14 Alternatives to Punishment


When my children were younger, I copied this list of ideas from a post on one of Mothering Magazine’s message boards. (Though I’ve created my own examples of how to use each one in the hard won lessons of raising my own kids!) I’ve carried it in my purse for more than ten years to help me remember and refocus when I am at my wit’s end with one of my children. I have found the strategies useful for each of my children when they were three and even now in adolescence. The list may not seem at all like “punishment alternatives”, but the mindset of the list can shape and inform your perception of your child’s behavior. This list helped me see that many things don’t need to be punished; behavior can be more like water that benefits when it falls in the right places. May it be as valuable to you.

  1. Use positive reinforcement. This can be simple observations like, “I see you’re trying to put on your shoes,” or words of appreciation.
  2. Find a way to say yes. Even adults know the frustration of too many “no’s” in a day. If your child wants to climb, help them find a place to climb. If they want to be loud or silly, help them know that a time is coming when they can be, then make sure it happens.
  3. Let natural consequences occur. Your toddler can most likely learn to duck under the edge of a table and learning to ride a bike or skateboard will probably result in a couple of bumps and bruises. When we step back and let our children’s bodies learn about the world, they are gaining tools they will carry through life.
  4. Use restitution. We empower our children when we show them how to make things right. A broken toy or hurt feelings often need more than, “I’m sorry,” and punishing your child won’t take away another child’s hurt. Help your kid find a way to bring peace to the person or situation.
  5. Compromise. Many discipline problems disappear when we look for ways to benefit everyone. Shoes that don’t require socks or a day of errands broken up by a trip to the playground can help your child feel that you are at least trying to meet them halfway.
  6. Give specific instructions. “Pick up the blocks,” will mean much more to your child than, “Clean your room.” Taking the time to figure out what you actually want your child to do means you can also reflect on whether the expectation is reasonable.
  7. Offer help. Toys are often more fun to clean up if someone helps. Sometimes if a child just knows they will have help with a zipper, they can more easily put on the coat. All of us are occasionally overwhelmed by mundane tasks, and even knowing someone might help us can make them seem less daunting.
  8. Redirect or distract. There are times when moving on is the best solution. Whether distracting a toddler from the candy in the grocery aisle or using scatological humor with a stormy seven-year-old, this technique is a handy way to perhaps avoid a worsening situation.
  9. Make positive statements. This might be as simple as acknowledging their feelings or their effort. These statements are a way to also focus your attention on all they are doing right even if other things are falling apart.
  10. Give your child time to agree. Many of us are not very good at turning on a dime. It is so much fun to throw a ball in the house, for example, that your child might need a few seconds to bring the impulse under their control. Be prepared for this by keeping hold of the ball until they have had a chance to agree rather than expecting them to immediately tame the urge.
  11. Make rules. Well-chosen rules can feel safe for children and adults alike. Make them easy to remember and try to keep the list short and positive.
  12. Avoid nagging or threats. If you find yourself doing either of these, it’s time to re-evaluate the situation. This behavior might mean the parent is ready for down time or that it’s time to call an end to whatever is happening. Try to see nagging and threats as red flags that something needs to change.
  13. Make it a game. Older kids might enjoy a stopwatch to time how long their chores take. Nursery rhymes can help keep a toddler present and calm during the time it takes to get shoes on. The quiet game might win a few minutes of peace in the car. Games help all of us release tension and can ease us over a trouble spot.
  14. Take the time to stop and think. Fourteen years of parenting has taught me the wisdom of, “Wait until your father gets home!” This is not about making the discipline someone else’s job; it’s taking time to calm down and gain some perspective. Five minutes, five seconds, or five hours might change what I really think needs to happen in a disciplinary situation. And if I cannot see my way clear, then what’s the harm in waiting to discuss it with my parenting partner.