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Discipline: Preparing Children for School and the World Outside the Home

Updated on January 16, 2012

The definition of discipline

What is the definition of discipline? For most parents discipline implies some type of method for correcting or shaping behavior. For many people the term discipline also carries the implication of punishment. Others define discipline as the use of practice, repetition, and training to teach self control. This seems to be the key issue where parents and professionals often seem to diverge regarding the definition of discipline. Is discipline more about forcing obedience or is it about teaching self control? Many parents prefer to think of discipline as teaching children to obey and do as they’re told, while most professionals who work with families (educators, psychologists, social workers etc.) appear to be more interested in a definition of discipline that is weighted towards the fostering of self-discipline in children.

Is it our goal to have kids obey and listen or is it our goal to have kids learn self-control? My guess is that most parents would like a bit of both. They want their children to do as their told but they also want them to have good core beliefs and values, they would like them to treat others with respect and dignity, and most importantly they would like them to be able to control their own decisions and impulses.

Spanking debate on Ricky Lake part 1

Spanking debate on Ricky Lake part 2

Discipline for children in the modern world

Instilling discipline for children in the modern day world can be a serious challenge for most parents. With all of the social forces tugging children in different directions, good parenting has never been needed more than today. Kids have more choices than ever but they also have more confusing messages too. No matter how we slice it, the world is continually changing and it takes a concerted effort to keep up. Modern parents face an uphill battle when it comes to discipline for children. Children are different today. They are aware they have rights and that they aren’t simply the property of their parents. Parents need to be more respectful and aware of their child's dignity when it comes to discipline for children.

Parenting is a challenge in and of itself. Yet most parents also need to work and take care of all of the other issues related to be a responsible adult in today’s world. Most parents would also like some kind of a social life on top of that, as a result discipline and structure in the home is often one of the first things that starts to get eroded. A lot of parents believe that discipline for children is some kind of chore and many modern parents  say they aren’t comfortable making rules and setting limits. They just want to be friends with their kids. Unfortunately, by abdicating their role as parents, these parents too often end up reacting to their child’s unwanted behavior when it has already gone too far, rather than having a plan in place to prevent it. Discipline for children is much easier when there is a good plan put in place by committed parents and parents aren’t just responding to the unwanted behavior of their kids.

Effective parenting begins early

The truth is effective parenting isn’t so much about it being difficult as it is about how much parents are willing to look objectively at their own behavior and values, and whether or not they are willing to take action on the things that maybe need a little adjustment. Many parents are too often happy just flying by the seat of their pants and basically doing whatever happened to be the norm in their own home when they were growing up. In many cases this can work out OK.

When parents do decide to learn more about parenting however, unfortunately it is often because their child has started to act out or display some other sort of behavioral problem that their parents don’t feel equipped to respond to. The way they were previously parenting no longer seems effective. At this point, the job at hand has often become more difficult because the parents have usually unintentionally reinforced the behaviour in some way. At this point professional advice or intervention is often necessary.

Healthy boundaries and limits

A lot of parenting and discipline for children in today’s world is about parents proactively creating routines, structure, and reasonable expectations in the home. Parents often hear about setting healthy boundaries and limits. Thirty years ago these terms were not part of the typical parenting lexicon. Why are these terms so commonly referred to when it comes to discussions about parenting today? It seems there are two key reasons.

The first reason is that corporal punishment is no longer seen by educators and other professionals who work with families as a viable means of discipline. Spanking is not supported by professionals for a couple of reasons. It is hard to tell kids we don’t want them to be violent if we as adults hit them in the name of discipline. As a result, in terms of role modeling spanking is simply not viable. The second reason is that spanking usually doesn’t have the desired result and often only reinforces the behavior it is trying to prevent. Negative attention is still attention and most kids will seek it out if it is the best way to get noticed by their parents. Therefore we need an alternative to discipline by spanking. We need to discipline children by setting healthy boundaries and limits. This alternative to spanking is a more proactive and less reactive form of discipline that has been shown to be much more effective when done properly.

The second reason the terms boundaries and limits are so popular today is that many parents aren’t sure how to properly set them. Often they are not proactive enough or consistent enough to adequately teach their children there are boundaries and limits in the world and that there are consequences for unwanted or antisocial acts. Sometimes parents aren’t even sure what healthy boundaries and limits need to be set. Teachers are usually the first to notice a problem when many children start showing up in the school system and are poorly prepared for the expectations and structure of the education system. Parents aren’t completely to blame. For many parents, the only parenting model they have had is one in which punishment is applied as a reaction after the fact for unwanted behavior in children. That is why parenting classes exist. The world has changed and the expectations of how parents should discipline their children have also changed.

