Parenting Without Punishment

A new way to look at Discipline at home and in School
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The History of Discipline – Where are we now?


Many years ago I had the privilege of listening to Ronald Morrish speak at a parenting conference I went to. My kids were still babies then. I bought his book immediately and couldn’t put it down. If you want to read pure brilliance, go order his book, “Secrets of Discipline – 12 Keys for raising responsible children”. It was originally published in 1997 so a lot has changed you would think since then.

Ummm… not really.

His book changed the way I viewed discipline as a tool. In fact, I took it to a new level and created my own system in the house that almost thwarted any punishment at all in the traditional sense. We adapted the phrase, “Natural Consequence” in our home. We had family meetings where we talked about issues that needed to be resolved. 

If your child makes a poor decision away from you, ask them this: “Would you have done that if I were there? Why do you need me there to make good choices?”

Let them think about it.

In Robert’s book he talks in the very beginning about the evolution of discipline from the 1960’s on starting with corporal punishment for “talking back”. But then parents became concerned that children were overly submissive and lacked independence. Into the 1970’s psychologists suggested that children should not be inhibited. Parents stopped demanding they help around the house and quit saying “no” because they didn’t want to lower a child’s self-esteem. Rudeness, anger, and defiance were to be viewed as healthy outlets for hostility and accepted as a natural part of growing up.

But then we became concerned with raising spoiled brats, so we adopted the principles of behaviour modification. Reinforce desirable behaviours with praise and rewards. Undesirable behaviours were reduced with negative consequences such as scolding or removal of privileges.

Then we became concerned that we were conditioning our children like dogs. So we moved towards the popular discipline of the 80s and 90s where freedom of choice became the major social issue and constant demands were made for greater personal rights and freedoms. This would apparently prepare children for life in the modern world. It was coined, “Behaviour management” and is the adapted method in the majority of homes today. When children make good choices on their own they are rewarded. But somewhere along the way, we forgot to limit children to the choices that are theirs to make.

Robert believed that Behaviour Management alone fails to teach children the skills they need to become responsible, cooperative and productive. It also promotes a value system that is opposite to what you want to see in your children. And you will come to understand why this system of discipline fails certain children who are impulsive, due to ADHD or in troubled homes with difficulties outside academics.

The problem with the school system and discipline

Parents used to think the more extreme the punishment, the more the child will obey. Fear tactics 101. When it was generations ago and parents just threatened to spank, that was a real fear. Physical punishment scared kids. It hurt. It was, in my view, the most archaic and brutal form of threatening. But it worked for the most part, because parents actually followed through. It wasn’t about respecting your parents or being taught right from wrong. It was about being scared shitless into thinking you would get your ass beat if you went outside the lines. My Dad’s generation (which was not that long ago on the grand scheme of things), the teacher’s would smack their hands with rulers as they walked by if they caught them misbehaving. They might even kick the chair if you weren’t sitting up straight enough.

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Thankfully we have evolved a smidgen past this caveman mentality. But perhaps in many cases we’ve gone too far the other way. Now in many households parents have no control over their kids and neither do the teachers in the school.

We aren’t giving our kids the support they need to succeed. They are waiting till kids fail and then are ready and waiting with the set out punishment. Because they are being set up to fail in a system that has fostered the “discovery approach” to learning. It was based on the premise that children learned concepts best if they discovered them on their own. Entire programs were redesigned to allow children to select their own activities. Techniques such as direct instruction and lecturing disappeared. Educational goals focussed on the need to develop “independent, self-motivated and self-directed learners.”

But does this approach really teach children to be responsible? Do kids learn from their own experiences?

Robert Morrish says that “real discipline is actually the opposite of children learning from experience. It is a system that adults use to protect children from life’s painful experiences”. We want children to learn from our mistakes!

For example: We know drugs are addictive and we’ve seen the tragic results of when people drink and drive. Our children shouldn’t have to learn these lessons for themselves! They should learn from others. While the discovery method may be great for kindergarten, when it comes to raising children, discipline cannot be done in the same manner.

Now think about what you hear in the school or out in public in terms of ‘IF’ statements.

  • If you behave, you’ll get a treat
  • If you talk that way to me again, you’ll go to your room
  • If you fight, you will go to the principal’s office

Society is trying to set limits on violence more today than ever. They want children to be less aggressive at school, at home, and in public. But ‘IF’ statements do not set limits – they are choices. It does nothing to restrict aggression at school if a child hears, “If you don’t mind going to the principal’s office, then fighting is one of the choices that you get to make at school.” Think about the sport of hockey – if you fight, you get a five-minute penalty. Now do hockey players fight? Of course they do. This punishment doesn’t eliminate fighting. It gives them a choice. Is it worth punching that player in the face and taking the penalty if I can take out one of their best players? Maybe to some.

