When you hear “discipline” do you think “punishment?” Most people do…the meaning has been altered from its original form. The true meaning of discipline is “to learn” or “to teach” which came from the Latin disciplina. We know that for children to learn why behaving positively is important is better than teaching that if they don’t that something negative will occur.
The traditional view of discipline is that our children behave because they learn to be scared of us. This creates not only disruption in the parent-child relationship, but emotional pain. We don’t have to teach them to be scared of us in order to behave. One of the major problems with using punishment as discipline is that children learn extremal motivation (to behave through fear of being punished) instead of internal motivation (to behave because they are motivated to behave). You see, punishment robs children of critical thinking—they comply to our wishes out of fear instead of understanding the reasons why positive behavior is important. In my work with helping adults process their childhood, I’ve heard “My parents called it discipline, but I now know it was abuse” so many times. Traditional discipline risks our children feeling as though they have been abused. When we are overly tired and our children are afraid of us, our yelling out of exasperation can be interpreted as abusive. In many countries, spanking is illegal and considered abusive. Why risk our children experiencing discipline as abuse when there are better ways of promoting positive behavior.
The trouble is that punishment works (so does bribery) but only in the short-term. When children are raised with punishment, when they come of age to begin to question the behavior of their parents (often just before the teen years), they no longer will tolerate a threats and respond with extra rebellion and defiance. However, when children are raised with internal motivation and critical thinking, the teenage years are much less rocky for everyone and the parent-child relationship endures successfully.
Another issue with punishment is that when we are in a state of anger, we are likely to botch the discipline process, and punish more than we intended. This is often where yelling comes in. I’ve met with so many parents whose primary parenting goal is to stop yelling, yet when punishment continues to be used, this goal is almost impossible. The truth is that we can only respond to our children (or anyone for that matter) appropriately when we are in a neutral state. As parents, it is our obligation to not become triggered by our children no matter what they did to provoke us.
So, what should I do, you ask? I find that the simplest solutions are the most helpful: when deciding on discipline, ask yourself this: will what I say increase or decrease the connection with my child? If it lessens your connection with your child, don’t do it. The first rule of raising children consciously is to prioritize the relationship. Positive behavior is the result of a positive relationship.
Often, there is a misperception that relationship-based parenting means permissive parents who never say “no” to their kids. In fact, the kind of relationship we are going for is a balanced, honest, loving and safe relationship, not an unhealthy relationship. Funny enough, this parent-child relationship that psychologists have found to develop incredible children also happens to look a lot like the relationship that psychologists have found makes the best marriages. Ideally, the relationship we want to have with our children is much like the relashipships we want to have in our life in general. These relationships are based on authenticity, feel inherently safe, allow for mistakes and are mostly drama-free. These relationships have love at their core and don’t need manipulation. These relationships allow us to be our best selves. The same is true for parent-child relationships.
Generally, most parents fall into three parenting styles: Permissive, Democratic (also called Authoritative), or Punitive (also called Authoritarian). Permissive parents are very loving but have few rules or guidelines. Punitive parents are very “do it or else” and Democratic parents, which Jane Nelsen describes in her book on Positive Discipline, as “kind and firm.”
Again and again, Democratic parenting styles have been shown to be the best approach to raising children. Democratic parenting is related to higher self esteem and life satisfaction. The democratic approach has also been found to positively influence social competence and social and emotional skills.
Sounds great on paper, but if you were raised with a too permissive or overly punitive parenting style it can be hard to find the middle ground on your own. Most who know that the way they were raised was not ideal tend to sway too much in the opposite direction: children that were raised with too much fear, tend to be permissive parents, parents that were raised too permissive or neglected tend to be either too strict or overly involved. It can be hard to find the middle ground alone yet raising children isn’t something that has to be guessed at. We know what works and what doesn’t.
The Myth of Punishment
When we punish our children, yell at them, spank them, scold them, shame them, or lecture them, it creates fear, not learning. The brain gets flooded with stress hormones and cannot process our attempts at teaching. Best to wait at least a few hours after. When humans are scared, they cannot learn! “Tough love” creates fear, distance and resentment. In teens, parents often use the idea of “tough love” thinking that they should “know better” by now. But teens, need our connection more than ever. It’s hard enough to connect with teens but when we use “tough love” with them it creates isolation from who they need to rely on the most : their parents.
But What About Rewards?
The problem with rewards is they don’t help children learn to be responsible because the parent is the one monitoring. Rewards take away a child’s potential for feeling good about their accomplishments and their ability to feel capable. Instead of teaching children how good it feels to behave considerately to others and to achieve on their own, rewards teach children focus on “what’s in it for me.” Rewards rarely produce lasting changes in behavior. When the rewards stop, children often go back to behaving the same way they did before the reward. Research has also shown that children whose parents make frequent use of rewards tend to be less generous than their peers
Rewards also produce less quality work. People expecting to receive a reward for completing a task (or for doing it successfully) simply do not perform as well as those who expect nothing
Alfie Kohn has been researching this predicament for decades. His essay “The Risks of Rewards” explains “There are several plausible explanations for this puzzling but remarkably consistent finding. The most compelling of these is that rewards cause people to lose interest in whatever they were rewarded for doing. This phenomenon, has been demonstrated in scores of studies.”
One of the reasons why I feel that the most connected parents and teachers end up rewarding their children and students is because rewards make us feel good. It’s kind of like giving ice cream to a child. It makes you feel good to share it with them but you know it’s bad for them.
The Myth of Being Permissive
Just as parenting with threats and punishments can be harmful, likewise, parenting with few rules or guidelines can also be scarring. A child is taught that relationships have no boundaries and that love means you can do what you want to do without regard for others. I began my parenting journey on the too permissive side. Just like every parent cliche, the pendulum was swinging far on the opposite for me. In the beginning, I avoided saying “no” when my daughter was a small child at all costs. When she would ask for more candy I would offer her a fruit. When she would ask for a toy, I would distract her with a bird outside the toy store. Looking back, I can see this was just a form of fear of conflict that was completely unconscious. I was teaching the balanced kind and firm way of discipline but my subconscious fears kept arising. In my childhood, it was not safe to disagree and so my permissiveness with her was a form of avoiding a feeling I had not yet learned to resolve. What a gift she gave me. I was able to see that my fear of conflict was teaching her to avoid conflict. By the time her brother came around four years later she had taught me to be comfortable saying “no” and I finally was able to update my programming away from what worked for me as a child (to avoid conflict) to a healthier relationship (to be direct in communication). If I hadn’t been open to that lesson, my daughter may have grown up in a passive state, accepting what was given to her instead of communicating her needs directly. So you see that being too permissive can create future suffering.
Jennifer Johnston-Jones, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist and the founder and executive director of Roots & Wings Institute for Personal Growth and Family Excellence. In addition, she keynotes conferences and conducts workshops for parents, educators and clinicians. Dr. Johnston-Jones lives in the Los Angeles area with her husband and two children whom she adores.