When most people think of discipline, they think of physical punishment. Fear is a time honored and potent motivator, right? It certainly nips problem behavior in the bud.
But research confirms what intuition should tell us, which is that physical force teaches children all the wrong lessons. Children who are spanked learn that might makes right, that hitting is justified in some circumstances (such as when you are bigger), and that people who supposedly love you may hurt you.
Not surprisingly, study after study shows that children who are physically disciplined are more aggressive toward other children, more rebellious as teenagers, and more prone to depression and violent acting out as adults.
"But then how do kids learn lessons?"
Children who are physically disciplined are actually less likely to learn lessons, because, as anyone who has ever been harshly punished can attest, they become obsessed with fantasies of self-justification and revenge rather than considering how to control themselves to prevent future misbehavior. Instead of becoming motivated to change and avoid the misbehavior in the future, they become motivated to avoid more punishment -- not at all the same thing.
As a result, kids who are physically disciplined are not only more likely to repeat problem behavior than other kids, but are more likely to exhibit increasingly worse behavior, including deception.
"I was spanked and I came out ok. And I don't see any other way to control my difficult child."
If you're still considering physical discipline, please read To Spank or not to Spank, on this site. If you've ruled out hitting your kids, you're probably wondering what does work.
"Exactly! What kind of discipline does a conscientious, compassionate parent use to coax good behavior out of immature little humans who are still developing the ability to control themselves -- and are completely capable of driving you crazy?"
Every parent grapples with this issue. Discipline is one of the most googled words for parents. And even parents who refrain from physical force usually assume that discipline means some form of punishment, because our culture's view of human nature assumes that humans must be punished so they will learn not to repeat transgressions.
But the word "discipline" has nothing to do with punishment. The root of "discipline" is "disciple," from the verb "to teach."
"Ok, so the question, of course, is what kind of discipline is most conducive to learning?"
And, presumably, the ultimate goal of that learning is self-discipline, so the lesson doesn't have to be repeated. So what helps kids stop themselves from acting in ways they know they shouldn't? What gets them to start desirable behavior, and keep doing it?
Let's start with the child acting in undesirable ways. When a child misbehaves, there are three possible explanations:
- He doesn't know what is expected of him
- He does know but can't control himself
- He does know but doesn't care.
If he doesn't know, teaching is clearly in order: "HOT! The stove is hot!" or "We have to wait our turn for the slide." But most teaching of this kind is modeled, as you thank Aunt Jane for inviting you, or wait for the light to turn green before you cross. Kids learn what is desirable behavior from watching you, or their classmates.
"What frustrates me is when my kids DO know the behavior is unacceptable but do it anyway!"
If he does know but can't control himself, we need to help him learn to manage himself. But how?
Most discipline takes the attitude that children learn to control themselves by developing more motivation and stronger "consciences."
But we all know that "doing the right thing" and overriding our "lesser" impulses doesn't result from admonishing ourselves to do better, or from making new and improved resolutions. If that were sufficient, we'd all have perfectly balanced diets and fit bodies.
The secret of managing our impulses is becoming aware of and motivated by competing impulses. "I'd like to eat this entire pint of ice cream, but my cholesterol level and waistline are more important to me," or, for your son, "I really want to skip my homework so I can play outside, but I don't want to face my teacher without it."
More challenging, of course, are crimes of passion: "This colleague is really attractive, but my marriage is too important to me," or, for your son, "I really want to hit my sister over the head when she teases me like that, but Mom would be really mad."
Eventually, we hope, he will move from his concern over losing Mom's love to awareness of what he wants in his connection with his sister: "I'm really annoyed at my sister right now, but I know that when she's not being obnoxious I do love her and to make a cutting comment would really hurt her feelings."
The foundational blocks that precede this kind of inner discipline?
- The ability to delay gratification
- The capacity to tolerate emotional upheaval and ambiguity without lashing out
- A sense of relationships as safe, loving connections where problems are solved with love rather than fear
Obviously, all this takes considerable maturity, which kids need our help to develop. It takes practice. Kids get this practice naturally as life deals them upsets.
The key is providing our children with the experience of relationships where compassion trumps anger. When the body is flushed with the hormones of "fight or flight," it's hard for anyone to make wise decisions or to choose positively between competing priorities.
Helping children toward this level of emotional insight and self discipline doesn't happen in the heat of emotion, whether the emotion is related to the original transgression ("But she was teasing me!"), or created by our punishing response ("I'll teach you to hit your sister! Take that!").
Instead, we need to reduce the amount of time our child spends in the overcharged physical states of anger and fear, and give him an opportunity to calm down and reflect.
Once kids are calm, we can work with them to strengthen that positive motivation and help them to recognize and control their emotions, so they can manage the opposing impulse.
"But what if the child does know that the misbehavior is off limits, but doesn't have the competing impulse to control himself?"
The misbehavior in this case is a symptom of a much greater problem. The competing impulse to control himself should come from his relationship with us. Children only learn to behave and manage themselves because we want them to, and because they want to please us.
If he doesn't care that he's upsetting us with his misbehavior, it means our relationship with him needs strengthening. Now our primary focus needs to be on repairing that relationship.
Eventually, of course, kids reap the rewards of good behavior -- good grades, self-esteem, approval from peers -- and it begins to come naturally. It becomes part of their self image, and they automatically act to preserve that self-image. But this positive way of being always starts with their desire to please us.
On the beach recently, I saw a two-year-old knocking down sand castles. He took such immense pleasure in this activity that it made me want to try it myself.
When his mother saw what he was doing and came running, he looked chagrined, and allowed her to lead him reluctantly away. His desire to be loved by her was already slightly stronger than his desire to knock down sand castles.
Why don't all of us run down the beach knocking down sand castles? Because we have discovered that it's more rewarding to be loved.
Ultimately, love is the only leverage we have with our children. Even if they worked, fear and "Because I say so!" only last for as long as they can be physically enforced. Every parent knows how fast children grow; fear works for a very short time if it works at all. Love, on the other hand, becomes a more effective motivator over time.
Dr. Laura Markham