Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Real Goal of Discipline (And How to Get There)

I am 100% opposed to embarrassing children into compliance. Every time I see the pictures demonstrating that a parent has done this, I cringe at all of the totally sincere comments claiming that here is the Parent Of The Year. I feel this way because children are human beings, and all human beings deserve to be treated with respect. Embarrassing someone is incredibly disrespectful, and not the way we would treat other people we care about.
Worse, it damages a relationship that really needs to be strong. If you want a child to listen to you – to respect your ideas and hopefully choose to follow your guidance – you absolutely have to have a good relationship with them. That doesn't mean they will always agree with you or never be angry with you, or vice-versa! It simply means that when you have a conflict, you resolve it together, as a team, instead of making it into a power struggle with one person winning and one person losing. Honestly, even the “winner” in that scenario is losing because of the damage it causes to the relationship.
I think a lot of people choose to punish because they don't know what else to do. Most of us were raised in a punitive household, and today the mainstream opinion is that if you don't punish, you're not really parenting. This punishment takes a lot of forms – spankings, embarrassment, time-outs or grounding (isolation), removal of “privileges”, and so on. But every one of these scenarios turns the situation into a Me vs You for the child. It breeds resentment and makes him consider you his enemy.
If the goal is short term compliance, then yes. All of those methods are effective at getting short term compliance. And in the moment, that may be your goal. But when you've stepped out of the immediate situation, I think we would all agree that the goal is to help your child become an adult with strong decision making skills and good ethics – the kind of person who can create the kind of life he or she wants, and be self sufficient, without hurting other people to get there.
With that goal in mind, take a look at the current research. All of those methods that are so effective for short term compliance actually damage the child's chances of reaching the long term goal! (Alfie Kohn has done a lot of research about this.) What has been proven effective basically boils down to responsiveness; effectively the opposite of what is generally considered in the parenting toolbox.
Responsiveness is not the same as permissiveness, though. Limits are absolutely important, and sometimes they do need to be strong. It can be a struggle for parents to walk that line, especially in a culture where we haven't had a lot of exposure to that kind of parenting. Often we don't have previous experiences to look back on, and draw from, that relate to the situation we're experiencing.
The solution to this dilemma is always to consider the ultimate goal. You need a course of action that encourages the child to want to obey the rule, even if you would never know it had been broken. They need internal motivation.
This takes different forms at different ages, and with different personalities. Toddlers, for example, need short, firm, and consistent messages about what is okay. They need real empathy when they desperately want something they can't have, but they also need to know that the boundaries are firm. They could never verbalize this, of course, but they are depending on the parent or caregiver to keep them safe in a world they don't yet understand. At this age the process is all about cause and effect; a rudimentary understanding of their individual capacity to affect the things around them. When they break rules, they are not deliberately being defiant; they are just experimenting. They need to know their caregivers understand that, because it's basically their whole existence.
This understanding in the toddler years also builds a strong foundation for later, when the dangers your child will encounter are not so black and white. If they are used to being understood and know they can rely on your empathy, they are a lot more likely to ask and take your advice.
For most older children, understanding your reasons can be a significant factor. Depending on the child, explanations of the rules during a neutral moment can begin between the ages of 3 and 6. For a child on the young end of that range, the explanations should be very simple, but as the child matures the explanations can begin to cover more of the gray areas. You can explore the situation together, and your child can help come up with the rules. They are much more likely to follow rules that they've created!
The older children get, the more they need to practice decision-making skills, so giving them practice early on will help when they get to the point where the decisions have many more factors. For example, a teenager can help determine the rules about curfews, driving, phone use, and so on. You make the decision together, as a family, and find a compromise you all feel comfortable with.
For example, the image that prompted this post was a photo of a man wearing short shorts, with spandex bike shorts underneath, and a shirt that said, “Ask my girls if they still think short shorts are 'soo cute'!!” This is a commonly lauded approach of the punitive sort. So what might have been more effective?
I would start by having a conversation with the girls about modesty and privacy, and our family values. I would give a limit, such as the length of shorts I found acceptable, and explain how that limit related to our family values. Then I would ask for their feedback. I would find out why they wanted short shorts, even if I thought I already knew. Then I would restate it to them in my own words, so they would know I understood their position. In most cases, the underlying desire is something that can be fulfilled in a different way. These girls likely wanted to wear clothing that would be accepted and admired by their peers, which is reasonable, understandable, and crucial for positive self-esteem and peer relationships. At that age, they are better able to define what their peers will accept, so their feedback is incredibly important – but if short shorts are in conflict with family values, then a compromise would mean finding other clothes that are still stylish and acceptable, but more modest. That way the ultimate goals and needs of each family member would be met.
The basic form of that discussion should work for most children over the age of six, with the different factors being simplified or expanded to meet your child's cognitive level.
It's also important to remember that fairness and justice are extremely important factors to an elementary child or teenager. If they see a discrepancy, they are not likely to accept it, unless there is a justifiable reason for the difference. If they know how they can reach some new freedom, such as a later bedtime or larger play range, they are a lot more likely to accept restrictions while they're working toward it, because the power is in their hands.

Have you had any of these conversations with your children? How have they worked out for your family?

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