Bully Parenting

This is post 3 of 4 on Bullying. You might want to go back and read the earlier parts:

Here are the important parts from that we established before:

  • Bullying is the use of force, threat, or coercion to dominate others.
  • Spanking is the use of violence against children in an attempt to coerce a child’s behavior.
  • Spanking is a parent bullying a child.

In this post, I want to talk about various parenting behaviors and techniques. In particular, I want to talk about “normal” parenting that is, in fact, bullying.

Spoiler alert: Most parenting techniques are bullying!

Goals Parents have for their Children

Before we talk about what parents actually do, lets talk about why parents do what they do. What do parents want to accomplish with their actions? What are the goals that parents have for their children? Before reading my list, I would suggest that you write what you want for your children. Do this now!

Okay, I know you probably didn’t write your list of goals. Instead you get to read my list and criticize it.  Here’s my list of potential goals parents might have for their children (categorized into long and short-term goals):

Short-Term Goals Long-Term Goals
Chores (help with the family)  Enjoy life
Share with others  Be happy
Obedience and respect (to parents and other adults)  Be kind
Don't lie  Be responsible
Don't steal  Work hard
Don't fight  Have good manners
Don't do anything illegal (drugs)  Be confident
Have healthy and fulfilling relationships
Enjoy and support you (their parents)

Notice that accomplishing the long-term goals should actually accomplish most of the short-term goals. For example, we probably want our children to not steal and not do drugs (short-term goals) because we believe that not stealing and not doing drugs will lead to being happier and enjoying life more (long-term goals). We believe that a responsible child (a long-term goal) will actually do chores and share with other (short-term goals).

I think the short-term goal of obedience is worth talking more about. Obedience may have its place but I’d propose that the role of obedience in parenting should be as minimized as possible. I would suggest that if you think obedience is a really important part of parenting then you are probably a parental bully. If you want your child to learn to blindly obey you or someone else, you may be raising your children to be adults like these:

Bullies - Nazis


How Parents Achieve Their Goals

How do parents achieve the goals they have for their children? With discipline of course! There are a variety of typical discipline methods. Most of the discipline methods are either punishments or rewards, so lets talk about these first.


bully-parent yelling at child

Here are a several different types of punishments with examples.

  • Physical punishment:

    “You hit your sister so I am going to hit/spank you.”

  • Verbal punishment (shaming, scolding, name calling):

    “You hit your brother, you’re a bad little girl!”

  • Withdrawing and taking away privileges (which may or may not have anything to do with the child’s behavior):

    “You didn’t do your homework. No TV for you!”

  • Grounding:

    “You lied to me. You’re grounded to your room for a week!”

  • Isolation:

    “You threw your food, go to a time out!”

  • Logical Consequences (punishments that seem logical to the parent):

    “You rode your bike in the street, no bike for you for a week!”

The examples given were purposely simple. The point is that these examples all come from a power dynamic where the parent dictates whatever he/she wants upon the child. If we remember our definition:

  • Bullying is the use of force, threat, or coercion to dominate others.

Parental punishments are a threat made by a parent, used to dominate a child. Thus, punishments are really just bullying. Unless you want to be a bully, you should stop punishing children.

Let us look at some issues you might have with this idea of not punishing children. Here are some scenarios to consider.

  • “Billy just hit his sister Susie. Billy should be punished.”
    • I would ask you “Why does Billy need to be punished and what will punishing him accomplish?” If these can’t be answered then surely Billy should not be punished.
    • I would agree that if the hitting continues then Billy should be removed from Susie to protect her.
    • I would propose that Billy will soon learn that hitting is not acceptable–not because you say so but because of the consequences he will discover: other kids will not like Billy and will not want to play with him.
    • When the situation has calmed down the parent could actually try to talk to Billy: “Did you enjoy hitting Susie?” “How do you think it made Susie feel?” “Do you think Susie will want to play with you when you hit her.”
    • Of course, any parental talk must not be forced and can not be dominating and coercive (i.e., bullying).
  • Safety: Billy is running into the street and could get run over by a car. He needs to be punished so that he learns to stay safe.
    • Everyone would agree that young children need to learn certain things to stay safe: don’t run in the street, don’t touch a hot stove, don’t play with alligators, etc. We would all also agree that it is the parents’ responsibility to keep their children safe.
    • If Billy is running into the street and a car is coming, I would suggest that the parent sweep him up and keep him safe. The issue here is what to do after Billy is safe. Should he be punished then?
    • If your biggest concern is safety of your child, then my question to you would be:

      Is punishment the best way to teach children to be safe?

