This is in part a continuation of the post “High standards and the cycle of coercive parenting…

We must break the cycle.. But how?

You need to discipline children, because if not, they will never learn. Right?

Ok.. True..

But what does the term “discipline” actually mean and how can it be accomplished in a non-punitive manner?

As I pointed out in the previous post, we live in a world in which most people see discipline as being the imposition of consequences or rewards as a way to modify behaviour. Whether it be spanking, tapping, time-outs, time-ins, praise, sticker charts, rewards or whatever quick fix we can find, the goal is to change behaviour, without regard to the impact that our actions have on attachment.

For non-punitive parents, discipline simply means “to teach”. The emphasis is on preserving a healthy secure attachment in order to do so.

Yes, attachment is the way to discipline.

Attachment is important in any relationship, but, not only is it important, it is required for a relationship to work well for everyone. This is true of all relationships.

We often only hear about attachment as in the attachment parenting movement. Breastfeeding, babywearing, co-sleeping and all of the other components that help us develop secure attachments with our infants, yet the ideology is often forgotten when a child enters the toddler years and beyond. In our society, many parents thrive for independence, not only physical independence but emotional independence, which is something a child will not be ready for until they are in their late teens or young adults and are able to stand on their own two feet in society.

Of course, all children are attached to their parents, however, there are different forms of attachment. There is secure attachment, which is the one I will talk about here; but then there is also ambivalent attachment, avoidant attachment and disorganized attachment.

So while all children are attached, not all attachments are equal. (You can find a quick overview of the types of attachment here.)

The securely attached “easy” child wants to please us. They want to do things for us, they want to be with us and love us. They want to follow us and be good for us.

This secure attachment, this preservation of emotional dependence, is not only important with our infants, but it is as important and even more so, as our children grow.

In the book, “Hold onto Your Kids” Dr. Neufeld and Dr. Maté talk about 6 ways that we attach to someone in a secure attachment. As we grow closer, the attachment grows. And as children mature, this attachment goes through the following stages and you can see the correlation with ages….

From infant, toddler, pre-schooler up to the age of 6/7.  though of course, it is never too late…

The stages are:

  • Senses (all of the physical ways that promote attachment)
  • Sameness (mimicking and wanting to do what the other is doing)
  • Belonging and Loyalty (The “mine, mine” stage)
  • Significance (feeling that we matter)
  • Feeling (giving your heart away, falling in love)
  • Being Known (wanting the other to KNOW you, telling all, sharing all)

Of course I could go into these much more, but I have so much to say already…

So what does Attachment do and why is it so important? And, what does it have to do with discipline?

  • It arranges a hierarchy; We are the parent, we set the boundaries.
  • It renders the other person endearing; Our children love us and like us, and we love and like them.
  • Brings us home; We are where our children feel safe and comfortable.
  • Creates a compass point; We set the direction and they will follow.
  • Activates proximity; our children want to be with us.
  • Evokes a desire to be good; our children want to please us.

Therefore, attachment actually fixes things in a way that the child who is well attached is inclined to want to please us, do things for us, be with us, love us, follow us and wants to be good for us… when a secure attachment is in place, they fall into being that “easy child” (ok… most of the time)

This is the foundation for discipline.

We need to be attached in order to teach, we need to be attached in order to learn.

We learn from those whom are attached to. The grandmother that was always there for us and listened to us without judgement whom we would never want to disappoint; The teacher that made the most impact and who we learned the most from; The friend that was always there for us and who we emulated because we thought they were the coolest. I speak in the past because this attachment works in this way until we are ready to be emotional independent.

Once we reach adulthood, we should be able to be on our own two feet emotionally speaking, and though we still have secure attachments, those attachments will have different characteristics. But children are not at that stage yet, nor are they ready to be.

This is why a secure parental attachment is so important, because if we not our children’s “home”, their compass, if hierarchy is not established in a healthy manner, we are left without the framework in which discipline and teaching come naturally.

