Practical Tools for ‘Misbehaviour’ and Setting Limits: a little support for those who choose not to punish their children

It is our view that infants are genetically biased towards interaction with other people from the beginning. A child is pre-adapted to a social world, and in this sense is social from the beginning. If an infant is reared in a social environment not too dissimilar from that in which the species evolved — an environment in which adults are responsive to the signals implicit in his behaviour — it seems likely to us that he will gradually acquire an acceptable repertoire of more ‘mature’ social behaviours without heroic efforts on the part of his parents specifically to train him to adopt the rules, proscriptions, and values that they wish him to absorb. Because of these considerations we find the concept of ‘socialisation’ essentially alien to our approach.
Margaret Ainsworth (et al)1

On the one hand, we love it when our children are sweet and affectionate, or when we are in a place where we can revel in their abundant zest and vitality. On the other hand, there are times when children need limits, either because they have some distress to release, or because they are part of a group, and their private need or demand cannot be satisfied at that time. These times present very real, practical challenges for parents on a regular basis. So here I will share some ideas about the causes of ‘misbehaviour’, and the process of setting limits.

Causes of misbehaviour

First off, we must admit that our judgments about behaviour are not always clear. For example, when we judge that a child is just too wild, it may indeed be that the child is acting out of distress, that they are feeling a hurt that has disrupted their natural intelligence and affinity. It might also be, however, that we are simply tired and irritable, and the problem is ours. So let’s assume in this case that we are in good shape, but our child is not. Remembering that children are not inherently bad, it is quite true that they do sometimes act in ways that are troubling for us.

According to Aletha Solter,2 there are three major reasons for unacceptable behaviour:

1. The child is experiencing a need. Unrecognised and unmet needs can cause children to act ‘badly’. The needs for attention, food, sleep, touch and affection: when any of these is not well met, we may see ‘misbehaviour’. The need to explore, touch and manipulate: if children’s continuing need for stimulation is recognised, it is often possible to fill that need in ways that are acceptable to adults.

2. The child has insufficient information. Children are enormously intelligent, ever so curious, and always growing and learning. It is our job to give them as good information as we can. It is important to check for possible misunderstanding or a lack of information.

3. The child is harbouring painful, pent-up feelings. Children experience hurts, frights, and frustrations on a daily basis, even in the most loving environment. If children’s painful feelings are repressed, their behaviour can then easily become distorted and unacceptable. These feelings need a harmless outlet, and the children need attention so that they can release the accumulated tensions by crying and raging (tantrums).

We adults play an important role when we allow and facilitate our child’s emotional discharge. Even more important than helping a child to release emotional distress is the nurturing of an ongoing positive affiliation with our child. The solid ground of loving affection is the base from which we can help our child through the hard stuff. With this in mind, I want to review a simple process called ‘Special Time’, described in a pamphlet with that title, by Patty Wipfler. 3

Special time

Spending ‘special time’ together is a fantastic gift you and your child can give each other. It is a time to see your child through the eyes of delight, and to enjoy being together on the child’s terms. This alone is sufficient; the rest, as we say here in Texas, is gravy. 

Special time is an active form of listening, and often becomes a child’s vehicle for telling you about her life and perceptions. To begin with, you focus your entire attention on the child. This is not casual play or indirect contact. Decide to notice everything about the child’s words, expression, tone of voice, posture and movement. Absorb information through every pore, as if your child were entirely new to you! 

Guidelines for setting up ‘Special Time’: 

1. Put the child in charge of the relationship. Follow the child’s lead, as she tells you or shows you what she wants to do. Children constantly have to sacrifice their needs and desires to adult demands and decisions. This change in the power relationship gives the child permission to more fully communicate her thoughts and feelings, including those she may not otherwise communicate to you in the hustle and bustle of your everyday life. 

2. Communicate your enjoyment of her through your tone of voice, facial expression, body posture and touch. Keep bringing yourself back to the space of seeing your child through the eyes of delight; settle for nothing less than an experience of joyful appreciation for this time with your beloved. The child will absorb your caring. 

