As a teacher, Michelle Kenney used punishments and rewards to motivate and manage children’s behavior in her classroom. Then she became a mom. When her second daughter was born, her first child began exhibiting the typical behavior of an older, displaced child. She talked back, threw tantrums, and at one point became dangerously rough with her little sister. Frustrated and worried, Michelle’s instinct was to discipline her daughter with yelling and punishments, but she soon found that this approach was having the opposite effect and only driving a wedge between them. Introduced by chance to a gentle parenting coach, Michelle was eventually able to see her daughter’s behavior through a more empathetic lens. That changed everything. “It’s such a beautiful thing,” she says, “Having these good, connected relationships… I know they feel safe, and I never felt that way when I was growing up.” Michelle is now a parent coach and shares her experience, inspiration, and knowledge in her new book Unpunished.
Transcript of “Problems with Punishments (Described by a Parent Who Used Them) with Michelle Kenney”
Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled.
Michelle Kenney coaches parents who seek more calm and peace at home and want to move away from yelling, threats, and punishments into more connection. And as a self-described former yeller, recovering perfectionist, and reformed control freak, Michelle certainly understands the problems our punitive methods can cause, and the solutions, and also how to help others navigate the challenges of transforming their approach as she has done. I’m delighted to welcome her to share with us today. Michelle hosts the popular parenting podcast Peace and Parenting, and she’s the author of an insightful new book, Unpunished.
Hi, Michelle. Welcome to Unruffled.
Michelle Kenney: Hi, Janet. Thank you for having me. It’s so nice to be here.
Janet Lansbury: It’s really nice to meet you this way. You have a book, a new book out called Unpunished, and is that your first book?
Michelle Kenney: Yep, it’s my first book.
Janet Lansbury: So often we talk about the how in terms of parenting without punishments, gentle parenting, respectful parenting, conscious parenting. But we don’t often talk as much about the why. And that’s what I wanted to get into because you’ve had experience where you were punishing your children, right?
Michelle Kenney: Yes. I was a teacher and way back when, when I became a teacher, we really learned to reward and punish our students. And when my kids weren’t behaving, my oldest especially, I thought, I’ll just reward and punish her and then she’ll just whip into shape. And that didn’t work. She was not having it. And so we struggled for a long time before I finally decided that I needed to change things.
Janet Lansbury: Can you talk about how you realized it wasn’t working and what the effects were that you were seeing in her?
Michelle Kenney: Yeah. So I think the tipping point, and I talk about this a lot, is that she and her sister, who are three years apart, they were probably like two and five or three and six, and they were in the pool. And my oldest took my youngest and held her under the pool water. And I had to dive in and get them both and get them out, all of us screaming and yelling and me terrified that something terrible was going to happen. And at that moment I finally said, I have to change things because these are just kids and they’re obviously not responding to the way in which I’m coming to them. So in that moment I just said, I need to find something new. And I went on a rampage to change the way in which I was parenting them because I felt like we were on a really bad path.
Janet Lansbury: Did you feel like your older daughter was trying to get your attention with this kind of behavior? Like an unconscious call for help or, you know, I have all these feelings about having a sibling. Which happens, as we know, there’s a lot of feelings that that older child has to process around the situation. And if they don’t feel safe to process them with us, then it just gets all bottled up inside them and it can become rage or sadness or the whole gamut of emotions.
Michelle Kenney: I think that was the beginning of it. I think she displayed with aggression right away when she had a baby sister. And I think what exacerbated that aggression was my reaction to her aggression. So I started to really come down hard on her, correcting and reprimanding and sending her to timeout and really coming down hard on her because of my own fear that she was going to hurt her sister. And then also tied into my own sibling relationship, that wasn’t very good growing up. And so I was in this place where, if I didn’t get it to stop, they were going to grow up and have a horrible relationship. So, my own triggers. And I think she was playing out the relationship she and I shared on her sister. That she really was angry with me, but taking it out on Pia.
Janet Lansbury: Well, let’s shoot back to before Pia then, when it was just, what’s your older daughter’s name?
Michelle Kenney: Esme.
Janet Lansbury: Esme. So when you had Esme and when she became a toddler and started to have pushback behavior or whatever you want to call it. So that’s when you started using punishments with her?
