Discipline your children or the world will do it for you

If your kids are to live their preferred life – to become all they can and wish to be - they must achieve social competence. This is the capacity to interact successfully with all manner of people (including those they may not like) so that they can benefit from opportunities others - teachers, friends and colleagues - have to offer.

WORDS: Dr Terence Sheppard (B.Ec., B.A. Psych. (Hons), PhD)

But children are not born ready-socialised in the same way that ducklings automatically follow the first moving thing they see after hatching – generally their mother. They must be taught how to live with others amicably, to interact graciously and to make wise decisions in the best interests of themselves and others.

It is interesting that while most parents do not expect children to achieve a reasonable level of say musical or sporting competence without coaching, too many assume that they should be able to do precisely this in the social sphere. In other words, that they should ‘be responsible’ or ‘do the right thing’ without help other than an occasional, sometimes barked instruction. 

The good news is that kids learn a lot of what they need to by simply watching and listening to parents. Your daily example is a powerful tool for influencing their behaviour. But there will also be times when, despite your best efforts, they fail to recognise their wider social responsibilities and you will need to intervene, with discipline if necessary, to nudge them in the right direction.

Discipline is as important for children’s development as good nutrition and regular exercise. This being the case, it is important to establish exactly what it means.

Disciplining is not something we do because we do not love our children or because we are cruel or uncaring. On the contrary, we discipline them when we must, precisely because we do love them and want them to thrive. We intervene and, if necessary, penalise, when we observe unacceptable behaviour or infractions of agreed rules, because we know that if we don’t they will suffer much worse punishment in the future for similar conduct outside the home.

Neither is discipline something done from anger or spite or simply to hurt. Quite simply it is a gift of love parents bestow on children and without which they will never find their way to success and happiness.

We discipline children when we must, precisely because we do love them and want them to thrive. 

Learning personal responsibility

“The greatest gifts you can give your children are the roots of responsibility and the wings of independence.” (Denis Waitley)

Kids learn some critical lessons when they become accustomed to living within a framework of reasonable rules backed by compassionate, consistent discipline. For example, that rules apply to them as much as others and that flouting rules inevitably involves consequences. In particular they learn that the results of ignoring a rule are the direct outcome of personal choices they have made. If a child is penalised in some way (e.g. sent to ‘time out’ for hurting a sibling) within an agreed set of rules this is because of a decision that they, and no one else, have made.

Under these conditions a consequence is not something that is ‘unfair’ or arbitrarily imposed by a third party – in this case a parent – or beyond their control to avoid. Rather it is something they have chosen for themselves.

This point is crucial and goes well beyond a simple understanding of rules and consequences.

As soon as possible our children need to accept personal responsibility for creating the life they want for themselves. This requires learning that every choice they make – to act or not, to speak or not – will trigger outcomes for them, good and bad. It is far better that they learn this in the security of their home, where negative consequences will always be milder, than in a rather more ruthless fashion when they are older and exposed to more formal  regulations and laws.

They must learn that most of what happens to them, and particularly the ‘bad’ things, are outcomes that they have chosen. A parent makes this point when they say to a teenager “Well you may choose to stay out later than we have discussed/agreed but if you do, as you know, there will be a consequence. It’s really up to you and not me.”

The last sentence puts the responsibility for what happens next – what time they came home and the consequence of this – fairly and squarely where it belongs, on the teen.

You can have a similar conversation with a two year old: “I need you to wear your hat while playing outside. If you won’t, we’ll have to go inside. You decide.”

Understanding and then accepting personal responsibility is truly liberating for children. They become aware that they are not powerless objects at the mercy of external, random forces but rather independent people who can exercise genuine agency or control over their lives. In this way, parents bestow the gifts of responsibility and independence referred to by Denis Waitley (above).

It is interesting that while most parents do not expect children to achieve a reasonable level of say musical or sporting competence without coaching, too many assume that they should be able to do precisely this in the social sphere.

The role of schools

It is unreasonable and an abrogation of their responsibilities for parents to expect schools alone to discipline their children. At best, teachers have a secondary role in managing children’s behaviour which is well behind that of parents.

Once you (with input from your kids) have selected a school it is necessary for you all to respect its authority. This includes acknowledging the legitimacy of school rules and how they are enforced as well as reinforcing their application at home. Similarly, you and your kids must respect their teachers, the school’s custodians of authority.

You may discuss a particular rule or disciplinary outcome with a senior teacher, but denigrating what is happening at school is not helpful for a child. At best they will become confused about their relations with authority and at worst they may actively rebel against it.

If both you and your children genuinely believe their school is misguided in its approach to discipline it is time to go elsewhere.

Rules, laws and constraints are integral to human existence. Accepting this reality and (voluntarily for the most part) living within the restrictions they create, is necessary if kids  are to enjoy the full fruits their world has to offer.

Unless they learn this during their early years they are at risk of living a diminished existence, punctuated by painful interactions with formal authority, with unpleasant results for them and those who love them. Teaching kids to thrive within the restraints the world places on all of us is the work of parents, not schools, which can only reinforce but not replace the lessons learned at home.

Positive Parenting, RRP $44.00

Dr Terence Sheppard (B.Ec., B.A. Psych. (Hons), PhD) is a child psychologist with over 30 years of experience in the field and the author of Positive Parenting, a comprehensive guide to successful parenting.

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