Monday, June 14, 2010


As the mother of a two-month-old, discipline isn't exactly something I need to worry about. (To those people who think a two-month-old needs to be/can be disciplined, all I can say is, You're Wrong.) However, I've been thinking about how I will discipline my kids for almost ten years now. I've been a big sister, a nanny, a tutor, and a teacher. I have had to work within other people's discipline systems, and I've had the opportunity to use my own. I've disciplined kids from toddlers one year old to 18-year-old high school seniors. So, I've had the chance to see a bit of what works and what doesn't.

There are two extremes. One of them is called "gentle parenting" or "gentle discipline" from what I've been reading on blogs. That's the idea that punishing a child is unfair, because they don't know any better or don't have the self-control to act differently, and so we talk through their problems instead. Implied in this is the idea that the first several years of your child's life, you basically just have to put up with whatever they do (or constantly redirect and distract them), because they won't understand why not to.

The other extreme is the Biblically-based "child-training" idea which involves hitting the child with a switch from infancy on. It's been blamed (justly, I think) for the deaths of more than one child. The notion is that you strike a child for every small offense in order to teach them about parental authority, and you continue to whip them until they "submit." In an infant, you're supposed to tell that they've "submitted" by the sound of their cry; an older child is supposed to stop crying quickly in order to show that he accepts your punishment.

I don't think I need to tell you that I disagree strongly with both these tactics. Both can risk your child's life. The first one, I had to deal with on my first nannying job. "We don't punish our children," the mother said, as we watched her four-year-old twins play together. Even then I was doubtful. When one twin distracted me with a pantry raid and the other ran out into the street, I realized this technique would never work. I scooped up the kids and put them in time-out. (Only I used the mother's method of calling it the "thinking chair" -- but the girls and I both knew what it was.) I realized that, while her method had worked all right when the kids were a little younger, now that they were four they had grown into monsters. And when you can't count on your kids to obey the first time -- when you say that they "can't" and make excuses for them -- you won't be able to save them from dangerous situations (like running out into traffic). The whipping method endangers children's lives for a much more obvious reason: since you are supposed to keep striking them until they "submit," if they never submit (at least, never show the expected signs of submission like stopping crying), you will never stop. And even if you're only hitting them with a thin switch, you can cause a whole lot of damage and even death. We know that now. No one should EVER use this "parenting technique."

In my opinion, discipline is not about what the child "deserves." The gentle-parenting philosophy says, and rightly, that a toddler doesn't know better and doesn't "deserve" punishment. (God, after all, lets off everyone under the age of reason for everything they do. It is not their fault.) And it's not about "showing them who's boss" or "proving your authority." (The child-trainers say that this will prepare them to understand the authority of God. I say it will teach them that God is a big old meanie who beats you till you're defeated, even if you didn't mean to make a mistake in the first place.) Discipline is there to teach about consequences.

Imagine this picture. A toddler is in a room with a wood stove burning. The stove is hot and will burn the child if he touches it. (The gentle-parenting advocate would just not have a wood stove. But that's dodging the issue -- we can't remove everything dangerous forever.) All right, now our toddler is toddling toward the stove, hand held out inquisitively toward the pretty flames. The mother sees this and lunges for the kid. She pulls him away from the fire and smacks his hand. "No. Hot!" she says.

She didn't smack the kid's hand because he deserved it (he didn't know the fire was hot!) or because he needed to learn that she was in charge. She did it because the smack hurts less than the fire would -- she doesn't want him to get a serious burn! -- but it does hurt enough that he will learn that reaching out for the stove isn't a good idea. She replaces a truly dangerous consequence with a simply painful consequence.

Chances are, the kid is going to try the same thing a half-dozen times to see what happens. Sooner or later he realizes that it's not worth it -- that stove is off-limits because every time he goes for it, he gets his hand smacked. Toddlers like to test boundaries, but they're not dumb. They do learn.

It's up to the parents to set the limits they want -- something not so close in the child is smothered and there are no free options, something not so far out that anyone in the family suffers. (So, taking toys from other siblings is not allowed, grabbing knives is not allowed, bringing dirt in the house is not allowed, but it's up to the parents to decide if they're going to make a fuss about saying the same word a million times over or driving cars over Daddy's face -- things that are annoying, but which kids love to do as part of their discovery of the world.) I like Dr. Ray Guarendi's advice that, if it's going to drive you crazy and make you yell at your kids, you should make it against the rules.

Now I'd better say something about the idea of the "smack." I don't think corporal punishment is strictly necessary. I think it works better than anything else on pre-verbal children, because it's immediate and they have such short attention spans. But my little brothers got sent to the corner, and that worked too. For older children, time-outs, extra chores, or essay writing works fine. My students would get extra homework, missed recess, or the dreaded Call to Your Parents. In any event, spanking of any kind should not be severe, regardless of what the offense was or whether the child is sorry; it should have built-in limits (e.g. five swats); and it should never be done in anger.

