Parental Guidance Required: Why Punishment Doesn't Work

02/18/2014 01:58 pm ET | Updated Apr 20, 2014

This weekend, I am a "mean mom," according to my daughter.

My darling daughter is grounded and thought that meant she would get to hang in her room without any electronic devices (including television) and just read, draw or sleep. Instead, Joe and I have a list of chores for her. Right now I am guiding her through the joys of cleaning out the refrigerator. Also on the list: mopping the kitchen floor, washing and folding the towels, cleaning out my car, cleaning out the microwave, vacuuming the floor and steps, dusting and sweeping out the garage.

I am done with week-long restricted activities because I've learned that she is patient and stubborn enough to wait us out. For example, she didn't open her Christmas gifts until January 20th. Why? That's when she decided to clean her room. She spent the entire winter vacation at home with her gifts opened, but not being able to touch them. Her Imagine Dragons CD, a new Nintendo 3DS, Disney Infinity for Wii, a loom bracelet kit and headphones all sat in a pile on the table for almost a month. Joe and I were astounded by her determination, but refused to cave, no matter how much we both wanted to check out that Disney Infinity game. It wasn't until my husband threatened to take everything back to the store that she cleaned her room. It took her three days in between naps, watching TV and drawing.

So now, she has an entire long weekend to work and think about how she can make better choices to avoid consequences like this in the future. I keep explaining to her that the choices she makes can either give her freedom or give other people control of life.

My parenting has never been about "punishment" for doing something wrong. I focus on helping her see that she can always make a better choice and that she has more power than she realizes. Better choices equal more power, control and opportunity. Poor choices equal limited opportunities, less freedom and losing the privilege of the activities she enjoys. This is a lesson we see played out in life over and over again.

My belief: Just punishing people doesn't work. It doesn't work as a parent, and it doesn't work in our penal system. I've never wanted to teach my daughter to fear punishment -- because then she just looks for ways to avoid the punishment: lying, being sneaky, etc. Instead, there's a consequence and conversation: I ask her what better decision can she make and what behavior she is going to start or stop to support that decision.

Part of this is the teacher in me. The other part is growing up in a home where I learned to fear getting in trouble. So, my choices were always based on two questions: What can I do so I won't get caught and if I do get caught, how can I lessen the punishment? These are the exact questions that lead many of our leaders and politicians to repeated bad behavior. I never understand why people are surprised when we see the same scandals over and over again. We are so quick to judge and gossip about scandalous messes, but rarely challenge those involved to address the choices that created the situation. This misplaced focus allows them to magically believe that if they just get smarter about covering things up, they can continue their bad behavior and avoid punishment.

So back to my brilliant daughter...I know she is smart enough to figure out how to cover her tracks or lie by manufacturing a complex reason for her behavior. What I want most is for her to know that while making that her default strategy may bring short-term gratification, the long-term result will be a tarnished character and reputation. She may be mad at me now, but she will come to despise herself later if she goes through life without accountability for her decisions. As a mom, mean or not, one of the best ways I can love her is to hold her accountable until she values doing it for herself.

By the way, in the two hours it took me to write and edit this story, she has cleaned out the refrigerator and gone from refusing to speak us to giving us hugs and lighting our world by laughing with us. Even if she can't fully appreciate this experience now, she does know that she is and always will be fully loved.