Cultivating a Trusting and Wholesome Relationship With our Children

Part 2 of an ongoing series with Blimie Heller

Moderated by Rachel Herman

Hi, Blimie! Thank you so much for your time! I hear from many people that you have a very specific, very different approach to parenting than what most people traditionally use. Can you share your approach?

Sure! I believe in not using punishments and not either (imposed punitive) consequences (which is simply a euphemism for punishments!). Also, on the flip side, I don’t believe in using rewards or prize charts. Instead I believe in having an authentic relationship with our children and leading and guiding them through that. To me, it is such a wholesome way to parent. While in the short term rewards and punishments may seem like the most effective approach, in the long term they undermine a child’s relationship with themselves and with their parents, and those have the greatest impact on the kind of adult he or she will be.

Wow! That is very interesting! Definitely different from the standard approach to parenting! But how will the child learn without consequences? Let's say my child or teenager does something I told him he can't do; how do I deal with that? And how do I set boundaries without consequences?

Great question! I would probably have to go through my entire course to properly answer this question because there are so many parts to it and so much to explain, but I’ll briefly go through it.

I find that we’ve almost been sold this lie that children need imposed punitive consequences (aka punishments) to learn. They really don’t. They simply need a loving parent who can guide them and help them access their feelings of remorse. Our feelings, when we really feel them, are the most powerful teachers. 

If a child or teen does something I told him he can’t do, I need to ask why! And then work from there. We talk to our children and work things out with them rather than doing things to them. When our children feel included in the boundaries we set, because we collaborate with them, it’s almost like why wouldn’t they work with us? They are a part of it! 

Control (punishments and reward) only works so much. After a while we realize how little control we actually have. 

Control decreases our influence over time while relationship increases our influence over time. 

About setting boundaries, it’s very important to realize the important role of feelings. When I set a boundary I welcome and empathize with the feelings that come up for my child. That helps me remain assertive and it helps my child feel understood and cared for, which helps their resistance move. 

The child’s feelings and needs (and the parent’s feelings and needs!) are one of the most important pieces of the parenting picture. When we parent in a way that focuses on the child’s feelings and needs we set our child up for success in life and in future relationships. Think about marriage. Are there rewards and punishments when your spouse does something right or wrong? Of course not! ( At least I hope not!) A healthy relationship between a husband and wife is based on understanding each other and what makes each spouse act and react in a certain way. It is important to teach your child from a young age about understanding his feelings and needs and what triggers his reactions so he can make good decisions instead of falling back on the traditional reward and punishment system.

Right. That is so true. I never thought of parenting from this relationship-based perspective! I'm realizing how often I use the reward/punishment system! For example, my child is having trouble sitting through class without acting out and disturbing the lesson. We have a chart that he gets a sticker for every 15 minutes that he doesn’t disturb the class, and it’s actually working pretty well. It seems like you wouldn't approach this situation with a chart. How would you address it?

Sure! Yes, I would not be using a chart to address this situation. It is very important that we understand that behavior is communication! When a child “misbehaves” (I really do not like that word very much) in class he is communicating something—expressing a need he is trying to meet, albeit in a rather unskilled manner. If the child’s need is not being met, the feeling comes and a behavior/strategy follows.The most simple example: We need food. If that need is not met, we feel hungry. And then we hopefully eat to meet that need. If we don’t eat, our need will continue to go unmet and now we might feel irritated and weak on top of hungry, which will then make it harder for us to remain kind, right? 

Every human has the same needs. So a child in this example might have a need for connection, competence, or stimulation—maybe all three! If that need is not being met he or she might feel lonely, sad, bored, or frustrated, which will then give them the impulse to “misbehave.” So if your child is acting out in class, it’s driven by a need and a feeling.

Our job as a parent is to think WHY? Why is my child acting out? What is his need that is not being met? Maybe he needs more stimulation and therefore he feels bored. If he feels bored, he will try to find stimulation in the best way he knows how at the moment, which is to disrupt the classroom! It’s a pretty effective strategy even if it’s completely inappropriate. 

So we have to investigate and figure out what need is not being met. Asking our child why he or she is misbehaving usually does not work; children often do not have enough self-awareness to know why they are acting in a certain way, and even if they do, they usually can’t effectively express it—hence the misbehavior. It is our job to figure out why. (And there are ways to do this but that will require another conversation—hopefully in the future!) 

Once we have an idea of what the need is, we can then discuss it with the child and work together to figure out another more appropriate strategy for how his need of stimulation can be met. We may need to also talk to the teacher; maybe she can provide the child with more material during class or have the child help out during class. If the need is attention, perhaps the teacher can give the child a bit more attention and figure out a way to include the child more. 

Aha! I see where the feeling and need piece is taking the place of the reward-punishment method. 

