How to Self-Discipline Your Child

One of the most common complaints from parents and teachers concerns how one should discipline children, and yes, you read the title of this post right.  This will not be another article explaining how important rules are and how essential it is to come down hard on children whenever the rules are broken.  Instead, I am going to suggest a method that might be a little more complicated and on the surface appear to require more effort, however, in the long run you will see the wisdom of this approach.  Remember, the goal of every parent and teacher is help a child become self-sufficient, this means they need to be able to supply their own discipline.  When you direct a child’s behaviour away from harm, that is called discipline, but when the child reigns in their own harmful behaviour, that is called self-discipline.   Teaching your children to discipline themselves is going to make any parent or teacher’s life a lot easier.  In this article we will discuss the problems with rule-based discipline and then explain why teaching values is a better alternative.

How Does Rule-Based Discipline Work?

Often people tend to see discipline as being a process of setting rules.  Some typical rules are “do not run with scissors,” “do not go through other people’s things,” “do not come home later than 9pm,” “do not answer back.”  The conventional wisdom being that because children are too inexperienced they do not know what is good for them.  So adults need to set rules and children need to be disciplined into obeying adults’ directions without question.  When children break these rules they are being unruly and need to be punished until they are obedient.  This is all done in the best interests of the child’s well-being.

Rule based discipline is typically enforced by observing a child break a rule, often one that the child did not know existed previously, giving them a stern lecture, waiting until they make the same mistake again and then pouncing on them as quickly and aggressively as possible to scare them into obedience next time.

The Problem with Rules

Rules are probably the worst form of discipline ever invented.  The first problem with a rule based morality is that it assumes that the only way a child can learn is through threats of violence and intimidation.  In psychological jargon we call the threats of violence and intimidation a type of “reinforcer”; in this instance, it is called a “punitive reinforcer”.  A reinforcer is anything that modifies a behaviour.  Other reinforcers are compliments, praise, hugs, kisses, lollies, high-fives, taking away a toy or TV privileges etc… These other examples of reinforcers are all excellent types you should be using more than 99% of the time.  The punitive reinforcers are the type that you want to use less than 1% of the time.  Basically, only use a punitive reinforcer if there are no other viable options, and thankfully, these instances are typically rare. (I will write an article in the future about the different types of reinforcers).

The most important thing to understand about rules is that they increase the risk of conflict occurring between adult and child.  Too much conflict is harmful to the developing brain so having a disciplinary approach that creates extra conflict is not a good idea.  Also, we value our own peace of mind, so if we can avoid conflict then that is a win for parents and teachers too.

Another problem is that the point of a rule is for it to be broken, not for the child to gain understanding for why the rule exists.  However, for children who are developed enough that they can ask the question “why?”, they are not going to find these rules worthy of their respect.  Child want to learn, they want to understand things, when an adult gives a child a rule, the child is typically dissatisfied with answers like “just do as I say” or “don’t talk back”, and will consider the adult to be unknowledgeable and lose respect for them.

The next problem with rule based strategies is that the number of rules starts to multiply out of control.  This is partly because children are resourceful and creative enough to figure out the loopholes to the rules.  Consider the rule “do not run with scissors,” and what it could mean.  It could mean, “walk with scissors,” or it could also mean, “you can jog, sprint, hop, skip and jump with scissors, just not run with them.”  Also, maybe running with scissors is out, but what about running with knives?  Because the rule does not contain any useful information about why it exists, to the child’s mind it is just an arbitrary and silly thing adults keep making increasingly longer lists of.  To a child, there is nothing more confusing and pointless than a long list of meaningless rules.

Because the rule lists keep getting longer two things start to happen: the number of things the child can do wrong seems to keep multiplying and the number of times a parent has to shout or yell at their children to discipline them keeps increasing with that list.  For a lot of parents this feels like a battle that just keeps getting harder and bloodier.  This is a very accurate description of what is actually happening.  Consider that from the child’s perspective, every time they make a mistake, they get punished and the conditions deserving of punishment keep growing all the time.  This teaches the child that it is not acceptable to make mistakes.  This is training a child to feel fearful of trying new things, of participating in group activities or of speaking up and asserting themselves.  This perfectionism can lead to anxiety disorders including obsessive-compulsive disorder, agoraphobia and depression.