      I would propose to you that punishment is not an effective way to teach safety because punishment is still coercing (bullying) the child into behavior that you (the dominating parent) says is correct. Punishments are only teaching the child that you are a bully.

    • Some alternatives to punishing Billy might include:
      • Talking to him about the road (when he is ready to talk about it). This talk could include a discussion/demonstration of the safe use of roads.
      • Sitting on the sidewalk to watch cars go by and talk about how useful cars are, and their dangers.
      • Play with some toy cars and some toy people and run the people over.

      I’m sure you can come up with some more alternatives to punishments, alternatives that are actually respectful of Billy as a person.

But, don’t take my word for it. The “experts” seem to agree that punishing children is bad for children. Look at these and you can google around to find more:


bully-reward chart

Rewards are just the flip side of punishments. Instead of giving the rat in the maze a shock, give the rat some cheese. It feels nicer and seems more humane. Besides, rewards work for dog trainers, so maybe its the way to go for raising children too. Some examples:

  • “If you eat your broccoli you can have some ice cream.”
  • Sticker charts for toddlers.
  • Point Systems (like sticker charts, but for older children)
  • Financial Allowance (money)
  • Electronic allowance (cell phone privileges)

All these are similar. There is a behavior that a parent defines as desirable. The parent dangles a reward out for the child to perform and the parent gives the child the reward.

The reward method of child discipline seems like it is a step nicer than the punishment method. But, even with rewards, the parent is still using his or her greater power to coerce and dominate the child. It might feel nicer to give rewards rather than punishments. But, rewards are still domination and coercion. Thus, rewards are still bullying.

Despite that rewards are bullying, rewards still seem like a very reasonable method of discipline. Rewards are certainly reasonable if you are training monkeys. Or mice. Or dogs. But do we want to treat raising our children the same as training a good hunting dog? And, perhaps more importantly, do rewards actually help raise children with the values we expressed in our child raising goals?

The research seems pretty clear on this question. Rewards are definitely better than punishment. But, rewards are still bad for children. Yes, even rewards like praise is bad, so stop with the “good job” and “great work.” I’ll let you read more about this from Alfie Kohn and others:

No Punishments? No Rewards?

What’s left? It is probably worthwhile to hit on a couple other discipline techniques. I’m sure you can find more techniques that fall outside of the Punishment/Reward Umbrella. Here are a few sources that I like:


For example, your toddler is yelling in the grocery store. Instead of yelling at your child to stop (punishment) or offering your child a cookie to stop (reward), you enlist your child to help you find the bread, giving the child something else to think about.

I like the idea of redirection, but this technique is probably limited to younger children. At least redirection doesn’t sound like bullying.

Natural Consequences

Let us first be clear that Natural Consequences is not the same as the Logical Consequences that we discussed in the Punishment section. Logical consequences are punishments that a parent thinks are logical but invented by the parent. Natural consequences are “naturally” imposed by the action of the child. It is true that there is a fine line of difference between these two ideas. Here are some examples of Natural Consequences:

  • You tell your son Billy that you will do the laundry once a week on Sunday, that you will wash everything in his clothes hamper. Billy leaves his clothes all over his room and Billy’s clothes aren’t washed.
  • You make an agreement with your daughter Susie that if she will mow the lawn you will pay her $10. She doesn’t mow the lawn for weeks and you finally mow the lawn. Susie then wants some money for the movies.
  • Your child leaves a toy outside and the toy gets ruined in the rain.
  • Your teenager stays up late and is very tired for school the next morning.

Notice that almost all of these consequences could have been averted or even solved by parental involvement. But, this is the case of a parent not stepping in and using his/her parental judgement to not step in. It is not a parent coercing a child or dominating a child. In fact, it is a parent giving a child freedom to make his or her own decisions.

In short, Natural Consequences are a great parenting tool.

Bully Parenting for all

In summary, almost all parenting that every child has ever received or ever will receive is Bully Parenting! If you are a parent, you are almost certainly a bully parent. The benefit to knowing this is that you now know that you can do better. If you are a bully parent, now is the time to stop bullying your children and find a better way.

