Dealing with Discipline (page 2)
Parents are expected to teach discipline to their children. This does not refer to punishment for transgressions but teaching appropriate behaviors, including self-control.
Teaching and guiding children are perhaps the greatest concerns parents have in performing adequately as caregivers to growing children. Cultural ideas have evolved about what children need and how best to teach them the behaviors, values, and beliefs adults consider important for their effective future functioning. Advice on how to raise children has proliferated in modern times. Information on a variety of topics pertaining to parenting, child development, and guidance techniques is available in magazines, books, and pamphlets. Such materials tend to be used more frequently by today’s parents than they were in previous generations (Bigner & Yang, 1996; Francis-Connolly, 2003).
Uppermost in many parents’ thinking is the issue of how to provide adequate and appropriate discipline in guiding children’s growth and development (Chamberlain & Patterson, 1995). A survey of child-rearing advice in popular literature between 1950 and 1970 found discipline to be a common topic (Bigner, 1972). Articles during this period also emphasized: (1) helping children gain self-control through psychological means rather than through physical punishment, (2) using positive reinforcement to achieve desired results in children’s behavior, and (3) using a variety of strategies and methods for child training. Another survey of popular literature articles appearing between 1972 and 1990 also found that the topic of discipline and socialization of children received a sizable degree of writers’ attention (Bigner & Yang, 1996). Articles published during this period reflected the same general themes found in the earlier period surveyed, but also emphasized the emergence of many new ways of working with children that are described in this chapter. Many of the themes discussed during the past 40 years in popular magazine articles appear to be perennial issues with parents, such as how to communicate with children so that they learn how to listen and comply with parental concerns about their behavior.
Some Generalizations About Discipline
The concept of discipline is largely misunderstood. The term is derived from an old English word meaning instruction. A derivative of the term is disciple, which means pupil or student. Contrary to its definition, most people equate discipline to the use of punishment or penalties in response to children’s misbehavior. For discipline to be effective, however, parents need to view it in light of the term’s original meaning.
First, discipline is teaching children to behave in ways considered appropriate by their parents, teachers, and other caregivers. Discipline is the means by which children are taught to internalize the rules, values, and beliefs that will help them to become effective individuals as adults.
Second, discipline involves measures that help children learn to control their impulses so that they can learn to reason and make appropriate choices for their behavior before acting. These measures also help children learn social skills in considering others’ needs as well as their own, which will facilitate their future participation in work and family life and in other interactions with people.
Third, to be effective, disciplinary actions of a parent must be positive, reasonable, and temperate.
Fourth, methods and strategies of discipline should be geared to a child’s age and developmental level.
Fifth, to discipline a child effectively, an adult must understand the child and his or her particular needs and problems.
Finally, discipline provides structure in children’s lives by means of the rules developed within their family system. Rules are found in both healthy and unhealthy family systems. These act as the means for helping everyone know the guidelines of what serves as acceptable and unacceptable behavior and the consequences of both actions. In healthy family systems, negotiable rules abound. Children in healthy families learn that the rules are for their protection and freedom. They know they can talk with their parents about making occasional exceptions to the rules.
Children’s misbehavior is often a primary focus of parental attention. This preoccupation, which may be more of a problem to the adult than to the child, can be traced to the following questions: (1) Are adult expectations too high for the child’s age and abilities? (2) Are instructions to children given in a negative framework involving an excessive number of “don’ts” rather than “do’s”? (3) Is the adult consistent in enforcing some rules and policies that are not negotiable and at the same time flexible to debate negotiable rules to teach the child conflict resolution and discussion skills? (4) Is the emphasis on teaching children how to arrive at win-win solutions to problems with parental or family rules instead of on the deliberate, conscientious expression of parental power over children when problems arise in their behavior?
Children may misbehave because of varied and complex reasons, including the following: (1) they may be ill or becoming ill; (2) they may lack knowledge and experience in knowing how to behave appropriately and as expected; (3) they may feel unloved, discouraged, or rejected, and hence are attempting to gain their parents’ attention; (4) they may feel inadequate or incapable of living up to parental standards; or (5) they may have forgotten about a rule or not had sufficient learning experiences to internalize it.
Parents can learn certain skills and gain understanding and knowledge that will guide them in teaching children acceptable and responsible behavior. However, no child development or family expert can offer programs of discipline and guidance that will work effectively for all families or for all children.
Each family system must develop its own rules, policies, and values of child rearing and socialization. How these evolve in a particular family system depends on a host of factors, such as personalities, family of origin backgrounds, values, financial and social status, and the number and birth order of children. Experimentation with what works, what feels comfortable, and what is reasonable contributes to the program of discipline parents use. The ability of a family system to adapt or change rules that either don’t work or are no longer functional because children have grown older is also an essential feature of a healthy program of discipline.
