Thursday, October 1, 2009

Children must be taught discipline, but it is a slowly evolving process

by Richard L. Weaver II

Much of the disciplining that occurred as I was growing up happened at the end of my father’s leather belt. Fortunately, it seldom took place. Not that I didn’t ask for it, but my mother would often step in to protect me from my father’s wrath. I was very, very good at provoking it, or getting one of my two sisters in trouble. I had my reasons: It served as a way to express my feelings; I wanted my parents’ undivided attention; and I always sought a greater degree of independence. I was always pushing the frontiers of acceptability, trying to see how much I could get away with, and taking advantage of imposed limitations. If someone had asked my father, he would have described me as a strong-willed. challenging, difficult, and spirited child --- or a stubborn, hell-raising pistol who was just plain impossible at times!

Looking back on it, I understand that the discipline my father meted out reflected his own upbringing, and I am probably a better person because of it. But the memory of him unbuckling the fastener, pulling the belt out from its loops, and waving it in the air as the ultimate threat, is deeply etched in my psyche. I’m sure the consequences of physical punishment never crossed his mind — the possibility of injury, the lost opportunity to explain why my behavior was wrong and the chance to offer alternatives, the immediate pain and anger I felt, the possibility that I may have become withdrawn, fearful, or bullying, or even the possibility that I would try to avoid his physical punishment by lying or stealth. Actually, I became quite skilled at the latter.

The problem with how my father disciplined was that he equated discipline with punishment. Discipline has to do more with teaching children the difference between right and wrong, how to respect the rights of others, and pointing out which behaviors are acceptable and which are not. The goal of discipline is to develop children who feel secure and loved, self-confident and self-disciplined, and demonstrate self-control. Through discipline children learn how to control their impulses and constructively face the normal stresses of everyday life.

Physical punishment has never been shown to be more effective than other forms of punishment, and it tends to make children more aggressive and angry. My luck was having a mother who not only knew the difference between discipline and punishment but persistently and single-mindedly would come to my rescue — as I knew she would. She encouraged me, guided me, helped me feel good about myself, and taught me how to think for myself.

But, my father’s aggressiveness is clearly a signal regarding other important reminders about discipline. For example, my father could not stay calm (I would continue to provoke him!), and he would get carried away when I would misbehave. With his belt in hand, he would be able to avoid yelling and screaming; without his belt, he probably would have resorted to yelling and screaming and escalating the punishment even further.

There are other important reminders, too. If parents want to be optimal disciplinarians, they should avoid too much criticism, too much praise, focusing predominantly on the negatives, vacant threats, and bribes. This kind of optimal behavior will assure children that their home is a safe environment where they feel secure and loved. What my father clearly did not understand was the important position parents play as role models for their children. There is no more important role model in a child’s life than a parent.

Having experienced a form of discipline in my own home, having raised four children myself (along with my wife, of course), and now watching my children discipline their own children, doesn’t make me an expert; however, there are four universal truths parents need to follow. First, parents must be consistent with the rules of behavior, or they will confuse their children. They need to clearly explain the preferred behavior so that children will understand precisely what they expect of them: set routines for bedtime, meals, and chores. Routines help children feel safe, because they know what parents expect.

With respect to rules, bending them suggests to children that the behavior is actually endorsed. With empty threats, children will ignore parents’ warning signs. To show amusement at a child’s naughty behavior reinforces that behavior in the child’s mind. Also, allow children to be involved in some of the rule-making for the family; it gives them a chance to express how they think and feel. Just because parents listen, however, doesn’t mean they have to agree or change their rules.

The second universal truth parents need to follow is to explain consequences. Good discipline helps children learn that there are consequences for their actions. In ideal conditions, such explanations should immediately follow the action, otherwise children will fail to make the connection. What does this mean? It involves cleaning up a mess they have made, spending time alone when they have misbehaved, or playing by themselves when they have been aggressive.

Giving children time outs is the third universal truth. Many parents already use some form of time out. A “time out” means asking children to be alone for awhile to think about their actions. It is true that children under three are unlikely to have the intellectual maturity to understand a time out, but it is a valuable opportunity for self-reflection for older ones. Give a one minute time out for every year of your child’s age, but don’t send him or her to a room full of toys where they will be distracted from the time out’s main purpose: self-reflection. They need to address the questions, Why were you given the time out? and, given another opportunity, how would you behave differently?

The fourth and final universal truth is the need for parents to reinforce their children’s good behavior. Children not only need, but they seek out, the love and approval of parents. This means that one of the easiest ways for parents to encourage good behavior is to use rewards and deliver praise.

There is no doubt that children must be taught discipline; they are not born with it. When parents follow the universal guidelines (above), they will find that teaching appropriate behavior is a slowly evolving process. It takes time and practice, but the good thing about it is that it gets easier and easier as children learn to control their own behavior.

At the website, there is a great “Discipline Guide” written by Vincent Iannelli, M.D., F.A.A.P., the President and CEO of Keep Kids Healthy L.L.C. Not only are there important reminders about discipline, but there are a number of terrific links to other Internet resources.

At FamilyMattersParentingMagazine, the essay by Laura Ramirez, “Child Discipline - Guiding Children to Make Healthy Choices on Their Own,” is short and to the point. She offers readers a half-dozen useful reminders regarding discipline.


Copyright October, 2009 - And Then Some Publishing L.L.C.

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