The Harms of Bully Parenting

Think about bully parenting from your child’s perspective:

  • Your child goes to school where the teachers (and other students) tell your child what to do and how to behave.
  • Your child is trying to learn what he/she likes and dislikes in the world. Trying to learn what he/she is good at. Trying to explore the world and learn how the world works.
  • Your child is trying to navigate acceptance by his/her peers, as well as his/her sexuality, dealing with bullies at school and not having anyone he/she can count on to confide in.
  • Your child makes it through his/her day, finally comes home to to where he/she should be safe. Instead of safety at home, your child is bullied by a system of punishments and rewards set up by you, the person who is supposed to keep him/her safe.

Being a child is difficult! Children need to find themselves, discover their interests and abilities. A system of punishments and rewards set up by bully parenting attempts to makes a child an extension of the bully parent. This imposition upon the child’s self does not allow a child to freely discover who him or herself. At best, this is a terrible affront on the child. At worst, it leaves our children severely damaged.

A Personal Reflection

I am certainly guilty of bully parenting. I especially find the reward method of discipline a difficult habit to break. My biggest parenting blunders have happened when I was bully parenting. These blunders have included me trying to force my child to do something or to think a certain way. My biggest parenting successes have all been when I allowed my child to be him or herself.

As I write this post, my three children are currently 16, 4 and 1 years old. When dealing with these three children, I have found it extremely difficult to go against the bully parenting system of punishments and rewards that has been programmed into me. When I am at my parenting best, I recognize these bullying patterns and I am able to find a way to be a better parent. This allows my children to discover the world for themselves and allows my children to learn about life for themselves. Allowing my children the ability to learn for themselves is parenting at its best.

But children don’t know what is best for them yet!

I think that parents should treat their children more like adults. Instead, it seems like many parents treat their children like pawns, like extensions of themselves. Many parents seem to treat their own children like these children are not human beings with their own wants and needs. Instead, these parents can only see their own wants and needs and project those on their children. Most parents would never treat another adult in this way. Most parents would never suppose that they know what is best for another adult. Being older, smarter taller, bigger, richer, more experienced or anything else would not give justification for one adult to be able to impose punishments and dictate behavior in the way parents feel they can and should on their children. Certainly, a parent would never spank another adult for any misbehavior. A parent should not discipline a child and treat the child as sub-human. Parents should not bully their children in any way.

If you, as a smart and thoughtful adult, want to influence behavior in other adults, you would probably find discussion and understanding to be your best tools. You would probably find lecturing, shaming, threatening and spanking to be the least effective ways to influence the behavior in another adult. Why would you think children would react positively to the same lectures, threats and other abuse?

Some Scenarios

Here are a few scenarios that I borrowed from someone the popular PopSugar blog: 5 Phrases That Will Make Your Kids Stop Crying and Begging. These were supposed to be scenarios of positive parenting, but they are mostly bully parenting. In defense of PopSugar, they do have non-bully-parenting posts that are good.

To the scenarios of normal, I mean bully parenting.

Scenario 1: “Asked and Answered”

Child: “Mommy/Daddy, can I have this?”
Parent: “No, honey.”
Child: “But Mom/Dad, I don’t have one.”
Parent: “Asked and answered.”
Child: “You never get me anything.”
Parent: “Asked and answered.”

If the child keeps at it, you become a robot, saying the same three most blissful words over and over and over again.

Any parent understands that it can be annoying having a child asking for the parent to buy all sorts of stuff that the child wants. Why not set up some way for the child to have his/her own money? Then the parent could have easily said, excitedly, “That would be amazing for you to have! You should buy it! It looks fantastic and I love it too!”

Scenario 2: “This conversation is over.”

Child: “Can I ride my bike?”
Parent: “No, it’s raining outside.”
Child: “But I’ll wear my rain coat and it’s only sprinkling.”
Parent: “This conversation is over.”
Child: “But pleeeasssee?”
Parent: “Asked and answered.”

Become your usual robotic self. Remember, you’re a rock.

What? Why not just let the child choose to go outside in the rain? What’s the worst that can happen? The child could get a little wet, have some fun and learn for him/herself that there are problems and benefits with playing in the rain.

Scenario 3: “Don’t bring it up again.”

Child: “I want these shoes.”
Parent: “No, those cost too much.”
Child: “But I don’t like those.”
Parent: “You’re getting the shoes in the cart and that’s final. Don’t bring it up again.”
Child: “I need them!”
Parent: “You brought it up again. There went your dessert for tonight.”

Yes, you’re going to get more crying with that response, but remember: getting your child to understand you mean business is a marathon, not a sprint.

