Courtesy of Gemma Hartley

I Stopped Disciplining My Kids For A Week & This Is What Happened

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Some days I am simply exhausted by motherhood. There is too much struggle. Too much fighting. Too few moments of enjoying this whole parenting thing. I constantly wonder if I am doing the right thing, especially when it comes to disciplining and correcting my kids’ behavior. Lately I feel like we’re coming to too many standoffs that end in timeouts and subsequent screaming fits that take up an obscene amount of time. I think it's important to discipline my kids because it provides them with an action-consequence structure (one that will be valuable later in life), and because I worry would happen if I totally stopped disciplining my kids. But lately, the more I discipline, the worse their behavior seems to get. There must be something I’m doing wrong, I thought. There has to be a better way.

I knew there must be a correlation between the way in which I am reacting and disciplining my kids, and the way their behavior was spiraling out of control. I wondered how different our days might be if the fights began and ended without the dreaded timeout. What would I do in it’s place? I thought. Then a more daring thought crept into my head. What if I did nothing at all?

The Experiment

I decided to test some dangerous waters and completely stop disciplining my kids for an entire week. I wasn’t sure how they would react, but I was hoping their behavior wouldn’t get any worse. Would they listen to me at all if there were no threats on the table? Was there a way around disciplining that I simply hadn’t discovered yet? I wasn’t sure how would I enforce the rules without tangible consequences, but I was going to figure it out somehow.

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Day 1

Courtesy of Gemma Hartley

The first day of my no-discipline experiment was off to a rocky start as my daughter started screaming at the breakfast table over the way I cut her waffles. They’re frozen waffles, kid, they taste just as bad no matter which way you slice them. Normally she goes on timeout during mealtime because everyone else in the family really enjoys eating without a 2 year old screeching in their face. This, however, was not an option today. I simply took a deep breath and asked her if she was going to continue screaming. “YES!” she yelled.

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I beginning to realize just how much my mood and my own shortcomings played into the way I discipline my children. I missed a teachable moment because I was too overwhelmed to deal with her emotional state, and that’s not the kind of mom I want to be.

Then, oddly enough, she sobbed a couple times and quieted down. If I had put her on timeout, she would have kicked and screamed in her room the whole time we were eating. She didn’t eat her waffles (because she lives off air and rage) but she did sit through most of the meal without another tantrum. I wondered if it was a fluke, but I also wondered if maybe her mealtime tantrums were fueled by the knowledge that there would be a timeout, and no second chances. I thought I was doing the right thing by consistently disciplining her this way, but maybe there was a better way…

Day 2

Courtesy of Gemma Hartley
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The next day, I was feeling optimistic. Although there had been a couple more tantrums that went undisciplined the day before, they were over quickly and they weren’t real cause for discipline. A little outburst here and there is par the course for a 2 year old and 5 year old, so I simply had them apologize and go about their day.

I thought that no discipline would mean my kids would run wild and ignore all the rules, but instead they seemed to be falling into a more well-behaved pattern. I was listening to them rather than punishing them for having emotional needs, and it was working.

Today, however, there was more than a small waffle outburst. My son wanted ice cream, and he wanted it in a bad way. He wanted it in spite of the fact that it was a few minutes until dinner time, and did not care that we had no ice cream in the house. Even as I kept a calm tone (which was not easy), he proceeded to scream that he was “so, SO mad at me” and that I was a “mean mom.”

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Normally an attitude like that would have required immediate discipline, but instead I waited for the storm of yelling to pass, then I tried to talk to him. I took a step back and realized he was acting this way because he was hungry and overwhelmed. He didn’t need discipline, he needed help regulating his emotions — and when we talked it out I felt so much better than I would have if I had simply put him in his room to stew.

Day 3

Courtesy of Gemma Hartley
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By day three, I was actually enjoying parenting without discipline, which wasn’t something I expected. I noticed that the tantrums weren’t starting so early in the morning, and the behavior I would normally “flag” for discipline was starting to fade off my radar. I was learning that working with my kids to solve their behavior rather than jumping to my authoritative norm was working well for everyone.

I thought that no discipline would mean my kids would run wild and ignore all the rules, but instead they seemed to be falling into a more well-behaved pattern. I was listening to them rather than punishing them for having emotional needs, and it was working.

Day 4

Courtesy of Gemma Hartley
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On day four, I hit my first real stumbling block. I was tired and cranky after a night up with the baby. He was up all night because he had come down with a cold, and now I was down with a cold. I was exhausted after getting everyone out the door for school in the morning and was looking forward to getting a small break when I found the baby had fallen asleep in his carseat on the way home. However, my daughter started yelling the moment we got through the door for a treat (What treat? What the hell kind of treat are you talking about? We have no treats!!) and woke the baby up, meaning he wasn’t going to get a nap today. At all. I was so frustrated that I cried.

