14 Alternatives to Punishment

Posted on January 20 2015

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.


  • Eric @ 1 Awesome Dad: October 12, 2016

    Super list! The more we can help and guide our children rather than demanding, punishing and threatening, the better.

  • Helen: October 12, 2016

    Thank you so much for sharing this. I’ll be printing it out too.

  • Taryn Kae Wilson: October 12, 2016

    Thank you!! These reminders are really helpful for me right now.

  • Victoria: October 12, 2016

    Great list! Thanks for sharing-think I might need to print myself out a copy for those trying days.

  • Rachael Miller: October 12, 2016

    Deborah- Thanks for your reply! I’m sorry if I wasn’t clear on the “wait until your father gets home” idea. It wasn’t to make someone else responsible for the discipline many hours later; it was to buy a little time to sort out what one feels is the best course. I am sorry that wasn’t clear.

    With the caveat that I am no expert and I do not know your children, their ages or your exact situation, I will attempt to address the example you gave regarding your daughter’s treatment of her brother. I would lean toward helping her find a way to make it right. When my oldest two were very young, my son would “trade” a toy with his sister. She was pretty willing to take almost any substitute as long as she was not left empty-handed. They also did this with our youngest child. Admittedly, this does not work forever, but it establishes the idea that you should not just take what you want, that the other person’s feelings should be considered.

    I see hitting as a sign that everyone needs a change. It might mean they need a little space or more direction. Again, I do not know the children involved, but for us, a quick reminder about the house rule of no hitting, and then moving swiftly to painting or a story or a pre-dinner bath seemed to make as much of an impact as my getting upset about such behavior.

    Thank you again for your response!

  • Nitya: October 12, 2016

    Love it

  • Holly Hold: October 12, 2016

    Love this; thanks very much!

  • Deborah: October 12, 2016

    Those are some great ideas to avoid a situation where you would have to punish the child (14 ways to avoid the dreaded tantrum?). I personally don’t like the last one about “wait till your father gets home” because they already don’t get enough time with papa and I don’t want to make him the bad guy or make them scared that papa will be home soon which means they will be punished (& worse that its hours after the incident occurred). We have a kindness jar which has been really helpful… Every time my daughter does something kind or helpful she gets a Pom Pom and once the jar is filled she will get a special gift. If she misbehaves she will get a Pom Pom taken out (but that doesn’t phase her as much as I would hope lol). I do compromise and offer help, and most of that list already in order to avoid tantrums and misbehavior, but what about say… If she hit her brother or snatches a toy he has outta his hands. The natural consequence is that he hits her back lol but I need some method to show her that its not nice to hit. What would be the alternative to “punishment” in a situation like that? I’ve tried sending her to her room, taking away a special toy or canceling a trip she’s been waiting to go on, time outs don’t work, and then I end up yelling which doesn’t make it any better:(

  • Sarah: October 12, 2016

    Deborah… Something I find seriously lacking today in society is empathy. Not in a wishy-washy way, but even basic courtesy. As a single mom of three kids (6,5,4, and yes, seriously!) my kids have learned early on that I get distracted very easily and even teased me that I would forget to punish them or enforce a rule. Smart little turkeys! The one rule all three know and can repeat and are expected to follow is to treat others how you want to be treated. Thats not to say they don’t do things like beat on each other and swipe toys, haha, that would be too easy, right? When something of that nature occurs, generally AFTER a few shoves or smacks have been exchanged, I separate the two offenders, I kneel down so I am making eye contact. I do not speak down to them or use even the slightest baby talk voice and I say, for example, “Poem, Gabriel is angry at you because you took a paper off the table that he was still using. When he tried to get it back you said no and told him it was yours. And Gabriel, Poe is mad because she didn’t realize that hou had been using that paper, so she thought you were taking it from her when she was using it. It was a misunderstanding and there was no reason to hit each other.” I specifically ask my kids how they would feel if it had been them in the othwr person’s shoes, wouldn’t they feel the same? ( I am more specific, using their names and describing the situation from the others point of view). Ex. “Norah if it had been you that picked out those shoes to wear and Poem came over and put them on, how would you feel?” To which I would get a huffy reply" Mad!" Then I go on and put the roles back and explain, “So you see, Norah, that when you came over and put the shoes on that Poem just picked out for herself she got upset at you. I think you should apologize for that, don’t you? And Poe, maybe you should apoligize to Norah for getting upset before you explained to her that you had already chosen those shoes.” By that point I usually can’t finish the sentence before they have both offered their sorrys to each other and are already trying to find Norah a pair of shoes she can wear instead. It sounds really drawn out as I am typing this on my cell phone, haha, but I assure you it is not. I keep it short and sweet. I try to be fair, firm, and consistant when disciplining, which isn’t always possible, so above all I am sure I speak directly and genuinely. They are still too young to think ahead and prevent the behaviors, but upon reflecting afterwards they realize how their part in the conflict made the other feel and that the other person had a different view on what went down. Whew! I hope I didn’t confuse you with what I tried to explain! Next time I will reply with a computer so I can review it more easily. :)

  • Deborah: October 12, 2016

    Thank you ladies! I forgot to mention that my daughter is 3.5 and my son is 2. He’s a bit of an instigator too. I do ask her to apologize and she will say sorry and I’ll ask her “sorry for what?” And she’ll reply but not ten minutes later she’s doing exactly what she was apologizing for. She has her toys and he has his but occasionally he’ll want to play with her dolls for example and she’ll rip them out of his hands and then he cries cuz he wants the dolls (that she’s not playing with anyway). I tried doing “trade” a while back and she will but he doesn’t seem to understand. Ugh this parenting stuff is waaaaay harder than it looks lol.

    Anyway, great article and thanks for the advice.

  • Rochelle: October 12, 2016

    This is a great list!
    Deborah, I have 2 things to share that may be helpful to you too. First, it’s a good time to teach them how to apologize. I found an article about it online that has been life-changing for my household. It stops quick,angry behavior and gets them to think. I couldn’t ask for more!
    I’m sorry for… (Grabbing the toy)
    This is wrong because… (You were playing with it and I wasn’t thinking about how you would feel)
    In the future, I will… (I will wait for my turn with the toy until after you’re done with it)
    Will you forgive me? (… teaching them it’s the end of their job, even if the person says “no.”)
    Even my 5 year old can do it with little assistance. Younger kids will need help. Very young may just need redirected. I had a family meeting to introduce it and had the kids role play some silly examples and a couple of serious ones, so it came up without the stress of a situation.
    And lastly, our family has a rule that until someone is done with a toy, they can set it down to eat, go to the restroom, do a chore, or anything asked by mom and it will still be waiting for them when they return (so they will obey me without feeling their toy is threatened). Toys are expected to be put away when people are done with them (4 kids worth of toys is enough without messes left out) so if a toy is out, it’s being played with and unavailable. I redirect kids to anything put away (not being played with) and if they need more help do it with them (both listed in this article and SO TRUE!).
    Great post Nova!

  • Emmanuelle: October 12, 2016

    Thank you for all this advises. Not only it prevents some situations to worsen, it also opens the way to discussions with children and will prepare the way to further discussions when the child becomes a teenager.
    Breaking a moody ambiance by getting out to a playground really works and lift everyone spirits. When my children were small, I also gave myself and my children time by asking them to stay in their rooms for as long as it took us to calm down when the situation was tense. Then we could talk quietly about our source of disagreement and it works even when the child is very young.

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