Are they serious with this one? The parent shut the child down and the child now must feel worthless, like any want they have isn’t valuable. Is this really the message a parent wants to send. And then, to add insult to injury, the parent added on punishment by taking away dessert. This “Don’t Bring it Up Again” strategy simply tells the child that the parent doesn’t care about what the child thinks and wants.

Why didn’t the parent just handle this like my suggestion in Scenario 1? “Cool, I love those shoes too? You should buy them!” Instead, every time the parent forces the child to put on the shoes the parent picked out the child will be reminded that the parent didn’t care about the child and the child’s choices.

Scenario 4: “The decision has been made. If you ask again there will be a consequence.”

Child: “Can I watch the iPad?”
Parent: “No, you know you’re not allowed having technology at the table.”
Child: “I won’t get food on it.”
Parent: “The decision has been made. If you ask again there will be a consequence.”
Child: “But I promise!”
Parent: “I told you not to bring it up again. No iPad for the rest of the day.”

Prepare for a few tantrums until your child learns they’re not going to get anywhere. This is part of their normal testing stage.

No iPad and more withdrawing privileges. “The decision has been made, be prepared for a punishment too.”

I am sensitive to the dilemma in this scenario. The alternative to bully parenting is not a free for all. You can still have rules at your dinner table and with your iPad. Rules such as, no iPad at the table, its my iPad so you have to ask me, etc. You certainly don’t want to raise your children to be glued to their iPads and iPhones all day and at the dinner table. But, you don’t have to be a bully to make this happen.

Bully Parenting in Action

You’re still skeptical, I know. It is always easier to see bully parenting in others so I suggest you go out and start watching some parents in actions. Then, after you’ve watched other parents, you can then reflect on your own parenting (and your own bully parenting).

You can see bully parenting anywhere there are kids and parents. Bully parenting is even more prevalent when parents feel pressure to have their kids act a certain way. This real or imagined pressure is usually enough for a parent to want to exert control on the children.

Before you read my examples, keep in mind that you might think these are minor examples. The severity of the bullying isn’t the question. Rather, the issue is the use of force, threat, or coercion to dominate and control others. Enough of that, here are some suggestions and brief comments of where to go watch bully parenting in actions:

The Playground

The slide is my favorite pet peeve on this list. Why do parents think they have to dictate the direction the kids go on the slide? (I do know why they think they have to do this, I’m just proposing that the reasons are poorly thought out and generally bullying.)

  • “Don’t climb up the the slide!”
  • “Come here, we’re going now!” and then “If you don’t come to leave now then……”

Museums and Libraries

  • “Be quiet.”
  • “Don’t run.”
  • “Don’t touch that.”

Okay, some of these might be a stretch, but they are still somewhat valid examples of a parent threatening and coercing a child. For example, “Don’t touch” might be a reasonable expectation in a museum, but the simple directive might be followed with some threats of “If you don’t stop touching things then …….”

The Dinner Table

  • “Eat your veggies.”
  • “Sit still.”
  • “Stay at the dinner table until everyone is finished.”

I’m probably okay with most of these “rules” but the question soon becomes what happens when they aren’t followed. Typically the parent will bully the child: “I told you to sit there!”, “No dessert for you!”, “If you can’t sit at dinner then ……”

“Apologize Now!”

For some reason I find this one humorous: “You hurt Billy’s feelings, apologize to him!” A sentence of this sort of usually told by the parent with an implied threat of “or else you won’t get to play more” or “or else” some sort of punishment will happen. It certainly doesn’t treat the child with respect and certainly doesn’t teach the message the parent is aiming at. Instead, it teaches the child how to use apologies to manipulate a situation. In short, it is a perfect example of bully parenting–a well-meaning parent who unintentionally teaches a bad lesson to the child.

Begging: The Opposite of Bullying?

In the case you’re being thoughtful and self-reflective you might be thinking, “These are my parenting strategies, I don’t know what else I could do. I have to parent some way.” You might be envisioning a parenting situation like this at the park:

Parent at the Park: “Please Lets Go”

Parent: “Its time to go, let’s get going.”
Child: “No! I’m not ready yet.”
Parent: “Its time to go home and have dinner.”
Child: “I’m still playing.”
Parent: “Please, let’s go now.”
Child: “No, I’m not ready.”
Parent: “Please?!”
Child: “No!”
Parent: “Please???”

