If I Don’t Punish or Give Consequences, What DO I Do?

Photography: Katherine Heise | Lamb Loves Fox

By Bonnie Harris

How to Use Problem Solving

Even after I outline problem solving to a frustrated parent of a child who just keeps pushing the limits, I get the same reply: “Yeah, okay, but what do I DO?”

It’s hard to understand at first that logical words; emotional understanding and empathy; and asking the child to think, is actually DOING anything. We are so accustomed to grounding, time outs, taking away privileges, threatening, and withholding. It’s hard to think a respectful process of working it out is doing something.

What’s hard is dropping the notion that we have to make our children miserable in order to teach lessons.

Break it down. If you do any of the above, you are necessarily causing hurt (understanding behavior). The misguided thinking is that if our children are miserable enough, they will decide not to do the deed again and voilà-learning takes place.

Well, yes, learning takes place, but not the kind you are counting on. What they feel is anger, frustration, resentment, misunderstood, unheard. What they learn is:

  • You are not the one to share feelings with or get advice from.
  • How to get sneaky so you don’t know what they’re doing.
  • Revenge and retaliation.

Who learns to be better when they are miserable? I’m not suggesting that after your child has thrown a book at his sister you want him to feel good. But blaming him will send him into defensive reactions – fighting back, blaming sister, or laughing and pretending not to care.


When we blame our children, they naturally start building a wall of defense to protect themselves from what they perceive as an attack. In defense mode – lying, retaliating, laughing, running – they miss the opportunity to take in the natural consequence of their behavior – what their behavior has wrought – because all they can think about is getting in trouble.

Blame never serves a purpose. It is the retaliation of an exasperated parent. It’s using power to intimidate and force a child to do it our way. Isn’t that what bullies do?

Children engage in the process when they know they are not getting in trouble. No blame, no punishment, no misery. Cooperation is far more likely.


The first and most important stage of problem solving is connection – empathizing with your child no matter what has happened. Empathy is understanding why your child, due to his temperament, stage of development, circumstances, etc, thinks or feels the way he does. Empathy says to your child, “I get it”. It does not say, “I agree with you”.

 Typical scenario:

When Joseph hits his brother Ian, causing screams and tears, Mum yells, “How many times have I told you there is no hitting in this house? What is wrong with you?” and takes screen privileges away. Joseph learns:

  • Mom likes Ian better.
  • I am bad.
  • I’ll get back at Ian for getting me in trouble.
  • Nobody ever sees what Ian does. I’m the only one who EVER gets in trouble.
  • I have to grab computer time cause Mum takes it away all the time.
  • How to get what I want from somebody weaker than me.

Frustration and anger builds the more Joseph gets in trouble. Joseph’s behavior gets worse. The cycle continues.

Notice how many times “get in trouble” comes up. When you use problem solving instead of punishment and threats, “getting in trouble” is not feared and is never a motive for defense, protection, sneakiness, or blaming others – because it’s not in the family lexicon.

See next page for problem solving techniques…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *