“I am a loving mother and mostly my children are very good. But everyone knows that children need discipline. What do you recommend as loving discipline?”
Want to join me in a survey? Let’s ask 10,000 people whether children need discipline. I’m willing to bet that in any random sample, 9999 of our respondents will say “Yes, of course!”
Could You Dare Not To Discipline?
But discipline is a murky word, so maybe we should define our terms. From the Merriam-Webster Dictionary:
2. Instruction (obsolete)
3. Field of study
4. Training that corrects, molds, or perfects the mental faculties or moral character.
5. Control gained by enforcing obedience or order.
So, the word Discipline originally meant Instruction or Guidance and derives from the same Latin root as the word Disciple. Nowadays, however, that meaning is considered obsolete, and the word has come to mean Punishment.
Now, some folks might argue that children don’t even need instruction or guidance, since most learning comes from observation and practice, not from formal teaching. But for the purposes of this discussion, let’s stipulate that kids do need guidance, even if that comes from our modeling and discussion. Otherwise, how will they know red from blue and right from wrong?
But do children need punishment? No. In fact, studies show that punishment creates more bad behavior. Not just that children who behave badly get punished more, but that children who get punished more will behave badly more often over time. Alfie Kohn’s wonderful book Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason cites numerous studies that substantiate this–just check the index for a huge number of citations.
Just in case you’re thinking that Punishment is also a murky word, the dictionary defines it as an “action with an intent to hurt”, either physically or psychologically, in order to teach a lesson. So punishment is effective only to the degree that the child experiences it as painful. There is no such thing as “loving discipline” because the child will never experience punishment as loving.
Are you thinking “But kids need punishment to learn!”? Actually, if the child doesn’t know the expected behavior, then the child needs teaching to learn.
What if the child DOES know what’s expected and still doesn’t do it? Then something is getting in her way. Either she doesn’t WANT to follow her parents, or she can’t manage her feelings and thus can’t manage her behavior. The first is a relationship problem; the answer is to strengthen the parent-child connection. The second is a red flag that the child needs help to process her emotions so she can better regulate them. In either case, punishment won’t teach the necessary lesson.
In fact, punishment teaches all the wrong lessons:
- Punishment sabotages kids’ moral development, because it teaches them to focus on whether they’ll get caught and punished, rather than on the impact of their actions.
- Punishment makes the child angry that we’re intentionally hurting her, so she resists seeing herself as responsible, even in her own mind.
- Punishment encourages children to lie.
- Punishment doesn’t help kids with the emotions that led to their “acting out” behavior, so it doesn’t prevent the same behavior in the future.
- Because children respond to punishment by developing anger toward their parents, they lose their desire to “behave” and become defiant.
If you’re still with me, you’re probably thinking “But children need limits!” I agree. But limits does not mean discipline, as in “something unpleasant to teach a lesson.” Limits are actually more effective in developing your child’s self-discipline when they’re set with empathy. To change our thinking, we need to change our words, so let’s just move beyond “discipline.” Instead, let’s guide our children with empathic limits.
So how do you set limits with empathy? How do you transition from punishment to loving guidance? Do timeouts count as punishment? What about consequences? This is a big topic, which is why it’s the longest chapter in my book Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting.
In the meantime, how would you answer our survey? If you knew it would raise a happier, more self-disciplined child, could you dare not to discipline?
May you make miracles today, large and small.
Dr. Laura Markham is the author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How To Stop Yelling and Start Connecting.To get Dr Laura’s parenting tips right in your email inbox; sign up: AhaParenting.com.