This is of course not a desirable outcome.  The relationship between parent and child will be the model from which children will relate to everyone else, including themselves in the future.  If the child feels threatened by their parents or teachers, then the child will think it is acceptable to threaten herself and other people.  If the child loses respect for her parents or teachers, she will fail to respect herself and other people.  If the child loses trust in his parents and teachers, he will not be able to trust other people nor himself.

These scenarios illustrate to me the three reasons why rules are bad generally:

1. People do not respect rules.  Think of how many laws the government pass or how many rules you break as an adult “do not walk on the grass,” “do not park here,” “10 minute parting area only,” etc.  The fact is no one respects rules on face value.  The only reason why we obey any rules is because of the threat of violence against us.  Remove the threat of violence and we just break those rules whenever we feel like it.  People respect the violence, not the rule.  So going down a rule-based approach to discipline means committing yourself to using violence against your children and accepting the fact that when you are not around, they will simply break the rules because the consequences are no longer there to enforce them.

2. Rules create tension and conflict.  The best home a child can grow up is in one that is calm and supportive.  Bringing rules into the home will chase out the calm and ramp up the conflict.

3. Trust in one’s parents is probably the most important gift you could give your child.  If you set up a situation where your child feels they cannot trust or depend on you, then your child will detach emotionally years earlier than is safe for them to do so and this could easily lead to a situation where your child never learns self-esteem.  (I will talk a lot more about this particular point in the future).

The Virtues of Values

Instead of rules, I cannot recommend enough to parents and teachers that they teach their children values.  Values are more complicated than rules so one needs to be sure the child is ready to understand values before you can start introducing them.  My rule of thumb is when the child is old enough to ask “why?” then it is time to start introducing them to values.

Using the example of a child running with scissors, instead of telling the child not to run with scissors, tell him that scissors can hurt him badly and because we value his safety we do not run with scissors.  Once the child understands that the reason why they can not run with scissors is because their safety is valuable the child starts to think about this.  If it is dangerous to run with scissors then it is probably dangerous to run with knives, or to throw scissors too.

A real-life example of this approach was with a young girl who liked to pick up and throw the cat.  A rule was introduced that she could not pick up the cat anymore.  So she would drag the cat along the ground instead as the cat was not technically being picked-up as the rule stated.  The solution was to tell this girl that we valued our relationship with the cat because we enjoyed the cat’s company, and that throwing and dragging the cat was scaring him away for her.  Once the girl understood this, she self-disciplined herself against throwing the cat and started to play with the cat more gently because she started to understood the value of fostering a positive relationship with the cat.  This also gave her mother an opportunity to praise her for her good behaviour which in turn can help boost her confidence.

To summarise, this approach leads to three benefits over the rule-based approach:

1. Values promote independent thinking, the child is given the intellectual tools needed to understand why a certain behaviour is not acceptable and to speculate on why other forms of behaviour might not be acceptable or ways to discover desirable behaviours.

2. The child starts to see herself and her well-being as valuable and this is the nucleus of self-esteem thus the child begins her journey away from infantile narcissism towards mature adulthood.

3. Once a child has grasped a new value they typically self-discipline themselves.  They do not lie, not for fear of getting caught, but because they value the truth.  They do not hit, not for fear of retaliation but because they value their relationship with the other person.  They do not throw their things, not from fear that they will be told off, but because they value their possessions.

To conclude, disciplining a child is only appropriate if the child is unable to understand the concept of values.  Once a child is intelligent enough to understand values then the child can be taught to self-discipline themselves through the introduction of values.  Self-discipline means that the child can be relied upon to be good even without adult supervision, whereas rule based discipline requires a constant surveillance and a credible threat of violence.   Dependency on a rule based discipline is the number one reason why teenagers rebel and why children can make a mess of their lives once out of home and relieved of parental supervision.  Self-discipline, however, gives parents and teachers ample opportunity to praise and encourage their children without the risk of harming their fledgling self-esteem.

Post last updated: 10/7/2013

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1 Response to How to Self-Discipline Your Child

  1. Pingback: Not Punishment, Opportunity | Nanny Naturale's Yogi Care

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