How to Stop Punishing and Start Parenting With Empathy

Photography: Georgia Russell

By Megan Stonelake

Recently I watched a great webinar with Eric from 1awesomedad.com. He spoke about peaceful parenting and how parents can move from punishment to positive discipline. I spend a generous portion of my time exploring the detriments of punishment and the benefits of parenting with respect and empathy. What I’ve failed to consider, however, is how parents can successfully transition from relying on punishment to choosing to embrace empathic parenting. The following steps are not made to minimize this challenging transition but rather to support you in the important work of improving the culture of your family.

1. Do Your Research 
The beautiful thing about the modern world is the amount of information available instantaneously. We don’t have to be academics or librarians to access a vast wealth of research. Parenting choices aren’t always subjective, and we’re irresponsible to disregard the data. Recently an analysis of five decades of research confirmed that spanking is harmful and may have long reaching consequences.

For more information, please see my blog posts about timeouts and spanking. Both posts cite relevant research and expand upon the problems with punishment.

2. Use Empathy
Most parents view punishment through their own lens of life experience. They assume their children think as they do and will thus learn the intended lesson quickly and thoroughly. Yet the more we learn about the brain and human development, the more certain we are that children and adults function uniquely. Our brains, emotions, and cognitive abilities are fundamentally different. (For more information about age appropriate expectations for young children, see this post.)

To be effective with our kids, we would do better to view discipline through their eyes, mindful of the limited skills they possess. Using empathy we can recognize the fallacy of punishments which disregard normal development and the needs of our children.

3. Make amends

“Mistakes are always forgivable, if one has the courage to admit them.” – Bruce Lee

If you’ve decided to change methods of discipline, you might be feeling remorseful about the punishments you’ve relied upon in the past. Luckily children are very forgiving. They know how spanking and punitive time outs make them feel; they know punishment alienates them from us. Apologizing for your use of physical force will likely be a great relief to you and your kids, and you can begin anew with a plan to focus on your parenting goals. As parents we’re provided with an abundance of opportunities to show our children the strength of admitting our mistakes. Showing humility and vulnerability will clear the path for profound connection.

4. Rebuild Connection
As Dr. Laura Markham reminds us, “Kids who feel strongly connected to their parents WANT to cooperate.” Connection is the very basis of empathic discipline, and punishment and a strong connection are inversely related. The more we punish, the more tenuous our relationship becomes. Choosing a different path means embracing our children’s inherent need for a secure attachment with us. This connection will naturally lead to better cooperation and will open opportunities for coaching, teaching, and collaborating. This process may take time, and I encourage parents to stick with it as their children acclimate to your new style of parenting.

5. Determine Your Triggers
Often punishment is doled out from a place of hot cognition, meaning we aren’t thinking clearly and are acting impulsively. Recently I read a comment on an article where a parent admitted that she only spanked when she was angry. We are best equipped to teach our children when all parties are calm and able to think more clearly. That said, children can be remarkably adept at discovering what challenges us, often unintentionally.

Recently bedtime has been a source of great frustration for me. My four year old runs away when I’m trying to brush his teeth or suddenly becomes stiff as a board as I’m attempting to wrestle him into his pajamas. The first night we struggled, I became overcome with rage. I threw his toothbrush in the sink and stalked out of the bathroom. I’m a slow learner, but over the years I’m discovered that the biggest trigger for me is when I’m on the verge of getting a break and my son stands between me and that much needed rest. I get frustrated, impatient, and irrational. In such a state, I’m in no position to offer constructive discipline.

Discovering your triggers and being mindful of them will allow you the opportunity to plan ahead and choose a different reaction, at least some of the time.

Sustainable Change
It takes humility to recognize the need for change and courage to enact it. If you’ve made the decision to focus on connecting rather than punishing, I highly recommend joining a community of like-minded parents. There are resources online and countless blogs which provide concrete tools to use. For more strategies for disciplining with empathy, check out this blog post.

“Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.” – His Holiness the The Dalai Lama


Megan Stonelake is a therapist and parent coach who teaches parents all over the world how to become more peaceful. She has written extensively on peaceful parenting for Parent.co, Hey Sigmund, and The Huffington Post among others. You can follow her blog or schedule a session at her website. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter

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