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Responsive Parenting: Moving Towards Parenting Without Punishment

Responsive Parenting begins in utero, as we start, however tentatively, to recognise a life at once within and beyond ourselves, and to consider their needs alongside our own. It is this deep and strengthening connection with another person, and the resulting desire to respond to their needs rapidly and with love, that forms the bedrock of Responsive Parenting. Responsive Parenting is not about how we feed our babies, how we transport them from a to b, or where we lay them to sleep. It is deeper, and much much more important than that.

Maternal responsiveness - the way mother (or other main caregiver) watches, understands and meets their child's needs - has been shown in study after study to be fundamentally important to everything from language acquisition, to social competence, to long term emotional well being. Here is my definition of Responsive Parenting:

Responsive Parents:
  • Observe their children, notice and interpret their cues, and take prompt action.
  • Respond to their child with love, consistency, empathy, kindness and humanity.
  • Question and seek to understand their own responses to their children and the familial and cultural background that informs them.
  • Help their children to learn more about their responses to their own emotions, and to other people.
  • Acknowledge that all children are individual unique human beings who need to be responded to in individual unique ways.

It is difficult to see any way in which Punitive Parenting could sit happily alongside Responsive Parenting. By Punitive Parenting, I mean using some, or all, of the following techniques, as part of your parenting approach:

  • Shouting, shaming, name calling, intimidating or humiliating.
  • Withdrawal, or threatened withdrawal, of objects, privileges or love.
  • Isolating, eg 'naughty step', 'time out'.
  • Smacking or threatening to smack.

They sound pretty awful in a list like that, but many of us use some or all of them from time to time, often because it's the only way we know, and we get a bit lost, especially when the heat is on. Notice I called this post 'Moving Towards Parenting Without Punishment' - as I really want to stress that making this change and parenting in a more child-centred and gentle way is something that all of us, both as individuals, and as a society, are still learning about. And as my eldest daughter, then three, so brilliantly put it: "Learning is Falling". 

Here are ten techniques and tips that I find helpful in my own personal move towards parenting without punishment. Please do add your own in the comments section below. 

1. Keep the Physical Tank Topped Up
Children's behaviour almost always takes a nose dive with tiredness or their blood sugar. It's of course not fair to then punish them for their actions which are caused simply by needing to eat or sleep. Avoid feeding or sleeping routines if these come at the expense of your child's behaviour and your subsequent sanity. Offer regular healthy snacks and let your child off the hook if they lose their grip at the end of a busy day.

2. Keep the Emotional Tank Topped Up
Make sure you are giving your child bags of love and attention before they have to ask for it. Children don't always ask for you to notice them directly - sometimes they just draw on the coffee table or throw a spoon at their sister. Our lives are busy, but try this: set aside two or three minutes before you begin packing the car / cleaning the house / leaving for work or whatever it is you have to do. Take just those few minutes, and before you start anything else - hug, kiss, cuddle, dance, laugh, talk, listen, notice. Tell your child how utterly brilliant you think they are, and then, and only then, get on with the boring grown-up stuff.

3. Shift Your Thinking
We all need to change not just our expectations of children, but the whole way we view them. The punitive model of parenting that most of us grew up with assumes the worst of children, and pits offspring against parent in a never ending battle that can last an entire childhood. Once we start down this road of:
  • despairing of our children, rolling our eyes, complaining about them
  • telling them off for not behaving like fully formed adults
  • getting cross, frustrated, and shouting at them
we can get trapped in a battle situation that is not enjoyable for either party and, if left unchecked, can spiral quickly downwards to become a miserable habit. We need to soften, to try to see things from their perspective, and assume the absolute best of them at all times. Hopefully then we will begin to feel as a family that we are all on the same side, supporting each other.

4. Model Kindness and Empathy
Children learn quickly about how to behave from what they observe, not from what we tell them. If we always try to be kind, forgiving and gentle with them, they cannot fail to become kind, forgiving and gentle with themselves and others as they grow. Likewise, if our child behaves unkindly to another person, this is a chance to show them a better way - by focusing our energy on saying sorry and showing concern to the upset person, in full view of our child. Some parents prefer never to tell their child to apologise - my personal view is that this is age dependent, and that once a child reaches around two, it is ok to gently explain how and why we say sorry, although fairly pointless to enforce it. Again, if we assume the best of our children, we would conclude that they do regret their actions, but are too overwhelmed / upset / developmentally unready to express this in a formal way.

5. Hold Realistic Expectations for your Child's Age
This can be difficult, as we are not all developmental psychologists, and even they don't completely understand the developing brain or have all the answers. Suffice to say that many of the behaviours that children, particularly younger children and toddlers, get punished for, are actually just normal phases of their development - in other words, things that they simply don't understand or cannot help. For example, my two year old drew with a biro across our vinyl tablecloth, and it won't come off. I don't punish her though, because I know she doesn't understand how much tablecloths cost, what money is, what sentimental value is, what the past is, or what the future is. She just wanted to make her mark. 
There are lots of online resources on child development, for example, The Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development, and Zero to Three.

