Parenting Without Punishing

Chapter 7

Self-esteem Is Central to Intelligent, Ethical Childrearing

On a Northern Exposure TV show, adolescent Ed told the Native American shaman about his struggle with low self-esteem. "You know," said the wise mentor to his protégé, "low self-esteem is the cause of nearly all the suffering in the world."

In any approach to childrearing that is intelligent and ethical, self-esteem has to play a central role. It is the child's feeling of self worth--high or low--that determines, more than any other factor, the lifetime happiness or misery for that child. Parental awareness of the critical importance of the child's self-assessment is essential for understanding his or her behaviors, and the most effective ways to deal with them.

The growth of self-respect and authentic identity is so vital to happiness that, in Your Child's Self-Esteem, Dorothy Corkille Briggs says it is the central framework in relating with children of any age and at any stage.

Words to Parent By
Parents have long searched for a focus, a simple guideline by which to raise their children, just one essential thought to keep in mind. They've asked for a single quotation to post on the refrigerator door as a reminder in times of stress and conflict and confusion in day-to-day childrearing.

As long ago as 1970, Dr. Briggs gave us such a quote. Readers may well stop right now to post it on the door of the fridge:

"Self-esteem is the mainspring that slates every child for success or failure as a human being."

Dorothy C. Briggs, PhD

The fundamental childrearing rule of thumb is: Take care that your child grows with a strong appreciation of self, a healthy, positive attitude about who they are, a confident feeling of self-worth.

Self-respect amounts to healthy and realistic attitudes about identity: I am lovable; I have value in simply being myself; I am worthwhile; I am competent, having something valuable to offer. By age five, a child has formed a basic view of himself as a person. He or she has had to decide on answers to the most important of questions: What is my worth as a person? Am I lovable or unlovable? Am I worthy of care and attention and affection? They know the answers by how they are treated.

No single factor, event or experience determines totally the self-assessment. It is derived from accumulated feelings, directly from experience.

What Self-Esteem Is Not
In the term "high self-esteem" we do not mean conceit, or bratty, attention-demanding behavior that describes the temper-tantrum-prone, the tyrannical. Those are the "spoiled" children, the ones who are suffering the painful consequences of neglect. Such behavior is symptomatic of the low self-esteem that comes from being deprived of sufficient care, attention, and affection. A chronically "difficult" child is very likely one who is starved for a feeling of self-worth, of being valued, of being lovable, and so is frantic to meet their need for approval, even at the risk of rejection.

"The small child reasons, 'These all-powerful gods treat me as I deserve to be treated...what they say about me
is what I am.'"

Dorothy C. Briggs

"The worse the child's behavior, the greater his cry for approval. The more withdrawn or obnoxious, the more he needs love and acceptance. The higher his defenses the more starved and alienated he is," Briggs pointed out. The problem is, that sort of behavior tends to drive away the very acceptance and love he needs. It is this syndrome that ends so often in institutional custody, such as in psychiatric hospitals and prisons. And hundreds of thousands of them, from infants to aged, are living on the streets.

Where Are the Parenting Schools?
As we read the paper and watch the evening news, it is not difficult to see that the child who feels lacking in self-worth is capable of the most horrific anti-social acts. With a bit of insight we can also understand that his acts are born of his own pain, that the violence and mayhem is his misguided struggle to compensate for that self-contempt.

Because their own upbringing fell short of adequate emotional support, most parents unthinkingly raise their children in ways that place priority on meeting their own needs. This unfortunate fact is at the root of nearly all the problems of child-rearing, and, by consequential extension, it is the fundamental cause of the most serious problems we must deal with in our society.

In this child-abused-growing-to-be-child-abuser syndrome, there are two great and serious gaps: Parents' self-esteem needs are not sufficiently met, and they are not prepared to meet similar needs of their children.

Indeed, the learning of childrearing skills in general is left mostly to chance. In place of up-to-date information on understanding children and their proper care, there is often harmful and dangerous mythology, misleading information and outright lies. The parent-education gap is abundantly filled by opportunists of all stripes, from political to psychological, from religious to commercial, from medical to educational.

It is shocking to learn that the kind of treatment and care that makes the difference whether a child enjoys a lifetime of health and happiness, or suffers an existence of violence-ridden poverty and misery, is largely a gamble. Meantime, unskilled parents and teachers spank, batter and humiliate children, believing it "builds character."


The permissive parent, usually out of guilt for being neglectful, is likely to be over-generous with praise, thus feeding the child's ego with unrealistic notions of his or her importance. Or the child compensates for neglect with inflated ideas of superiority over other children in intelligence, social status, talents, etc.