Michelle Kenney: I did, but it was like she didn’t really push back. We had a pretty good relationship. She was able to follow directions and do as I asked, and really fell into line, so to speak, right up until right before I had her sister. And so I didn’t have a lot of experience with her really pushing the boundaries or trying out her own free will or anything, until her sister came. That was really the precipitous of it.
Janet Lansbury: Well, what did you mean about your relationship, that she was acting out your relationship with her sister?
Michelle Kenney: I think after her sister was born, our relationship —mine and Esme’s— changed. And I really became more punitive with her and more aggressive and more corrective. And so I think that was really hard on Esme. She didn’t know what to do with those feelings and she knew she couldn’t get them out with me because I would just punish her. And so she was playing out that dysregulation, for lack of a better word, with her sister.
Janet Lansbury: That’s what I thought. But then I thought maybe there was something in your relationship before that, that you thought that she was expressing through her sister.
Well, the situation that you have is, in my experience, very typical and instinctive. Especially when you had a child who didn’t show much resistance and everything was going along smoothly. And then you see this other side of them. I experienced this with both my children in different ways. You see this other side to them and it scares you and it brings up all these feelings of your own sibling issues or whatever. It’s so hard not to start bagging on that child or getting very stern with them. Because we’re shocked, right? It’s like, I never saw this side of you before. And it’s a side that comes from a lot of fear and hurt on their end, but it’s really hard to see that because they just can seem evil.
Michelle Kenney: Yeah. This loving, sweet, adorable kid who I love to the bottom of my heart is pinching and squeezing and hitting my baby. And you think in your head, This has to stop and I don’t know what else to do, so I’m going to get aggressive.
Janet Lansbury: Yeah, right. Then that taps into our fear: What have I created here? What’s going on?
Michelle Kenney: And I think too, for me, when we brought Pia home, Esme said, the first day, she said, “She has to go live with the neighbors because she’s taking all my people.” And I think in some instances I felt like I’ve ruined my oldest daughter’s life by bringing this baby into her life because she feels so displaced. And so I didn’t know how to rectify it all in my head.
Janet Lansbury: She actually verbalized it?
Michelle Kenney: Yeah.
Janet Lansbury: Wow. That’s pretty amazing.
I have two older sisters and one younger one, so I know what it’s like to be the younger and the older. And when the oldest one —who is an intense, strong personality— when my mother came home—and my mother had c-sections with all of us, so she was in the hospital for a bit. And when she came home with second older sister, the oldest one was only 15 months. And my mother said that she turned her head away from her, she just did this very deliberate, I can’t look at you with this baby. And it’s so heartbreaking.
Michelle Kenney: Yeah. You know, I think that schism, it lasts, it doesn’t really go away very quickly there. That hurt is there.
Janet Lansbury: Yeah. Because then you’re seeing this baby being taken care of and all this physical attention and the nursing and everything. It’s a hurt that just keeps flaring up because it’s right in front of you. And what you were talking about there sounds like another thing that I remember feeling, which is our own sadness around the loss of that relationship that we had with the older child that was nice and smooth and we were a team. And now, we see their heartbreak or maybe we don’t even recognize it as that, but on some level we know that we’ve totally rocked their world.
Michelle Kenney: And it changes. Your relationship changes. I felt the change, I felt more distant from her because I was caring so deeply for her sister.
Janet Lansbury: Yeah. Well you have to make room for that other person. And then we feel guilt around that and that makes us even more reactive to the behavior, right? Because we’re not really entirely regulated in how we’re feeling.
Michelle Kenney: And I think punishments play a big role in the sibling relationship, but I think they also permeate, they’re everywhere. They really affect everything in your parenting. I don’t think it just stays in the sibling relationship, but it feels like it’s this hard thing that exists in every interaction that you have with your kids when you’re using punishments. It’s almost like you feel hardened toward them when you’re using punishments.
Janet Lansbury: Can you describe that a little more? What that feels like or how that looks?
Michelle Kenney: When Esme was doing something that I didn’t like, like being aggressive with her sister, and then I came down in this harsh manner, it almost put this wedge between us where I was like, No, you’re wrong and you’re bad and you’re doing something wrong and bad and I’m going to punish you. I’m going to almost retaliate against you because you’ve done this thing. So it made me feel like I was less loving toward her.
