Discipline – A Structure for Growth

Discipline – A Structure for Growth


A commonly accepted definition of discipline has more to do with punishment than discipline. Discipline should have to do with the process of teaching responsibility and moving children from depending upon their parents to provide accountability and discipline to a point where the only discipline that is necessary is self-discipline. For example: A young man felt ill and came home from school an hour early. His parents were not home and he merely went to his room and went to sleep. A week later the school called and reported the absence to the parents. The father felt that it was his duty to take some action. The boy had no say in the matter and could not even remember the exact day that he had missed school. Punishment was given out, the youth was grounded for a week and deprived from the use of the car for two weeks. In the youth’s eyes he was punished for no reason. It was just punishment. No growth took place. No behavior was changed, no new habits were established and the father was declared to be a fool and one that you can’t trust. Why would this boy ever want to take a big problem to his father.

The underlying purpose of any discipline should be to create a growth experience for the individual involved. The child should be as involved in the process as possible. The structure that governs how individuals interact with each other has a great impact on the growth of each individual in any group. Some important habits and attitudes are learned as a result of the structure that exists in the home and many of these habits and attitudes are not going to change much as a result of experiencing other types of structures. All groups, including families need to have some kind of a rule system. This does not need to be overwhelming, but there does need to be a framework of expectations and consequences that are clear and understandable. Often, in a family, Dad has a set of rules that he grew up with that he insists upon adopting. Mother also has a set of rules that she grew up with and insists upon adopting. Then very often, without realizing it, they end up sabotaging each other’s favorite rules. The kids sit in the middle waiting for the dust to settle. In the meantime they learn: Don’t worry about rules, adults are not really serious about them anyway. It is important that parents recognize that their marriage creates the formation of a new and in many ways unique family unit. Each of their backgrounds is somewhat different from the other. Often individuals marry, have children, and begin the process of rearing children without recognizing the importance of this idea. Sooner or later, however, parents have to come to grips with the personal backgrounds and goals of each individual partner. Instead of waiting until some problem occurs that must be solved by drastic action, it is wiser to recognize that families, like any other organization or group needs a system of organization which is customarily called discipline.

Effective Discipline

Effective training requires that adults regularly examine the personality development of children and identify what is needed by a particular child at a given stage in their development. This discussion of the rules and the reasons for having the rules is not one that adults can have one time only. It must be an ongoing one. Included in their discussion should be such things as: what are the individual’s strengths and weaknesses? What personality traits are most important for us to develop? What are the needs that each child has in his or her current level of development? In the next short period of time, upon what specific things should we concentrate our attention? Concentrate on one thing at a time. A youth might be having a problem dealing with the consequences of their behavior. Therefore you would need to focus your attention on that particular trait. Another might have a difficult time responding to requests so you would have to focus your attention on teaching the ability to respond appropriately. Effective discipline begins with the parents. It is really unfair and unreasonable to expect more self-control and more behavior change on the part of children than parents are willing to exhibit themselves. We have a tendency to spend our time thinking about all the things children or other people should do to change their behavior. We think about how others should be different and what others should do to make us happy. In all reality, we can have very little control over others, but we can and should have control over ourselves. In fact, we need to constantly remind ourselves that the real reason for any discipline is to develop positive character traits in children so that they will be able to control their own behavior. Our goal eventually is to help each child to become an independent and self-motivated individual with a strong internal sense of right and wrong and the ability to govern their behavior accordingly. One of the areas over which adults have to gain control is their own emotions. If you are so angry with a child that you cannot deal with the situations calmly, then perhaps you should excuse yourself to “go to the bathroom” until you are somewhat calmer. Don’t get me wrong here, I do not mean to say that it is wrong to be angry. Feelings are legitimate and need to be recognized, but you as an adult need to learn to be in control of your behavior. In other words, it is OK to be angry but it is not OK to let anger control your behavior. You must teach children that any consequences they experience are a result of their own misbehavior and not simply a result of their parent’s anger. Most teenagers feel they are being punished because their parents are out of control, not because they themselves have done anything to deserve it.