The philosophy behind my system is simply this: if you break a rule, there is a consequence. Later in life, that child will be an adult whose actions sometimes have very big consequences. And though I will try to warn you ahead of time, I accept that maybe you will have to be punished in order to learn. My four-year-old charges heard me say "Stop" or "Come back," but they didn't think they actually had to listen until I punished them. Once they realized there was an unpleasant consequence of not listening, they listened a lot better! Continuous application of various consequences throughout childhood helps form good habits. A consequence for not turning in homework eventually paid off in children who remembered their homework. A consequence for mouthing off eventually taught the kids to think before opening their mouths.

The one secret, the one magic ingredient without which the rest is nothing, is consistency. If you punish a child for disobeying one time, but laugh at him another time, he's just going to keep trying it and trying it until he can figure out a pattern. This isn't a "bad child," this is a child trying to figure out the pattern, the way a child will drop a block five or six times to see if it always goes down. Once he knows the pattern, he'll react accordingly: if disobeying causes punishment, he'll stop; if it just gets a rise out of Mom (funny!), he'll keep doing it and shriek with laughter every time. And you can't call him a "bad child" because you taught him to do it!

About the concept of the "bad child": I knew one mom of a toddler who had no system of discipline for her two-year-old. She had to physically restrain her from tearing off down the hall or flinging herself down the stairs, but the whole time she would say, "I love you, sweetheart, and I don't want you to hurt yourself." The second she removed her restraining arms, the toddler would rush off to get in more trouble. The mother would turn to me apologetically and say, "I'm sorry. She's just a bad girl." But I couldn't see anything "bad" about the child. She was a normal two-year-old, working within the limits (i.e. no limits) her mother had set. We call a child "spoiled" because there was nothing bad about the child before his parents taught him to act that way. Underneath every spoiled child is a child who has just never learned where the limits are.

The second golden rule is never to be angry. Obviously this is an impossible rule to follow. But it works well as an ideal. I have disciplined a lot of children, and 9 times out of 10, showing any emotion at all is going to undermine your discipline. You want a child to obey because you said "no," not to wait until you start screaming because they know the screaming stage comes before the spanking stage and they have loads of time yet to mess around. Plus, lots of kids find it funny when the adults lose their cool. I know my high school kids did. Meanwhile the more sensitive children are thinking, "Mommy doesn't love me." The point is "actions have consequences," not "Grownups are scary so I'd better do what they say."

I have a friend whose parents really did follow this rule. I was over at her house once when her little brother threw a tantrum. The mom calmly said (as she continued to prepare dinner), "If you can't calm down, you will have to do that screaming in your room." The child continued to scream, the mom continued to chop the meat. "All right, go to your room." No movement from the child. "If you don't go on your own, Daddy will carry you there, and you won't get dessert." Continued screaming; no movement. "Daddy, please carry him to his room." The father calmly came and calmly carried the kicking, screaming child to his room. He placed the boy inside and shut the door, saying, "When you've settled down, you can come back and join us out here again." No screaming. No yelling. No threat that was not carried out. I resolved at that moment that this was how I wanted to raise my children. I was a child with very turbulent emotions who really did throw a fit at the drop of a hat; how reassuring it would have been to me to know the adults never lost their cool even when I did! (Now, I am quite aware of how hard this would be to do. If I can manage to keep calm 50% of the time, I'll consider it a good average.)

I do know that, in all my years of disciplining children and sometimes flipping out at them, only once has losing my cool done any good. It was my first full-time nannying job, and once near the end of the summer, when the kids were really driving me nuts, I burst into tears. It was the only time I had ever lost it with them. You would not believe how shocked they were, or how sorry. They were well-brought-up kids and felt terrible that they had Made Their Nanny Cry. They'd only been messing with me and hadn't meant to actually hurt me. But every other time I have ever yelled at, pleaded with, or cried in front of kids, it has never done a bit of good. Sometimes it's just what happens, and I don't think it's the end of the world that they find out you're not invincible and you do have feelings. But I don't think any amount of yelling at kids has ever helped to discipline, or convinced them of your authority. All it does is teach them that you're out of control, and perhaps give them an example about handling your emotions that you really don't want them to learn.

