.”

“Yes,” she said. “It’s my mantra. I say it to myself all the time.”

“Like, when?”

“Like yesterday, Brian [age 6] said he wasn’t going to do his homework.

“My first feeling was fear, then anger. It made me mad. I almost got into it with him, but planning ahead I could see that by the end of the argument he would have proven to me that indeed he DOES have the power NOT to do his homework. I felt that he was just doing this to push my buttons.

“So, I said to myself Rick said, ‘Don’t get mad, get even,’ and said to Brian, ‘Well, if that is your decision, that is your business. But of course you will have to tell Ms. Golden. She is the one who gave you the assignment, not me. I’ll go into the classroom with you, in case you want some help telling her.’ Half an hour later I saw him sitting at the kitchen table doing his homework.”

Whoever started using the word “mad” for the feeling of anger was definitely on to something. Certainly, anger is often a legitimate feeling, and kids can make you angry. In fact, if getting “No” when you ask them to do something, or seeing them hurt someone, or being disrespected doesn’t make you angry, then you are socially irresponsible. lf things like that don’t cause anger to well up in you, then you shouldn’t be parenting or teaching. However, it is mad (I mean crazy, insane, foolish, immature) to react with anger. Better to run feelings through other parts of the brain before acting.

A litter of puppies is nursing at their mother’s teats when one of them uses its teeth. What does the mother do? Her head instantly whips around from its calm, peaceful state, and snaps at the offender. Offenses need to be corrected as decisively as possible.

But human puppies are more complex and for best results they require a more complex reaction process. Snapping at children like a dog with her puppies is O.K., and at the same time not O.K. It is O.K. in that snapping delivers a message. It is not O.K. in that it has negative side effects. Also, snapping often doesn’t make a change in the behavior—just a dent in the relationship. An adult human would want to apologize for reacting in anger. (This is what essay 31 in the book The Genius in Every Child: Encouraging Character, Curiosity and Creativity in Children is all about.)

Back when Brian was two and working on developing his own authority, he began challenging his mother’s authority. His mother got mad. Soon Brian could be counted on to do the very thing that made his mother mad. His Mom’s anger became more interesting than the choice he was making. Thus Brian learned the game of “Making Mommy Mad.”

But then Brian’s mom decided to work smarter-not-harder and to be a creative problem-solver. She practiced the creative process of translating her anger into effective action.

In our conversation she said, “It feels like trying to outsmart him. I try to transfer back to Brian the effect of his actions.”

I said, “This is great but from now on could you please use the mantra: Don’t get mad; let the consequences do the talking. It would make me feel better. I don’t like the connotation of ‘get even.’”

She laughed and said, “Sure, if it would make you feel better.”

Learning how to translate anger into effective action is actually a lifelong process, but if emotional control is something we want to teach our children, first we must teach ourselves. One of the blessings of children is that they will teach us, if we can bring ourselves to listen.

It may feel paradoxical, but if we are confident in the necessary authority that comes with the position of parent, letting ourselves learn from our children only enhances our authority in their eyes.

For more than two years, now, a really excellent discussion has been going on on this subject at “No Bad Kids.” Nine excellent guidelines for discipline without shame.


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10 thoughts on “How Do I Get My Child to Behave without Spanking?

  1. Rick, this is thought-provoking. You touch on several interesting ideas… I see the “Brian and his homework” example as more about natural consequences and taking responsibility for one’s choices than “getting even” (but I sense your tongue is in cheek?).

    I appreciate your focus on tone. There are so many reasons why angry, or even slightly tense responses don’t work with young children. A parent I’ve been working with told me that she constantly reminds herself of a word I used once — “unruffled”. This word has successfully guided her through a variety of difficult situations with her toddler son.

    This is beautiful, Rick, and so true: “…if emotional control is something we want to teach our children, first we must teach ourselves. One of the blessings of children is that they will teach us, if we can bring ourselves to listen.” Thanks so much again for your wisdom…and it was kind of you to mention my No Bad Kids post. By the way, what DO you think of spanking?

  2. 1) right, “getting even.” I don’t remember saying it. That’s Brian’s mothers language for letting the consequences do the talking. I think it might have something to do with keeping her on an “even keel.” but from now on I am going to push the word “unruffled.”
    It’s all about emotional control–making sure your prefrontal cortex is doing the work–we are thinking all the time and reacting never.
    2) Spanking. If “slightly tense” is bad, it is hard to imagine spanking as good. The point of reminding us that a mother dog snaps at her pups is that a) it is good that a message is sent and b) bad that it uses fear as the messenger. AND it is important for us not to get high and mighty about NO SPANKING. Parents are human animals and might react like a mother dog sometimes. It is okay; we’re not perfect. When parents make mistakes, they can apologize and when they do they model what one should do when they make a mistake. That is the point of chapter 31 in my book.
    Spanking as a pre-meditated strategy is worse than bad for the kid–it’s creepy.

  3. Sometimes I just chuckle at the way we pose behavioral problems … like, how do I get my child to behave? He or she is behaving … we just don’t like it. So really we mean, how do I get my child to do what I want her to do when I want her to do it? Or not do something she is continuing to do. One helpful question to ask is, what would I do if this were an unrelated alien being living in my house? Just a place to start … 😉

    Where I would go next is think about this idea about emotional control as a goal. We are designed (neurologically) to react to anything threatening and anything that could be threatening. That is useful, and it includes any sudden change change, anything new or unfamiliar. We have survived, and mostly continue to survive, because we react. With regard to emotionally reacting to behavior, we call that “getting upset.” That, too, is automatic and human. Any healthy human being gets upset (goes out of control to some degree) whenever an expectation is not met or is thwarted. Where do our expectations come from? Our past. I’d say we get upset whenever our child’s behavior does not meet our expectation. We have no control over getting upset. And we know this already. We know we do not think, “Oh, now I’m going to get upset!” and then get upset. We get upset first, and then we explain it.

