The discipline dance
Would you send your klutzy colleague to the naughty corner for spilling their coffee again? Or say, ‘Good boy, you can have a biscuit now that you’ve eaten your lunch?’ It sounds ridiculous but adults say and do this to children all the time in the expectation that children will mend their wicked ways. Dr Louise Porter, child psychologist, explains why it doesn’t work!
When children learn to walk or talk we don’t expect perfection straight up. We expect them to make mistakes, and with much encouragement and practice, we expect they will gradually improve. So why don’t we allow children the same approach when it comes to learning about behavioural milestones?
There is a current vogue in parenting advice that opts for a ‘managing style’. It’s a disciplinary philosophy that says parents should reward or punish children for behaviours imperfectly learnt, with the idea that by doing so, children will learn to be ‘good’.
Why it doesn’t work?
When parents bring home their newborn baby, smelling of that delicious baby smell, many do not have expect to spend the growing-up years chastising, yelling and haranguing their kids – over teeth brushing, bed time, food intake or the lack of it, wet towels, brawls, bossiness and general aggro.
And the there comes a day when the words of their own mother or father ring in their ears and issue from their mouths like the ghost of childhood past.
Parents who get caught up in these cycles of discipline often despair and self doubt, and think that they must be doing something wrong to have a home life so unfulfilling and unpleasant – they’re not patient enough, or work too much or aren’t firm enough. Or that there has to be something wrong with their child – they are defiant, uncooperative, ADHD, spoilt…naughty.
But think about this; the problem lies not with the dancers but with the dance. That dance usually goes like this – the disciplinary confrontation where a parent tries to use power to control children, and they resist and rebel…to which the parental response is to make more attempts to control.
The parenting tools that have been promoted to us – generally that of rewarding ‘good’ behaviour and punishing ‘naughty’ actions – are in actual fact the triggers that promote the very problems they are trying to solve, inciting resistance, rebellion and retaliation.
Rewards and punishments have adults in control; we decide which child behaviours are appropriate, which behaviours we will change and how we will go about changing them. The adult using a controlling approach is the boss.
A very real reason to change our perspective on the value of this disciplinary approach is do we really want to raise individuals who will do anything to earn another person’s approval? Individual children who have been taught to do what adults say may well be vulnerable to abuse by adults.
In contrast, a guidance approach is based on the idea of development…that behavioural mistakes are inevitable, just as falling over is inevitable when a toddler is learning to walk.
And just as we would not dream of punishing falls or regarding them as naughty, but usually as part and parcel of the process of learning a new skill, so a behavioural mistake is regarded as proof that the child needs more practice.
The adult in a guidance approach acts as a leader, and as the leader, an adult will explain to a child that they expect them to manage their emotions, cooperate with others, think about the effects of their behaviour on other people, and when they don’t the adult will step in and help them regain command of themselves.
The ultimate goal of guidance parenting is for children to learn considerate behaviour.
Unlike most other parenting advice, taking a guidance approach does not give new ways to become better at rewarding and punishing children…it just means looking at children’s behaviour in a new way. Having understood it differently, you can respond differently. So adults must teach children to act thoughtfully, rather than punish them because they don’t.
Differences between controlling discipline and the guidance approach
Controlling Discipline Guidance Approach
- Children’s behaviour can be controlled by outsiders
- Disruptions are caused by faulty reward and punishment regimes
- Aim for compliance and obedience
- Distrustful of children
- Behavioural mistakes should be punished
- Adult exercises power as a boss
- Children’s behaviour is governed by their needs at the time
- Disruptions are triggered by children’s internal needs and are reactions against controlling disciplinary measures
- Aim for considerate behaviour
- Balanced view of children
- Mistakes are inevitable and call for teaching
- Adult employs expertise as a leader
Why kids misbehave
In researching the causes of disruptive behaviour, four common triggers (in well children) became apparent:
- Children are exuberant and excitable – inevitable in a chasing game, someone will crash into someone; that someone gets hurt and retaliates.
- Children leant through exploration, whether that is the physical world of sandpits and water, or their social world of adult/child interaction. So why ask what will happen if they flick food about, when the adult reaction will tell them soon enough? Or in other words, children do stuff.
- Young children (generally under three) do not yet know better, but over this age their memories are capable enough for them to know what sort of behaviour is generally expected. And any adult who finds themself mouthing ‘how many times have you been told…’ should remind themselves of the chocolate biscuit memory test ie children need only be told once where the chocolate biscuits have been hidden!
- Children act disruptively even when they know better, because they have temporarily lost control of themselves (something even the most well-adjusted adult will sometimes do – just think back to the last time you had an extra chocolate biscuit).
Recognising and understanding these triggers does not mean that parents have to tolerate inconsiderate behaviour, it means though that the guiding principles and goals underlying discipline are different.