The authoritarian, on the other hand, doles out both punishment and praise. But parenting requires a good deal more than that dichotomy. Both extremes are harmful to the child. Both bind the child in a dependency that prevents healthy self-reliance and self respect.

The knowledgeable parent throws out the praise along with the punishment, and seeks a middle, sensible path that uses neither extreme. What is needed--by parents as well as children--is a parenting approach that is neither suppressive nor manipulative, one that is both respectful to the child and self-respecting for the parent.


The authoritarian parent makes all the rules, does the enforcing, makes the judgments, and exacts the punishments. His word is law.

The authoritarian parent is God, seeing the child as a blank slate on which to write programming information. The child is clay, to mold into a preconceived form, a twig to forcibly bend to a desired shape, to hold for the life of the child. The parent is Creator, and therefore infallible, One whose authority is beyond challenge. Rearing a child is God at work, and God-the-Parent is all-powerful. It can strike terror in a child.

In the authoritarian (often called "disciplinarian"), method there is little trust in the child's capacity for self-directed growth or independent learning. The child is constantly reminded, by the denial of meaningful decision-making power, of their lack of worth. Where parents rule, the child is controlled by the dispensing of rewards and punishments, always according to what pleases or displeases authority.

The Struggle for Control
There are four basic choices in forcing compliance to parental law: 1) nagging; 2) punishing; 3) rewarding; 4) giving up.

1. Nagging, or "keeping after them, " eats away at the relationship between parent and child. It is a practice that leaves both exhausted and wishing to avoid each other.

2. Punishing methods can read like a laundry list of meanness: yelling, scolding, isolation or time-out, withdrawing privileges, withdrawing love, and outright violence: assault as in hitting, hairpulling, kicking, spanking. The punishment approach is limited only by the creative hatred of the punisher.

3. Bribery and praise, a disguise for yet another play of power, must be added here. It is the more insidious for its manipulation behind the pretense of "love. "

4. Giving up is the "wit's end" cop-out on parental responsibilities. The beleaguered parents throw hands up in despair, complain that "nothing works," and turn their backs on their job of parenting. All are futile, or counter-productive. Yet all can overcome by parenting classes and counseling.

Effects of the Authoritarian Method (Strict) on the Self-Esteem of the Child:
1. Makes child dependent on authority, fosters feeling of powerlessness

2. Discourages child's growth in assuming responsibility, lack of control of life

3. Creates resentment and hostility in child due to feeling of being property, being a thing "owned"

4. Lack of self-confidence, since trust must be in authorities instead

5. Undermines child's self-trust, and strength of character, authenticity

6. Delays emotional growth; results in feeling of unworthiness, self-respect

The permissive parent is afraid to see that rules are obeyed. They feel guilty if the child's demands for material things cannot be met, like the latest toy craze, or clothes not up-to-the-minute in style. The child generally rules the home, her wants are presented as needs.

Parents themselves confuse wants and needs, bowing submissively to the child's demands, fearful that the child will grow up feeling deprived, and resenting them. The inevitable result: parents' low self-esteem, and suppressed anger at being exploited.

The permissive (unskilled) parent fails to establish reasonable rules, or even guidelines, and is reluctant to use their parental power. The role of parent, they suppose, is to sacrifice their own rights and happiness to "serve" the child, providing far beyond needs to include all wants and desires as well.

The likely consequence: the child is "spoiled" in expecting the world to submit to his or her whims and wishes.

Effects of Permissiveness (License) on the Self-Esteem of the Child

The suffering such a view brings on--for both parents and child--is not difficult to imagine:

1. child acquires a distorted, self-centered view of the world

2. instinctively knows this is not true caring, but rather serves to compensate parent's fears of guilt

3. likely to result in a disturbed child, lacking true parental love

4. eventually must lead to rejection of the child when parents cannot tolerate any more of child's self-centeredness or their demands


Who's the Boss?
The key is in the distribution of power in the family. The oft-asked question, "who is the boss here?" is best answered, "There is no boss; we are self-regulating; this is a democratically-run household."

Our country was founded on the principle that people have a right to a fair share of power in the decisions that govern them. Yet it is a rare family that operates on a democratic basis. Some believe they are, saying, "I listen to their input, then decide what is best for them." But that is not democracy, that is benevolent dictatorship.

Too many families view the children as the not-so-loyal opposition, who, if management power were shared, would take over the asylum. Or the inmates would overpower the warden. Such thinking lacks both an understanding of the democratic process, and trust in the fairness, the goodness, of other family members.

Children who are trusted and respected very quickly learn to accept the responsibility to comply with fair, agreed-to limits and, indeed, earnestly appreciate them.

