(as are teaching, or working with children in any capacity)
There’s a popular saying in dog training:
“Punishing the growl is like taking the batteries out of your smoke alarm.”
What does this mean?
Well, when we look at only the observable surface behaviour, we might call growing an “aggressive” behaviour and seek to punish it so the dog doesn’t growl anymore.
Except that is incorrect.
Growling is communication, and actually an attempt to avoid confrontation. It signals the dog is uncomfortable with something and wants that something to stop or go away. Growling is a way of saying, “Please stop, this makes me feel threatened. If this continues, I will feel forced to defend myself.”
What does this have to do with parenting?
This is exactly what we do in response to children’s perceived misbehaviours.
When a child’s brain perceives a situation to be unsafe, they may react with yelling, stomping, throwing, hitting, etc. — remember that the perception of safety depends on the child’s experiences, environment, and nervous system. What we consider very minor may register as serious in the child’s brain, depending on those factors.
The traditional approach to these types of behaviours is to give consequences, punish the behaviour in order to teach the child not to do it again.
That’s pretty hypocritical when you think about it. “Don’t be unkind to others, or else I will be unkind to you!” That is not quite the lesson we’re intending, is it?
If we think of concerning behaviour as being like a smoke alarm, it is warning us that something is not quite right in the child’s world — they may be feeling scared, anxious, overwhelmed, hurt, sad, frustrated, or any strong emotion they are not feeling able to manage skillfully in that moment.
When we punish the behaviour in order to stop it, that may remove the behaviour — or really, displace it, only for it to pop up somewhere else, because the underlying struggle has not been addressed — we’re taking away the child’s method of communicating their distress.
“If caregivers are focused only on modifying behaviour, then all they’re modifying is the signal. But they’re not solving any of the problems that are causing the signal.”— Dr. Ross Greene
What happens next?
Returning to my canine analogy, what happens if you do successfully punish the growl out of your dog?
Well, their growl was saying “please stop, or I may be forced to defend myself.” Dogs often defend themselves by biting, when they feel they have no other choice, so that’s what may happen if they are pushed past their point of tolerance.
When we block children’s behaviour from communicating their need for help, they are left with few other options. They may or may not actually bite us, but if they are not allowed to express negative emotions, they will usually do one of two things:
- Suppress their feelings and learn to ignore them
- Those emotions intensify and start coming out in other ways
A real-life example
My son loves phys ed. class. He enjoys sports. He loves basketball, so he doesn’t mind running in the context of a game, however he absolutely hates running with no purpose. For some reason, our physical education curriculum includes doing the beep test.
Unless our kids want to be referees, fire-fighters, or in some other role which requires them to pass a beep test, I do not understand the point. I understand teaching about different ways to measure our fitness levels, and encouraging children to be active, and I am fully in support of that.
One great way to absolutely kill their love of being active, though, is to take all the fun out of it and make it a test.
The first few times they did this, my son expressed his feelings to the teacher. The teacher basically told him to suck it up (not in so many words, but the message was clear), and that he had to do it whether he liked it or not.
My son was able to suppress his feelings and comply (something that is an unhealthy response which we encourage in our children for the sake of obedience) for a while. One day, for whatever reason, he just could not do it. It was just not happening.
The teacher had not listened to him before, so instead of asking to be excused from class that day, he went and hid in the locker room. He ended up getting in trouble after someone discovered he had snuck away from class, and when they asked him to come out, he refused.
I do understand that we won’t always be able to get our way in life, and learning how to deal with disappointment is an important life skill. I understand that some things will be unpleasant yet mandatory — like important life-protecting vaccines, for example.
This isn’t one of those things for us.
My son is very active. We live in the country, he takes horseback riding lessons, plays basketball. We go hiking, kayaking, and camping in the summer, among many other physical activities. He participates very well in the other 99% of his gym classes.
I’m really not concerned about whether he can run back and forth between lines on the gym floor under a certain length of time. In the grand scheme of things, this is incredibly unimportant, and I’d prefer to pick my battles.
The other problem which arose was my son was given the message he was not allowed to disobey the gym teacher when he was directed to complete the beep test. This led to him feeling cornered when he felt he absolutely could not manage to force himself to do something meaningless that day.
Instead of asking to be excused, he felt his only option was to skip class in order to avoid this unpleasant (and on that day, unmanageable) expectation.
I’m not saying my son has no accountability or personal responsibility for skipping out of class and hiding in the locker room, and we certainly had that conversation at home. On the other hand, he was somewhat set up for failure because he was not permitted to exercise autonomy.
To be clear
I’m not saying our children should be allowed to hit, kick, scratch, or bite with impunity. What I am saying is that if we focus solely on those behaviours, without becoming curious as to the underlying causes, then we are setting ourselves — and our children — up for greater challenges.
We can still communicate to our kids that it’s not okay to hurt people when we’re angry without giving them the message that it’s not okay to feel mad sometimes, or that it’s not okay to express our feelings in a way that doesn’t harm ourselves or others.
Instead of punishing the surface behaviour, we need to help them process their emotions, then come up with alternative ways to communicate and manage their big feelings.
Children are cute, but they’re not puppies. Human brains are more complex, and we have the benefit of a larger Prefrontal Cortex (PFC), which allows for more complex mental processes.
Behaviour is not always communication, but it is information. We’re better equipped to skillfully manage difficult situations when we have as much information as possible.
Shutting our kids down without seeking to understand can have serious pitfalls. It harms the adult-child relationship, stunts their emotional growth, and sets us all up for more difficulty in the future.
I’m not saying any of this is easy, but I am saying it’s necessary. ❤
© Jillian Enright, Neurodiversity MB
Thank you for your responses
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Carrington, J. (2020). Kids These Days: A game plan for (re)connecting with those we teach, lead, and love. IMpress Books.
Greene, Ross, W. (2021). Lost & Found: Unlocking collaboration and compassion to help our most vulnerable, misunderstood students, and all the rest. (2nd ed.). Jossey-Bass.
Schwarz, N. (2022). It Starts With You: How imperfect parents can find calm and connection with their kids. Broadleaf Books.