What does the word discipline conjure up for you? Takes you right back to childhood, right? Did you like being disciplined? I bet not.
When I talk about the benefits of shared power, connection, and problem solving, parents inevitably ask, “Are you saying that we shouldn’t discipline our children?” or “Isn’t that undermining my authority?” Great questions.
The dictionary defines discipline as “using punishment to correct disobedience”. However self-discipline is defined as “train[ing] oneself to do something in a controlled and habitual way”. When you discipline yourself, do you inflict punishment on yourself? A sacrifice may be necessary but only if you want a new habit more than you want the old one.
The derivation of the word discipline is “from the Latin disciplina ‘instruction, knowledge'” as in disciple. We know that children learn best when they are fully engaged in experiential instruction—not through the experience of isolation, shame or losing privileges. A mother came into one of my weekly groups with an assignment from her five year old. He said, “Mom, ask your parenting group what you should do instead of sending me to my room when I’m bad, because it doesn’t work, you know. All it does is make me mad.” There is our lesson on punishment.
But if I don’t punish, how do I discipline? First we have to de-define discipline as punishment. Because it doesn’t work, you know.
Here are the means of achieving positive discipline:
- Modeling: Never was there a more effective method of teaching our children. How many of us practice what we preach? Or do we expect our children to do what we say, not what we do? Much of our so-called discipline techniques employ disrespectful tones and language. So children learn from us how to be disrespectful. We get angry and yell at our children when they don’t do what we want? So they learn to yell to get what they want.
- Connection: All of us do best when we feel understood and accepted. Our most effective tool for engaging children’s cooperation is to let them know we understand—what they must have felt like before getting to the point of hitting, how hurt they must be before shouting such words. Then they can hear and engage in what they might do differently. Blame breaks connection and incites anger and defensive reactions like lying, blaming, rebelling, and not being accountable for oneself.
- Time in: Many children get wound up and physical and can’t find a way back to calm. Note the word is can’t, not won’t. At these times they need a calm, yet firm adult to meet them where they are to help them back down. Each child needs something different; some need holding, some need an alternate way to expel their energy before they can calm, some need to be alone, and some need your calm presence to help them shift. Time out provokes feelings of rage, isolation, and feeling misunderstood and unwanted. Time in means you are there for help.
- Positive messages: Most parents spend a lot of time telling children, “Don’t! Stop it! Why did you do that?! How many times do I have to tell you?!” This negative barrage puts focus on what you don’t want to happen. It leads to angry resistance and parent-deafness. Focus on what you want. “Coats belong on hooks.” “Milk feels better when it’s in the refrigerator.” Or “What does your fist want to say?” “When you get your work done, then you can go to your friend’s house.”
- Natural Consequences: The best teachers, bar none. This is what happens when I do this. When we punish, blame and threaten, we eliminate the teaching of natural consequences. When blamed, the child (anyone actually) hides behind their wall of defense. Their focus is on what is being done to them and how they can avoid getting in trouble. So they fight, withdraw in shame and guilt, or laugh. They do not get the opportunity to watch the natural consequence play out. It can be experiencing someone’s hurt due to your actions, hearing how someone feels, watching what happens because your behavior.
- Logical Consequences: We use the word consequence (the PC word for punishment) to feel less punitive than our parents. A logical and fair consequence is a choice. “Do you want to turn off the TV or shall I?” “As soon as the dishwasher is emptied, I will take you to your friends. Not until.” posed ahead of a situation and decided on with the understanding of parent and child. To be fair and logical, consequences need to be discussed and agreed on (problem solving). “The next time I remind you to turn off the computer and you resist, what should be the consequence?” Then set up the consequence if it happens again. Getting a ticket for speeding or a bad grade for poor work are logical consequences as they are understood in advance.
- Problem Solving: This is more difficult than invoking punishments or withdrawing privileges. It means effort and involvement. It holds a child accountable unlike punishment, because the child is fully engaged in the process. It requires connection first so the child trusts she will not get in trouble and will have her point of view heard. It means asking some form of: This does not work for me. What do you want? Here’s what I want. How can we work this out so so we both get what we want? It’s about balance, shared power (instead of holding power over or giving it away) and building a respectful relationship—the basis of cooperation.
- Owning the Problem: This establishes healthy parent/child boundaries. When I have a problem, i.e., a messy room, too much noise; feeling tired, worried, I must own it and not dump it on my child with blame for making me mad, upset, etc. And when my child has a problem, I know it is his (anger toward a sibling, homework not done, upset with a friend,) and I can better help him when I don’t fix it, take responsibility for it, or rescue him from it. Instead I help him solve the problem himself.
All of these methods and more make up positive discipline and require the parent’s self-discipline (see definition above) to practice them. Never is punishment, threats or blame necessary. Positive discipline maintains the parent’s authority because it is the parent who insures it is practiced at all times, reminds the child of the agreements, and carries out the agreed on logical consequences.
Once respect and understanding is a natural part of the parent child relationship, even logical consequences are not necessary. When the child feels understood, respected, and an important member of the family, balance happens. Cooperation and consideration is the outcome.