Why I don't yell at my kids

Spanking and punishing may not be the best ways to teach children right from wrong

Bathed in the light of the full moon, my 31-member family - comprising nephews, nieces, cousins, parents and my offspring - amble down the street in a residential neighbourhood, toting lanterns for the Mid-Autumn Festival.

My 89-year-old grandfather had painstakingly crafted the lanterns - perfectly imperfect colourful cellophane paper creations bent into the shapes of cars, planes, stars, animals and, in a nod to staying on trend, a Pokeball.

At the end of the walk, we spot a playground. The great-grandchildren squeal and clamber up the play structures, their parents trailing behind them.

"It's photo time!" my aunt yells, herding everyone together for a picture-perfect moment - four generations of the Lim family lit up in a kaleidoscope of colour. I kneel down and smile for the camera, my daughter encircled in my arms.

The three-year-old wiggles out of my death grip and makes a beeline for the swings.

"Where are you going?" I ask, running after her. "It's time for a family photo."

"Mummy, I don't take photographs," she explains, as the entire family looks on, waiting.

"If you don't pose for photos, you won't be able to enjoy looking at them later," I reason, desperation creeping into my voice. "Everyone is in the photo. All your cousins, your baby brother. You're the only one here."

This doesn't bother her one bit. "No, thank you," she says.

After another feeble attempt to reason with her, I gesture at my family to go ahead without us.

She has also been in a do-it-myself phase, which means clothes worn inside out, shoes put on - if at all - on the wrong feet and wearing pyjamas in the daytime.

Her unkempt outfits occasionally attract questions.

My husband and I explain them away with "I guess she didn't feel like (fill in the gap) this morning", or with a proud and loud "she put them on herself, it was a good attempt", in response to comments about how she is wearing something "wrong".

The way we see it, there are only two kinds of actions that are off limits: Those that are self-endangering and those that are hurtful to others.

But even if she did cross the line, there would be no punishment meted out by us. There would be no time-out, privileges would not be withdrawn, there would be no cane taken off the hook.

Neither is good behaviour rewarded with TV time or stickers.

As we discussed the issue of discipline with other parents and researched on how to parent respectfully, we found more information that rang true to us: Kids learn from modelling so spanking or yelling teaches them to act aggressively; time-outs (symbolic abandonment) send the message that when they have big emotions and need our support, they will be left alone; and punishment means they stop doing something out of fear, not understanding.

So now, when the kids hit the dog, we've learnt to hold their hands back and say: "I won't let you hit the dog, it hurts her."

If they then start crying, we empathise: "You wanted my attention so you hit the dog. You felt upset." Then we give them a hug if they want one, or if they are throwing a tantrum, stay with them until it passes.

It is understandable why most parents baulk at the idea of doing this.

The process isn't easy for me either and I have second-guessed myself, wondering: Can I effectively teach my children right from wrong without the use of swift consequences? Am I being too soft?

Several recent incidents put my doubts to rest.

My daughter had made a castle out of Lego blocks and my one-year-old son was grabbing at it. Both ignored my intonations to stop and I took too long to remove them from the situation. The result was a smashed castle, yelling and my daughter hitting my son on the cheek, hard.

I raised my voice and, in a moment I am not proud off, gave her a smack on her arm. It was too light to hurt her but, at night, lying in bed, I pondered the irony of me trying to stop her from hitting her brother by hitting her.

The next day, she asked me to show her my hand for a "smack, smack" because I was "naughty". Wow, I thought, alarmed that she had so quickly learnt to hit me when I was bad.

Another time, I watched with bated breath as my son teetered at the top of a rubber mulch hill in Bishan Park, ignoring my pleas to stop running. In a split second he had fallen, scraping his knees and chin.

I hugged him, then wondered if punishment was due. How else would he learn to listen? Then, I saw him being extra careful when he climbed the next hill. The natural consequence of his fall, the pain, I realised, was lesson enough.

That is when it hit me: We're all learning, the kids, my husband and I.

As parents, we try to stick to our choice of parenting method as best as we can. At times, we feel as if we're doing it all wrong, at other times we think we're making headway.

As for me, I think it is an accomplishment if I manage to, by and large, stick to my parenting goals.

And well, on the occasion that I veer off path, the consolation is that there won't be any photos to show for it.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 12, 2017, with the headline 'Why I don't yell at my kids'. Print Edition | Subscribe