3. Your open interest and affection will help the child make use of this time to show you new things about herself. 

4. Don’t give in to the temptation to lead the play, or offer your ideas. This is a time you set aside to be fully with the child, without interruptions. It is appropriate to set limits on time and money, according to your need. Likewise, a real safety concern may rarely justify an action on your part. Otherwise, this is the child’s time to take the lead. The child is the boss! 

Discipline and setting limits

Children need, first and foremost, to be nurtured and protected. They have much to learn about handling the challenges, frustrations, disappointments, conflicts and relationships of life. They need to learn many things about the boundaries and limits of the physical world and social order. To accomplish this, they need adults in their lives who are models of self-discipline. They also need adults who are able and willing to set limits in a thoughtful way, according to the needs of the child. 

Another great misunderstanding is the mistaken notion that we must either indulge our children’s emotional demands or make them grow up and quit whining. Viewing life this way, it often seems as though we either have to surrender to emotional blackmail (the behaviourists would say reinforcing a negative emotion. or get tough and shame the child for being such a whiner or crybaby, or for spoiling a great day by throwing a fit about getting an extra ice cream. The confusion comes from our adult expectation of stoic acceptance of disappointments or Buddhist-like equanimity in the face of desire. On a deeper level, I think the problem is that we are uncomfortable with expressions of frustration, sadness and disappointment. We adults tend to have a very hard time seeing our child disappointed because it triggers similar feelings we carry from our own past, or it triggers our guilt. As a result, we either indulge our child so they will ‘feel better’ and stop crying, or we shame them for crying so they will stop. The truth is we often do both of these things not because it is what the child really needs, but because we can’t handle our feelings about their distress. These tendencies are best seen as indicators of issues we ourselves need to work on. Remember the idea that in order to stay close to children, we must either suppress them or transform ourselves, again and again. 

Control patterns

In dealing with children, a solution to this apparent dilemma of indulgence or suppression lies in a transcendent third view that realises they are not opposites. Indulgence and suppression are actually similar dynamics. They have in common the desired goal of avoiding the emotions; both are ‘control patterns’. A control pattern is whatever one does to keep feelings of emotional distress at bay. Punishing and shaming are usually control patterns. Addiction is a control pattern. Psychiatric drugs are one of the most effective control patterns yet devised. 

Many seemingly benevolent actions can also function this way. When you distract a child with a toy, or bounce and jiggle them, it’s a control pattern if it serves to shut down or avoid a needed cry or tantrum. Even such wonderful and necessary actions as eating can be used to suppress emotion. The pacifier is one of the most effective and ubiquitous in our culture. Breastfeeding is the best, but Solter argues that when the breast is offered to a child who is not hungry but needs to have a good cry, it can be a control pattern. Others, including Katherine Dettweiler,4 disagree, defending the value and importance of ‘non-nutritive’ sucking. Jan Hunt, author of The Natural Child: Parenting From The Heart,5 holds the position that labelling a child’s desire to nurse as a control pattern is profoundly distrusting. The best approach is to really trust the child and let him or her show the way. I myself think that a child who really needs to cry, and is in the presence of an adult who is comfortable with crying, will not be denied this healing outlet by yielding to nursing desire. Keys are to trust the child and to do our own work on emotional healing in places that are hard for us as adults to tolerate. Once again, the relevant attitude to hold is called relaxed confidence. 

The key to handling control patterns is to make a discernment that is often difficult. Remember the causes of misbehaviour. When a child is not experiencing a present time need or hurt (like hunger or a diaper pin sticking his bottom., then indulgence is usually a control pattern because the real need is for the distressed child to discharge pent-up feelings. 

Conversely, shaming or punishing a child for whining or complaining or tantruming is a control pattern; such behaviour says more about the adult than the child. Discernment is necessary to determine what the child really needs. 

It is also true that there are hosts of good reasons why a child’s demand or request cannot or will not be met at a particular time. If the child is demanding something that is not good for him, or that you cannot afford, or that you simply do not have time for just now, then it is a time for setting reasonable limits. Likewise there are times when a child is acting out her distress by hitting another, or cruelly teasing, or throwing and breaking things. When a child is hurting others or herself or property, she needs an adult to make it safe and set limits for her. The great thing is that we don’t have to choose between indulgence and suppression. We can both set limits and encourage emotional expression. We can say no to the extra ice cream or mean behaviour towards little brother, at the same time that we say yes to the expression of anger or disappointment. We can say no to the object of desire, but yes to the desire. 