Goals of discipline
Those goals are that children need to:
- Develop a sense of right and wrong. They need to act considerately because it is the right thing to do, rather than through fear of punishment.
- Learn to regulate and rein in their emotions as they grow older – an important component of developing resilience in coping with life’s setbacks.
- Learn to cooperate with others so as to fit in with various groups, so that everyone can have their needs met.
- Develop a sense of potency ie they can make a difference to their world and themselves.
Rewards and punishments cannot teach consideration because they focus children’s minds on what will happen to them, rather than realising how their actions affect others. If we want them to notice when their behaviour is thoughtless they need to be able to notice when it is successful.
This is not going to entail leaning a new parenting skill because when an adult does something that we appreciate or admire we don’t say, ‘Good boy for doing the dishes when it was my turn, you can have some ice cream now’…we say, ‘Thanks for doing the dishes for me’.
Praise or acknowledgment?
It’s fashionable to say that the way to make children feel good about themselves – to have a healthy self esteem – is to praise them. But praise in this context means that the child is living up to what you expect of them, an ideal.
However, if you raise children’s ideals to impossibly high standards, it’s not going to make their self esteem increase, but demoralise them into believing that they cannot reach your standards. So, what does this mean for day to day parenting?
When your child presents a painting, instead of giving them a judgement about themselves and the thing they have produced, eg ‘Good girl, that’s a beautiful painting’ (praise), instead say ‘Wow, look what you did! Did you know you could do that?’ (acknowledgement).
Give children information about the things they have achieved that you recognise, appreciate and are impressed by, rather than evaluation or judgement. It’s far more valuable for children to hear that an adult is impressed by their planning and persistence, or by the quality of what they’ve produced, than to hear that their work is ‘good’.
Acknowledging the skills involved rather than the praising the actual outcome enables you to give a child information about who they are now, not information about what you want them to be.
- You’re a good helper
- Good girl for using your manners (in response to a child who has thanked you for a biscuit)
- I’m proud of you for doing so well at ballet
- That’s a beautiful painting
- Your school play was excellent
- Thanks for your help
- I appreciate your help
- Thanks: that’s made my job easier
- It’s a pleasure; You’re welcome; I hope you enjoy it
- Congratulations. I’m proud for you.
- Looks like you’re enjoying ballet.
- Wow, I’m impressed
- What do you think of that?
- I enjoyed your play very much
If you want children to develop a healthy self esteem, stop praising them and instead acknowledge what exactly it is that they have achieved. This is a very useful strategy for behaviour management because not only do children feel better about themselves and less discouraged, but now they also notice their own behaviour.
Instead of passing judgement that a painting is beautiful, they have to actually give it some thought, ie, ‘Am I pleased with my achievement?’ When they know how to judge their own achievements, they begin to know how to judge their own behaviour. The fundamental difference is that acknowledgement provides information and praise delivers a judgement.
Parents as leaders
Rather than bossing our children and using our power over them to make them feel uncomfortable if they do not behave as they would like, parents instead need to act as leaders who are wise and flexible in their decisions.
Here’s familiar scenario – a two year old throws a tantrum over being denied an ice cream, and while the ‘default’ parental answer is ‘no’, on consideration the parent realises that there was no real reason to not allow the ice cream.
What to do?
The controlling ’boss’ has only the single option of ‘not giving in’ as otherwise the child ’win’s and the adult loses power, perhaps justifying it to themselves with ‘they have to learn’.
The leader has the same option of not changing her mind (already had something sweet, no money left) but also has the second option of listening to their child’s disappointment and changing her mind if it is reasonable, saying ‘okay, I might reconsider, but I can’t think with all that noise, you’ll have to calm down first.’ Once that has happened parents and child can negotiate, perhaps ‘when the shopping is done’.
A controlling discipline believes that this encourages another tantrum next time the child is frustrated at being denied. The guidance approach believes that it teaches a child how it feels to be listened to, to calm down and to listen to their parent in turn.
This frees a parent from the constraints of always having to appear to be consistent (ie more stubborn!) than a two year old, and they can instead make their decision in the light of circumstances, the child’s needs and their own needs at the time.
Many parents who encounter the guidance philosophy instinctively recognise that it gels more with how they would like to raise their children; because rewards charts have already been a spectacular failure in their house, because they don’t like the feeling of being ‘mean‘, because they despair at ever getting their child to cooperate without the escalating battle of tears and tantrums.
Parents need to know and believe that they already possess many of the necessary skills for guiding children. They already explain or teach many everyday facts about the world, they know how to maintain friendships, manage workplace relationships, listen negotiate and solve problems.
Liberating themselves from a controlling style of discipline takes time – not in having to learn new skills but in transforming their mind set that parents should – and can be – in charge of their children.
by Annette Binger
This article was adapted from:
Children are People Too by Dr Louise Porter, published by East Street Publications. RRP $29.95
This article was first published in Australian Family Magazine, November 2006. Updated July 2009.