The concepts and possible approaches outlined in the paragraphs that follow may prove helpful to parents attempting to develop a program of discipline for their family system:
- Understand how the concept of equifinality applies to a program of discipline.
- Do not use abusive corporal punishment.
- Try to understand children’s feelings and motivations.
- Facilitate children’s opportunities to learn to think and reason and make choices for their actions.
- Learn to value the individual differences of children as interesting and positive tools for personal growth rather than require that everyone in the family system be the same.
The equifinality concept from family systems theory implies that families attain similar goals in different and varied ways. Hence, different methods of socializing children may result in adult individuals who hold similar values, attitudes, and behaviors. A variety of techniques, methods, and practices can help accomplish similar goals of socialization. No single, correct program of discipline will accomplish these goals.
Contrary to popular opinion, spanking and other abusive corporal punishment are not effective means to achieve desired behavior from children (Kazdin & Benjet, 2003; Straus, 1994). Instead, such forms of physical violence model this behavior as appropriate ways to resolve conflicts and lead to habitual use of violent behavior by children (Kyriacou, 2002; Straus & Yodanis, 1996). Recent work also strongly substantiates the connection between harsh physical, abusive punishment in childhood and violence in adult romantic involvements (Swinford et al., 2000). Many adults were spanked by their parents in attempts to control their misbehavior as children. However, researchers increasingly note that it is the consistency with which this and other punishment measures are used rather than the act itself that helps children learn to control their actions (Kazdin & Benjet, 2003). Spanking and other forms of physical punishment usually occur within the context of expressions of parental anger, which can result in overly aggressive actions that harm the child.
Considering this danger along with the negative effect on a child’s self-esteem, alternatives such as positive reinforcement, time-out, and other less damaging methods are viewed as more appropriate disciplinary measures (Whipple & Ritchey, 1997).
One study, however, reports that parental reliance on reasoning alone to shape and guide a disciplinary program for toddlers is ineffective (Larzelere et al., 1989). When the reasoning approach is combined with noncorporal, nonabusive punishment (e.g., time-out, withdrawal of privileges), then disciplinary programs become more effective and toddlers learn to comply with parental wishes. And as all parents of toddlers learn, there are times when even this kind of procedure may not work well. In these instances, the authors recommend that parents use a nonabusive corporal punishment as a back-up for the reasoning and use of noncorporal punishment. A two-swat hand-slap, for example, is advocated in these circumstances. Not every parent, however, may wish to go even to this as a last resort in working with a noncompliant toddler. The authors of this study note that how parents use disciplinary tactics may be more critical than which ones they choose to use.
Many parents consider the misbehavior of a child to be a personal attack motivated by the child’s malicious intent. This is rarely the case. The child’s misbehavior may be a learned response or action that is logical enough to him or her at that particular time. Parents who attempts in a loving, noncritical way to develop an understanding of their children will feel less hostile when they misbehave. As a result, the parents will be more rational in developing corrective action that teaches children to think before they act. Such an approach will also facilitate the parent’s position as the child’s ally in solving a particular problem. On the other hand, the parent who sees misbehavior as a personal attack with malicious intent will likely respond with anger and frustration, which will only serve to intensify the problem.
A parent has various means to gain understanding of a child’s feelings and motivations for behaving in unacceptable ways. The parent can listen carefully to a child’s verbal and nonverbal communications and reflect the feelings being expressed back to the child. This exercise will help the child express himself or herself and help the parent to understand the emotional aspects that underlie the child’s actions. To employ this technique effectively, the adult must respect the child as a fallible human being who is by nature prone to making mistakes and errors. This attitude is based in compassion and empathy. Parents who are angry and critical of a child because of misbehavior often dictate their own solution to a problem, which tends to thwart thinking and reasoning on the child’s part. Such behavior serves to discount the child rather than foster an understanding of why the child acts as he or she does.
A parent might also attempt to help the child identify and rectify the cause of the misbehavior. This approach is similar to that used by a mechanic fixing a malfunctioning engine. Ordinarily, mechanics do not scream in anger, condemn, or strike an engine because it has malfunctioned. They simply discover the cause of the malfunction and make repairs. A parent can approach a malfunctioning child in similar ways, first by attempting to identify what caused the problem behavior and then by helping the child make the necessary adjustments to his or her behavior.
A child who is granted the right to make personal decisions and to experience the consequences, both positive and negative, of those decisions will learn to be responsible for his or her actions. Here the parent’s role is to help in generating alternatives without supplying all the answers, options, or solutions all the time. The adult must determine which decisions a child can make and at what age. The parent who continually makes all the child’s decisions and accepts responsibility for all the child’s actions fosters dependency rather than autonomy in the child. By making their own decisions and living with the results, children learn to differentiate themselves from others and to establish personal boundaries.