I’m sure you can imagine your own scenarios that aren’t so contrived. The point is that the parent has given the child complete control over the situation and is stuck begging the child to let the parent do what he/she wants. Essentially the parent has given the child complete control and authority to bully the parent. Needless to say, a parent submitting to bullying from a child is not the opposite of a parent bullying a child. It’s just the same thing.

It might take some creativity, but you can probably figure out a better approach where the parent gives respect to the child and the child is allowed (and encouraged) to give unforced respect to the parent. Something like this might be possible if you allow yourself to trust in the humanity of your child:

Parent at the Park: “Its time to go”

Parent: “Its time to go, let’s try to wrap things up in a few minutes.”
Child: “No! I’m not ready yet.”
Parent: “I know you’re still having fun but we need to get home to have dinner.”
Child: “I’m still playing.”
Parent: “I know, keep playing and have a little more fun. Do you think you can be ready in 5 minutes?”
Child: “No, I’m just not ready.”
Parent: “Okay, take another 5 minutes and then we can talk about it. We do need to get home for dinner soon.”
Child: “No!”
Parent: “I’ll come check with you in 5 minutes” and then walks off and stops being abused by the child.

I’m sure there are parents out there who could handle this a lot better than this, but there are some key points to notice:

  • The child behaved exactly the same way, but was treated respectfully. The parent made it clear that the parent understood the child’s wants and needs (the need to play more).
  • At the same time, the parent was firm about the parent’s wants and needs (dinner time).
  • The parent gave the child some warning. No one like surprises (“Its time to go NOW” is not going to generate a positive response from a child.)
  • The parent gives the child some time to get ready to go and will check back with the child in a few minutes.

What if the child still doesn’t come? Maybe bullying is justified then?

I would say no, bully parenting is never justified. If the child isn’t going to come then I would just wait it out and adjust dinner accordingly. It might be at this point that many parents would start laying on the guilt: “I hope you have fun [sarcastically], now we’re going to be late for dinner.” Instead, it might be good to say, sincerely, “That looked like you had a great time! I’m so glad you had fun playing today.” Then, later (or next time), the parent could remind the child that going to the park is a sort of contract and if the contract can’t be followed then you won’t be going to the park. Not as a threat to the child, but as a matter of fact.

Considering the playground and dinner scenario again, just think of all the times that child is with the parent, doing things that are important to the parent–hanging out with the parent’s friends, running errands, etc. I’m sure you can think of all the times you’ve dragged your kids to something for you. Imagine if, in the middle of one of these events of yours, your child said to you, “Come on, we’re going.” Or, maybe it would be more reasonable if your child said, “Okay, wrap up, we’re leaving in 5 minutes regardless of if you are ready or not.” Can you imagine a child treating a parent with such disrespect?  I know, you probably can imagine a child treating a parent with such disrespect, but in those instances we view it as disrespectful. Why would we, as parents, treat a child with such disrespect? And then, to make it worse, we relabel our disrespect as honor, or as doing what is best for the child!

If you wouldn’t do it to an adult…….

My general rule is:

If you wouldn’t treat an adult that way then you shouldn’t treat a child that way.

For example, consider the above park example. Translating this example into “adult,” suppose you went out with a friend and something happened (due to your friend) and you were delayed and late. You might be frustrated but you probably wouldn’t try to guilt your friend (“I hope you’re happy that you made me late!”) or lecture them (“I’m not going to be able to go with you next time if you’re going to be late like this again.”). Rather, the respectful thing to do is to be understanding but demand respect next time (next time you go out, make it clear, “I really need to be back by 3:00”). If it continues to happen, you’re likely to stop going out with this friend.

Thus it is with kids–if your child keeps causing a problem with not being willing to leave the playground, there is no need to guilt or lecture your child. Rather, you should probably respect yourself enough to not do this activity with your child. Of course, we’re still talking about children and as children, they probably deserve more leniency than an adult.

The bottom line is that we shouldn’t bully anyone. Most of us are less likely to bully adults but for some reason we think it is perfectly reasonable to bully our children. In fact, bullying children seems to be considered a virtue! Its time we start treating our children like full human beings who deserve to live without being bullied by the very people who are supposed to love and protect them.


  • Normal parenting is usually just parents bullying a child.
  • Almost all, if not all parents, are sometimes bully parents.
  • Punishments and rewards are examples of bully parenting.
  • We can only be the best parents when we are not bully parents.

More to Come:

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