This is one of the major flaws of behavioural management. Children have been told the rewards are positive and consequences are negative. But that’s wrong! In hockey tripping a player on a breakaway and taking a two-minute penalty is called “taking a good penalty”. Hmmmm… See where this goes sideways?

Now try and tell your child to do something and they sit there and think it over like the hockey player. They weigh out the advantages and disadvantages and then do whatever is best for themselves, even if it’s wrong.

So the first secret of discipline is: Never give a choice when it comes to limits. It is simply, “No fighting!” No bargaining, no deals, no pleading. Just limits. This is particularly important in schools where teachers must deal with large groups of students.

Determining what discipline means to you will determine the amount of success you have. Will you teach good behaviour, or punishment bad?

 – Ron Morrish

Real discipline has three parts and they work like building blocks.
  1. Training children to comply with rules, limits, and adult direction
  2. Teaching children the skills of being responsible and cooperative
  3. Managing choices

I’m going to briefly touch on each of these and then you are going to go buy the book and read it all and then you can really understand how I’ve implemented this into my life and how you can to.

Okay so let’s look at the Part 1 of discipline. In a world stressing about individual rights and freedoms, people wonder if it’s appropriate to teach obedience to children. Are you kidding me? It’s ESSENTIAL! Do you want to be on the road with a 16-year old driver who thinks that they don’t have to follow the same rules of the road as the rest of us? Not I. Rules are what keeps society from chaos.

Part 2 is really about teaching kids how to resolve conflict, how to work and play with others, and how to set personal goals. They must learn how to organize tasks and manage time. Parents won’t always be there to keep watch over their choices and decisions, and kids will not learn it without being taught. They will just evolve into adults who act like big children.

Part 3 deals with choices. The freedom to have choice comes with age. Maturity and responsibility grow from appropriate choices at the times they are capable of making good choices in those areas. Adults provide the guidance that children need to consider the rights and needs of others. This does coincide with today’s “Behavioural management” styles of parenting because it does teach them how to develop independence. Hang on to those skills as parents, because they do come in handy.

Today’s popular discipline does a good job when it comes to the management of children’s choices, but unfortunately that’s all it does. The training and teaching parts are missing.

Discipline isn’t what you do when children misbehave; it’s what you do so they won’t.

– Ron Morrish

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What is the main problem with punishment?

Parents don’t follow through consistently.

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard the most unrealistic threats of punishments for behaviours. Guess what? The kids already know it is not going to happen. So the threat isn’t real. It’s like claiming a spaceship is going to land in the front yard and Martians are coming to have dinner. They just look at you and laugh. So you’ve lost the battle before you’ve begun. It goes back to limits. There is no choice. No ‘IF’ statements at all in my home if I can help it. I simply say, “These are my boundaries. That will not be tolerated.”

Don’t prepare for the “what if”… Simply make it known that the limits are there and that’s final.

I bet you are thinking, but no way this always works. No way my kids always listen to me. You are right! They push boundaries and they talk back sometimes. Kids aren’t robots. They are humans. They will challenge you. In fact I encourage them to challenge me when they believe I’m wrong. I enjoy a good debate when it’s warranted. But I also don’t have a bunch of arbitrary rules in my home. I have safety rules. I have respect rules. Those are non-negotiable. The rest is always evolving and open for intellectual discussion. I can also count on one hand how many times I’ve put real consequences into place with any of my children in the past 11 years. I don’t have to. If my kids make a poor choice, we talk about it. They recognize the poor choice and don’t do it again… usually because there was a natural consequence they didn’t like. But they aren’t life or death consequences at their age. I only give them the choices I think they can appropriately make. So let’s talk about natural consequences…

What’s the Difference between Natural Consequences and Punishment?

 Imagine for a moment that your son keeps leaving his bike in the driveway instead of putting it back in the garage after school. Probably not hard to imagine because boys tend to be less organized and more forgetful. Blanket statement with a bucket of truth.



You could do one of three things:

  1. put the bike in the garage for him
  2. remind him again to put it away
  3. do nothing

Each have possible natural consequences:

  1. he learns you will always pick up after him and never do it on his own
  2. he learns you will always remind him to do things he should be responsible for
  3. his bike gets stolen

None of these are punishments that you set out to happen as a result of, but they could be very real consequences that happen naturally.

How you decide to deal with this is really up to you, but I always make sure that I mention natural consequences to my son. It’s open conversation to help make him aware of what could happen. That doesn’t mean it will happen, but it can. My son Carter is 10 years old and I think he’s mature enough to be responsible for his bike. I’ve made that call because I know him best. I also have been presented with this exact situation. And this is how I dealt with it…

“Carter, your bike is still outside. This is the last time I’m going to remind you. You are old enough to take care of your things and I will not always be here to pick up your things for you. It is a life skill my darlin that you may learn the hard way if your bike gets stolen. But I’m letting you know that if this happens again, I’m not going to remind you.”

Believe it or not, this worked.

