That Oh-So-Touchy Subject: Discipline

Here’s a question I’ve been asking many people I know: how should children be disciplined? Should a child be put in a time-out, taken away from the situation, spanked, have privileges taken away? I know that it has a lot to do with the individual child, since some children will correct themselves after only a word of reproof from an authority figure, while other children persist in continuing their misbehavior despite any kind of correction, whether physical or verbal. But what is the “best” way to discipline children? Is there a way better than all the rest?

Now, I’m not a person who thinks that humans are born perfect. I believe that people have great capacity for good, yet are innately warped to fall into selfishness, defiance, laziness, destructive habits, and apathy if they are not taught or encouraged to have right behavior. I believe that humans are born self-centered, feeling that the world revolves around them, which makes children rebel against anyone who tries to thwart their will. Training of some sort is necessary to teach children how to live in a society with other human beings and become the kind of compassionate, thoughtful, truth-seeking person that our world needs so much.

Calvin and Hobbes fits the picture here…

An important point about children is that the younger they are, the less experience they have in the world (to a certain extent); a one-year old just learning to toddle would have no conception of the stove being too hot to grab onto, just as a three-year old would not see why they shouldn’t eat candy given to them by a stranger, or a six-year old would not understand why they shouldn’t play with sharp tools while unattended by a responsible adult. Children often have bad judgement in situations not because they are unintelligent or always deliberately trying to be rebellious, but because they simply have not had the life experience necessary to make rational, wise choices. Here is what one mother wrote about why children should be seen more as aliens instead of stupid mini-people or criminals:

“They are new to this planet and they don’t know the rules yet.  They don’t know the language and the social etiquette.  They want to.  They like to learn and be included in what everyone else already knows, but it’s hard.  It’s hard to be an alien little.  They’re not acclimated to our big person atmosphere yet so they get tired easily.  Just living is exhausting because every chair is above their chest, every step is above their knee, every counter is above their head.

But if we would just take the extra time to explain our strange world to them, a lot of the inner stallion in them is naturally tamed.  If instead of an impatient and knee jerk ‘no’ we stop to explain the circumstance surrounding the ‘no’, and help them find an alternative to the ‘no’ – a lot more peace can be achieved.”

One thing will always be true of children: they make mistakes. Should they be punished for them? First, I think there is a difference between “discipline” and “punishment”. A good definition of discipline is “to teach a child how to learn self control, to recognize what are acceptable limits, to know the boundaries of where to stop.” Punishment is defined as “penalty or retribution for an offense”. It seems like common sense to provide discipline for children rather than vindictively punish them. As author Jane Nelson wrote, “Where did we ever get the crazy idea that in order to make children do better, first we have to make them feel worse? Think of the last time you felt humiliated or treated unfairly. Did you feel like cooperating or doing better?”

There are several good options for disciplining children, I think. As I said at the beginning, it really depends on the individual child as to how they should be approached. The first step should always be to speak with the child as one person to another. Seeking to understand what the problem is from the child’s perspective is vital to resolving the situation. The child may not always agree with the more experienced adult’s opinion regarding the problem, but it is still important to show the child that their words matter. Clear communication is key to training a child to find the right way to handle a problem with themselves, their environment, or others. Nothing can be accomplished by shouting or screaming at a child while refusing to let them speak.

In many cases I think that removing the child from the problem/situation until they calm down before trying to communicate with the child to resolve the issue will solve many disagreements. “Time-outs” are beneficial when it is made clear that the time away is meant to help the child have some space to calm themselves so that they can think more clearly without being overwhelmed by their emotions. If a child is made to feel that they are being “punished” in a time-out, such as being locked in a room against their will or having to sit alone on a chair in front of a classroom of giggling peers, then all the child learns is that a time-out is meant to induce isolation, rejection, and humiliation.

An effective method of discipline for older children is one that I’ve heard called “logical consequences”. Another way to describe this method is “help fix what you messed up”. The child is taught that if they cause a problem for someone, then they must try to make amends, preferably in a way that is related to their offense. This might mean that the child has to give up their free time to do something that will help repay the other person or repair any damage they have caused. The consequences should obviously fit the child’s maturity level; a five-year old would not be capable of doing extra chores around the house to “pay” for a window broken by too much careless roughhousing in the playroom, as a ten-year old might. But a five-year old can certainly help his teacher clean up and sort art supplies instead of playing during recess as a consequence for being constantly disruptive during art class.

This also falls into the category of discipline involving the removal of privileges. A child who secretly takes cookies when they were told to wait until after dinner could lose the privilege of having dessert for the next two nights. A temporary lack of privileges gives a person the ability to feel disappointment that they are missing out on something good, experience regret that they made a bad decision, and develop forethought for the next time they are tempted to repeat the same poor choice. Again, the consequence should fit the child’s maturity level. Taking away many privileges for extreme amounts of time will only make children rebellious and cause them to feel that authority figures are merely cruel, which is not beneficial for the child’s growth as a person or formation of trust in their caregivers.

This brings me to my final thought: any person attempting to discipline a child should be thoroughly, deeply invested in that child’s continued well-being. Children have a knack for realizing which adults want them to just shut up and which adults really care about them. Discipline by a parent or teacher is only effective if the child feels that the adult loves and respects them. Fear may cause a child to obey for the moment, but only genuine love will inspire real change in a child’s heart and their behavior. An adult can still be an authority figure in a child’s life while showing that they sincerely care for the child. Eventually the adult figures in a child’s life will no longer be able to assign consequences or provide discipline; once children reach a more mature stage, whether that comes as they leave the house at eighteen, go to college, get a job, etc. then the mistakes they make will bring their own consequences. The end goal of disciplining a child should be that child’s growth into a happy, self-controlled, independent individual.

The word “discipline” comes from “disciple”, which means “a follower or student who learns from a teacher”. That is why it is of utmost important that children see adults around them demonstrating empathy, compassion, grace, mercy, kindness, patience, self-control, and other similar character traits. An adult administering discipline to a child should be calm, never emotionally compromised by anger or other strong feelings, able to clearly communicate with the child, firm about the consequences that will arise from the situation, show that the child is still cared for even as they are experiencing the consequence, and quick to bring about reconciliation and forgiveness. When a child knows that they are truly loved by an adult who has their best interests at heart, then there is a world of good that can come from that relationship as the child continues their journey towards becoming a mature human being.

Many thanks to Nicole, Sarah, Christian, Brenna, Sabrina, Nick, Chris, Tan, Judy, Bill and Amy, and everyone else who contributed to the ideas found in this post!

Side notes: I did not address the issue of spanking as a method of discipline here partially because it is such a highly debated and inflammatory topic. There are powerful arguments on both sides. I know people who were spanked as children and found it to be a beneficial way of experiencing consequences, and I also know people who swear that they will never spank their own children. Since it is against the law to spank children in schools, I didn’t feel that it was necessary to write about it in this post.

Also, I am writing my thoughts about discipline from the limited perspective of a young teacher who does not have children of her own yet. Despite years of experience in schools, instructing music lessons, and babysitting, I do not have the wisdom of a parent, so I won’t pretend to know everything. Please understand that my words proceed from a desire to search for useful knowledge in this area. There is always room for expansion in my understanding.

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One Response to That Oh-So-Touchy Subject: Discipline

  1. Michele says:

    If you’re interested in the efficacy of rewards and punishments look up Alfie Kohn. I read his book Punished By Rewards when I was teaching in the late 90s, and it helped me a lot, and he has another book called Unconditional Parenting. He explains why neither rewards nor punishments work well.

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