“Discipline” has received swearword status in many modern parenting circles. It is now quite trendy to withdraw from being the disciplinary figure in favour of being a child’s friend. While this is mostly well intended (and evokes wonderful images of parent and child roaming around like Calvin and Hobbes all day), it can be harmful to both parties.
This inclination towards permissive parenting is mostly the result of a misunderstanding of true discipline and what children need to thrive. Many of us dislike the idea of discipline because we imagine a big, angry person dishing out harsh punishments and forcing his or her selfish will onto an innocent, vulnerable child. (Are you also seeing Cinderella’s stepmom? Or sadly, maybe one of your own parents?) Well yes, no child should be subjected to this type of authoritarian parenting, which sits at the other end of the spectrum.
Fortunately, there is an alternative to these two extremes. It’s called authoritative parenting. This entails parents who are exceptionally nurturing and responsive to their children, but who also believe in discipline: They have high standards and consistently enforce clearly defined boundaries. Studies found the product to be happier, more successful, more socially adept children who exhibit less behavioural problems. I’m sure all of us want that for our munchkins!
What does healthy discipline look like?
Discipline is gentle mentorship. It entails an older, wiser person coming alongside an ignorant child (who is still but a glorified bundle of primal, selfish impulses) and helping him to make good choices that will ultimately benefit and protect himself and others. It is a long-term process of training, teaching and yes, sometimes correction. Discipline means setting clear boundaries with predictable, consistent consequences if they are crossed. True discipline is not born from anger, spite, frustration or selfish needs. It is not a parent’s licence to get his own will or “stay in control”.
The crucial cornerstone
A loving, supportive relationship with a child is the precursor to any form of parenting success. This includes being sensitive to a child’s temperament. If our children do not feel nurtured, understood and cherished, they have no reason to trust and obey the boundaries we set for them, except out of fear. This is where “friendship” comes in, although my underaged child should not be my buddy! There must be an obvious hierarchy where the parent is the one who calls the important shots.
Why children need discipline?
Dr. James Dobson makes a classic comparison: If you were to drive on a bridge without railings, you would probably drive closer towards the middle of the road, and even then you’d feel anxious. Railings are equivalent to boundaries – when they are present, we feel secure and actually experience less restriction. If children do not know where the lines are, they have no notion of how far they can go before something awful happens, and therefore they feel insecure. (Note: This does not mean that they won’t test the boundaries you put up! They are still human.)
Furthermore, discipline has long-term, life-altering effects. If we allow our children to be guided by their own will, we breed adults who have no self-control. A four-year-old taking cookies from the pantry may seem cute; a 15-year-old taking alcohol from the bar, not so much; a 30-year-old taking money from his company – downright criminal. Not all undisciplined children end up lawless, but it’s much harder for them to become agreeable, successful adults.
Why parents need it?
If our goal is to be our child’s friend, we are looking for double trouble. In the first place, we set ourselves up for rejection, because most children do not want a parent as their best friend, and will soon go looking for a more suitable playmate. Ouch! Secondly, we set ourselves up for chaos. Without discipline, we subject ourselves to the fickle, immature will of our children as the reigning force in the home. We’re speaking a person not yet able to spell “orderliness” deciding how the household is run…
How discipline differs from punishment
Punishment is merely a component of discipline, and certainly not the most important one. It allows a child to experience a negative consequence for deliberately misbehaving. It is a momentary procedure in the ongoing act of discipline. Provided the punishment is not too harsh (instilling fear or rebellion) or too mild (effectively making a mockery of the practice and encouraging further misconduct), it is an effective tool in our discipline kit. It teaches children that the world works according to rules, and that it is unpleasant or even dangerous not to follow them. They will inevitably encounter this law of life – better it is introduced by someone who loves them. Read more about punishment here.
Remember that our end game is to raise optimally functional, emotionally stable, altruistic adults. To this purpose, I dare you to discipline!