Exactly! Think of it like this. When a child engages in behavior, a chart is treating the symptom instead of the root cause. If someone has a broken leg, taking painkillers may help to temporarily relieve the pain, but if you don't deal with the problem itself it will just get much worse. Charts are like painkillers.

Understanding your child’s needs and feelings is getting to the root of the problem and dealing with the root cause instead of the symptoms.

Wow, this makes a lot of sense to me, but it is all so new and different. This seems a bit unrealistic, though; it takes tremendous presence of mind and effort. Life is so busy and I can barely find a minute to sit down. A chart seems like it might be more efficient sometimes.

It’s true. It takes work. But it is not unrealistic at all. I have a friend with seven children who used to parent traditionally and completely switched over to this way. Does she do it perfectly? No! Do I? No! But we keep evolving every day. This is not a method. It’s not about perfectly following a plan. It’s a way of living and being with our children. It’s a process, not a destination. 

Also, most of the hard work is in the beginning, when it’s all new and different. Eventually it becomes something more natural for both you and your children. 

But I will say that this approach does take constant inner work and that’s the beautiful part to me. It’s so beautiful to me that in raising our children, we raise ourselves. People definitely shy away from this approach and I get why, but I find it incredible, and the more inner work we put in, the more we get out. 

And as a side note, I personally believe that punishment and rewards are not necessarily easier. I remember when I used to use that system. Every time I punished my child, something inside me screamed that it didn't feel right. I felt like a policeman, not a loving mother. Oh, and those charts—I found it nearly impossible to keep track of all of them!

I hear what you are saying, but I know from my experience that children love charts. My kids are so excited about all their charts! Do you feel kids are as receptive to this approach like they are to charts? 

Yes, some children like charts. And reward/punishment systems do sometimes work in the short term. But children thrive when there is a genuine relationship and when their underlying needs are being met. We all crave to be connected and understood—to be seen and to be heard. With this approach a parent understands a child and sees where they are coming from. I can’t even tell you how many times teenagers messaged me that they saw my posts and they wished their parents would do this. Even as adults we want our parents to love us and connect with us—to understand us and validate us. But it is true that if you are starting when your child is older, it’s hard because it’s a change. As the parent, you should talk to your child about it and explain how you will be approaching things that come up from now on. This way they are prepared for the shift in parenting and will be more receptive to the change.

Okay, I hear that, but what about a chart like a brachos chart? Children love that, and it helps them grow in a ruchnius way. I can’t imagine not doing that chart and using your approach instead. Would you use charts to develop good habits?

I'm so happy you brought up this example. I actually have a big problem with charts like that.  The message you give when you are rewarding mitzvos is that saying brachos is something negative. You don’t need a reward for something that is intrinsically good. 

Listen to this recent study: There were two groups of children that were each given a puzzle to do. One group was told, “You have five minutes to do the puzzle. When the timer rings you don’t have to do it anymore, but if you want, you can.” The second group was told the same, but was also told that they will get $5 compensation for doing the puzzle when the timer rings. After five minutes, group one stayed to work on the puzzle, while group two took their money and walked away without finishing the puzzle. Why is this the case? Because for group two, once they were offered money, they were doing it for the reward. They got the reward and were done. However, for group one, completing the puzzle itself was the reward. 

Wow, so interesting. So how does this relate to a brachos chart? 

The chart is like offering $5 to the group. It takes away from the mitzvah itself. Instead of giving them a reward, make saying brachos itself something enjoyable! Make it fun! Give them hugs, sing the brachos, create a good feeling about saying brachos. Parents must be careful not to create negative associations with mitzvos. I know people who tell their children they have to say Tehillim. Be careful: the associations you create for your children are very important and will stay with them throughout life. When it comes to mitzvos, make positive associations. 

But a lot of our chinuch is based on teaching about reward and punishment, which is why it sort of goes hand in hand with our education and parenting. How do you explain the dichotomy between the chinuch we are giving our children and the parenting method you describe?

I love this question, and I get it all the time! S’char and onesh is one of the ikrei emunah. We say it in Ani Ma’amin every day. But punishing a child is not comparable to what onesh is from Hashem. It’s a different system. Hashem’s system is perfect because He is perfect and perfectly loving. Hashem has no ego, like I do. He has no flaws, like I do. My punishment and reward systems are flawed and imperfect. They are unfair. And I don’t want my children to at all draw a comparison from my flawed system to Hashem’s perfect system. They could not be more different. So actually, in order for my child to know that Hashem works that way, not only don’t I need to do it, but it also paints a false picture of how Hashem does it. To me, it is actually even more important not to use reward and punishments as a chinuch system because it will taint their view of s’char and onesh, which is intrinsically perfect.  

