During my conversation the other day with two girls from USA who were enrolled in a private school here, I asked them whether they liked their new school. They made a funny face and said, “You know what we don’t like about the school? It’s scary. The teachers hit students with little sticks for not completing their homework.” To that, my granddaughter added, “Yes we also get slapped sometimes at school.” I was surprised to hear that schools still practiced corporal punishment, all in the name of discipline, despite a government prohibition.
I wonder if the teacher is aware that hitting, spanking and slapping is disallowed and also, futile. Instead of children learning the importance of discipline, they start believing it is ok to hit when you are unhappy or angry about something. To this, many parents and teachers readily ask, “then how do we discipline kids?” Before answering this question, let us find out what exactly we mean by discipline.
By definition, ‘discipline’ is a systematic instruction given to disciples, to follow a particular code of conduct or ‘order,’ to teach them self-control. Often, the phrase ‘to discipline’ carries a negative connotation because of the means used to enforce the order, which, in most cases, is punishment. It is true that discipline is one of the main pillars of modern life, but in the name of implementing discipline, children are subjected to punishment, both in home and at school. This is critical parenting.
Studies confirm that physical punishment causes children to grow up to be aggressive. When children commit mistakes, we yell at them, and make them feel guilty by asking them all sorts of accusatory questions. This often leads to the child getting slapped, even as we continue with our incessant accusations. There is nothing gained from the situation, except a total demolition of the child’s ego, prestige and self-confidence. Sometimes, such behavior may give rise to a tiny speck of revenge, defiance and stubbornness in the child and often in the long run, makes the child rebellious.
The right method of disciplining young children has been a controversial topic for decades. Studies on disciplinary interventions have linked behavioral problems in adolescence to use of ‘physical’ discipline during childhood. The same study also suggests that parents who stop using physical methods to discipline their young children are less likely to witness behavioral problems during their child’s teenage.
When ‘discipline’ is associated with punishment or imposed standards, it evokes negative feelings. Then again, if the same ‘discipline’ is mixed with a bit of love and compassion, it takes a different form. And yes, there is such a thing as ‘loving discipline’. It is a style of parenting that provides safe and reasonable limits for a growing child and at the same time is respectful of the child’s unique personality and needs. Such an approach is known as ‘nurturing parenting’—that encourages, explains and models appropriate behaviors.
The approach toward maintaining discipline makes a big difference in the way a child feels. We all know that emphasizing a child’s failures or being very harsh makes a child unhappy and one can see a clear indication of low self esteem and hopelessness gradually set in. On the contrary, if a child’s achievements are highlighted, he/she tends to feel more capable, hopeful and enthusiastic about changing undesirable habits and trying new things. All children misbehave but it is just a matter of choice as to how we want to discipline them. I agree with the way Bertrand Russell puts it, “No rules, however wise, are a substitute for affection and tact.”
I have always preferred ‘nurturing parenting’ as the method to instill discipline. Instead of yelling, I always tried to explain why something has to be done in a certain way and that we all make mistakes but we need to work towards rectifying them. What always worked for me is my initial understanding that children don’t intentionally misbehave or commit mistakes the first time. We have to keep in mind that a child above the age of three understands reasoning. My conversation usually went something like this, “you did not know right? Now that you know, half the battle is won”, and that is when I had the child’s complete attention to explain the other half of the battle—“not repeating the mistake”. This is a kind of negotiation that is done with a child.
Discipline is one of the main pillars of modern life, but for ‘maintaining’ discipline, children are often subjected to punishments, both at home and school.
Negotiation, when done with sensitivity, makes everyone feel like a part of the solution to the problem. Had I yelled or slapped the child, we would have both felt terrible and humiliated. Nevertheless, teaching discipline is certainly a challenge to the present day parent. They understand that the disciplining tools used by the past generations, such as spanking, are inappropriate, but many are either not aware of or have not found new tools to replace the old ones.
Chances are many of these parents grew up witnessing punishment, and for them, discipline is a ‘dirty word’. Yes, it becomes a ‘dirty word’ when punishment is the mode, but if love and nurturing is used, the entire concept changes. Discipline does not necessarily mean punishment or conflict between parents and a child. It just means helping the child learn from mistakes and develop self-control. In the process, they should feel they have a choice because even young children do not like to be forced into something.
So the next time you encounter such a situation, try and see if you can help the child learn from his/her mistakes in a constructive way sans punishment, and encourage the child to take a step forward toward developing self-control, without raising your hand.