I just finished reading How Do You Discipline a Child in the Post-Hitting Era? and am amazed that parents can still be so confused. The problem is that we use the word “discipline” when what we actually mean is “punish.” Discipline is a trait one has in oneself, it isn’t something you can “do to” a person.

The author opens her article with what seems to be the chief fear of parents: “American children are a bunch of spoiled brats.” But here again is another dilemma. What do we mean by spoiled? Reading the article, my sense is that by “spoiled,” critics of today’s children mean that they have too great a sense of entitlement, they’re “in charge” rather than their parents, and they won’t take “no” for an answer.  The author asserts that our modern way of “disciplining our children” — talking to them, trying to reason with them — “reflects our hopes about the working world our kids will find themselves in.” She then adds the following details:

We’ve decided not to hit our kids partly because we don’t want to cause them pain, but also because we hope that kids who don’t know fear will be better off in the world we’re trying to make. What we’re left with the perennial anxiety that we are not doing enough to prepare them for independence. And there’s another anxiety, the economic one, the one underlies all the hand-wringing about undisciplined American kids. What kind of discipline can prepare a kid for the fact that there won’t be nearly enough opportunities for all of them when they grow up? What will all those communication skills matter to those kids who don’t find their place among the lucky few to be spared that old-fashioned obligation—to sit still and take whatever the world gives you?

While I think that some parents do worry about these things, I think the actual confusion about “disciplining” our children is really this: we want to be able to control our children and are searching for the tool that will give us the ability to get our sons and daughters to do as we say when we say it without much or any discomfort on our part. I would wager my life savings on the idea that all parents, at one time or another, wish we had a magic wand that when waved, made our children into obedient robots. I know I do. Even though most of us hated it when our parents “made us” do what they wanted, now that we are adults, we sometimes yearn to be instantly, silently, and automatically obeyed.

Discipline isn’t something you do to your child

Spanking (or any other physical violence), time outs, isolation, and other forms of punishment teach our children one thing: doing what mom/dad don’t want you to do will lead to pain (emotional or physical). While many children then draw the conclusion “I’ll do what mom/dad says because I want to avoid pain,” they’re not developing discipline — they’re becoming fearful (and resentful, and maybe even clever and deceitful so they can do the things the parents don’t like when the parent isn’t looking). While fear may be a trait dictators and terrorists want to cultivate, it’s not something that I believe any loving parent should want their child to have more of.

The other piece of this puzzle that many parents lose sight of is that if we’re commanding obedience, that blind compliance likely won’t be limited to our parent-child relationship. If our children deny their inner authority for the voice of someone else, that voice can be anyone else’s. Our child who politely follows others may not have the inner strength to say “no” to peer pressure when it comes to things like drugs, sex, or any other choices with high-stakes. Yes, it’s convenient when our children do as we say, but when we meet their resistance with punishment, we’re weakening their inner resolve to follow their own guidance, and I’m quite sure that most of us don’t truly want to raise our child to behave like lemmings or sheep throughout their lives.

What does “discipline” actually mean?

Discipline is a characteristic one embodies in oneself. It includes traits like perseverance, restraint (e.g., temporarily giving up something you want to achieve a specific goal), concentration/focus, self-confidence. Discipline related to tasks, means sticking with it even when it’s hard or the reward isn’t immediate. When our son displays discipline in learning a new skill, our feedback to him might be: “Wow, you really worked hard to learn that piece of music. I’m inspired by how you practiced every day and kept going over the spots that were challenging for you.” Discipline on the being side of things (vs. the doing or task-oriented side), means using the self-control executive functions of our brain. When our daughter feels hurt or angry about someone grabbing a toy from her, discipline could mean expressing herself verbally rather than hitting the other child.

How do parents get our children to do what we want?

My earlier assertion is that parents are searching for a form of control over their children. Here’s the bad news: no matter what method you use (unless you know the Imperius Curse), you can never have control of your children. Never. Ever. They might obey you out of fear (that you will hurt them bodily or emotionally), but they will always be autonomous human beings. They have soverignity over themselves, their beliefs, emotions, and actions.

So if we’re not in control, and can never be, what’s a parent to do? So here’s good news: Build a relationship that is based on mutual love and respect. It’s that simple. When our children’s experience of living with us is one of being cared for, treated with gentleness, valued for who they inherently are, trusted to have a positive intent, and supported to be thoughtful and considerate towards others, they will reciprocate those behaviors (except when they don’t because they’re humans, not machines). Only by modeling respectful relationships can we foster this desire and skill in our children.

And one final thing. My coach, Carrie Contey, reminds parents that though our relationship with our children starts as adult-to-child, most of the years that we ideally have with our sons and daughters will be spent in adult-to-adult relationships. While many adults will now say things such as “I was spanked and I turned out fine,” or “My parents grounded me and I still love them,” these assertions don’t justify the behaviors of the parents. If we want to perpetuate “an eye for an eye,” “might makes right,” and a world where physical force and threat of force are our chief weapons, we will get what we’ve always got — violence toward self and others.

If instead we truly do want a world of peace, then we must change how we parent.

  1. Reject the idea of punishment meaning discipline.
  2. Accept that we will never be in control of another person.
  3. Build loving respectful relationships with our children, by modeling these behaviors with our children.
  4. When we don’t get our way, or our child behaves differently than we want/expect, learn respectful ways of helping our child understand how her/his choices affect what gets created.

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