Janet Lansbury: And the chasm gets bigger and bigger, right? Because then that’s not working. And then you’re more frustrated and more angry and you feel more like that’s an “other” instead of your little girl.
Michelle Kenney: You’re willing to hurt them emotionally, yeah. Which is hard.
Janet Lansbury: And then that doesn’t feel good to us. And then our feelings of guilt and sadness and discomfort and the distance from this person that we used to be closer with. Even if we just started that with our first child when they became a toddler, we felt closer when they were an infant. And then now they’re a toddler and they’re saying no, and they’re not doing what we ask all the time. And they seem to not do things that we know they know how to do, just to spite us or whatever. But there’s always a reason behind that that isn’t about spite, it’s about their discomfort. 99% of the time it’s coming from their own discomfort, on some level. And then we feel, Oh, what happened to the baby that we used to be able to hug and snuggle and we had this bond with? It feels like it goes away, right? Or that it’s being threatened.
Michelle Kenney: Yeah, it feels like it. You just become distant. You’re not as close, you’re not as connected.
Janet Lansbury: And so how did you see your way out of this?
Michelle Kenney: Well, I went to a school event later that week and we were doing council in schools and we were being trained and we had to sit in a circle and talk about our kid. And I just started bawling, because I was feeling so ashamed and I think stressed around my relationship with Esme. And this woman came up to me and she said, “You should really check out Hand in Hand Parenting. You should check out connected parenting.” And she’s like, “I have a coach.” And I was like, “I don’t really care who she is, just please send her to my house. I cannot do this anymore.” And I was lucky enough to fall in love with that ideology and that kind of started my journey into this world.
Janet Lansbury: So Hand in Hand Parenting, that’s Patty Wipfler. She’s been around forever. And she knew, and I think studied also with, my mentor Magda Gerber. So we have a lot in common. And years back when we were first sort of online, we did some events together, but I haven’t been in touch with her for a long time. But yeah, that approach is similar in many ways, especially in that it values and makes room for the feelings a child has that are really what is driving their behavior.
Michelle Kenney: Yeah. So I became a certified instructor through her program. And her ideology really is, all expression is valid. And that embracing that helps a kid really offload the feelings that are getting stuck, that create the behaviors like Esme had. And once I started letting Esme have big tantrums and being there for her and understanding her and not punishing her, she totally changed. She became a whole new kid. And it was incredible, it was a drug to me. I was like, No, we need more tantrums, we need more connection, we need more everything! Because it was so profound.
Janet Lansbury: And how was it that Patty Wipfler and Hand in Hand presented feelings that helped you to make that adjustment in your own thinking? Because it sounded like you were thinking like most of us do, which is, Maybe my child is doing this on purpose, throwing a tantrum to get something from us. It’s manipulative. Or, This is just another sign that we’re bad parents. We should feel bad about this and we need to make it stop, stop, stop. That’s the focus that a lot of us have just innately: You’re upset, you’re my child, I’ve got to stop you. I’ve got to make it stop. How did you make that transition? Because this process is different for each of us, recognizing that, Oh wait, these feelings are our friends, they’re not our enemies or our problem to fix.
Michelle Kenney: There are a bunch of different things, but I think one of the most profound things, and I think what’s different about Hand in Hand Parenting, is that you’re deeply listened to as a parent. So when you feel that empathy that I never, ever encountered as a kid and didn’t really encounter as an adult too much either, except for maybe by my therapist, when you really feel empathically listened to and that becomes something that you cherish yourself, you realize how to give it to somebody else and you realize the importance of it. So I think the receiving of it makes you able to give it, and it helps you realize how deeply profound listening to anybody is.
Janet Lansbury: So when you go in the class, everyone’s sharing and they’re sharing their own experiences and everybody’s listening to their feelings around what’s going on with their child?
Michelle Kenney: Yeah. It’s something called listening time. And in one-on-one sessions and in group sessions, everyone’s able to share and be heard. We don’t fix, we don’t really try to tell people too much what they need to do, but just kind of hold space. And so it feels good as an adult to experience that.
Janet Lansbury: So they help you see how this is what your child needs too.
