On Discipline: Some Thoughts

John Wilmot (1647–1680) was the 2nd Earl of Rochester, a poet, and a friend of King Charles II. He once opined, ‘Before I got married I had six theories about bringing up children; now I have six children and no theories’. Not a few of us parents know how he feels, and that not least when it comes to the vexed question of discipline. When I only had a dog, I was an ‘expert’ on parenting, and made sure as many parents as I knew understood what a great resource they had in me. But now I’m a dad of an actual person a person (like me) with a will of their own; and I’ve now lost count of how many times I’ve said to my 18-month-old daughter, ‘That’s not your draw … you know that’s not your draw’, or ‘No, BooBoo (my affectionate name for her), I asked you not to touch that’.

In a post (or even an entire monograph) one cannot say everything that could – or perhaps even should – be said about discipline, though one must say something, while being encouraged that the conversation that we enter on this issue goes back a long way (and may it continue). Tell me that Cain and Abel’s folks didn’t have a few chats about it! That said, with so many opinions, agendas, fears and practices that abound, one does embark on any public discussion of parental discipline with a certain amount of trepidation. Suffice it to say that despite the passion that erupts in some parents on this issue, and despite the reality that there may indeed be some models that are better for some kids (and parents/carers) than others no one model is best in every situation. We not only all cook lasagne differently, we all parent, and discipline, differently. This is not to suggest, however, that all lasagne recipes are equally good.

In his delightful book A Little Child Shall Lead Them: Hopeful Parenting in a Confused World, Johann Christoph Arnold, reminds us that in an age when discipline of any kind is regarded by many as physical abuse, it is tempting to dismiss wholesale the Old Testament proverb about sparing the rod and spoiling the child. (Indeed, one of the most helpful books that I have ever read on parenting – though it is not directly about parenting – is Join Up in which Monty Roberts suggests that the rod in question here is that of the fishing kind). Arnold suggests that even if we reject physical punishment (which, incidently, he does not), we can find sound wisdom in other proverbs, and he cites 19:19: ‘Reprove your child, for in this there is hope’. The reason: Whenever children are conscious of having done something wrong and there are no consequences, they learn that they can get away with it. ‘It is a terrible thing’, he writes, ‘for a child to get that message. With younger ones, the issue might seem unimportant; their misdeed may actually be small, but the lessons they learn will have repercussions far into the future’. Discipline so conceived is essentially a positive thing. Moreover, it has goal; namely, to nurture a child’s will for the good.

With our 18-month-old, after it is established that she really is being naughty (and there is not some other reason for her behaviour) the good old ‘time out’ (or threat of) seems to do the trick most of the time. Hopefully it will for many years yet. It enables us to be assertive, and to clearly follow through when a threat has been made, and ignored. That said, parenting (like good lasagna making) requires creativity too, and that no less in matters of discipline. In his sapient book, The Secret of Happy Children, family therapist and parenting author Steve Biddulph devotes a chapter to the issue of being assertive (as opposed to aggressive) parents. Assertive parents, he contends, are ‘those who are clear, firm, determined and, on the inside, confident and relaxed. Their children learn that what Mum and Dad says goes but, at the same time, that they will not be treated with put-downs or humiliation’. He also suggests that it is not a skill we are born with so much as one we can take time (if we will) to learn. He summarises:

· Be clear in your own mind. It’s not a request; it’s not open to debate: it’s a demand which you have a right to make, and the child will benefit from learning to carry it out.

· Make good contact. Stop what you are doing, go up close to the child and get her/him to look at you. Don’t give the instruction until s/he looks at you.

· Be clear. Say, ‘I want you to … now. Do you understand?’ Make sure you get a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer.

· If they do not obey, repeat the command. Do not discuss, reason, get angry or scared. Breathe slowly and deeply so that you become calmer. What you are signalling to the child is that you are willing to persist on this one and not even get upset about it. This is the key step, and what matters most is what you don’t do. You don’t enter into debate or argument, you don’t get heated, you simply repeat the demand to the child.

· Stay close if there is any chance that the child will not carry out the task fully. When the task is completed (say, putting away toys), then don’t make much of this either. Simply say, ‘Good,’ and smile briefly!

It seems to me that one of the most important things to remember with whatever form of discipline is employed is that one be not only persistent but also consistent (and this extends to backing up your partner; if you disagree with their call, talk about it later, in private). Again, Arnold: ‘Aside from creating confusion in a child’s mind, inconsistency also prevents the formation of the boundaries that every young child needs. Even though he may resist at the beginning, he will thrive on routines once they are established’.