It doesn’t do any good at all to have a rule if all concerned are not willing and able consistently to act according to the rule. It is better to not have a rule if you cannot be consistent with it. If you have a rule that isn’t followed, you can set a child up for a lifetime of failure. Remember, you should have: (l) clear agreement. (2) clear simple rules. (3) regular, consistent follow through. The experiences that children have with rules in their first five years as well as the attitudes they develop toward rules will in large part, determine how they will react to rules in school (and in the community at large). Parents and other adults need to try to teach the following attitudes to youth:

1. Rules are necessary.
2. Rules are there to help me be free of habits and behaviors that will be destructive to me in the long run.
3. Rules can be challenged as long as I do it in the right way, and at an appropriate time.
4. If I challenge a rule I have the responsibility not only to come up with a better alternative but also to be at least partly responsible for implementing the change if others accept it.

Consequences and Discipline

A system that depends on reward and punishment has a tendency to deny children the opportunity to make their own decisions and to be responsible for their own behavior. Clear consequences that are seen as natural and logical on the other hand, require children to be responsible for their own behavior.

Natural consequences are those which permit children to learn from the natural order of the physical world — for example, that not eating is followed by hunger. Logical consequences are those which permit children to learn from the reality of the social order — for example, children who do not get up on time may be late to school and have to make up work. For consequences to be effective, the children involved must see them as logical. The purpose of using natural and logical consequences is to motivate children to make responsible decisions, not to force their submission. Consequences are effective only if you avoid having hidden motives of winning controlling.

Be both firm and kind. Firmness refers to your follow-through behavior. Kindness refers to the manner in which you present the choice. Talk less about consequences; act more. When you do things for children they can do for themselves, you are robbing them of self-respect and responsibility.

The differences between punishment and logical consequences are that punishment expresses the power of personal authority while logical consequences express the impersonal reality of social order.

Punishment is rarely related to misbehavior, logical consequences are logically related to misbehavior. Punishment tells the child he or she is bad, logical consequences imply no element of moral judgement.

Punishment focuses on what is past, logical consequences are concerned with present and future behavior. Punishment is associated with a threat, either open or concealed, logical consequences are based on good will, not on retaliation. Punishment demands obedience, logical consequences permit choice.

Avoid fights; they indicate lack of respect for the other person. Do not give in; that indicates lack of respect for yourself. As you apply logical consequences, provide choices and accept the child’s decision. Use a friendly tone of voice that communicates your good will. As you follow through with a consequence, assure children that they may try again later. Be patient, it will take time for natural and logical consequences to be effective. Discipline as a Learning Experience

The kind of discipline structure in the home can teach some very important skills – such as completing tasks. This skill of task completion is one that needs to be learned early. It is difficult if not impossible to learn it in school. Family or group rules and traditions help to establish this habit. For example if a family has the rule that after dinner everyone helps to clear up the dinner table and stack the dishes the notion begins to sink in that there are certain things that are done before you go on to have fun. It doesn’t have to be any one major rule or activity but it can be a sequence of events and ways of behaving that teach very gradually that there are certain responsibilities that come before personal wants. One of the devices that help to reinforce this notion is a daily chart. Every night as part of the bedtime ritual a parent could ask him if the tasks on the chart had been accomplished the goals that were listed on his chart. For any task accomplished a colored sticker could be chosen to put on the appropriate square on the chart. This starts the notion of regular reporting and evaluation of performance. For older children another approach is also effective. After any assignment is completed or on a weekly basis, sit down with a youth and ask the following three questions: First, what do you like most about the job (or jobs) you have done; Second, what do you like least about what you were able to do and Third, what would you do differently next time?