I never thought of it like that. How true! But what about a teenager who was already raised on the reward and punishment system? They are used to this “quick fix” or bargaining method. How would you recommend starting to shift? Is it too late? 

It’s never too late. I work with parents of teens all the time. I just hung up with a client with a 17-year-old child and we were discussing exactly this. Will there be struggles? Yes. But from all the people I work with, all of the teenagers love it. Think about it: Wouldn’t anyone want their parents to start listening more and acknowledging? Of course! They might not be used to it, but they’ll love it. I have literally seen parents save their teenagers who were struggling once they started truly connecting to them...

Okay, but what if it’s not one or the other? Can’t a parent be loving and connective, and still do the reward/punishment system? At least some of the time?

You tell me. How safe do you feel in a relationship with someone who punishes you? The punishment itself erodes trust. It’s a barrier to connection. I was just discussing this with a client. She is beginning to realize that it’s too hard to have both. When you are using rewards and punishments you end up building an authoritarian approach with your child. There is no way that it won’t get in the way of being fully supportive and connective to your child. Of course, shifting your approach to parenting doesn’t happen overnight and there’s a way to be collaborative about punishments so they don’t erode as much trust, but the goal should be to ultimately have a relationship-based approach to parenting.

In the short term, do you find that kids who don’t have reward and punishment systems are worse behaved? Does it take longer to get them behaving?

There’s so much to say about this! First, no. Kids are kids and no matter what kind of system they are raised in, they will more or less act the same (barring abuse and neglect). The difference in behaviors depends on where they are at developmentally and their specific temperament and personality. For example, many 2- to 4-year-olds bite, whether they are punished or rewarded or not. It’s developmentally normal. They naturally outgrow it.

In this approach, if a child is biting other children, getting to the root of the problem and addressing the unmet need will solve the issue in the moment and can give us ideas for how to navigate it until they outgrow it. If we use a very harsh punishment, it might make the child stop before they have really outgrown it, and if we use this approach it definitely might take longer for the child to stop biting overall. Safety is always our number-one priority, so this doesn’t mean we simply allow the child to continue to bite other children until they are mature enough not to. We put safeguards in place such as separating the children, giving them different activities, supervising more closely, providing a teething necklace they can bite, etc.

We understand that children’s brains become more mature over time. As they get older, more skills develop and they graduate from biting and hitting to using their words. It’s super important to realize that punishments are not what makes them more mature. It simply might shut down the behavior. 

Using the relationship-based approach allows us to more easily accept the stages of our child’s development.

We are not trying to make the child be more mature than he is. We are problem solving and working with where our child is at while understanding that it takes time for maturity to develop.

Can you give some scenarios from your own life experiences where you used the relationship method rather than reward or punishment systems and how they worked out—and how long did it take to see change?

Yes, actually, until my oldest was 4 I parented the traditional way. I bribed. I threatened. I did time out. I sent her to her room. And I hated it. And she hated it. And she fought me back. I finally said this can not be what parenting is about. So I started researching. Once I started the changeover, I realized that change was very gradual. It’s not gonna change from one day to the next. But I slowly transitioned out of the punishment system. I remember during that transition time I told my daughter to clean up the  playroom. She said, “What’s gonna happen if I don’t?” I said, “Nothing will happen.” She just sat there staring at me like “what should I do now!”. And guess what? She got up and started cleaning it! (This did not happen every time. I had to learn other respectful ways of navigating it too.) 

So how long did it take you to do the whole shift?

It took at least two years to stop threatening. But I slowly started seeing a shift in how she related to me and in how I related to her. In the beginning she didn’t want to have conversations with me. Because I used to be scary (from her perspective, at least). I scolded her a lot. But slowly I built trust. In addition, I had to work hard on my anger and frustration. I realized that a lot of my parenting is based on my moods so I had to learn to pause before acting and reacting. I’m still learning. I used to dread parenting but now I love it. To be a mother is to be a nurturing, supportive, and guiding presence. Think of how gentle and nurturing you are with an infant. With punishment and reward we leave that nurturing, motherly way behind and we become more like a law enforcer. Both the parent and the child suffer from this.

That is such a refreshing perspective. Thank you! Any closing words?

Thank you for this opportunity. I want to clarify that not using punishments and rewards doesn’t really encompass what this approach is about but it definitely helps to understand it! 

To all those parents and teachers out there who rely heavily on rewards and punishment systems: I know so many parents who changed the way they relate to their children, and so many teachers who literally changed their classrooms. And they are so much happier and the children are of course so much happier too. Give it time and patience! You and your children deserve it.

Blimie Heller

Blimie Heller is a mom who is passionate about helping parents build relationships with their children based on respect and trust. She can be reached through her website www.blimieheller.com

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