Guide Or Punish

A colleague told me recently about a difficult situation where a parent was trying to discipline their rambunctious child. Discipline is a good thing, it's a part of helping our children grow in virtue. There are clear expectations of behavior that all children must learn, such as always look both ways before crossing the street, speak respectfully toward others, and tell the truth at all times. Discipline is the art of teaching children to live virtuously while instilling a clear sense and understanding of the rules, codes, and standard operating procedures that our children will encounter every day they're living in the world.

If our children are more docile in temperament, it may be easier to encourage these behaviors. Certainly not "easy" but easier. Not every kid is docile. The Ducklings, for example, all have strong personalities and have no problem letting you know what they think. They come by it honestly.

So how do we respond to a child that has a big personality? Especially when that child may not do things exactly as you want them done. The answer cannot be forcing compliance through fear and violence. My colleague shared that the parents of the rambunctious child had resorted to hitting and washing the kid's mouth with soap. Sadly, this won't end well. Discipline and punishment are not the same thing. A child who is spanked or hit doesn't learn what the expectations are, or why they matter. Instead, the child learns to avoid being punished rather than internalize the message or lesson. There are lots of ways to avoid being punished. Not getting caught is one of the easiest. When we resort to punishing, what we're teaching our kids are the merits of being sneaky. A focus on avoiding being in trouble at all costs (by lying or deceit) can carry on from childhood into adolescence and adulthood.  So while there might be a surface change in behavior, we wouldn't say this is an example of a child growing in virtue.

Equally problematic is how a punishing approach weakens the relationship between parent and child. Kids become resentful of the intervention ("I don't like that you yell at me all the time but if nothing I do is ever good enough for you then why should I even bother."). Parents can feel equally resentful ("I feel guilty for what I did and I wouldn't have had to do it if you would just behave better"). So an intervention that leaves both parent and child more upset with themselves and the other person while not actually making any positive changes needs to be reconsidered.

When I present this idea, parents often ask me if I think kids should just be left to run wild.  No, but I think we can guide our children without resorting to punishment - the parental nuclear option. Instead, we can clearly explain, in age appropriate terms, what behavior is expected and why.  We can help our children understand cause and effect by seeing the consequences of their choices, both good and bad.  Here’s an example.  Let’s say one of the Ducklings wants me to read them a story before bed, and I want her to pick up her toys first.  If I ask this at 7pm and bedtime is at 7:30pm, the sooner she picks up, the more time we have to read.  If she pokes around until 7:28pm, we won’t have a lot of time for reading.  There’s a clearly stated expectation (please clean up your room) and a clearly understood consequence (stories can’t happen until the room is clean, and bedtime is in 30 minutes).  So if she zips right through and cleans everything in 5 minutes, she gets lots of reading time. Hooray for her!  She made a decision that has positive consequences.  If she dawdles, she might not have time for a story.  Sorry, but we’ll try it again tomorrow.

Three important notes here for parents.  One, all directions must be reasonable and achievable.  It’s fine to give your kid 5 minutes to get in pajamas and brush teeth but it’s no fair giving a kid a 5 minute window to mow the entire yard.  Two, stay positive and calm.  If you send the message that you believe a kid will fail, they probably will.  And if they don’t meet their goal, be encouraging that they can achieve it next time.  Three, you MUST be consistent and follow through.  If you say bedtime is at 7:30, stick to that.  If you say you’re going to read if they get things done, be true to your word.  Kids are more likely to follow through when they see their parents doing the same.

This week, when an opportunity comes up to guide your child, think about what is the true lesson you want him or her to learn, and how to teach that lesson in the most positive way possible.