That Time My Daughter Ruined My Lipstick and I Didn’t Punish Her

lipstick2(Image Source)

(Note: I wrote this a couple of months ago — just scribbled it down — and thought I might as well post it. I don’t know where this blog is going but I want to explore that with you yet soon. I’m so tired, you guys. I haven’t slept in four years. Anyways, on to the story…)

I knew something was off as soon as she walked out of the bathroom, all nervous and quiet. I was chopping vegetables at the kitchen counter for supper.

“What’s up, honey?” I asked. She hung back. I put down my knife and started to walk towards her when I noticed some red streaks on her cheek.

I knew immediately what had happened.

She’d been pestering me to put lipstick on her all afternoon. Each time I’d said, “No, not today, honey. That’s only for when we go somewhere fancy.” (Really, as a four-year-old there’s probably never a right time to wear lipstick; but I hadn’t been able to resist dabbing a bit of red on her lips the night we’d gone to a banquet a few months earlier. She’d been so eager to join in when she saw me putting it on.)

I decided right then that I wouldn’t get upset.*

I knelt down to take a closer look.

“Hmm . . . did you do something with my lipstick?” I asked.

“No!” she said in a panic.

“Hmm . . .” I said again (which is how I buy time when I don’t know what to say). “I think I’m going to check.”

“No!” she said again. She ran toward the bathroom. “No, don’t check!”

She ran in front of me and barricaded the doorway with her arms. “Don’t go in there!”

“Honey, I’m going to check. I’m going to go in there.” I held her arm as I stepped past her.

“No!” she yelled again from behind me.

Everything looked tidy and normal in the bathroom. I was glad of that. I opened my makeup drawer. My lipstick was there, but there was a bit of red smeared on the outside of the tube.

“Hmm . . .” I said as I opened it and twisted. Out twisted a mangled red stump. I looked inside the lid, which was caked in red gunk.

“Oh, no, look at my lipstick,” I said softly.

And she threw her head back and let out a long, loud cry.

I stood there a moment, thinking while she wept.

“Oh, honey,” I finally said, turning around. She cried louder and louder.

I tried to think what to say. I was disappointed that my all-natural, handmade lipstick from the Farmer’s Market in a different city — the only lipstick I’d owned since a teenager — had been destroyed. I’d only worn it twice. But I wasn’t really as upset about it as she was.

I knelt down. “How do you think Mommy feels about her lipstick being ruined?” I asked.

She howled.

“She feels bad,” I told her.

More cries.

I pulled her in towards me for a hug and she didn’t resist. She just cried into my shoulder. Then I had an idea.

“You know what we can do? Some people put lipstick on with a brush. I can buy a lipstick brush and we can still use it.” I was satisfied with that.

She continued to cry but it softened after that. I gave her another squeeze and then returned to the kitchen, because honestly, I had to get back to supper. I didn’t have time to comfort her for ruining my lipstick. I don’t remember what happened after that but she must have gotten over it.

She hasn’t asked for lipstick since.

I thought it was a very interesting event as I reflected on it later.

Why did she try to hide it? Because she knew she was guilty without anyone telling her.

Why did she cry? Because she knew she had done something wrong.

The fact that she’d come to these conclusions and had an emotional response to them intrigued me.

She knew she wouldn’t get punished — she’d never been punished for anything before , she had no basis for ever getting that idea — so it wasn’t that. (We don’t do punishments or rewards.)

My guess is that she was unhappy knowing that I was going to be unhappy. And that strikes me as a good thing.

Will she do something like that again? I don’t know. I can’t tell the future. But even if I’d punished her, I still can’t say whether or not she’d still do it again. Preschoolers and toddlers are notoriously forgetful. But if she did repeat the crime after having been punished, she might go to greater lengths to hide it from me in the future. And I want her to feel safe coming to me and being honest no matter what she’s done, and not have to worry that I will exact further punishments on her.

What good would punishment have done? What could it have added to the experience? From my understanding, all it would do would be to put a rift in our relationship.

What Did She Learn?

Of course I can’t say for sure what she took away from the experience. But here are the messages I hope she got:

  • Being careless with other people’s things and breaking them makes them unhappy, which makes me feel bad. However:
  • Material things are just things.
  • I make mistakes but that doesn’t make my mom love me any less.

* I am rarely able to pull this off. I’m usually so sleep-deprived I yell at the first provocation. I have shouted “YOU ARE DRIVING ME CRAZY!!” more times than I’d like to admit.

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  1. Beautiful. Good for you mama. And Lydia. She’s upset because she’s feeling empathy rather than guilt or fear, and that is a blessing.

    I wonder what a “punishment” looks like for a four-year-old that does something like this. It makes me feel sad.

  2. Also, I’ve screamed “shut up!” a couple of times at G, and hate the ugliness inside of me when it happens. So awful.

  3. Thank you for introducing me to “Punished by Rewards.” It has changed the way I parent. And yes, this example is exactly why I agree that punishment (or even anger) is not necessary (when we’re up to parenting the way we hope to)–we don’t need to heap feelings of guilt on our children in order to modify their behavior. Plus anger in this situation would probably just make it even harder for her next time to tell you the truth.

  4. You know, I think this approach works really well with kids who seem to have a natural or higher level of empathy. And I’ve definitely found that punishment/reward is basically a last resort, after I’ve already fallen down in parenting (let’s say I wasn’t attentive and things got really wild too fast, it’s basically that I can literally feel my inner fortitude faltering and grasp at something to get things under control quick). I wouldn’t punish a kid who is 4-years-old for getting into something he shouldn’t have, because it really seems unfair to expect them to self-monitor to that extent. When we’re at our best, the punishments we do are things like “please don’t throw the water on the table, if you do you will have to go and clean it up” or “we don’t whine at the dinner table, if you can’t be polite you may go and play until you are ready to sit nicely and enjoy this wonderful meal daddy/mommy/whoever cooked.”

    But I’m not sure this approach will work for our kiddos…at least not yet. My two boys (3.5 and 1.5) don’t seem to notice my sadness or disappointment much, and given that it’s hard to imagine them learning on their own that they don’t like causing mama hurt feelings or that they don’t want people to feel bad because of something they’ve done.

    For instance, my older son doesn’t seem fazed if, say, he causes a huge mess and I seem sad because I had literally just cleaned. Saying things like “mamma’s really tired, can you give her a moment to rest,” is met with “No! You CAN’T rest, I don’t want you to!” And while my son totally knows that fish he eats are killed, he hasn’t put two-and-two together to understand that may cause the fish pain. I think Lydia’s behavior means she has already developed a theory of mind, which shows up at different ages in different kids. Don’t think my little ones are there yet!

    • Thanks for your wonderful thoughts, Tia! I want to reassure you that Lydia OFTEN fails to feel empathy for my troubles. She usually couldn’t care less if I’m tired of cleaning up her messes. I think she might be better at anticipating emotions like anger, though. :)

      The things you listed as “punishments” are what I would consider “natural consequences” (and I think most other gentle parenting advocates would agree.) “If you make the mess, you clean it up” is different than “If you make a mess you get a spanking/timeout/etc.” We do have to show them that certain behaviour have certain outcomes, and that we expect them to be contributing members of our family. We’ve also sent Lydia away from the table for being impolite — she can join us when she’s ready to be decent. (I often go with her because isolation can be a form of punishment.)

      I also think there’s a fine line between bribery and using a bit of external motivation, and I use the latter (“You don’t get a story until you’ve put on your pajamas,” etc). And I think (hope!) it’s true that as they get older, we’ll be able to rely more on their own empathy and sense of responsibility to motivate them to behave well.


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