Some family systems value sameness or rigid conformity in all members rather than seeing the benefits of individual differences in values, opinions, ideas, or means of self-expression (Richardson, 1999). Parenting and disciplining children in such family systems is approached with a “cookie cutter” mentality: Children are required to think and act like their parents and hold identical values and beliefs. The demand for sameness can kill a child’s spirit and self-perception as an autonomous, unique human being who has the ability to reason and think and the right to be who he or she is.
Faced with the demand for sameness among family members, a child may react in one of several ways:
- The child may comply with the rule of sameness by denial of his or her true self. The child will avoid conflict and seek peace at any price.
- The child may rebel and seek self-definition by not acting as the parents wish, often in ways that are contrary to his or her own wishes.
- The child may project blame on others rather than admit his or her own part in conflicts. A power struggle with parents is a typical result.
- When the demand for sameness becomes overwhelming, the child may disengage emotionally from parents.
Structure refers to the internalized controls that people acquire through socialization experiences that guide their behavior (Clarke & Dawson, 1998). Parents provide socialization experiences to their children through care, instruction, and rules that result in children’s self-disciplined actions. This differs drastically from the experiences of children who are raised by parents who use criticism, sarcasm, nagging, discounting, shame, and guilt to provide children with internal controls for their behavior. When parents attempt to shape and motivate children’s development by instilling fear and shame about misbehavior, the children suffer a loss of self-esteem. Such children internalize what psychologists refer to as a critical parent aspect of their personality to motivate and regulate their behavior. As adults, such individuals respond to committing an error or transgression with guilt and shame. These emotions tend to block effective problem solving because the person’s thinking skills become frozen and ineffective at reaching rational solutions to the problem at hand (Burns, 1999).
Rules provide an important aspect for helping children learn structure. When applied appropriately, rules provide children with a sense of protection and foster a sense of trust and security. Parents must teach children rules that are rational and serve to outline the limits to which children can go in their behavior by maintaining personal boundaries. If rules derive from parents’ critical, judgmental, unloving positions promoted by authoritarian attitudes, the resulting discipline and structure provided for children will tend to be rigid and inflexible. Such rules and the ways parents enforce them become similar to the poisonous pedagogy of authoritarianism that causes children to acquire negative rather than positive structure.
Some parents provide implicit rules and inconsistent experiences, resulting in what is called marshmallowing, or abandonment of children’s needs for adequate structure. Some rules will be negotiable while others, by necessity, will not. Negotiable rules will lead to healthy feelings of self-esteem in children. On the other hand, rigidity, inflexibility, having the majority of rules be nonnegotiable, and abandoning children’s needs will damage children’s self-esteem.
When enforcing rules, it is wise for parents to decide how and when to use their authority, when to be lenient, and when to penalize children for misbehavior. Rules constitute a significant aspect of the patterns that govern the functioning of the family system and the parent-child microenvironment. Without some form of rules, the family system cannot function effectively for the benefit of its members. It is essential that rules for children’s welfare and development be formed rationally rather than emotionally.
By nurturing their children, parents show them that they are loved and are lovable unconditionally (Clarke & Dawson, 1998).
Nurturance relates to all the ways in which we demonstrate love, not only for others but also for ourselves. Nurturing another involves touching, noticing, and caring for that person in ways that are healthy. Nurturance is expressed to children in two basic forms and in many variations of these forms. Assertive care is expressed when a parent knows and determines what a child’s needs are and responds to those needs in loving ways that generate a sense of trust within the child. Assertive care involves noticing and listening to the child and understanding the cues and requests the child offers. Supportive care is provided as children grow older and can make decisions for themselves about what kinds of attention and care they need from their parents. In providing supportive care, parents offer care at appropriate times, and children are free to accept or decline the care.
Both forms of care derive from love that is unconditional. This means that love is given freely, without expectations, without limits, and without measure. The parent’s message to the child is, “I love you because you are who you are.”
In reality, both assertive and supportive care can be given by parents in ways that are both positive and negative. When assertive and supportive care are offered positively and consistently, children’s growth and development as individuals are facilitated in healthy ways. When care is offered negatively or inconsistently, love is conditional rather than unconditional and manifests as conditional care, indulgence, or abuse and neglect (Clarke & Dawson, 1998). These represent harshness in relating to children, resulting in negative and harmful effects that are seen in children’s unhealthy self-esteem. Parents’ treatment of children when applying discipline teaches children about themselves and leads them to make conclusions about their self-worth.
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