The Soul of Discipline
My recent trip to Nelson, B.C. was inspired by an opportunity to hear Kim John Payne speak on the topic of discipline. He had such a fresh and enlivened way of looking at the topic of discipline that he made what could have been a pretty weighty topic quite light. His humorous and anecdotal way of bringing the information made us all recognize and chuckle about those challenging parenting moments that we’ve all faced.
The main content of his talk had to do with how our parenting and discipline changes and evolves as our children mature. He addressed the three stages of child development and provided a guiding image for the parent to work with during each phase.
The Governor — Early Childhood (until age 7 or so)
What the youngest child needs is for her parent to be her governor. At this stage parents are “benevolent dictators.” We decide what the children need and act (and ensure the child acts) accordingly.
In order to do this, we need to avoid asking endless questions. “What do you want for breakfast?” “Do you want to go to the park today?” “What do you feel like wearing today?” If you listen to parents that you encounter you’ll realize that this tendency to ask questions is an absolute epidemic! We ask questions even when we’re not intending to give the child a choice. “Do you want to get in the car now?” Many parents have learned a hard lesson when a child answers with a resounding, “NO!” to an option we never intended to offer.
But even parents who have learned this lesson can’t seem to stop themselves! They’ll often attempt to issue an instruction (rather than ask a question) but then follow it up with a question. “It’s time to put your jacket on. . . . Okay?”
I think this tendency arises out of a desire to be kind and respectful of others’ feelings and opinions — a noble cause, for sure. But we need to realize that children of this age just don’t have the capacity to make decisions for themselves, and even worse, being given the responsibility unnecessarily burdens them. How many of us have felt overwhelmed by the choices that are offered to us and simply wished someone else would make the decision (the espresso bar comes to mind for me.)
Similarly, we don’t need to offer our children countless reasons why they should comply with our given instructions. The ability to see the world through the lens of cause and effect simply does not kick in until age twelve or so. Hoping that a child will comply with our instructions because he or she understands the reasons why it is important is really not approaching him or her with an understanding of her developmental stage. When we say to the child, “You need to put your coat on because it is cold outside,” we are expecting a phase of development that just isn’t there yet. Even setting up cause and effect situations in the child’s life can make things harder. If we say, “Wash your hands and then you can have lunch,” we are essentially setting up a situation in which we expect the child to make the logical connection between washing hands and eating lunch.
The alternative to these situations is that the child does what he or she is told, simply because he or she is told to do so. It is the parent’s job to be the authority; it is the child’s job to comply. We give instructions, not requests. We don’t justify our instructions. We don’t plead for cooperation. We issue instructions and expect compliance.
Ensuring that compliance can take work, though. We can’t just tell our child to put on her jacket, watch her toddle off and hope it gets done. We must take her by the hand and make sure it happens. Follow through is essential so that eventually the child will consistently follow through on her own.
The Gardener — Middle Childhood (ages 8-12 or so)
During this phase the parent can no longer strictly issue instructions, instead the parent must watch, cultivate and look for the right time to harvest appropriate responses from his or her child. Children of this age need to know that their requests are being heard. They can often present their proposals with lots of thought and care, attempting to anticipate the reaction of the parent. The parent does well to ponder requests, show the child that they are being considered, and then to watch for the most opportune time and manner to respond.
To depict this phase Mr. Payne told a story about a girl of this age who was asking for permission to have a three-night sleepover on school nights. Though the parent would be tempted to respond quite dramatically to a ridiculous request, we must make every effort to show that we have to think about it, talk it over with the other parent and then come back with an answer. Recognize that your child has clearly thought the situation through. Maybe a compromise is in order. Perhaps one night would be a good way to begin. Sensitively and delicately talk this over with your child.
The child of this stage lives most strongly in the feeling realm. Sensitivity, understanding and imagination are key to working with them.
Children in the middle of childhood also need to have a strong sense that they are part of a team. They must realize that their actions impact others and they naturally tend to show consideration for others. They have a strong desire to connect with others and this is often the way to help them realize what should and should not be done. Helping them to understand how a triple sleepover would impact the family could be just the thing to help the child realize that this is not a great idea.
The Guide — The Teenage Years
During the teen years the parent has an opportunity to reap the rewards of the previous years of work. By this time the child is ready to make decisions and choices for him or herself. The parent is there to shepherd the young adult in making these decisions, standing behind him or her to help the best decision come to light. We can ask guiding questions, suggest ideas that the teenager might not have thought of, and brainstorm together. We have to be careful about offering our opinions because a child of this age does not want to be told what to do. Thoughts and opinions that are offered with subtlety and care are often welcomed and acted on.
Discipline is something that we can work on together. If your teenager is going out with friends you can work together to determine an appropriate curfew. In the process you can discuss what happens if the curfew is broken. The child can be a part of this process and will often determine stricter consequences for his or her actions than the parent might have set.
When a poor choice is made we can meet with the child and talk about it. What can we do so that better decisions are made in the future? We can notice these things and create these guidelines together. In this way we are truly preparing our teenagers for adulthood when they’ll have to make these choices completely on their own.
Mr. Payne ended the talk by telling parents that if their children consistently show themselves to struggle with their current phase of development, the parent must take a step back and act out of the guidelines for the previous phase. A child must be able to be a team player before being able to make choices, and basic compliance is the foundation of it all.
Throughout the evening there were a few little gems that Mr. Payne brought.
- Stop the “behavior modification” model. It makes children callous and insensitive to feeling. They don’t care anymore and will simply try to find the loophole. This approach also strips the parent of authority because all activity comes out of an external system of rewards and punishments. We want them to be guided by our own sense of authenticity, not some external reward.
- Children are not disobedient, they are disoriented.
- “Time-out” gives children a model of pushing their problems away.
- Stop saying “Good job!” Children become praise junkies and can even become jaded as they begin to clearly recognize that not everything they do is fantastic.
- If your child wants a “NOW answer” tell them that a “NOW answer” is “NOW” minus the W.
- Curb interrupting children. If your child runs up and starts to talk to you while you’re speaking with someone else, put out your hand to quiet him or her, then take 4-5 seconds to tell the person you’re talking to that the child wants your attention and pause the conversation. Wait just a few seconds at first and gradually lengthen this time. Teach impulse control.
- Don’t repeat instructions. Why should the child do it the first time if you’re just going to say it again?