Rule number three is to focus on rules instead of rulers -- that is to say, not, "Because I said so," but, "Because it's against the rules." The ancient Romans had a saying that it was better to be ruled by laws than men, and I believe this is true. Rules make it easy to be consistent, and consistency is both more effective and less frightening. When X is against the rules all the time, regardless of Mom's mood, Dad's day at work, and which kid it was that did X, I really believe it builds less resentment against the parents and a better understanding of why they are being punished. My mother was so into this idea that she actually wrote up our family rules in a notebook and had my brother and I sign them to show that we understood them and agreed that they were fair. Of course, we later claimed they were unfair all the time, but deep down we knew that was just an excuse. Again a caveat: 100% consistency is impossible and maybe not desirable -- every once in awhile there's a reason to allow something that's usually against the rules, and sometimes you know a child knows better even though there wasn't a specific rule against what he just did. But most of the time, the stress should be on the rule.

Some people say that you shouldn't let kids ask why -- that's talking back. But I think it's good to give at least a short, simple explanation why you are punishing them or why you say no. Of course you don't want to teach them to argue with you, but they learn something by your explanations, so you should be giving them something. For a toddler, "No, that's hot," might be all he needs, but for an older child it's good to give a longer explanation, like, "I assign homework every day because it'll be much easier to remember what we did in class if you practice it at home." Or whatever. There's a difference between asking for an explanation and sass. I think we all can tell which is which.

So, there it is: parenting methods from a newbie parent. I'm not an expert, but I do have some experience. I'm hardly Supernanny; however, I almost always have gotten equal or better results (insofar as respect, obedience, and listening go) than a child's parents get. (The secret to this is no secret: it's way easier to be consistent when it isn't 24 hours a day.) My mother knows way more about raising children than I do (having done it six times, and a good job by my account), and yet she still sometimes asks for my suggestions. The only question is, will I hold to my principles with my own kids? I believe they will work if I do ... but there are some high standards in my system, and I am not positive I will live up to them. Specially not when the kiddo's this cute. But I'll do my best. I want to do what's best for him.


Heather said...

You have so many great insights and all those years of paying attention to the varying processes of discipline seems to have imparted lots of wisdom on you!

Aw man, my mom was in the "asking why is talking back" camp and, more often than not, the "because I said so" camp. And the "I know better than your father" camp. No wonder I had so many years of resentment and anger!

In the last several years, though, she got more verbose and I grew a mouth and wouldn't stop debating, attempting to reason or challenge her reasoning. I think one of the main things that got her attention, at least insofar as she suddenly gained some insight into why I was reacting the way I was, was when I said that I considered working out our differences loudly to keeping our mouths shut for a "peaceful" household because loud communication is healthier than no communication. I don't believe she agreed, but I think she sort of saw where I was coming from.

Heather said...

Thought this brief Philly piece on communication and consistency would interest you:

Sheila said...

I would agree with that piece's take on talking back.

Funny, in logic class we learned that the "argument from authority" is the weakest and least convincing, and yet most of us use it on kids all the time. It's like a shortcut -- but with kids, the fewer shortcuts you take, the better. You'll never have a harder "sell" than convincing a kid to do what you want ... you should be willing to bring in the "big guns," logically speaking, to bring them around.

Enbrethiliel said...


When I was doing some basic research on the classical trivium, I remember reading that there is a certain age range at which children really will talk back--not because they're trying to be cheeky, but because they've started to discover logic.

And for some reason, the "training" sequence from Three Ninjas (or whatever that movie was) is coming to mind. The grandfather would throw eggs at his grandsons and expect them to catch the delicate projectiles without breaking them. Not something to do in mixed company, but kids at this age seem to enjoy that sort of "training" on a mental field.

Sheila said...

Yes, during the logic or "pert" phase, kids argue up a storm. I think it's about 9-14 or so. In any event, it sure is true: they discover logic and then they are ALWAYS arguing -- just to see how it works. It takes a little trouble to work with that age -- much harder than the grammar ("poll parrot") and rhetoric ("poetic") ages.

Lindsay said...

Interesting thoughts. All my
bloggy e-friends seem to be anti-spanking/swatting, but I'm still on the fence. Hubby claims he was a particularly naughty toddler and is a better person now because he was spanked back then. Anyway, it's nice to read some thoughts on it from someone who doesn't automatically equate having any physical element to discipline with being abusive!

Sheila said...

Reading back through my blog, it occurs to me that I should mention for the record (in case anyone runs across this) that my views on discipline have somewhat modified.

Some of this stuff I still agree with, like not getting angry. Some, like swatting toddlers, I don't. (Tried it. Didn't work at all. Made me angrier. Made the kid upset.) Others I sort of agree with .... we do have some consequences around here. But for the most part, I simply don't let my kids do bad things. I physically stop them from doing them. When they find these things just aren't happening, they stop doing them.

And the less I get mad AND the less I punish, the less my kids misbehave. It's the weirdest thing, but I think I've stumbled onto gentle discipline and it's working very well.

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