Michelle Kenney: Yeah. And when you give it to them, I think this is the other big piece is that I kept thinking, I can’t sit there during this one-hour tantrum with my kid who’s spitting at me and kicking and hitting. This is insane and ridiculous. But I was like, I’m going to try it. And when they come through the other side and you see them calm and connected and feeling better and saying, “I’m sorry, Mommy,” and hugging you and not leaving your side for the rest of the night, you think to yourself, This worked. This helped my kid offload all this crap that was stuck inside of them that they needed to get out. And that’s the gold about it, I think.
Janet Lansbury: I don’t know about you, but I still feel when I’m helping a parent with a child or if it’s my child —my children are all adults now, but it never goes away— this feeling that, Oh, this is bad. I’ve got to fix this, this is a problem. And, poor them, and I’ve got to talk them out of it. That still comes up for me, even though I’ve done this hundreds of times now. But I don’t. Because once you’ve done it once or twice, you have that memory of, Oh yeah, I remember what happened and it was the right thing to do. So just trust it, trust it, trust it. Just let it be, let it go. And it validates you again that that’s the right thing to do. So yeah, it’s amazing. But to me it’s just so fascinating that it never goes away. Those feelings of wanting it to stop, it must be some very primal, responsive feeling that we pass down generation to generation. It’s so embedded in us, you know?
Michelle Kenney: Yeah. I also too think nobody ever let me have feelings growing up. If there were big feelings in the house, that was a bad thing. That should not happen, that has to be squashed. And so I think I really brought that into my parenting. There can’t be bad feelings here. We’re happy and that’s the way it has to be. And I’m going to do whatever it takes to make sure that we’re not having any upsets. That upsets are bad.
Janet Lansbury: Yeah. So we had that modeled to us. We have not felt that for ourselves, that that’s okay for us to have the feelings. I got to see my mother in action when I had a baby. “Don’t cry, don’t cry. It’s okay. It’s okay. Don’t cry.”
Michelle Kenney: That’s my mom.
Janet Lansbury: So you see it right in front of you. Oh, that’s maybe why. That could be part of this.
Michelle Kenney: And then mainstream parenting still says, Shush the baby. Quiet the kid. That’s still way in our ethos.
Janet Lansbury: I know we’ve come a long way, though, because when I first started sharing online and Hand in Hand was one of the few, and Aware Parenting, Aletha Solter, she’s another one that was a champion for allowing children to have their feelings. But it was not accepted. And we’ve come such a long way. People are writing whole books about feelings and making their whole professional profile about allowing kids to have their feelings. And I think that’s fantastic. It gives me a lot of hope that we’re on our way to this getting more and more accepted.
Michelle Kenney: Yeah, I think we are. You have obviously seen more, but I even see it in the last few years. There seems to be a much bigger awareness around just being kind to your kids. You don’t have to spank them, you don’t have to punish them. And that’s huge for our society.
Janet Lansbury: Yes, it is. And then there’s also the backlash against that, that the pendulum is swinging too far the other direction. You’re nice to your kids, but you never want them to feel bad about anything that you do or make a boundary that they’re going to react negatively to.
Michelle Kenney: I think people don’t want to punish and don’t want to yell and don’t want to do these things, but they don’t exactly know what else to do. So then they end up just maybe placating a lot or making sure everything’s okay all the time and always trying to make their kids happy. And I think it’s because they haven’t quite figured out what to do instead, how to set the limit and allow the feelings, how to have the boundary and be okay with it. They haven’t quite got to that place.
Janet Lansbury: Right. And sometimes that’s a positive because they’ve went this far and there’s just a little more work to do.
Michelle Kenney: Yeah, I think so.
Janet Lansbury: Is that what you find with the parents that you work with?
Michelle Kenney: Yeah, I think there’s a couple of different camps. There’s a camp of parents that, they want to do the right thing, they just don’t know how to have a kind, calm, loving, empathic boundary. The only thing they know from their past is to be harsh. So in default, they do nothing. And I get that. I totally get that. And it’s just an easy fix, really.
Janet Lansbury: Yeah. We’re afraid that that harsh part inside of us is going to pop out, then we’re just sort of ambivalent and that makes children uncomfortable, obviously.
Michelle Kenney: I know. And yeah, it is tough. And so I think that’s also why the gentle parenting world gets a lot of backlash is because we see this group of people maybe out there who don’t quite understand the boundary piece. And so many people are like, Well, that’s permissive.