It also seems to me that one’s disciplining will only ever be productive if our kids feel our love as strongly as they feel our desire to correct them. Isn’t this precisely the way it is with God whose discipline of his people always occurs within the context of his covenant love for them, a covenant that is unilateral and so not ultimately threatened by our rebellion. In other words, discipline is effective when it takes place in the context of a pre-existing relationship of love and trust. Which is why it’s basically futile for absent parents to try and discipline. And which is why at the heart of any discussion of discipline must be the reality of forgiveness. Forgiveness for our children … and for their parents. True discipline is never an end in itself. It never shames, but always liberates. Its goal is always redemptive, always reconciliatory, always freeing, always hopeful, always manifesting the triumph of grace. Only in the context of grace are we set free to love our kids enough to discipline them for their good, and are they set free to be the people they were created to be.

Image: Rembrandt, ‘Reconciliation Between David and Absalom’, 1642. The Hermitage, St. Petersburg.

Some Notes On Discipline

I was chatting recently with another dad about the issue of disciplining our kids. It was a really fruitful conversation and I thought some of the things he was saying were worth sharing here with a view to encouraging conversation on this long-debated topic. He wrote …

”Carol’ and I use talking and reasoning as our primary way of correcting our children’s behaviour, figuring that if they’re too young to reason they are not necessarily doing something with mal intent. Our positive role models of parenting have been those parents who explain to their children why they are not to do this or that. We have also found that channeling our children’s energies into positive actions is often the most effective way of keeping them from bad actions. Often kids act out because they are bored or want attention, so helping them find something creative and showing them affection can often be a much better solution to their seemingly bad behaviour than some form of punishment.

There are also just plain physical reasons a child might act out – ­tiredness, hunger, etc. It’s good for us to be in tune with ‘Jodi’ and ‘Clare’ to know why they might be acting as they do and it makes us more understanding as well. Punishing a child when they are actually just bored or hungry is not wise parenting­ after all; we are the parents and they the children. We should be more wise to those things than they are, even though it is their own disposition we are dealing with.

We do spank but we use this as a rare last resort and are very cautious when we do spank. There have been times we have spanked ‘Jodi’ for doing something we thought was dogged disobedience only to learn minutes later that ‘Jodi’ was acting that way for good and logical reasons. So we have encouraged ‘Jodi’ to explain to us why she is doing what she is doing. We try never to spank out of anger. In fact, I have found that gentleness goes much further in correcting behaviour than any physical or verbal harshness. I also believe threatening a child with physical punishment is detrimental. Therefore, whenever we do get to the point of spanking, we give ‘Jodi’ options like, ‘You have some choices: you can listen to Mommy and Daddy and here’s why we want you to do such and such, or you can get a spanking and here’s why we don’t want you to do such and such. Which do you choose?’ It is important to explain to a child why they should do the right thing or why they should avoid the consequences of the wrong choice. We also try to persuade her of why it is beneficial to her to do the right thing and disadvantageous for her to disobey. This instills in ‘Jodi’ not only the ability to communicate her feelings and reasoning to others, but also teaches her to make wise choices.

In the end, I think there are far more constructive ways to discipline than spanking, but I don’t see why spanking should be ruled out if administered properly. Depending upon the issue, there have been times we have just let ‘Jodi’ work through her disobedience without our physical intervention; at other times, we have felt a spanking was necessary in order to let her know there are certain boundaries she should not cross. The ultimate rule is, ‘What is most beneficial for the child in each instance?’’

Guidance, Discipline and Tantrums

This came in an email today:

‘Guidance is priceless. Next to love and nurture, giving your child a sense of discipline is one the most important gifts parents can bestow. While most parents realise how critical it is to set limits, doing it in a consistent, effective way is by no means an easy task. We all want kind, thoughtful, well-behaved children but we don’t always know the best way to achieve this. And in the back of our minds, we all worry that setting too many boundaries may curb our child’s spirit. Finding the right balance between encouraging your child’s freedom of expression and guiding him on the right track, can be a truly difficult task at times. So it’s well worth taking the time to discuss these issues with your partner, with other mothers, and family members who can offer advice. Try to decide early on how you will deal with disciplining your child. Trust your instincts and don’t pander to toddler tantrums, even if your little angel is causing the most incredible scene in the middle of the supermarket! Remind yourself that you are the adult here, and that this is not about who “wins” in the battle of wills. Always try to stay as calm as possible, keep your own anger at bay, and stick to your discipline routine. Remember that consistency and fairness are the two most important ingredients, and don’t waste any time worrying about what other people might think of you or your child’s behaviour’.

Just thought it was worth sharing … cos dads never have tantrums, do we? But if we did (try to imagine life on some other planet for a second), what should the kids do?