You should make notes of what the child liked least and also what they would do differently. Next week you should be able to make positive comments about their efforts to do a better job. If you establish this kind of routine early and make the rule for yourself that you will not say anything negative until after you have said at least three things positive, you will find that the youth involved has develop a sense of responsibility and self evaluation. One of the major problems in many teenagers is that they have the notion that their behavior has no consequences for anyone else but themselves, and any connection between consequences and their own behavior is a very tenuous one. Anything that happens to them is because someone is “out to get them,” not because they made a wrong choice or exhibited inappropriate behavior. A recording brought in by a parent of her interactions with her children contains a choice example of how to teach children to ignore rules. This particular tape starts out with a conversation between the mother and several of her friends in the living room. At one point you hear the mother say, “Please don’t touch the TV David.” After some further conversation you hear, “David, now don’t play with the TV, please.” Several minutes later you hear, “David, I am telling you for the last time to leave the TV alone.” Each time you can hear a little more anger and frustration in her voice. The next interaction is in a much louder voice and there is a threat involved. We hear, “David, you are really going to be in trouble if you don’t stop doing that.” Some more time passes and then we hear the mother’s anguished voice: “Oh! David! Now look what you have done!” In this interchange and many others like it, David learned some significant principles:

• Do not listen to mother. She doesn’t really mean what she says.
• Do whatever you want because there are not going to be any consequences for your behavior.

Adults are wise to repeat a request only once in order to give the youth the benefit of the doubt. After the second statement you should DO something. You do not have to be violent or mean, just do SOMETHING. In our example of David, the mother needed only to pick the youngster up and put him in a different room. After several years the child learns that you need to listen to parents because they are going to say something only twice and then they are going to DO SOMETHING. If the parents do something somewhat different each time, they leave the child wondering what is going to happen. Usually children will decide that they do not want to find out what will happen. At times it may even be wise to ask the child if they have understood your request. Do not be satisfied with a response like, “Yes, I hear you.”

Instead, say something like, “I want to make sure that I said what I meant. Would you please tell me what you understood me to say.” That way you can listen to what they say and make corrections if they have not understood. Families need to meet together regularly to discuss their interactions with one another and to clarify what rules are a part of the system. The family meeting or council is a time for a family to discuss problems and to clarify understandings, not to hear a lecture. Family councils promote a feeling of one-ness. Each person comes to know his individual importance to the family. He comes to realize that his opinions and actions really matter. No family is immune to problems, but many problems can be avoided if a family will meet together regularly to discuss how they should interact with one another, what the rules are and what the consequences for breaking the rules are. Each member of the family should have some input in formulating and redefining those rules and consequences. The complexity of today’s living and diversity of individual needs insure that problems will be plentiful. Successful families have no magical power but have developed skillful ways of dealing with problems. Successful families are always trying to start things. Failing families are always trying to stop things. Effective family problem solving requires: OPEN CHANNELS OF COMMUNICATION: Free exchange of ideas and information pertinent to the solution. All members of the family should contribute and parents need to support, appreciate and encourage and participation of ALL family members. LEADERSHIP: Leadership to coordinate problems solving efforts is needed. The role of a parent should be tempered with flexibility and shift as required by differing problems. There may be times when one of the children should serve as the discussion leader. PROVISION FOR CONFLICT OF IDEAS: Communicate and evaluate conflicting ideas and involve the total potential of family members to insure better solutions. AGREEMENT AS TO FAMILY GOALS: Family members must be committed to the solution of certain problems. As children continue to develop problem-solving skills, problems become easier to handle, not because the nature of the problems change, but because the family’s ability to deal effectively with problems increases. An agenda for a typical council might look like this:

1. Opening: (story, remarks, song) whatever fits.

2. Plan of action: (Agenda)

3. Suggestions: encourage each to share their feelings.

4. Comment on each suggestion: Example — “I can tell you are really thinking.” “You have some good ideas.” “That’s an interesting comment.” Make sure any comment you give is positive. This will encourage all to voice their opinions and eases the disappointment if their particular choice is not adopted. Be sure to write down every idea and suggestion.