Preparing children for discipline in school

Parents also often blame the schools for not doing their job and for being soft on kids; especially, parents who do use spanking in the home. Like it or not though, the approach to discipline in school system will not likely be changing any time soon so parents can’t expect schools to control their kids through the use of corporal punishment. Children who do receive spankings at home will usually struggle with discipline in school and this is usually for two reasons.

One, they don’t understand the use of reasonable limits and boundaries that are effective when they are known by the child in advance and are enforced through the use of logical and natural consequences. The second is that the method of discipline that has been used in the home is often one of intimidation and physical control. When the child does experience discipline in school they may start to believe they are somehow getting away with something because no tried to control them with physical force. They haven’t learned to internalize any of the boundaries or limits needed to adjust to discipline school. As a result, parents are the ones who frequently need to adjust the most by having to learn a style of discipline that may be foreign to them based on their experiences with their own parents.

The case against corporal punishment

Many well intentioned parents see nothing wrong with giving a young child a swat on the rear to get their attention and try to correct misbehavior. And to some degree, negative reinforcement (even corporal punishment) can work, but usually only if it is paired with a high degree of positive reinforcement for desired behavior. The downside of physical reinforcement, again though, is the message it sends to children, which is; those who are bigger and have more power in the world are allowed to physically harm smaller people. Yes, but it is being done for a good reason many parents would argue. It isn’t just random violence . However, children don’t always make this distinction and statistics show again and again that children from homes where parents use spanking for discipline are far more likely to physically bully other children.

The best thing a parent can do is learn how to manage their children better by creating a predicable environment for their kids that is based on the principle that children know in advance which behaviors are unacceptable and what the consequences will be when they do cross those boundaries. The job of parents is to be consistent in setting boundaries and limits and following through. The more consistent parents are the more likely children are to internalize boundaries and limits. As a result, the discipline they receive is the kind that reinforces internal control. Of course parents can add to this approach by continuing to also build a loving and supportive relationship with their children.

Discipline works best when we notice good behavior

There two other very important pieces of the discipline puzzle that need to be in place when setting boundaries and limits with our children. The first is that the structure parents create by imposing limits and boundaries is really only effective when children are encouraged and praised after they are observed engaging in desired behavior. As a result, parents need to be proactive and aware so that they can catch their children doing things right.

If the right behavior is never noticed, consequences will merely take the place of spanking and children still will seek negative attention by misbehaving because that is often the primary way for them to get attention. This is why many parents do not believe limits and boundaries work. It is because they are ineffectively reinforcing them. If parents learn to focus on desirable and undesirable behavior in a consistent manner that is supported by reasonable consequences, their children will be better prepared for the world outside the home.

Discipline works even better when we discuss underlying values

The second important piece of the puzzle is that we need to have an ongoing dialogue with our children about the values that underlie the limits and boundaries we set. This conversation needs to take place throughout the lives of our children but it cannot be taking place at the time of their unwanted behavior. When this happens it becomes a lecture and from the child’s perspective a moral lecture is usually just added punishment. Parents can discuss family values with their children at the dinner table, during family meetings, or even on a long drive. The family values we share with our kids are the underpinning for helping them understand why they should behave a certain way. Most behavior that we desire comes down to respect in one form or another; respect for others and respect for self.

Some parents aren’t always sure what words to use to describe the family values they believe in. Parents are often much better at talking about the behavior they don't like. For example, a parent may say I don’t want my teenage daughter dressing so provocatively. I am concerned for her safety . If an ongoing discussion about the value of modesty had already occurred in the home, this concern might have been much less likely to have arisen. It still might have ended up becoming a concern, but at least the value of modesty would have already been broached and the child would at least know it wasn’t just a case of their parents wanting to control them. They would know it was a value that had already been shared and discussed.

If parents aren’t sure which family values they want to reinforce through discussions with their children, a great resource is the Family Virtues Guide put out by members of the Baha’i faith. Religious and secular parents alike can all benefit from the information in this wonderful book. It can help to provide a metaphorical road map for kids in a world that seems to be filled with morally challenging and often explosive landmines.


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