Disciplining Children

Parenthood is costly and complex and we do not have the luxury of going through a 4-year full time course to obtain a degree in Parenting. Yet, it is a lifelong commitment from the moment our child is conceived. All of us enter parenthood without any prior experience.

The frustration of parenthood occurs because we do not have a well-designed methodology or “game plan” to follow in response to the inevitable circumstances that develop. I picture myself while descending at night from a commercial airliner. As I look around, I can see the green lights bordering the runway, which assists the captain to direct the plane. If he stays between those lighted boundaries, all will be well. There is safety in that illuminated zone, but disaster lies to the left or right.

Isn’t that what we need as parents? There should be clearly marked boundaries that tell us where to steer the family ship. We require some guiding principles, which will help us raise our children in safety and health.

The subject of discipline usually relates to the “strong-willed child.” Such a youngster seems to be born with a clear idea of how he wants the world to be operated and he shows intolerance for those who disagree. He declares total war on all forms of authority, at home or abroad. However, the strong-willed child usually possesses more creative potential and strength of character than his compliant brothers, provided his parents can help him channel his impulses and gain control of his rampaging will.

Question: If you had to choose between a very authoritarian style of parenting versus one that is permissive and lax, which would you prefer? Which is healthier for children?

Answer: Both extremes leave their characteristic scars on children, and I would be hard pressed to say which is more damaging. At the oppressive end of the continuum, a child suffers the humiliation of total domination. The atmosphere is icy and rigid, and he lives in constant fear. He is unable to make his own decisions, and his personality is squelched beneath the boot of parental authority. Lasting characteristics of dependency, deep abiding anger, and serious adolescent rebellion often result from this domination.

But the opposite extreme is also damaging to children. In the absence of adult leadership the child is her own master from her earlier babyhood. She thinks the world revolves around her heady empire, and she often has utter contempt and disrespect for those closest to her. Anarchy and chaos reign in her home. Her mother is often the most frazzled and frustrated woman on her block. It would be worth the hardship and embarrassment she endures if her passivity produced healthy, secure children. It typically does not.

The healthiest approach to child rearing is found in the safety of the middle ground between disciplinary extremes. I attempted to illustrate that reasonable parenting style on the cover of my first book, Dare to Discipline, which included this little diagram:

Children tend to thrive best in an environment where these two ingredients, love and control, are present in balanced proportions. When the scale tips in either direction, problems usually begin to develop at home.

Question: You place great emphasis on instilling respect during the development years. Why is that so important? Do you just want adults to feel powerful and in control of these little people?

Answer: Certainly not. Respect is important for several very specific reasons. First, the child’s relationship with his parents provides the basis for his attitude toward every other form of authority he will encounter. It becomes the cornerstone for his later outlook on school officials, law-enforcement officers, future employers, and the people with whom he will eventually live and work. Teachers, for example, can tell very quickly when a boy or girl has been allowed to be defiant at home – because those attitudes are brought straight into the classroom. Again, relationships at home are the first and most important social encounters a youngster will have, and the problems experienced there often carry over into adult life.

Second, if you want your child to accept your values when she reaches her teen years, then you must be worthy of her respect during her younger days. When a child can successfully defy your authority during his first fifteen years, laughing in your face and stubbornly flouting your leadership, he develops natural contempt for everything you stand for. “Stupid old Mum and Dad!” he thinks. “I’ve got them wound around my little finger. Sure they love me, but I really think they’re afraid of me.” A child may not utter these words, but he feels them each time he wins the confrontation with his mom or dad.

Question: Philosophically, I recognise the need to take charge of my children, but I need more specifics. Give me a step-by-step approach to discipline that will help me does the job correctly.

Answer: All right, let me outline six broad guidelines that I think you will be able to apply. These principles represent the essence of my philosophy of discipline.

First, define the boundaries before they are enforced. The most important step in any disciplinary procedure is to establish reasonable expectations and boundaries in advance. The child should know what is and what is not acceptable behavior before he is held responsible for those rules. This precondition will eliminate the sense of injuries that a youngster feels when he is slapped or punished for his accidents, mistakes, and blunders. If you have not defined it–don’t enforce it!

Second, when defiantly challenged, respond with confident decisiveness. Once a child understands what is expected, she should then be held accountable for behaving accordingly. That sounds easy, but as we have seen, most children will assault the authority of their elders and challenge their right to lead. In a moment of rebellion, a little child will consider her parents’ instructions and defiantly choose to disobey. Like a military general before a battle, she will calculate the potential risk, marshal her forces, and attack the enemy with guns blazing. When that nose-to-nose confrontation occurs between generations, it is extremely important for the adult to win decisively and confidently. The child has made it clear that she’s looking for a fight, and her parents would be wise not to disappoint her! Nothing is more destructive to parental leadership than for a mother or father to disintegrate during that struggle. When parents consistently lose those battles, resorting to tears and screaming and other evidence of frustration, some dramatic changes take place in the way they are seen by their children. Instead of being secure and confident leaders, they become spineless jellyfish who are unworthy of respect or allegiance.

Third, distinguish between willful defiance and childish irresponsibility. A child should not be punished for behavior that is not willfully defiant. When he forgets to feed the dog or make his bed or take out the trash–or when he leaves your tennis racket outside in the rain or loses his bicycle–remember that these behaviour are typical of childhood. It is the mechanism by which an immature mind is protected from adult anxieties and pressure. Be gentle as you teach him to do better. If he fails to respond to your patient instruction, it then becomes appropriate to administer some well-deserved consequences (he may have to work to pay for the item he abused or be deprived of its use, etc). Just remember that childish irresponsibility is very different from willful defiance and should be handled more patiently.

Fourth, reassure and teach as soon as the confrontation is over. After a time of conflict during which the parent has demonstrated his or her right to lead (particularly if it resulted in tears for the child), the youngster between two and seven (or older) may want to be loved and reassured. By all means, open your arms and let her come! Hold her close and tell her of your love. Rock her gently and let her know, again, why she was punished and how she can avoid the trouble next time. This moment of communication builds love, fidelity, and family unity.

Fifth, avoid impossible demands. Be absolutely sure that your child is capable of delivering what you require. Never punish him for wetting the bed involuntarily or for not becoming potty trained by one year of age or for doing poorly in school when he is incapable of academic success. These impossible demands put the child in an unresolved conflict: There is no way out. That condition brings inevitable damage to human emotional apparatus.

Sixth, let love be your guide! A relationship that is characterised by genuine love and affection is likely to be a healthy one, even though some parental mistakes and errors are inevitable.

Question: I understand your emphasis on a child’s being taught to respect the authority of his or her parents. But doesn’t that coin have two sides? Don’t parents have an equal responsibility to show respect for their children?

Answer: They certainly do! The self-concept of a child is extremely fragile, and it must be handled with great care. A youngster should live in complete safety at home, never belittled or embarrassed deliberately, never punished in front of friends, never ridiculed in a way that is hurtful. His strong feelings and requests, even if foolish, should be considered and responded to politely. He should feel that his parents “really do care about me.” My point is that respect is the critical ingredient in all human relationships, and just as parents should insist on receiving it from their children, they are obligated to model it in return.

Check out our Facebook page for a Father’s Day exclusive livestream, Parenting @ Home: Honouring Fathers where we invite three fathers from different walks of life to share their joys and struggles in this journey of fatherhood.

This article was written by Focus on the Family Malaysia and the Questions and Answers are extracted from “Complete Family and Marriage Home Reference Guide” by Dr. James Dobson with permission.

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