One problem is that we Americans have contradicting values--some say hypocritical. We'll don a uniform and go to war to defend democracy, but come home to deny it to our children. Sad to say, most homes in America are run in autocratic/dictatorial fashion, in style a century ago in central Europe, but now grossly inappropriate and outdated for today's society.

Also to important consider: How can democracy survive where the young live under totalitarianism the first 18 years of their lives?

Sharing family decisions does more than make our country stronger. It makes for individual happiness by strengthening self-confidence, building self-reliance, and encouraging individual responsibility. It can be summed up in a word, Self-esteem. And that goes for the parents as well as the children.

Effects of Democratic Discipline (Self-Regulation) on the Self-Esteem of the Child:
The immediate effect of Democratic Discipline on a child is the feeling of responsibility and self-worth.

1. It raises children's self-respect; their views have real power-sharing status

2. With self-respect comes respect for others' rights, views and feelings

3. Appreciation of others' viewpoints broadens & increases fair-mindedness and cooperation

4. Empowerment comes from having a measure of control over one's own life

5. Responsibility for one's decisions grows as a result

6. Self-discipline strengthens, as it must in a democracy

7. Respect for legitimate authority in-creases, the recognition of the need for society's regulations

8. Diminished need for youthful rebel-lion results when self-regulation is a factor

9. Less aggression and violence, brings more emotional stability, less conflict

10 Less resentment, depression, mental illness, physical and mental illness and crime are among the benefits to individuals and society.


Every parent has an obligation--to their family as well as to themselves--to work daily at raising their own feelings of self-worth. Our job is not to lavish praise on the children, or dream dreams of grandeur, but to develop more appreciation for self and other family members.

A. S. Neill said, "No happy parent ever punished a child. No happy child ever required punishing." Nothing is more supportive of happiness than healthy feelings of self-worth. It is as essential for emotional wellbeing as oxygen is for physical maintenance.

The key to successful parenting is helping children grow in self-appreciation.

Although parental demands to be a different person are unreasonable, a child does not question it. The parent is all-knowing. The child only feels terrible at his/her own inadequacy to "measure up" to expectations.

The child's self-assessment is much determined by how early an age and how speedily the demands to change are made. As we look inside ourselves we may see that some of our expectations and demands come from our craving to satisfy our own unmet childhood needs.

The parent is the child's mirror. The child says, "I must build my self-concept, my identity, from what I see, what I hear, and by the ways I am treated."

The quickest and easiest way to grow family self-esteem, cooperation and harmony is to stop all punishing at once, and hold regular family meetings in which to work out rules all can agree to.

To let children be who they are, and to grow through behavioral changes, that is discipline. It is self-management. The real challenge for parents is, instead of striving to change the children into people they are not, to find the inner wisdom and strength to change themselves.

Continuing Narrative:
Beethoven at Bedtime
Every evening at our house was devoted to children's time. The pre-bedtime activities included bath-taking, story-reading, and music-listening.

In their nighties the two freshly-tubbed boys scrambled into Daddy's lap just as he was listening to the Great Composers. One evening, after a story, they demanded a hearing of Bob Dylan's funny "Maggie's Farm" (where the singer "ain't gonna work no more,") to which they sang along lustily.

Then a clamor arose for "Alice's Restaurant, " where, Arlo Guthrie promised, "you can get anything you want." Somehow that led to Gilbert and Sullivan's "Pinafore" and "Mikado, " with lots of clowning self-importance.

Their first interest in Beethoven came when they heard his Sixth Symphony, and it quickly became routine crazy time. Following the first movement's "Arrival in the Country, " a reverie "By the Brook, " and the peasants' dance, rumblings of thunder creep into the percussions, and then the terrible crash of broken clouds and lightning sending the dancers scurrying for cover. This was Henry and Russell's cue to run around the room screaming "Rain! Rain!"

Just then a used-bookstore discovery proved fortuitous: the complete orchestral scores of all nine of Beethoven's symphonies, plus the 38th to 41st of Mozart's. Together we learned to follow the orchestra through their repeats and skips, then to follow certain instruments as they each took up the theme in turn.

In following the horns in one movement, the woodwinds in another, and the cellos in yet another, they soon began to anticipate familiar approaching segments. Then it came to excited cries like, "Here come the horns, Daddy!"

There was no instruction involved in this fun we had together, (though I secretly hoped they'd become classical musicians). They simply saw how much their father enjoyed the music, and wanted to join in the fun.

Since then my sons have enjoyed three decades of music, ranging from classical to Pete Seeger to bluegrass to Leonard Skynard to the Grateful Dead.

When the clock indicated bedtime, it was Henry who chose the falling-asleep-time music. He chose, always, one of Beethoven's symphonies. And I chose, always, the quiet andante movement.

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