Ask any parent and they will not hesitate to agree that all children need discipline. And yet, we can’t seem to agree on what actually defines “discipline”.
Originally, to discipline meant to teach a principle, to guide towards truth. Nowadays, people tend to use the word discipline when they actually mean “punishment”, which, in practice, is something entirely different.
By definition, punishment stops or suppresses behaviour by means of adding an unpleasant consequence, usually in the form of blame, shame, fear, or pain. Punishment is effective in the short term, which is why it’s so popular. But what is going on under the surface? Punishment disregards a child’s rights and underlying emotional development. Discipline, on the other hand, enforced with kindness and understanding, meets a child exactly where they are developmentally, without permissiveness or disrespect.
The concern is obviously that without punishment, the child will never learn what not to do. This is a legitimate concern, so let’s explore what happens when we punish a child; what are they really learning?
If I say to you, “No! Don’t do that!” Do you know exactly what I’m telling you not to do? How are you feeling about me? Do you feel understood? Do you feel that you are learning right from wrong?
Or let’s say I was more specific. “Stop screaming like a baby! You’re going to time out.” Do you feel heard? Did you feel respected or that you gained respect for me? Are you thinking, “Wow, I’ve learnt an important lesson about screaming, I’m so grateful!”? Are you planning to cooperate with me in the future?
Imagine this scenario instead: I sit down with you and have a conversation. I tell you that I’m about to go into a meeting so I need quiet. I give you pencils and paper to keep you busy and we agree that if you start to scream, I will put my hand on your shoulder for a few seconds so that you know I see you, then close the door and continue working until you have quietened down.
You start to draw, and one of the pencils breaks. You start to scream. I calmly get up from my desk, gently put my hand on your shoulder, close the door and continue to work.
Do you feel heard? Respected? Challenged?
When one enforces discipline that is both kind and firm at the same time, the child will learn to abide by and benefit from the proposed structure while simultaneously learning long term life skills, including self-regulation, and responsibility. This is ultimately what parents are trying to instil by using punishment!
In the words of Jane Nelsen, the founder of Positive Discipline, "Where did we ever get the crazy idea that in order to make children DO better, first, we have to make them FEEL worse?” We now know that “Children DO Better When They FEEL Better”, so it’s time to start moving away from punishment and towards real discipline!