In line with the thrust of this book, there are remarkably different possible attitudes to this experience of frustrated desire. Heaviness almost always says more about us adults than about an unsatisfied child. A prolonged scene may be reflective of a child’s need to express a backlog of pent-up disappointments. Oftentimes, however, it is our adult heavy-handedness that actually causes more tension and upset. There are many light-hearted ways to deal with desire. 

Jan Hunt shared with me one of her favourites, which was to tell her son while shopping that a desired object, though too expensive to buy just now, could go on his ‘wish list’, or that they would remember that it was at that particular store. This simple acknowledgment and recognition shows respect for the child’s point of view and is often enough to be able to move on to the next experience. Sometimes I like to amplify the process by playfully going on to name all the things we should buy today! Two more significant reminders come to mind. First is that we are dealing with a highly distressed reality here called gross excess materialism. Please let’s not blame and shame our children for the struggles that ensue from such twisted ways of being. 

Second is a caveat to the light-hearted approach. Children will be disappointed, and sometimes it will feel very heavy for them. You know you are in good shape when, rather than guilt or shame or anger, your child’s disappointment moves you to a place of compassion — for your child, yourself, and all parents and children in moments such as this. 

Listen, Limit, Listen

There are valid reasons to set limits for children. If we don’t, we will be miserable, because they will keep raising the bar until we do. Children under stress can’t think well. They can’t process what you are telling them, so they don’t act in their own best interest. It is also true that children are exceedingly vulnerable to the excesses of materialistic advertising and consumerism. Their desire nature is on full-tilt. You must expect this, and step in, gently but firmly, to see they don’t continue to over indulge. I share here early childhood educator Isaac Romano’s clear explanation of a simple way of approaching the setting of limits, further explained by Patty Wipfler in her booklet by that title. 

Listen: Get down at eye level and simply ask what is going on. Ask the child to tell you why she is yelling, or is running from room to room dumping all the containers of little toys. She needs to talk about the upset she feels, if possible, to someone who isn’t upset too. She is feeling hurt and far away from everyone. 

Limit: If a child is insisting on unreasonable behaviour, you must step in. 

Tell her what you think is reasonable, and then make sure her unreasonable behaviour isn’t continued. If she is throwing toys in anger, put your hand on the toy she’s about to throw, and say, ‘I won’t let you throw that’. No punishment is needed, no lectures are needed, no harshness is needed. Simply step in and see that the child doesn’t continue the irrational behaviour. 

Listen: This is the ‘stress release step’, the one which will help the child immensely. After you have stepped in to prevent the child from doing things that don’t make sense, she will most likely begin to cry, storm and tantrum. This is constructive. It is your child’s way of getting rid of the tension that made her unreasonable in the first place. If you can stay close while she cries or storms, she will continue until she has come back to herself. 

She’ll be better able to listen, to be cooperative, and to make the best of the situation at hand. The hurt feelings that had taken her over have healed now. And your listening will have done more than any lecture or time-out or threat. Your listening will have rebuilt the closeness between you. 

Punishment is not discipline

Parents worry about how to ‘discipline’ their children. I have discovered that discipline is very often a code word for punishment. So any consideration of setting limits with children must address this thing we call punishment. Why do we punish children? To teach them a lesson? Because they make us mad? Because they acted badly and deserve it? For their own good? Because they need it? Because we just don’t get it? 

The first chapter of Jan Hunt’s book, The Natural Child, is titled, ‘Getting It’ About Children. Her experience is that adults either understand that children are human beings who deserve to be treated like human beings — or they just don’t get it. Adults behave as well as they are treated — everyone knows that. Why is it assumed that children will behave better if punished? I am extremely fortunate in that I know that punishment is unnecessary. I don’t really know how best to help others ‘get it’, but I know we need to keep trying and to get ourselves as clear and strong as possible about caring for children in a good way. In my world, good parenting does not include punishment. Punishment is the unfair use of rank to inflict pain. Many people believe in the effectiveness of punishment because it gives the appearance of control, but it has many effects beyond any short-term suppression of behaviour. 

