Apart from threatening to cut into her screen time if she is up way past her bedtime, I don’t use any form of punishment on my daughter. Even if she lies to me, even if she does something “wrong”, even if she swears.
As many of us were, I was punished as a child. I was afraid of the consequences if I did something wrong, and I grappled with the shame of being “bad”. Punishment is often used as a means of control, and particularly for girls, I believe this can have a disastrous effect on how their lives play out.
Having the decision-making process stripped from me (i.e. tripping up, learning and then making better choices the next time around) stinted my development. I lacked the tools necessary to be a confident young woman capable of living my own life regardless of what others expected of me. Instead I grew into a scared woman, fearing my own shadow, and married at age 22 where I handed a large portion of my decision making over to my husband.
It took me 30 years to break out of the mould of my migrant culture to claim my own life.
It is this notion of having to please our parents and be good that makes us replicate the same patterns in our adult relationships. It has taken many years of hard work to change my own behavioural patterns. But even today I can get terrible anxiety when people yell at me or try to “discipline me” into being a certain way. It is a constant battle of reminding myself that I don’t have to live that way anymore. But I still get sad for all the years I lost.
This punishing and controlling behaviour is why I believe many women end up in abusive or lopsided relationships with controlling men, or why women support sexism, because that is all they have ever known: to please, to be told what to do, to be good.
The language used during disciplining can also be detrimental, which is why I won’t even use the words “bad” or “wrong” with my daughter when she trips up. Because there’s nothing wrong or bad about being human.
Instead I explain that nobody is perfect and everyone makes mistakes, even me. I talk to her about how she could have managed the situation better. And if she has done something that has really upset me, I don’t hide that disappointment, which is actually punishment enough because she hates it when she’s let me down.
Instead I put more energy into rewarding and praising her when she does something good. And I never use disappointment to control her decision making. I let her make decisions on her own, so she develops the skill.
Rewarding good behaviour rather than punishing bad is what I focus on. By allowing her to build these skills as a child I am preparing her for the world out there, where I won’t be around every minute of the day to help her out.
Clinical psychologist and author of Tricky Kids and Tricky Teens, Andrew Fuller, says shame and blame strategies cause “major problems” when children become adults.
“Firstly because we tend to repeat and shame and blame others,” he says. “Secondly because when we are shamed, we become ashamed of being shamed and never talk about it. The things we can’t talk about, we are unable to process.
“If we use discipline we don’t help children make better decisions. If the mistakes we all make are seen as bad or in need of discipline, we learn that we shouldn’t be so bold and sure of ourselves. This can make girls overly conformist and compliant.”
Fuller says it is better to teach children that they can be trusted. “Mistakes are teaching opportunities for how to make better decisions. When we have done wrong it is better for adults to say ‘I wish you hadn’t told that small lie, I want to trust you to tell the truth and I want to be trustworthy enough so you will tell me the truth. You are a good person, all people make mistakes, and we all need to work to fix up the mistakes we make’.”
Koraly Dimitriadis is a writer, actor, performer, theatre and filmmaker and the author of Love and F— Poems. koralydimitriadis.com. @koralyd