The I put my daughter on timeout. I needed the timeout more than she did, but I had to deal with the crying baby, and I could feel myself losing my temper. Of course when I had cooled down, she had riled herself up and was a mess the rest of the day. My one instance of discipline had turned into a day full of struggles. I beginning to realize just how much my mood and my own shortcomings played into the way I discipline my children. I missed a teachable moment because I was too overwhelmed to deal with her emotional state, and that’s not the kind of mom I want to be.

Day 5

Courtesy of Gemma Hartley
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On day five, it was my son who was acting up as I picked him up after what was obviously a hard day at school. I had walked up on him getting a talking-to from a teacher over an altercation in which he kicked another kid. I was pretty upset and disappointed, but I wanted to give him the chance to explain himself. I let him open up and found out that he had kicked to get away from a kid who was holding onto his arm and not letting go. By not jumping right on him for doing something wrong, we were able to open up a dialogue about how to deal with bullying, which was necessary and important after what had happened.

The only person who was placated by timeouts was me, and it was because I didn’t want to deal with the hard work of parenting, which was a big fault to admit to myself.

Normally this would have quickly turned into a situation where my son would have yelled, feeling defensive from the start, but after the last few days of no discipline, he felt trusting enough to have a very mature conversation without worrying about consequences, even though he knew he'd done something wrong. It was a big moment for me to realize that talking through emotional problems rather than disciplining right away was going to be important if I wanted my kids to trust me and come to me with their problems as they get older. What I do now is laying the groundwork for our relationship in the future.

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Day 6

Courtesy of Gemma Hartley

While still getting over my cold, I was really struggling with not using timeouts when I felt fed up with my kids’ behavior. I wanted to put them on timeout when they started bickering at the dinner table. I wanted to put them on timeout when they taunted each other over toys. I really wanted to put them on timeout when they yelled or gave me a disrespectful attitude. Talking to them rather than punishing them was harder than I wanted to admit.

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Timeout had become such a crutch that I realized I used it even when it wasn’t totally necessary. Talking them down from their big emotions is hard, but it’s also part of being an involved parent. Putting them on timeout wasn’t usually a good way to “teach them a valuable lesson.” They weren’t learning anything through isolation. Their needs weren’t being met by throwing a fit while locked away from everyone else. The only person who was placated by timeouts was me, and it was because I didn’t want to deal with the hard work of parenting, which was a big fault to admit to myself.

Day 7

Courtesy of Gemma Hartley
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On the final day of my experiment, I was starting to feel a little bit better and had the energy to keep up with my kids, which resulted in way fewer meltdowns. Sometimes the lack of energy and attention they get when I’m not at 100 percent makes them a little crazy (a huge understatement) and they act out. There were still a couple small struggles — like leaving the park and putting on pajamas — but overall, I was able to reason with them and come to peaceful solutions.

When I stopped thinking of their behavior as “bad” and looked at them as having an unfulfilled emotional need it made it so much easier to talk to them rather than punish them. Sometimes I have to remind myself that they’re not tiny adults with the same range for self-control that I have. Their emotions are bigger and harder to regulate.

I was careful to treat their needs with empathy, which made the need for discipline nonexistent. So much of the power struggle we had been facing before this week came from a place of not understanding their emotional needs and focusing in on the bad behavior. When I stopped thinking of their behavior as “bad” and looked at them as having an unfulfilled emotional need it made it so much easier to talk to them rather than punish them. Sometimes I have to remind myself that they’re not tiny adults with the same range for self-control that I have. Their emotions are bigger and harder to regulate. More often than not, they need my help to work through their bad behavior, and that doesn’t always have to involve discipline.

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Did No Discipline Lead To Total Chaos?

I was shocked by how much our family dynamic changed without traditional discipline over the course of a week. I felt like my kids were more readily able to trust me, and it made me wonder if maybe my quick-to-discipline attitude had contributed to their out of control behavior more than I thought. If I wasn’t able to regulate my emotions and talk them through their fits, how would they ever learn to self-regulate?

I thought that no discipline would lead to total chaos, but the opposite appeared to be true. The way I disciplined them wasn’t giving them the sense of consistency I was aiming for. Instead it had been causing them more emotional distress, and thus, the vicious cycle I had been so fed up with only raged on. Getting rid of discipline didn’t mean getting rid of boundaries, it simply meant changing the way I enforced those boundaries. When I focused on their emotional needs over punishment, it changed everything. It wasn’t an issue of not enough discipline, but rather not enough empathy. Getting on their level made me look at all our issues in a whole new light. No timeouts needed.

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