Discipline Is Teaching

In our ongoing Praise a Parent Campaign, a reader posted an example of praise she offered to a colleague for disciplining her three girls. We don’t know the details but the episode ended with the girls calling their mom “rude”, and “the worst mom ever”. The reader who offered the example says it sounds as though the mom made “great, though difficult choices” in disciplining, and ends by saying, “Discipline is hard”.

This is an excellent example because it points up an important part of being a parent that is more often a source of conflict than of praise. Mothers think about discipline a great deal, when to discipline, how to discipline, even whether to discipline. Discipline is a critical part of a mother’s role as teacher, yet it is often a source of confusion because it gets translated as punishment.

The question of discipline is often raised when children’s behavior runs counter to parents’ expectations or requests. A child “refuses to listen”, or is defiant, or behaves in unacceptable ways if he doesn’t get what he or she wants. Discipline then becomes a search for a method that will control behavior we don’t like, or feel is inappropriate. Parents often talk about this in terms of learning: “She has to learn to do as she is told”, or “He has to learn he can’t have everything he wants.” The question then is, if a child has to learn something, what is the best way to teach it?

Even when talking about teaching and learning, a strong feeling persists in many of us that only punishment will drive a lesson home. People have strong opinions about whether or not punishment is an effective teacher. It’s interesting, though, that punishment only comes up as a method of teaching for certain kinds of behavior – behavior that is considered “bad”. Few of us would think of punishment as a solution for a child having a hard time learning to tie her shoelaces, or learning spelling, or solving arithmetic problems. We distinguish between academic learning and social learning, yet both involve teaching.

So the question really is, what is an effective way of teaching appropriate social behavior? Maybe we have to start by asking why a child isn’t learning. Does he understand what is expected? Is he being expected to do something that he is not yet capable of doing, or Is he being asked to do something he doesn’t want to do? Is he defiant because he feels the expectations are unfair? Answering these questions means trying to understand why a child is misbehaving and influences what we do about it.

The problem with punishment is that it doesn’t address the underlying reason for the behavior we are trying to change. If a child is having difficulty with self-control, the memory of having been punished is not going to help him control an impulsive expression of his feelings at the moment. If the behavior is defiance, punishment may serve to increase anger and then the defiant behavior. The idea that a child should be punished is usually an expression on our part of frustration about the behavior, and the feeling that it has to be corrected or responded to right then and there.

But if we are to think in terms of teaching and learning, we have to remember that it is a process that takes time, and we may have to take a longer view when it comes to correcting behavior. Of course, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t respond to unacceptable behavior. Parents often say, “There has to be a consequence”. An important part of growing up is learning that there are consequences to our behavior. If that is so, the consequences need to flow from the behavior, not be something made up that have nothing to do with the behavior. If children are to learn to take responsibility for their behavior, they need to experience the connection between what they do and what the result may be.

For example, if a child dawdles in the morning and won’t get dressed, she may have to be late for school and deal with whatever that entails. If she doesn’t fulfill whatever responsibility she has at home, that may result in a loss of privilege that goes with being a family member. If she misbehaves in a restaurant when the family is having dinner out, she may have to be taken out, away from the others.

Sometimes the teaching and learning break down because it is too hard, or too inconvenient to see something through with a child when it is actually happening. It becomes easier just to let things slip by, or to threaten consequences that will be implemented later. Instead of teaching as we go along we may let the behavior go too far and then try to correct it all at once.

The reader who reported the discipline incident ended by saying, “Discipline is hard”. She’s right. The mom she talked about was called “rude”, and “the worst mom ever”, by her children. Children often don’t like what we are expecting of them. We have to do internal checks to make sure that what we expect is realistic and fair. But we also have to be able to tolerate being “the worst mom ever” when we stick to our expectations.

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