Non-punitive discipline is founded on the basis that strong attachment and unconditional love will provide healthy relationships and that children want to emulate what we model, follow our guidance, want to please us and will reciprocate the respect we give them.

So what about behaviour? How do you get a child from not hitting? How do you make a child be polite or not run into the street? How do you make a child obey?

For those coming from a punishment and reward frame of mind, this whole attachment thing doesn’t sound realistic. They just don’t get it. It is because the focus is still on the superficial, often age appropriate, behaviour.

Behaviour is seen as a something negative that needs to be corrected. It is an all or nothing. If you don’t punish then you must just let your kids get away with murder and walk all over you. How else are they going to learn how to not do things? It is an us against them mentality.

The reaction is so predictable at times that it most often follows this formula:

“If I don’t ______ (give a bedtime/force to eat/limit computer/put in time out/tap his hand) then my child would always/never_____ (never sleep/eat anything but pizza/never get off the computer/learn that what they do is wrong/understand not to run into the traffic).”

This ideology leads us to believe that children can not and do not have intrinsic motivation to do the right thing, so punishment (providing a bad experience), or rewarding (pleasurable experience) is the only way children can learn. But this is not true, and we know that it is not true when there is that secure attachment.

Time-outs are probably the most used punishment in our society. They are seen as not being harmful because they are a step away from hitting. But their harm is very real, and it is essential to the very essence of how they work. Time-outs teach that love is conditional to behaviour. This of course is not the parent’s intention, but actions speak louder than intentions. Time-outs only work because they are using the relationship and secure attachment, as leverage. This is why time-outs stop working. The child becomes differently attached and hardened and the leverage is no longer there. The Time-out is a quick fix that may superficially change behaviour but it is done at a very high cost.

Again, the focus is only on behaviour. The goal of punishment; to stop “bad” behaviour. The risk of harming attachment is not even taken into regard.

The non-punitive parent has a different understanding of how behaviour is corrected. Instead of relying on external motivators to change behaviour, we connect and tap into the secure attachment that we have and use that relationship to teach alternatives and demonstrate what we expect them to do.

The twist in this is that time-outs use attachment as leverage to get children to behave in the way the parent finds appropriate and in the end strips that attachment. Non-punitive parents use attachment to their advantage and in the end build that attachment even more. With the former, punishment needs to escalate to keep a balance, with the latter things become easier. Non-punitive parenting is in no way permissive parenting, it is not about ignoring behaviour, it is about correcting behaviour through positive attachment and teaching through that attachment.

So, how is one to break the cycle?

A problem that arises is that we are so used to a fixed set of instructions. When a child does X we must do Y. One set of rules for all children.

But with non-punitive parenting the focus is no longer on the behaviour itself but is on the child and the relationship. Because of that, books and articles that focus on non-coercive, non punishing ways of parenting, focus on the philosophy of a secure attachment instead of being the how-to manuals that simply correct behaviour that are on the opposite spectrum. So unlike the books that focus on punishments and rewards, there are no parenting manuals or simple formulas that will work with every child in every situation so you may need to use your imagination and find a solution that will work for your child.

Non-punitive parenting is far from the permissive, lazy parenting that many make it out to be. There may not be punishments and rewards, but there are rules and boundaries and age appropriate expectations. We may not force our children to say sorry but we do expect them to learn it and say it when they feel it. We may not punish our children for hitting but we will not let them hit and will help them find alternatives. We are not our children’s friends, but we are not their enemy either. We are their parents. We work with our children not against them.

Non-punitive parents understand that healthy attachment is the key. It doesn’t mean that we never have rough patches, or we don’t do things that we regret, or that our kids never misbehave. But what it does mean is that we don’t believe in quick fixes, we focus on emulating the behaviours we want to see reflected and teaching them to find solutions. We work on fixing the problems, not the symptoms.


a boy and his shadow...


Further reading:

High standards and the cycle of coercive parenting…