    All this sends messages to our children about what it means to be an adult, that our upsets are their fault, and how important it is to meet our expectations. We call this learning, but actually it is conditioning. Our children are really doing their best to figure out our behavior and how to control their own, and believing that reacting emotionally is bad or wrong conflicts us and well as our children. Maybe what being upset really means is that I am a human being. And if I scare my child when I am upset, or withhold my love and support, I can apologize for that, as likely those are unintentional and cause stress. But I would not apologize for getting upset. I would just let it pass, and then acknowledge it (“Wow! I really got mad, didn’t I? I’m sorry if I scared you. I really am. I love you.” Then look and listen. “You know, people get upset sometimes. It just means that something didn’t go the way they expected, and everything is really okay.” Once the relationship is repaired, then you can talk with your child about what works in your family and what doesn’t. When an experimental behavior becomes a strategic behavior (that is, it persists after you have requested an alternative), there is a way to handle that without force or fear or withholding love and without using any one of our 15 disciplinary strategies … that takes a further inquiry and some re-thinking what we have learned.

  4. Marty, you make excellent points. You are implying that a parent’s attempt to model an emotionless, upset-free environment is, contrary to what parents are often advised, not all that necessary or even helpful to the child.
    Teaching emotional intelligence is about using words to talk about and raise consciousness about emotions, not being unemotional.

  5. Rick, thanks for your opinion on spanking. Most parents who spank seem to believe the EXACT opposite of: “Spanking as a pre-meditated strategy is worse than bad for the kid–it’s creepy.” These parents (and MANY of them have been commenting on my No Bad Kids post lately) believe in “proper spankings” and “good spankings” (both oxymorons, in my view). “Proper spankings” are intentional, pre-meditated, given with “love” and sometimes even a parent’s tears. The parent makes nice afterwards.

    In the minds of these commenters, the impulsive, dog snapping kind of spanking is “hitting” and that is NOT good, worlds away from what they do, although it is this impulsive kind of hitting that the studies I’ve read show to be more benign, or at least somewhat understandable in the eyes of a child.

    Unsurprisingly, every one of these parents was spanked by his or her parents…but they “deserved” it, unlike those of us that weren’t spanked. WE never deserved it, I guess. These comments have been disheartening for me to read and try to respond to…

    I guess they are proof of our hugely powerful role as parents.

    Anyway, I don’t mean to hijack this discussion, Rick, but I’ve been taken aback by these parents’ vociferousness, their commitment to the belief that spanking is a necessary method for teaching young children. I’m running out of ways to get through to them…

    @Marty, I appreciate your point of view. I work mostly with parents of toddlers and have noted how easy it is to get our buttons pushed and lose perspective when the child acts out. A 15 month old tries out hitting us, and we forget that this is a tiny person experimenting. Maybe we get angry, which then rattles the child and he might have to try this again (or something else) so that he can get a calm, in-control response from the leader he needs so badly. We’re not perfect, but being anchors for our children’s storms is something to aspire to and worth working on, in my opinion.

  6. Thanks, Janet. I commented on your conversation. It sounds like the pro-spanking people are fundamentally anti-anti spanking people. We are all pro-boundary people. Your way requires an increase in emotional intelligence. In the absence of that emotional intelligence there does seem to be an authority vacuum and that many kids are growing up without boundaries.
    This country has focused for so long on IQ that it will take some time and energy to re-educate that EQ is a better predictor of success than IQ. What we have going for us is the kids–they are often way ahead of us. I know an awful lot of great kids–respectful, loving, kids, thoughtful …and smarter than we were because of their higher emotional intelligence.

  7. Rick and Janet, thanks for contextualizing what I was saying … yes, that is what I meant, and more. Re Janet, your comment, yes, indeed being anchors during our children’s storms is one of our most important roles. And yes, our very youngest children are experimenting, trying to find how to tap back into our love and support once we’ve been upset.

    Janet, I almost gave up working with parents about 10 years ago until I began to look underneath what we take for granted as parents and educators. I could not deal with their beliefs, especially the one you mentioned, “My daddy spanked me,” and also, “My mom washed my mouth out with soap,” and look, it worked! And I know where your heart is …

    How do we work that in a way that both repairs the relationship AND gives our very youngest children useful modeling and knowledge? I’m suggesting that it is not the child’s behavior nor our upsets that is the problem. The problem is that we think being upset means something or someone is bad or wrong (either ourselves or our children), and we pass that problematic and not necessarily true meaning on to our children. That in itself is a no-win scenario. We must come up with a plausible alternative to understanding where upsets come from and what they mean.

  8. Nice article. I don’t believe in spanking, though I was spanked as a child myself. I definitely KNOW I didn’t always deserve it, but I suppose a lot of times I did.

    I guess it would be one thing is spanking was effective, but I just don’t think it is. As you noted, the child sees through the spanking because they are complex. Your example of the dogs could be improved I think, because dogs are complex as well — just easier to control since we own them and never send them to school and out to hang with friends. Unfortunately children eventually learn about the world and thus that mom and dad are just regular people like the millions of others, and in fact like the child.

    I think a lot of time parents put too many boundaries and rules in place, and then find themselves needed to go to extreme measures in enforcement. When rules make sense, enforcement is not much of a problem. I wrote a post called Punishment Without Psychological Damage: An Essential Tool For Parents ( as an exploration of how to “adjust” behavior in a way that makes sense to the child. Spanking ain’t it.

  9. Alex. Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment. I really like: When rules make sense, enforcement is not much of a problem.

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