Whenever I reflect on my parenting journey, I’m reminded of many mistakes I made, sometimes wishing I could have a “do-over.” If I didn’t listen to what my child was telling me — with behavior, facial expressions or body language — I truly missed the mark. I soon learned that rewards and punishment, or “logical consequences” (a euphemism for punishment), were merely short-term fixes, nothing sustainable in helping my child become a caring, responsible person.

So what’s the alternative to rewards and punishment? If we consider that this approach might make things worse, what’s left for us to do? How do we get our children to behave the way we want? All reasonable questions. I wanted my children to be happy and balanced, yet I had to learn how to redirect or stop “mis-behavior.” I knew that when their emotional needs were being met, their behavior usually reflected that. Of course there were exceptions! Sometimes, achieving a certain goal was so important to me, 

I became fixated on the outcome, losing sight of the “process.” However, when I was more relaxed about the outcome, I learned the results could still be reached and, surprisingly, my children were much happier, more peaceful.

An example was “toilet training.” My first child taught me that, if given the tools (a child-size potty and sufficient privacy), she’d make it happen. It was pretty seamless! Entering a preschool program two mornings a week at age three, she had already mastered the toilet drill, ready for new horizons. Next child would undoubtedly be a breeze, now that I had one successful “big pants kid” under my belt. Not so!

My son taught me that he’d decide when and how he would transition from pull-ups to pants. He transformed the potty into a hat, with the overturned platform a stage on which to entertain his sister. If we tried to push our agenda, the scene quickly unraveled. By supporting his, the goal was ultimately reached. I clearly recall the day, when almost three, he came downstairs wearing his “big boy pants,” and never looked back.

So what does this have to do with anything? It tells us a great deal about what our children teach us. If the question is “How do we get our children to do what we want?” are we looking for thoughtless obedience, or helping our child learn how to be more self-sufficient, confident? Any goal leads us to a different answer, because we can’t apply the same formula. It really depends more on who the child and who the parents are. I appreciate that without a clear blueprint to address the many parenting questions, this is discouraging to anyone wanting only practical advice leading to absolute solutions.

My children taught me this requires more time and energy, a departure from quick fixes. Exacting punishments to achieve compliance doesn’t connect us to the emotional root, thus we won’t positively influence the very behavior we want to change. I caution parents to question the “experts” who say: “When your child misbehaves, you need to do _____.” That feels disrespectful of who I am and who my child is. I preferred to understand the emotions blocking my child from being successful. Rather than doing things to our children, I found working with them, collaboratively finding solutions to make things better, was far more effective. When  using “positive reinforcement,” such as rewards and punishments, we’re doing to, rather than collaborating.

My children showed me that when I made a request they didn’t follow, I had to consider whether the problem was them, or whether what I was asking wasn’t reasonable. I quickly learned that engaging in power struggles was always a lose-lose, that what mattered more was my connection with them, that we trusted each other and listened. They taught me that looking through her/his lens brought clarity to the situation, so I could then understand her/his perspective. Although I’d never be a perfect parent, what they needed most from me was authenticity, revealing all my imperfections and vulnerabilities. I learned to say less and listen more. Explaining my expectations or requests, rather than saying “Because I said so!” or “Because I’m the parent!” worked so much better. I read somewhere that children “live up to, or down to, our expectations, so it’s better to assume the best when we don’t know for sure why they did what they did.” They taught me to be playful, because they would be grown and gone someday. Also I needed to say yes more than no, listening to their motive, their desire to try something new. Sometimes saying no was driven by my own fears of what could go wrong.

Children need to know that we love them just the way they are, because of who they are, not because of what they do. When we punish, or give rewards, we may communicate that our love is conditional. Maybe when our child is derailed, we can ask “How can I help him?” or “Are my expectations realistic, set for his success?” When our child does something inappropriate, we should first consider the home environment that we’ve created.

My children showed me that they could make good decisions by having more opportunity to do so, rather than following directions. They needed to have more say in their lives about what worked for them. I didn’t have to agree, but I did need to listen, to respect  her/his perspective. Predictability is good, although we could try reframing what we see as a transgression requiring punishment as a problem to solve together. Perhaps the rules are too inflexible. 

Our threats, bribes, time-outs, groundings, or withdrawal of acceptance and love might buy us a brief change in behavior, yet they will never support children in developing strong, positive values.The question children then ask is “What does she want me to do, and what will happen if I don’t do it?” or “What does she want me to do, and what reward will I get for doing it?” Instead, the question should be “What kind of person do I want to become?” To engage our children in the process of making decisions about values and their lives, we must be willing to listen, rather than directing them.

My children taught me all this, and much more. They taught me that I’d always make mistakes, that I’d never be a perfect parent, yet as long as I accepted and loved them unconditionally, and as long as I connected to the feelings driving their behavior, they would keep me. In turn, they continued to show me the way! They convinced me over and over that abandoning rewards and punishment was not only reasonable, it was the only way to ensure real connection.

“Knowing that we can be loved exactly as we are gives 

us all the best opportunity for growing into the healthiest of people.” — Fred Rogers