Natural consequences happen as a result of an action – good or bad. Punishment is a consequence you’ve set out for your child’s behaviour – always negative. Which is more effective? Good question. I suppose that depends on what kind of children you want to raise.

How Is It Possible to have Four kids and not Punish?

The short answer is this: It takes a great amount of patience, time, and effort.

Technology is raising most children today. That’s a fact. Picture this… You are busy cooking dinner and your son keeps nagging you to go on his IPAD and fighting with his brother who’s looking at him sideways. All you want to do is get supper on the table after a hard day and it’s to feed them!! Is it easy to let him just go veg out on his IPAD than sit him down and help him find something more productive to keep his attention while you cook dinner? YES!! It 100% is so much more easier! But, understand that every time you do that, you are training them to become less and less independent and creative. Don’t be surprised when suddenly you find your kid doesn’t draw anymore or engage you in conversation about their day. They are busy with their IPAD. Don’t be surprised when the only activity they find entertaining anymore is tv or game systems. This is an epidemic. I refuse to be a part of this mainstream acceptance.


I have set boundaries in my home that will not be tolerated. If they cross those boundaries, I don’t punish them. I sit them down and I talk to them. That’s it.

Listen, my kids aren’t little perfect little drones who listen to my every word. They fight, swear, act inappropriate, and drive me wild some days. But I have been consistent since the day they were born. I will not give. I have resolve like you cannot imagine. If I have to stop making supper to deal with an issue, I will. Guess what? The natural consequence of that is that supper is late.

Each of my four children have unique personalities. I know them well. I know which buttons get pushed easily. I know what works for one, won’t work for the others. So I parent with split personality – a method for each of them. If my son derails about not getting to visit a friend that day, I let him go off on his tangent because in all honest, he only wastes his own time and energy. I tell him when he’s ready to come back to centre and talk, I’ll be waiting. And eventually we always get there. Is it frustrating? Oh my gawd, YES! But I know Carter and I know that he has a process for trying to get his own way. I know he’s trying to always challenge me right now. I’m ok with that to a point. I won’t tolerate disrespect. Sometimes when he crosses a line, I just have to look at him and he steps back into place. Sometimes I just have to say, “That’s hurtful” and he apologizes. I’m just very real with them.

There is nothing EASY about parenting this way. There is nothing EASY about having to take an hour out of your evening to curl up with your son and discuss his temper tantrum from earlier, instead of curling up with a good book in a hot bath. But my hope is that I’m raising kids to be responsible, kind, and thoughtful adults who will truly understand self-awareness.

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The Dreaded Teenage Years – Will this work right through Adolescence?

My answer is I don’t know. I don’t have teenagers yet.

Every child is different and it is important to recognize that. You are the parents and you must make the choices as to what each of your kids can handle for responsibility. But what I do recognize is that the foundation has been built when they are younger, so why wouldn’t it work? I will approach things no different when they are 16 than when they were 6 – except I will know they can make more mature choices at an older age.

Curfew at 16 compared to 14 will look different, but it will still be based on open conversation. It will also look different depending on which one of my children I’m talking to. They might not think that’s fair, but every kid can handle different levels of choices. I envision a very fluid discussion around what time they feel they should be home based on where they are, what they are doing, and who they are with. If they get home at curfew than clearly they can handle making that choice. Don’t set them up for failure. Simply help them make their own good choices based on what you know best about them. If you slightly less mature son is going out with his friends to the skate park, don’t let him say he will be back at 2 am. Bad idea. If your mature, older daughter says she’s watching movies with her friends at a safe home where you know the parents will be there, maybe she can stay out later. Does she have a safe way home? All these things play into every choice. BUT, why arbitrarily set out a curfew based on nothing but your own need for control and peace of mind? Boundaries need to make sense. If they break curfew, are you waiting to pounce with the punishment or are you going to re-evaluate their ability to make those decisions from then on? Seems to make sense to simply then talk to them about why they broke curfew and ask them what’s the point of curfew if they don’t abide by it? Have REAL conversations with them!

The more your teenager thinks you are controlling them without reason, the more they will rebel. I DID! The more my mother tried to say no without me being part of the conversation, the more I wanted out. She created a clear tone that she was the parent – the controller. I was the kid who questioned the no. That wasn’t acceptable. “Do as you’re told” was the theme. That was simply how parents did it back then. Kids need to understand why and there is no harm whatsoever in allowing them to understand your reasons.

Teenagers are searching for meaning in who they are. Their brains are still developing. They are going to challenge what comes at them. It’s not a bad thing. Let them challenge you. As they mature, let them be part of the decision-making boundaries that help them feel included and important. You want them to be able to leave one day and be able to make good decisions without you, so let them grow naturally into that responsibility while you can still provide a safe place for them.

Just remember discipline and punishment are not the same thing. One sets a child up to succeed and the other is the expectation of failure. Don’t give your kid the impression that you are waiting for them to fail. Help them create boundaries for themselves that give them independence and accomplishment.

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