5. Decision Making: You can vote by raise of hands or by secret ballot or simply asking each group member to sate how they feel as a result of the discussion. It should be made clear that the results of any voting will be taken into consideration by the parents. In other words, the decisions are still made and/or ratified by the adults.

6. Provide time for problems or plans family members would like to present. Planning a family calendar for the week is essential.

7. Closing: (remarks, song) adapt to your needs. REFRESHMENTS: This doesn’t have to be anything big or fancy, but it makes a good ending.

Family Councils give members an opportunity to talk and work together. Here adults can share their ideas and values with youth and teach basic principles of conflict resolution and problem solving. The adults are the Executive Committee and they make all the decisions as they meet together regularly. If they are wise, they will listen to what youth say and incorporate what they have heard into their decisions so that the that youth know that their ideas have been heard. The young people’s contributions can be very important and adults need to listen carefully. Adults do not however, need to agree with everything that young people say. Young People are quite ready to deal with not having their own way all the time as long as they feel that they have been listened to and that some of their thoughts and ideas have had an impact on the decisions that are made. The rule system needs to be constantly clarified, discussed and put in a prominent place in writing so that it can be read and understood. Rules:

1. Any time anyone goes someplace, they notify a member of the family where they are going and when they will return. If plans change they will notify a responsible member of the family.

2. Taking care of the house, inside and out is a responsibility shared equally by every member of the family. We will meet together as a family regularly to delegate portions of this responsibility in terms of each individual’s ability to perform.

At some time between the ages of 10 and 12 each child in the family should become responsible for providing a meal for the entire family once a week. This might start out with getting the milk and cereal out for a cold cereal breakfast. The next step might be soup and sandwiches and then on from there. I would expect that there will be far less complaining about meals when the children know that they are a part of the family meal preparation system. Besides that, it will teach them how to be responsible and how to take care of themselves. This is particularly important for future marriage decisions. How many young men get married in order to have someone take care of them. Wouldn’t it be better for a couple to get married because of the quality of their relationship and not just because one is not capable of being independent?

For this and other reasons, the family rule system or lack of it can set the children up for a failure experience when they attempt to establish a family of their own. Work on reinforcing those positive behaviors and attitudes that you have decided are important and ignore most of the negative behavior. If you are continually giving children attention and reinforcement for positive things they have done then you have a foundation to sit down with them and occasionally discuss some of the negative things that need to be changed. You approach the negative behaviors as a coach and a friend that will help them to make the needed change rather than as a Hitler that is going to demand it “or else.” Establish a training program. In doing so, one of your basic assumptions out to be: We will assume that any time a child is doing something wrong, they must be doing it because they do not know how to do something right. Do not criticize them. Teach them! In establishing any kind of training program you will probably have to look at the types of consequences and rewards that you use. Consequences need to be as closely related to the offense as possible and not too overwhelming. If you tell a child that they will be grounded for a month, you have just lost your ability to have much of an impact on that child for the next month. Most things should be for a day or two or possibly for a week if the situation is severe. You don’t want them to think that they are so far in the hole already that there is no hope. In that case they may often decide to stick with negative behavior. Each child is different. One child might consider spending 15 minutes in his room alone the absolute worst thing in the world. Another child might enjoy it. You have to know each individual and talk about what works with each one. Don’t just look at negative things. I remember a young man in 6th grade that was giving his parents and teachers fits. In talking to him one day the counselor inadvertently picked up that one of his favorite things was sucking the juice out of a lemon. His parents thought that this was not healthy and tried to discourage the practice. The counselor realized that they had been missing a good thing. A contract was set up whereby the boy could earn the right to suck on lemons by exhibiting appropriate behavior. This boy changed in a matter of weeks. Now, I would not change my behavior for the right to suck on a lemon but this boy would and did. You do not want to have to continually use rewards and consequences to maintain behavior. But you might have to carefully use these tools to get new behavior started or old behavior stopped. Any new behavior is very fragile. It has to be nourished and encouraged if it is to become strong and sturdy. Eventually you want to get to the point where the behavior is firmly established and rewards itself with only occasional reinforcement. An important principle here is that the rules may stay the same but the system of training, rewarding or consequating the behavior associated with those rules may change as the child’s ability to internalize those rules changes. This is why some schools get themselves into a ridiculous position by trying to systematize the “discipline” program in the whole school. This approach does not usually allow for individual differences and individual growth. Perhaps a particular type of reward system is needed to get a new behavior started but if you continue to use that reward system it can become self-defeating. Likewise, you may need to use a particular consequence to get a behavior stopped but in order to keep that behavior stopped you may have to change the system or may even be able to eliminate it at least until the behavior shows up again.