6. Reframe Negative Behaviours as Positives
If we truly try to see the best in our children, then we might even find ourselves admiring some of the behaviours that in another light, we might be tempted to punish. Perhaps they are not 'bad' or 'naughty' after all, but just strong-willed, determined, feisty, passionate, creative, exciting, or humorous? Picture them in twenty years time, once the natural refinement of adulthood has smoothed the rough edges off their current rather crude approach. With a bit of work, these could be just the qualities to take them to the top of their field! Reframing their behaviours in this way allows us to soften towards them, and even feel proud of their stubborn or wilful ways.

7. Set Clear Boundaries with a Clear Head
Parenting without punishment is NOT parenting without guidance. Children need strong boundaries to enable them to feel safe and loved. Set boundaries for your children and discuss them at times when everything is going well, rather than when it's all hitting the fan. Allow your children to have some input into limit setting and consider having some 'rules' that apply to the grown ups too. For example, 'in our family, we do not hit, we respect each other, we are kind etc'. There is no reason why this should all just apply to the children! If a child crosses one of your decided boundaries, don't 'do nothing' - as a Responsive Parent, you need to respond, without resorting to punishment. 

8. 'Time In'
Many parents use 'Time Out' - getting their child to sit alone in an allocated place for an allocated time - as a standard punishment. But often, this is simply isolating a child right at the moment they need you the most, when their emotions are raging out of control, and they need your help as the adult to help them calm down, regulate, and make sense of what just happened. A much better response is 'Time In' - bringing a child in close, holding them on your lap, listening to them, talking calmly with them about what is happening. As soon as you see difficult behaviour approaching or escalating, give your child some 'time in'. The sooner the better. An early time in will often also 'fill the emotional tank' (see 2) and prevent challenging behaviour from happening. (More on time outs / time ins here from psychologists Laura Markham, and David Coleman.)

9. Try for 'Oxytocin Led' Responses!
Oxytocin, dubbed the 'Love Hormone' by birth pioneer Michel Odent, is the hormone that helps us to give birth, breastfeed, orgasm, fall in love, bond with others and empathise, to name just a few. Oxytocin is secreted by the pituitary gland when we look at or hold in our arms the person we love, and produces a feeling of warmth, relaxation, gentleness and well-being, a feeling of being in love! But often, in difficult parenting situations, when we are on the cusp of resorting to punishment, we are flooded, not with the hormone of love, but with the hormone of fight or flight - adrenaline. We are upset, angry, our buttons are being pushed, our pulse is rising. Adrenaline is a hormone of action - it makes us want to 'do something' - hence something like the naughty step might seem a good idea. Stop. Breathe out. Take some time out for yourself if needs be. Better still, have some 'time in' with your child, hold them, kiss them, remember how much you admire and adore them, and raise your oxytocin levels! Then respond from that place of love.

10. Always Approve of Feelings, Don't Always Approve of Behaviours
It's really important to help our children to understand their emotional life and to give them words to describe what is happening inside of them. It's also important to give our approval of all their emotions, even anger or other so called 'negative' emotions. This can be difficult as so many of us were told as children not to have certain feelings or were disapproved of when we displayed them. But approving of and accepting our children unconditionally can be a powerful gift and can help them to grow into adults who are able to cope emotionally. The misunderstanding about peaceful or non-punitive parenting is that if we don't punish, we therefore have to approve of our child's every action, and this is simply not the case. For example, if, at a parent and child group, our child hits another child, we might say, quite simply: "It seems like you are feeling very angry. It's ok to be angry, but it is absolutely not ok to hit someone." Use 'time in' or take your child out of the situation and help them to understand their feelings. Reiterate often your approval of the feelings, but not the behaviour. (It's ok to feel x, but not ok to do y). A great book about this is Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child by John Gottman.

Other posts on Responsive Parenting:

Babies Don't Need Attachment Parenting, But They Do Need Responsive Parenting

Responsive Parenting: Why Tantrums Matter

Please do leave your own suggestions and thoughts in the comments below.


  1. I really like this idea of responsive parenting... doing what works for your child, for your family. and acknowledging that it looks different for different families. Nice article.

  2. oooo Time IN rather than time out... i like that....

    1. Thanks mamacrow! Not my phrase, not sure who first coined it, but glad i brought it to your attention and I hope it works well for you x

  3. I love it when someone writes a blog post that was cooking up somewhere inside your head, but you just didn't know how to begin writing it. Thanks for another excellent read!

    1. Thank you! Yes, my head is full of simmering blog posts, most of which slowly evaporate and never get written! x

  4. I have a suggestion that fits well with #6. Reframe your language; find new words that assume the best of your child in difficult situations, then use them! Use them with other adults, with your children, or even in your own self-talk.

    "My child is having a hard time today" instead of "My child is giving me a hard time today".

    "High-spirited" instead of "difficult".

    "Emotion storm" instead of "temper tantrum".

    "Asking for help" instead of "tattling".

    There are lots of ways to reframe language about children, and it helps to see them in their best light.

    Thanks for this great list!

    1. That is a great suggestion Mama Mo. Thank you so much x


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