Janet Lansbury: Yeah. Which I think it definitely can be.
Michelle Kenney: It can be, very much so.
Janet Lansbury: Can you talk a little about— you brought up before your sibling dynamic that you had as a child— I think that plays in very much to how we feel with these sibling behaviors and how we react to them and the triggers that we might have.
Michelle Kenney: Mm-hmm. I grew up in a house that was pretty punitive and shaming. Except for… my parents, they really had this hands-off approach with siblings, which I see often. Like, just let them figure it out kind of thing. And so what ended up happening is that I was the older, stronger-willed child, and so I won every fight. I was in charge of everything and I basically just squashed my sister. And so she of course hated me for it. And we had this really terrible relationship growing up. Now since then, we’ve gone to therapy and figured it out and we are much, much closer now, but, you know, I’d already gone to therapy and I’d already figured it out with her. And so I feared so much that Esme was going to be me, and that she would ruin the relationship that she shared with her sister, that it just ignited me to this place of fear. And so I was bringing all that baggage right into my parenting, almost like a direct line. And it was really hard. And because I had two girls and my sister and I are two girls, it was like the perfect storm to be the bad recipe.
Janet Lansbury: I don’t think it’s a natural tendency to just want to totally dominate your younger sibling. My guess would be that that did come from shame and your own fear around the situation. I think your parents must have let you know very clearly that they didn’t think the way you were acting was okay, and maybe they turned a blind eye to it, but at some point you got the message. You were shameful. You weren’t feeling great about yourself, or you wouldn’t have acted like that.
Michelle Kenney: Yeah. I think my dad came down really hard on me and was very punitive. And so, I learned that. I learned how to be punitive. I learned how to get what I wanted by using fear and by using punishment, so to speak. Again, like Esme was playing out her relationship with me on Pia, I was playing out the relationship I shared with my dad on my sister. And I don’t want to say I didn’t know any better, but I was in a really bad place.
Janet Lansbury: Yeah. You know, that wasn’t the healthy, happy side of you that was acting that way.
Michelle Kenney: No, it certainly wasn’t. I was dysregulated and having a really tough time in my own relationships in my nuclear family, the other ones. And my poor sister ended up being the fallout from that.
Janet Lansbury: Yeah. And that’s a very typical dynamic that I hear a lot about. For me, it was my oldest sister, but she, I know for sure, had a lot of rage and fear and my parents could not handle that at all. They weren’t punitive per se, but they could not handle the feelings. So they let her know quite clearly through their words and actions that that wasn’t acceptable. And so she had to hold it in and act it out in all these other ways and gain control of herself by gaining control of us. And it was a very disruptive situation at home. But I also weirdly related to her, especially when there was a younger one, younger than me. It defined her whole life, really, as a very intense personality, but like brilliant, creative, all these things. And she eventually chose to become estranged from the family.
When I had my daughter and then a second one —and my daughter is quite intense, my oldest one, reminded me a lot of my older sister in positive ways—I was ready for her to have a hard time with the next one. I wasn’t going to let what had happened to my sister happen. And I knew enough then about emotions and what causes behavior, what children go through. And so I took a lot of care to give her the boundaries for sure, but help her find acceptable ways to share with me, for her to feel seen by me, empathized with.
Michelle Kenney: I think too of what you say about your sister, how she was kind of estranged from the family, I hear that a lot. Online, a lot of people share that they can’t be part of their family because they’ve been labeled “villain” or “the bad one” and they have a hard time coming back into that role as adults. And that it’s very painful.
Janet Lansbury: And I guess it’s the labeling that causes the punishing, but then the punishing continues the behavior.
Michelle Kenney: Yeah, it does.
Janet Lansbury: But the great news is there’s all this education out there for parents, though I’m sure it’s totally overwhelming.
Michelle Kenney: Yeah. But I think too, on the positive note, I know now, my daughters are 14 and 17, and the relationships that I have with them is like, it’s a dream. It’s what I wanted, right? It’s what I wished I would’ve had as a kid. And it’s such a beautiful thing when you can get there, having these good, connected relationships where your kids feel safe to share with you and where you still have ups and downs and hard moments and big feelings and all that stuff, but it just, it feels good. And so I know, anyone out there, if you just try to get rid of the punishments and infuse some connection pieces that you can get there too.