Each child is still a free agent unto itself and they may choose, in spite of all you do, to go in a completely different direction. Two major things you have to rely on are: first, the quality of the relationship that you build, second, the unity and depth of the relationship that exists between the adults involved. Any social system has to have some source of power and authority. the only way a family has any real lasting source of power and authority, is if Mom and Dad are acting in complete and unanimous agreement. Dad may think that he has the power and authority, but if he is using that supposed power and authority without the complete and unanimous agreement of Mother as an equal partner, then there is no real power and authority in that family. You have eventual anarchy and chaos in the minds of the children. Father may be strong enough to suppress all the problems for quite some time, but eventually the results will be mainly negative. A mother came to me with a problem concerning her sixteen-year-old son. According to her he was irresponsible and really difficult to live with. Information from teachers and others seemed to verify this evaluation. The family had never developed any real clear statement of what the rules were and what was expected of each member of the family. After some work we developed a set of rules and a system of assigning household chores. This young man’s particular task was to empty all the trash baskets in the house and put out the garbage on the curb once a week. After two weeks the mother was quite certain that this was not going to work because the garbage had not been taken care of. One of the rules was that parents could not “nag” the kids about their tasks. They could give one reminder per week. During the third week matters were complicated by a breakdown in the garbage disposal in the sink. That meant that they would be keeping wet garbage as well as dry in the kitchen. The mother was quite concerned by this time. I asked her if she felt that the garbage was more important than her son’s future. She almost said that the garbage was more important to her at this point in time, but of course it wasn’t. During the fourth week, mother had an opportunity that she could not resist. Her son had some friends over to the house and while they were busy in his room the mother set out cake and ice cream in the kitchen. She went to the boy’s room and announced that cake and ice cream was in the kitchen for anyone that wanted some. She was nearly trampled in the ensuing stampede. While the boys were contentedly eating, one of David’s friends sniffed the air and said, “Hey, what died in your kitchen?’

Needless to say the boy was somewhat bothered by this event and the very next day he emptied out the garbage and had done his tasks faithfully ever since with only a few periodic lapses. What David needed to learn was that once a task was assigned to him there was absolutely no one else that would do this task for him. In this case this was all that was needed for this young man to learn to be responsible for his own behavior. Structure is important because it prevents confusion. For example, if children know what time they must go to bed every night, they get used to the idea and can plan on it happening. If bedtime is viewed as an important event and given proper attention it can be a loving, nurturing experience. The children will see that you feel this event is important enough to have your undivided attention and will be more likely to cooperate. One-half hour before bedtime, turn off the television and put away all books and toys, take care of toileting needs, undress and put on night cloths, spend a few minutes with each child individually for prayers or conversation. Being firm and consistent is an important key to fostering good feelings at bedtime. To be successful in building an effective rule system, first spend some time talking about what you want to achieve and what your expectations are. Come to an agreement about the rules to adopt. There ought to be a few clear, well-defined rules and those rules out to be in writing in some prominent place for all to see. The family needs to review these rules in their family council meetings and talk about problems they have as individuals living together in a constructive growth-producing way. Adults need to make sure that they listen to the comments and thoughts of family members and try to be as consistent as they can. A major goal is to teach children to be responsible for their own behavior and to complete tasks assigned to them. A companion goal is to teach them how to develop and contribute to the development of rules that help individuals to live with others and to maximize their own and other’s growth.

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