Teaching Children Discipline: A New Perspective

Categories: General Parenting

This post was written by ParentTV expert, Dr Justin Coulson.

When it comes to discipline, there are two schools of thought.

Some parents think discipline is about punishment. They believe the best way to teach children to learn the lessons of life is to hurt them. They use time-out, they withdraw privileges, they ground their kids, and in many cases they even hit them.

Other parents think discipline is about guiding children. They believe the best way to teach children to learn the lessons of life is to help them. They use conversation, persuasion, discussion, diplomacy, empathy, and perspective to help their children learn.

So is there a right or a wrong way to do this? Is one better than the other? Does it depend on the circumstances? Should we be patient and practice persuasion until we discover there’s no sense talking anymore? At that point should we switch? Or should we just go old-school with “my house, my rules” approaches to make sure our kids know we’re the parent, end of story?

Some will argue that “kids have got to learn” and punishment is therefore acceptable. Most, however, will agree that this kind of discipline is not the best way to respond to children’s challenging behaviour. And most evidence supports the ‘guidance’ approach over punishment.

But just explaining rules to a child is often not enough. Some studies remind us that it is important to teach empathy by emphasising how our child’s actions affected others. Perspective taking is a powerful way to teach our children to act in good ways.

In his book, Originals, Adam Grant, a psychology professor in the USA, wrote about a study comparing non-Jews who risked their lives to save their Jewish neighbours in World War II versus those who didn’t. The researchers focused on what children were told by their parents, and those who were involved in rescuing gave “explanations of why behaviours are inappropriate, often with reference to their consequences for others.” The rescuers’ parents encouraged their children to consider the impact of their actions on others. Those who stood by and watched focused on enforcing compliance with the rules for their own sake.

When we focus on the other child, we promote empathy and a moral compass. Our children want to help, not hurt.

Parent: When you tease your sister, how does it make her feel?

Child: Bad.

Parent: It sure does. What can we do to make her feel better?

When we go crazy at our kids, they miss our message and they learn to fear us. In serious cases, we damage them.

When we let things slide, they miss our message and they ignore us. This means we aren’t parenting.

When we get the balance “just right” (not too harsh, not too soft), we engage them emotionally by getting them to focus on the other person and their feelings. We engage them mentally by asking them to explain what they observe. Then we ask them to come up with good ways to act. This approach means that we maintain a good relationship with them, and we get an important message through.

When my eldest was three, she hurt her baby sister. I asked, “How did Abbie feel when you did that?” Her reply: “Sad”. I asked, “What is the best way to help her feel good?” And my eldest walked to her sister and hugged her.

Empathy and perspective can be far better teachers than a screaming parent, the loss of a privilege, or the back of your hand.