“It is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” ~ Abraham Maslow
How often have you heard someone say something like “That child really needs to be disciplined!” or “I can’t believe how badly behaved she is, her parents never discipline her”? Before I became a parent I could always tell the good parents from the bad ones because bad parents had children who misbehaved. I was really clued in, wasn’t I? In the 4 1/2 years since I became a parent myself, if there is one thing I am sure of it is that if a child is acting out, it is to get a need met. It is unlikely that they are doing it consciously, but dig around a little and you will most likely find this to be true. My husband is not so convinced.
One of the things my husband and I disagree about most often is the issue of disciplining our children. He is by no means a disciplinarian, but there is a part of him that does believe that his parents’ old-school methods of intimidation (wait until your father gets home) and alienation (go to your room) were effective and when our children are at their most difficult, he often gets frustrated with my more touchy-feely manner of parenting.
Two very different childhoods
My husband and I come from very different families and our parents had very different styles of disciplining us. Because he is one of 7 children, with a workaholic father who had little time or ability to be the doting dad, my husband and his siblings were cared for by nannies and a mom who, although loving, had a lot on her plate; thus, focusing in on each child’s needs wasn’t possible as often as the children may have needed. When he and his siblings misbehaved, they were often sent on the very long walk around their home to where their father’s office was. Down a long, dark hall into a room with a fireplace where their father sat, high above them, in his chair behind a desk. The offending child would pull up a small folding chair, sit in front of him and await their punishment.
I, on the other hand, am the only child of bohemian parents who practiced a more laissez faire style of parenting. They spent a great deal of time talking about feelings, being open about “adult” issues like drugs and giving in to my will because battling me when I had made up my mind was generally a losing game. My memory of childhood holds no recollection of punishment (although there must have been some?) and few firm rules, as their belief was that actions depended on circumstance. My parents modeled kindness, respect and communication. Their parenting style wasn’t perfect, whose is? Yet, the basic concept my parents held that an adult is not superior to a child, is one I believe strongly in.
What is discipline?
The origin of the word “discipline” is from the Latin word “discipulous”, which translates as “learner”. Learner. Thus, discipline is actually about learning, as in being disciplined about something. However, the word discipline has, unfortunately, become synonymous with “punishment” when it applies to children.
The root of this, I think, is the belief that adults need to be in control. Teacher Tom says it in a perfect way in his recent post The Language Of Command:
“I think, for many of us, the idea that the adult is “the boss” is such a deeply rooted concept that we act as if it is an unquestioned truth. And sometimes, I suppose, we are “the boss,” like when we need to take charge in urgent moments where safety is concerned. Stop! Don’t go in the street! That kind of thing. But too often we confuse being responsible for someone with being their superior, and that pre-supposition of command crops up in moments when there’s really no point, like a bad habit.”
If we approach parenting with this idea of superiority firmly planted, even in our subconscious, it is not surprising that we end up treating children in ways that disrespect them as people.
What would The Buddha do?
In Buddhist philosophy, discipline is not about being “good” or “bad”, it is simply about a gentle coming back to oneself without judgment or narrative. What if we could look at our child experiencing a tantrum as needing to come back to themselves and not put labels on that? What if we could see our child misbehaving without making it mean something about our parenting skills? One very basic idea of Buddhism is that we all want to be relieved of suffering. If we can look at our children who are in a state of dis-regulation as needing guidance, then perhaps we can step into the role of teacher more easily.
“Mahayana Buddhist teachings encourage us on the path of the bodhisattva-warrior, one who is brave and confident enough to overcome self-centeredness in order to help others”. ~ Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche
If we, as parents, can overcome our need to be right, to be in control, to have our children obey us, we can help our children better. And in doing so, we may find ourselves in a more connected, less adversarial, relationship with them. I do not claim to be a bodhisattva, but in my more thoughtful parenting moments I do strive to attain the 6 actions of one: generosity, patience, exertion, discipline, mindfulness, and wisdom. I can’t think of any reason not to want to apply those ideas to my parenting.
Finding a middle ground
Every parent I know began parenthood wanting to teach their children about the world and to give them the skills to navigate life in socially acceptable ways so they will be fulfilled, happy and loved. Along the way, parenting gets complicated and parents get frustrated. It’s out of this frustration and lack of better tools, that parents fall back on methods like time outs, yelling, withdrawal of affection or simply giving in to a demanding child.
All of the research I’ve read, or experiences I’ve had, lead me to know that connection is one of the main things children are missing when they act out. It is our job as parents to figure out what our children are really needing when they misbehave, so we can effectively teach them, instead of trying to simply instill authority over them. There is, of course, so much more to helping your children cooperate and understand what is expected of them. And there are times when the parent does need to step in and be in control, but without connection, nothing else we do has the long term effects we all desire. As Lisa Sunbury from Regarding Baby says in this powerful recent post:
“…parents really need (more) support and specific guidance regarding how to accomplish their goal of teaching children to behave in socially acceptable ways, without using physical punishment or shame”.
I believe that there is no need for parents to put themselves in the role of the dominant superior. We do not need to dominate our children, yet it is possible to have a respectful hierarchy in which the parent is the teacher and the child is the student. And we must expect that, on more occasions than we think, our child will be the teacher and we, the student.
Here are a few excellent posts about this alternate concept of discipline:
- Teacher Tom: “Spoiled Brats”
- Janet Lansbury: No Bad Kids – Toddler Discipline Without Shame (9 Guidelines)
- Alicia Bayer: Attachment Parenting 101: When Your Toddler Won’t Obey
- Positive Parenting: Toddlers And Beyond: 10 Things That Are More Important Than Discipline
- Dr. Laura Markham: The Missing Link In Gentle Discipline: Emotion
I want to continue this dialogue on discipline, as it is such an important one, and plan to write more. I’d love to know your thoughts about the methods you use that are successful (or not), what you struggle with most, how you see your role etc. Leave a comment below and let’s talk!