Many of the questions sent in by parents touch upon discipline in one way or another. Certainly, it is the topic with which we become preoccupied—if not obsessed—when we have children. 'Am I disciplining my children properly?' 'Am I damaging her personality by the way I discipline her?' 'Am I too permissive?' 'Too strict?' And on and on.
Furthermore, it seems to be a subject about which everybody—except you—is an expert. Your mother-in-law says—and believes with all her heart—'If you'd just give Kevin a good spanking, he'd stop that.' Your best friend says smugly, 'Oh, I put Ashley in time-out one time for trying to hit me, and she's never done it again.' 'What's wrong with me,' you wonder, 'that it didn't work that way for me?' But believe me, you are not alone. Finding an easy, fool-proof way to discipline children of any age is to dream the impossible dream. It is rarely easy, and it is never finished.
It is actually difficult to write a brief article on the topic of discipline because it is such a complex issue. So I am going to divide my discussion into two articles. The first will deal with some general principles of discipline. The second will offer more specific suggestions of types of discipline appropriate for children of different ages. In this article I will deal with four points which, taken together, comprise what I call a philosophy of discipline.
1. Discipline means: to make a disciple. Think about the root of the word discipline. It is disciple. When you discipline your child, you are trying to make him or her your disciple. You are saying in effect, 'Follow me, and I will help you learn behaviors that will keep you from getting hurt, that will enable you to make and keep friends, that will help you develop your character and your full intellectual potential, that will make you a happy person.' You are also implicitly asserting, 'I am worthy of your trust; I will not lead you astray.'
That's kind of frightening, isn't it? And it puts a heavy burden on you. But keeping it in mind will help give a positive focus to all your disciplinary procedures. It can serve as a reminder that the goal of discipline is not just change from; its more basic function is change to. It's not just a matter of eliminating unacceptable behavior; its primary goal is the acquisition of acceptable behavior.
Acceptance of this principle as a cornerstone of disciplinary philosophy automatically removes from your repertoire of techniques the 'Don't do what I do, do what I tell you to do' standard. Effective discipline communicates the conviction that you are an appropriate model and that your own behavior provides many cues as to what is and what is not acceptable.
2. Discipline involves relearning as well as unlearning. There are usually two links in every disciplinary chain—unlearning something and then learning something new. Sometimes we forget all about that vital second step. 'If she would just stop that screaming when I can't get her lunch ready fast enough to suit her.' Sure you want the screaming to stop (unlearning), but you also want her to be able to occupy herself with a toy or simply to wait patiently (relearning) while you get her food ready. 'He's got to stop biting or they aren't going to allow him to stay in his child care.' Yes, you want to find a disciplinary technique that will stop the biting, but, whether you verbalize it or not, you also want him to learn how to get along with other children. That has to be part of the discipline. All too often we concentrate on that first step— stopping the annoying behavior—and forget about the second. But actually, working on the second step can sometimes take care of the first step without much intervention on our part. (Note that I said sometimes; I am not violating my own philosophy which recognizes that effective discipline is seldom quick and easy.) If anything, the necessary relearning is the most vital component of effective discipline.
3. It's not easy. If there is anything that annoys me in current popular literature for parents, it's the smug tone one sometimes finds that implies that disciplining a young child is the easiest thing in the world. 'Oh, you just need to keep enough M & M's on hand,' or 'Set up a time-out corner and say firmly to the child, 'You must sit in that chair until you stop crying ' (or stop whatever the offense was). I've seen children that you couldn't keep in a time-out chair if you tied them with rope and bolted the chair to the floor—hardly an acceptable procedure for one trying to create a disciple! I'm obviously exaggerating here, but I can imagine that most of you have either read or heard disciplinary suggestions that imply that it is very easy and simple.
It usually isn't. Eliminating undesirable behavior and substituting more acceptable behavior is usually a long-term process. I began teaching child development classes when I was in my early twenties but didn't have children of my own until I was 33. One of my students once asked me what the main thing was I had learned from being a parent that I hadn't known from studying and doing research in the field. Without hesitation I told her, 'I've mainly learned that it isn't as easy as I thought it was.' Trying to make light of the issue, I went on to proclaim that, second only to 'I love you,' the phrase I had used most often with my children was, 'How many times?' In spite of knowing that it meant nothing to them and that it probably had a negative effect, I would find myself saying 'How many times have I told you not to . . .?' Do you ever do that? If so, you will know that I am correct in asserting that it's not easy to 'make a disciple' and that it is going to be a long, probably hard, task.
4. What works beautifully with one child may not work with another. There is a vast research literature on how to discipline children, much of it of high quality. In spite of this, there is no clear consensus on what works best in various situations with children of different ages and personality types. Let's say that you want to encourage sharing behavior and want to prove that a social reward (a hug, praise, etc.) is more effective than a food reward (M & M, a cookie, etc.). First you get a fairly large group of children, divide it into two subgroups, and then see to it that children in the first group are praised or hugged every time they share a toy with another child and that the other children get a food reward. Then after a while, you simply count the number of times the children in both groups share a toy and find that the hugged and praised children are more likely to share (just what I would predict, incidentally).
Why, then, if you talk about this type of research in a parent discussion group, is someone sure to comment, 'I tried that with my little boy and it didn't do a bit of good'? The answer to that question is that, in research as in everyday life, there are always some children who don't respond as the majority do. There are important individual differences in the ways children react to any given type of discipline. Sometimes a technique that worked beautifully with one child in the family will strike out with another child. And children also differ in the amount of effort on your part that will result in change. One child might discontinue an undesirable type of behavior after one frown from you, whereas another is still going strong 100 frowns and 40 time-outs later! The big challenge for parents is to find and use the approach that works best with each of their own children.
These four principles—creating disciples, remembering the relearning part of the process, anticipating difficulties and not looking for quick fixes, and recognizing individual differences—provide a structure for disciplining children of all ages. Dealing with specific problems is much easier if we anchor the task within this framework. In Part II of this series on Discipline, we will examine some of the most effective specific techniques that have been found to be useful with children of different ages.
Our parenting advice is given as suggestions only. We recommend you also consult your healthcare provider, and urge you to contact them immediately if your question is urgent or about a medical condition.