Remember the aphorism that, ‘Unfair use of rank causes revenge’? Punishment encourages lying, deceit, hypocrisy, and worse. This is true of all punishment — physical hurting, verbal or emotional shaming, and behaviour modification techniques — any use of rank to inflict pain. Many parents believe in punishment as fervently as they do their religious tenets, and even protest that God himself ordered them to not ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’. Consider this note from Norm Lee, in his email newsletter for parents:6 

‘In a recent lecture to a group of parents, I opened a book and read aloud: ”Start discipline early; make clear rules, enforce them promptly and consistently. Reinforce obedience with, ‘Good boy, that’s a nice girl,’ together with pats and hugs. After disciplining, tell them you love them, but it was for their own good.” 

‘There were unanimous nods of agreement, some voicing their approval quite heartily. But when I showed the book’s cover, they gasped in shock: How to Train Your Doberman Pinscher. In their beliefs about methods of treating children and dogs, there was not a smidgen of difference!’ 

So there is an eye-opener. Discipline has become a code word for punishment. Yet discipline can be a virtue when it refers to self-control, persistence, delay of gratification, and other qualities necessary for success and happiness in life. Perhaps the most helpful understanding comes when we add the word ‘self’ and speak of self-discipline. The challenge is to discipline ourselves, to be disciplined, to act out of love and thoughtfulness even when we don’t like what we see, to keep going with what we really believe in (like loving and respecting our children. even when we are frightened or discouraged. Remember the model imperative. When we punish, we teach punishment. The one way we really help our children to develop self-discipline is through our own embodiment of this virtue. 

History of childhood

Psychohistorian Lloyd deMause has devoted much of his life to investigating the modern history of childhood. After decades of immersion in this work, deMause stated that, ‘It seemed to me that childhood was one long nightmare from which we have only gradually and only recently begun to awaken’.7 Less than two centuries ago, children were almost universally seen and treated as property, and infanticide was still an accepted practice. Only a century ago, physical punishment was virtually universal, and sexual abuse of children was ubiquitous. What is considered child abuse today was accepted practice only two or three generations back. Severe physical hurting and sexual use of children still go on, but now most people consider them abuse. 

The progress is real. That we are even able to consider these ideas is a sign of great change in the way young people are viewed and treated. For the first time in recorded history, there are a significant number of adults who are really trying to treat young people with complete respect. We are making strides to reclaim the best of a natural way of childrearing evident in the evolutionary continuum (prehistory, and so eloquently described by Jean Liedloff in The Continuum Concept

So it comes back to the question: What do you really want for your child? If the answer is either a constricted, fearful, docile, compliant existence, or an angry, hostile one, then punishment will serve. If the answer is loving relationships, self-mastery, and outer accomplishment, then I encourage you to forego punishments and reach for the stars. 

John Breeding, Ph.D., is a psychologist and author living in Austin, Texas. He is director of Wildest Colts Resources, a non-profit organisation whose purpose is to assist adults in becoming more effective in their work with young people, and to stop the psychiatric label ling and drugging of children. John is also the father of two teenagers, Eric, 17, and Vanessa, 13. 

End Notes:

1. Margaret Ainsworth (et al), quoted in Peter Cook’s article cited in Face Page note. Ainsworth is one of the founding mothers of attachment research and theory. 

2. Aletha Solter has several helpful books, including The Aware Baby and Helping Young Children Flourish. Her website, The Aware Parenting Institute, is at

3. Patty Wipfler is one of my very favourite parenting teachers. She has a wonderful series of booklets, and all kinds of great information available through her Parents Leadership Institute at

4. Dettweiler, K. Non-nutritive sucking. May be read at 

5. Hunt, J. The Natural Child: Parenting from the Heart. New Society Books, 2001. Also see her great website,

6. Norm Lee’s comments herein began as a newsletter, but have now morphed to chapters in a forthcoming book, Parenting Without Punishing. Available from Norm by request at

7. deMause, L. Psychohistory and Psychotherapy, Foundations of Psychohistory, 1992. I recommend the book he edited and contributed the title chapter to, History of Childhood: The Untold Story of Child Abuse. 

Published in byronchild/Kindred, Issue 4, December 02

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