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Feb 04

Discipline – and why I think it has enormous value

MassMoms.com posted a link on their facebook page to an article that really made me think.  The premise of the article is that everything we think we know about discipline is wrong, and that only by setting a good example, by exhibiting self control and self discipline, we set an example that our children will naturally follow.

I think the author is wrong.  For me, for my kids.  All my own self-discipline in the world doesn’t help them learn self control.

My kids aren’t any different from most kids – they’re, of course, brilliant, gorgeous and kind.  They are also super emotional, empathetic to an unhealthy degree, and prone to temper tantrums when tired.  Or hungry.  Or bored.  Or on Tuesdays.  They need discipline.  They need self-control, and they have no idea how to get it on their own.  Left to their own devices, as an example, last night, Julianna threw herself on the floor and sobbed because Jessie flushed her own floss.  Julie had wanted to flush it.  And the injustice of it all was too much for my overtired three year old.  So she dropped to the ground and sobbed.  Jessie offered to re-floss, but that wouldn’t work.  I offered to just take her in and put her to bed, come snuggle with me, and she was in no mood.  She wanted to scream and kick and cry.

So I let her.  I asked that she shut off the light and meet me in the bedroom when she was ready and walked away.  Was I disciplining her?  Yes.  She was in her own little time out, essentially.  Dropping to the ground and sobbing over a missed flushing opportunity isn’t a path to success.  Did I love listening to my baby girl sob and scream my name?  No.  But I also didn’t love her behavior either, and if I don’t teach her that it’s wrong, then who will?

For what it’s worth, the time out worked perfectly.  She screamed and cried, and when she realized that it wasn’t going to result in getting her any attention, she got up, shut off the light and came into the bedroom.  I snuggled her to sleep and she was fine.   But the article claims that when most parents talk about discipline,  “If they are really honest, they say something to the effect of, “I want a way to control them” or “I am pissed off at my kids and they are going to pay for it,”or “I am so frustrated because I cannot change how they behave.”  And this, I reveal to them, is the reason why disciplinary strategies with our children backfire. We say we want to teach our children proper behavior and help them develop self-discipline. Yet instead, we have adopted strategies that are the direct opposite of teaching and instead are just clever guises of manipulation and control.”

I’m not a perfect parent.  Believe me.  I’m not even close to a perfect parent.   But I love my kids, and I really put a lot of thought and effort into parenting.  I think it’s okay to say that I want to control them.  I don’t want the opposite – which is kids who are totally out of control.  Until they are old enough to control themselves – it’s my job to teach them that.  To provide control when they can’t.  Because being out of control happens.

I’ve got kids who can throw down with a temper tantrum that is absolutely out of control.  And until they’re emotionally ready, they aren’t capable of assuming control of it.  I think assuming that kids can do it on their own is foolish – it’s my job, as their parent, to take control when they can’t.   Because to not do that – to let them spiral out of control with emotions that are too strong for them to process and handle on their own – that’s not parenting.   Kids are not adults – and I don’t say that because I think they are less worthy or less important.  But I do think that kids have parents for reasons.   I do think that a toddler will stop a temper tantrum because a parent says to knock it off or you can sit in time out.   If a parent won’t discipline, because they’re hoping that their child will learn self control by observation – that’s a kid who’s at the mercy of their emotions, and that’s really hard – for everyone, including the child.  If I can prevent that, if I can get that child to stop before reaching the point where he/she is on the floor kicking and screaming – everyone wins.  Mostly – the kid wins.  Because that’s a child who is learning self control.

I discipline my children.   I don’t dispense punishments to manipulate or control, but to give a negative consequence to bad behavior.  In the real world, there are negative consequences to bad behavior.  If I’m in a bad mood, and I can’t control myself from screaming at my co-workers, I’m going to lose my job.  If somebody disagrees with me and I respond by hitting her, that’s assault.  Kids don’t stay kids – they grow up.  I’d much rather they learn these lessons when the consequence is losing their kindle for a few days, or writing on essay on why we should not treat our mothers like crap (two punishments that I’ve used in the past week).   My job isn’t just to model good behavior and hope for the best – it’s to teach my kids how to live in this world, how to be kind, and thoughtful and polite.  How to stand up for what they want and believe in, in ways that will get results.

And there is one thing that the author of the article and I agree on.  Discipline comes from the word disciple.  Which means learner.  When I discipline my children, I’m doing it with the intent that they learn.  Learn that bugging your sister by echoing back everything she says in a singsong voice is not a good use of your time.  Learn that screaming and crying doesn’t get results.  That lying about who made the mess isn’t a smart choice.   I want them to learn, and it’s my job to teach them.

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