It's important that we choose discipline intentionally. Discipline is not the place for the argument, “that’s how it was done when I was a kid, and I survived.” Don't we all hope to raise children with the hopes that they will thrive, not just survive? Some parents may actually believe that punishments such as spanking are effective, or they may just be feeling defensive about what they perceive as a criticism of their parents. Most likely people who "survived" spanking need to justify how their parents treated them to avoid feeling the pain of being hit as a child. Many parents simply lack the skill to forge a new path which breaks with the tradition of their family of origin. These are all valid feelings and worthy of being explored.
However, I’m proposing that with self-awareness and compassion for our children, we remain open to new information and methods of discipline. Like everything else with children, new information provides new opportunity for improvement. For example, most of us were put to sleep on our stomachs as babies because the risks of SIDS were still unknown. Then experts discovered that placing a baby on her back for sleep is safer and correlated with a decreased risk of SIDS. Does this mean that our parents failed us for putting us to sleep on our stomachs? Of course not. Does that mean we should obstinately put our babies to sleep on their tummies because that’s how we slept and we turned out fine? No, that would be absurd. With that same openness to new knowledge, let’s discuss discipline.
By empathizing, setting a limit, and then redirecting, we’re communicating that we’re on our child's team.
Discipline is not synonymous with punishment. In their book Mindful Discipline, Drs. Shauna Shapiro and Chris White point out that discipline actually means “to teach” while punishment means “a penalty as retribution for an offense.” Punishment is punitive while discipline offers direction and education in a constructive environment. Often punishment is done in anger with the intention of gaining immediate compliance. Discipline involves an intentional decision to direct our children in a specific way in an effort to promote a set of skills. The goal is long-term mastery rather than short-term control. For example, when a child wildly bounces on the couch, we can observe, empathize, and redirect to teach our child self-awareness and a clear boundary about the house rules, “You're really enjoying jumping! Couches aren’t for jumping, but why don’t you show me how high you can bounce on your trampoline?” If we just redirect, we miss the opportunity to explain a rule, if we only stop the current behavior, we don’t educate our child about acceptable alternatives. Finally, if we fail to reflect what we see with empathy, we miss an opportunity to attune by acknowledging the intention and desire behind a behavior of which the child might not even be aware. By empathizing, setting a limit, and then redirecting, we’re communicating that we’re on our child's team. It's developmentally appropriate for children to have a lot of energy and to want to jump, and it's our job to support them in finding safe outlets for their energy. Imagine if instead we said, “Get off the couch right now! You know you aren’t supposed to jump there!” How would the child feel in that scenario? Most likely he would walk away from the encounter feeling shamed and misunderstood, and he might not have any idea how or where to release his energy. He might feel like he did something really wrong and internalize an overall feeling of being a bad kid.
Several forms of punishment often take the place of empathic discipline. They may stop an undesired behavior temporarily, but seldom do they yield sustained results. They certainly don’t promote mastery of new skills. In the coming weeks I'll explore why punishment doesn't work and how to practice empathic discipline instead.