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Why No Punishment is Your Reward

I am cruising down the highway, minding my own business, going around 70 mph in a 55 mph zone. 

I hear the sirens, look in my rear view mirror, and I realize the highway patrol is not happy with my choice to go a little faster than recommended. 

He pulls me over and I comply with his requests: license, insurance and registration.  He proceeds to ask me a very condescending question. “Do you know how fast you were going?”  (Of course I do! I have to go that fast to get to my meeting on time!)  I say, “Around 65 mph.” His response: “No, actually you were going 71 in a 55 zone.”  I am thinking to myself, “Really?  You couldn’t say 70?  You had to say 71????”

He proceeds to issue me a ticket and warn me of all the dangers of going 71 miles per hour on this highway.  He tries to scare me into being “good” and following the rules with a story of a recent fatality on the highway.  The story was of a driver going 71 mph or so!  Anyway, he gives me the ticket and says, “I hope you have learned your lesson.”

I immediately think, ”Yep, I need to pay more attention to where you guys hide so I can slow down and avoid a ticket!”

This officer sparked a thought in my mind…

Does punishment really work?

The ticket does not detour me from ever speeding again.  The officer shaming or fearing me into not speeding has no effect on my choice to speed in the future.  I actually look to find ways to “beat the system” instead of working together.

What if we could come to an understanding between each other?  What if we were able to communicate our needs and desires to each other, respectfully, and have it result in collaboration – an understanding of what works for both parties?

For me, it feels better to leave out the punishment with any child.  Tell me what you need, ask me what I need, and let’s come to an understanding together.

So you say, “That is a great thought, but not possible with a 16 year-old!”  And I say, it is possible, and actually works really well! (It really works with any age, teenagers just make the story better.)

So my 16-year old came home late on a Saturday night.  Not just late, really late.  Like 2 hours past the time he said he would be home.  I am angry.  But under the feeling of anger I am really worried that something terrible has happened to him.  I am sitting, waiting, and playing the worst-case scenarios out in my mind.  When he finally rolls in the door, he acts like nothing has happened.

I am angry and my first thought is, “What can I do to him to make him suffer as much as I have suffered tonight?”  The punishments in my mind range from taking his cell phone, taking his computer, grounding him, or all of the above.

I take a moment to remember my conversation with the patrol officer and instantly decide to change my approach.  As my son walks in the door, I ask him to come sit down for a minute.

The conversation sounds like this:

“I have to tell you first, I am glad you are at home safe.  I am not feeling good about this situation because I thought we were on the same page when you left the house earlier.  I thought we agreed for you to be home at 12am.  When the clock hit 12:01, I instantly started worrying that something terrible had happened.“

My son interrupts, “Mom, I am fine, I just was late.”

I continue. “Please let me finish my thoughts and then I will hear yours.  When you were late, I automatically thought something was wrong.  You are respectful, considerate, and caring, and I know that when you have run late in the past, you call.  

You are one of the most important people in my world.  I know you are growing into your self and soon you will be out of this house, able to stay out as long as you want without feeling like you need to “report” to someone.  I appreciate and honor your independence.  I am asking you to work with me until you do leave so we can both feel good about our remaining time together.  

Do you have any suggestions about how we can both get our needs met?”

The alternative?  I punish him. He is angry and resentful.  And honestly he just finds a way to get around it the next time, much like my speeding story.

I look at this as an opportunity for both of us to practice communicating what we need and practice getting both of our needs met, free from anger, shame or punishment. 

I can promise you that having an honest conversation is more effective than a punishing one.  When I state clearly what I need and ask my child to clearly state his needs, we work together to come to a solution that offers us both a feeling of respect, power and success.


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