In M Scott Peck’s classic work ‘The Road Less Travelled’, he defines discipline as ‘love in action’. Poet and philosopher, Khalil Gibran, who speaks so eloquently of children in ‘The Prophet’, defines work as ‘love made visible’. From this standpoint, applying discipline is a very potent way that a parent makes visible their love for their children. When considered only in relation to its necessity to maintain order, we ignore just how fundamental discipline is to a person’s lasting happiness and ability to function successfully in life. Doing what it takes to teach children discipline, which in turn equips them to become self-disciplined, is both the most loving and at times, the most difficult, job a parent will undertake.
One of the difficulties we have in applying discipline has to do with our concept of what it is. When defined as punishment, it implies something imposed from without which usually hurts, emotionally or physically. Unfortunately, punishment does little to alter a child’s own behaviour repertoire and often results in them becoming fearful of the parent/s. The isolation borne of fear which a child feels toward their parent as a youngster, can breed discontent, rebellion and disrespect as they enter adolescence and adulthood.
More than anything, children want to respect their parents and be respected by them. This in itself puts the parent in an advantageous position when it comes to discipline; children expect and need the adults in their lives to demonstrate wisdom and leadership. It’s where you’re coming from and how you practice discipline that makes all the difference!
Discipline imposed as power over a child is very different, both in its intent and impact, to discipline sourced from a context of love. Many of us remember the words “This is going to hurt me more than it’s going to hurt you.” I can see how that could be true at times for parents – children can drive us to distraction and it seems our choices are so limited in how to respond. However, depending on what ‘it’ was, if the child made sense of such a statement, it was likely they came to believe that they deserved to be treated badly or that they were bad … not the kind of messages which support the healthy development of a child.
Rather than using punishment parents need the courage to allow children to experience the consequences of their actions. Here the child is faced with the effects of their behaviour and has choice about their future actions. If the natural consequence of ‘A’ means ‘B’, then they have the choice next time to try something different. Through the use of choice and consequence the child learns to take responsibility for their own behaviour. Practicing this form of discipline takes commitment and perseverance. In the long run, it is more effective and demands less wear and tear on a parent’s nerves.
Another misperception about discipline is that it’s about control. I empathise with parents when their child throws a tantrum and people around them sigh disapprovingly saying things like “Can’t they control that kid!?”. Well, no, they can’t – no more than anyone can control anybody other than themselves. We all know when someone is trying to make us do something we don’t want and there can be a fine line between control and manipulation. Rather than cooperate, we do the opposite just to annoy them.
While this may come as no surprise, for parents it poses the question “Well then, how do I get my child to do what I want?” Apart from the likelihood that your children are experts at practicing selective listening, actions always speak louder than words! Often we expect children to behave like adults or to do things in the way we want, rather than trying to see things through a child’s eyes. Discipline takes work, and it is at the times when we least want to do what is required of us, that it is most important that we do.
I believe discipline works best when there is mutual love and respect and each is aware of the other’s feelings. Taking the time to work out a plan, to respond rather than react, and to carry through on your strategy, takes a lot more work than just turning a blind eye or imposing some punishment. While the first provides life-long benefits, the second deals only with the problem in the moment. Invariably, a combination of the two is what works best.
If discipline were love in action, then when that is what’s called for, the most important thing to ask yourself is “What would love do now?” Sometimes, love would be tough. It would have high expectations that gave the child something to aim for and it wouldn’t make excuses, laugh off or ignore disrespectful or unacceptable behaviour. And, being delivered by one who is disciplined themselves, it comes from someone who is demonstrating self-love in action. This is the perfect circle.
The concept of choice and consequence has been a valuable technique in dealing with our children. It made us realise our responsibilities rest in giving our children advice and at the end of the day, they are responsible for their decisions and actions.
Max & Jenny
‘Heart of Family’ Workshop participants