Janet Lansbury: Can you talk about what’s different about your relationship with your children than what you had with your parents?
Michelle Kenney: I mean, my kids, I don’t think they tell me everything. Maybe I’m delusional, and I think they probably don’t share everything with me, but we share most things with one another. And I know they feel safe coming to me no matter what, when anything goes wrong and they’re having a hard time, they come straight to me. And it can be anything. And I know they feel safe. And I never felt that way when I was growing up. I didn’t feel safe to go to my parents. I lied. I snuck out. I did all of the things that kids who are scared of their parents do. And so that safety and that trust, it’s beautiful.
Janet Lansbury: Yeah. I feel something very similar to that, that I didn’t tell my parents much at all. And I was afraid to, and I thought I’d be judged for most of the way I was living my life as a young adult, for sure. And way before that, I think I got the message when my little sister was born that I have bad sides to me and I can’t trust myself entirely. And I was afraid of how I was going to be seen by them. And yeah, my oldest told me the other day or she was telling somebody else that was over, “My mom gives great advice,” and it made me feel like a million dollars.
Michelle Kenney: That is so sweet.
Janet Lansbury: The sharing is unbelievably different from what I had and the feeling that if things go wrong between us, that it’s not going to be the end of anything. There’s none of the threat that I felt with my mother for sure. There was a threat that she was just going to turn away from me forever if I asserted myself in a negative way towards her. If I asserted feelings that were not positive. And you know, it’s interesting, it’s taken me a long time to even realize all the things, because I didn’t have some really harsh upbringing or anything. I had a lot of love and loved my parents all the way through and just more things come to light as you go along in life. And I don’t know, it’s interesting.
Michelle Kenney: Yeah, when Esme turned 12 and I was doing this work, I was like, This isn’t working anymore. She is out of her mind and I’m going to have to go back to punishments because this isn’t working. And I remember talking to my listening partner and she was like, “No, just stick with it. Just stick with it.” And I kept thinking for that whole year, what if I get to the end of this road here with this kid and this stuff doesn’t work, I’m really going to be upset. And now getting to kind of the end —she’s almost 18— I feel like, thank God I stuck through all of that, because there are hard moments. It’s not always easy, but it works. It does work.
Janet Lansbury: Was she doing a lot of rejection-of-mom things? Yeah. I mean that’s definitely girls with their moms in those adolescent years. Totally. And I think it’s very healthy and, you know, it’s the toddler saying no all over again.
Michelle Kenney: Oh yeah. She was all in her will. That was for sure.
Janet Lansbury: And that’s how they grow more separate from us and more autonomous: I have to reject everything you are to be able to be myself. But it is kind of shocking. I remember that. And then I remember it for my daughter, the older one, it was 14 to 16, like on the clock. She turned 16, all of a sudden she liked me again.
Michelle Kenney: Yeah. They come back. I was like, Oh my gosh, you came back. Thank goodness. I was waiting!
Janet Lansbury: Yeah, you’ve got to stick with it. But it is scary sometimes. Can we trust? And I get that a lot from parents and I really get it. How’s my child going to learn that they shouldn’t do these things? Because you’re helping them not do them.
Michelle Kenney: Yeah. We believe the punishments will teach them right from wrong, which they really don’t.
Janet Lansbury: Yeah. Well I’m so glad that you found another way and that you are doing this amazing work, helping parents find another way.
Michelle Kenney: Without people like you and Patty, none of us would be doing this, so thank you to you.
Janet Lansbury: I love this. It’s like trying to sell something that you know works, so you’re not trying to sell it, you’re just sharing it. You’re just passing on what was passed to you that saved your skin.
Michelle Kenney: We keep going, we keep going.
Janet Lansbury: Well, you’re wonderful and thank you.
Michelle Kenney: Okay, thank you. Take care, bye.
Janet Lansbury: You too, bye.
And please check out some of my other podcasts on my website, janetlansbury.com. They’re all indexed by subject and category, so you should be able to find whatever topic you might be interested in. And my books are available in paperback and on audio, No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting. You can find them through my website or on audible.com. And you can also get them in paperback at Amazon and in ebook at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and apple.com.
Thanks so much for listening. We can do this.