Down To Earth Discipline

"Life requires discipline. The world can be really tough on children who donít get it and donít have it."

By: Michael G. Conner, Psy.D


"Caitlyn. What the heck is this?"

"What Daddy?"

"I told you not to leave your dirty shoes on the carpet. ÖAnd whatís this? CaitlynÖ. Thatís mine. And you broke it. And is this glue all over the table? I told you not to use glue without first asking permission."

Caitlyn said, "Mommy and my teachers lets me use the glue."

Children do this sort of thing more than we want. Teenagers get out of line as well. In fact kids act like this so much that crossing the line seems like a natural part of growing up and raising kids. When children at any age test the limits, they usually discover what the world allows and expects, what people will tolerate, and what happens when they get out of line. More than cause and effect, children hopefully learn the impact their behavior has on others. And they will hopefully take that into consideration in the future.

What Is Discipline?

Family discipline is one word that tries to describe many things. The commonly accepted definition of discipline means to raise, train and teach children. However the word discipline also means to punish. But punishment is a very small part of what we call discipline.

Discipline requires parents to recognize the requirements for successful living and then to create or allow experiences that provide guidance. These experiences should include activities within an emotionally bonded relationship and consequences for a childís behavior.

What is Punishment?

The most commonly accepted use of the word punishment means to impose consequences on a child for their actions or their lack of actions. For some people the word punishment conjures up images of spanking a child, inflicting emotional pain or hurting a child in some manner. That is a very old and narrow view. Punishment may involve taking something away from a child such as toys, bicycles, a car or other privileges such as going out in the evening to be with friends. In other cases punishment may involve giving a child additional chores, work or any activity such as completing a second driver education course before they can drive the car again.

The Discipline of Nature and Society

Discipline is one important way we socialize children. The goal of socialization is to teach children how to function effectively in society. It is the role of parents to provide children with experience, opportunities and examples of successful behavior. Discipline is also allowing or creating consequences for a childís behavior.

The Discipline Of Nature. The foundation for all discipline is nature. Facing the effects of gravity, hunger, temperature, danger, curiosity and even aggression teaches discipline. It has been said, "nature is the mother of all discipline." Nature provides children with experience, challenges, consequences, as well as parents who are intended to be nurturing and to act as protectors, teachers and guides. The outdoors can become a wonderful teacher. Nature offers children real world experiences that parents can use to teach children important skills. Some of these skills include helping children to become aware of surroundings, paying attention as well as working together, cooperation and the relationship between cause and effect.

Nature doesnít take things personally. Nature does not judge children and nature expects very little if anything. Nature is not unfair and it doesnít act out of anger or disappointment. A rainstorm doesnít expect anything from a child. And a child shouting at a cloudy sky wonít make the rain stop falling. Children simply get wet and cold if they donít wear the right clothing. Children donít argue with nature. Nature teaches that argument is a waste of time. Consequences are a necessary part of living. Experience in nature can help teach children the importance of being organized, prepared and resourceful. Parents have a very important role in training and teaching their children to appreciate the rules and structure of the natural world. With this foundation, children are prepared to face a far greater challenge Ė the challenge of social discipline.

Social Discipline. Nature can teach discipline very effectively, but it is certainly limited when trying to teach the impact of a childís behavior on others. Living in society is where children really have new and more confusing problems. Unlike nature, people expect a lot from each other. We expect more than we stop to think about. And people donít usually agree on what they expect or want. Children are supposed to figure this out.

Society is based on people learning to think, feel and act in a similar and acceptable manner. Problems surface when children act differently and when they make mistakes. Of course adults usually get upset when children act rude, unreliable, inconsiderate or uncooperative. But who decides what is expected and what is acceptable behavior in response to a situation? At what point is a childís behavior considered honest instead of rude, free-spirited instead of unreliable, brave instead of uncooperative, and independent rather than inconsiderate. These are the real challenges to parenting and discipline.

There must be consequences when children get out of line. But many of [the] rules and expectations we place on children are open to discussion, debate and even argument. The rule and structure of nature is not open to debate or argument. It [is] hard to discipline a child when parents are making it up as they go. As [a] result, parents and society may end up teaching or imposing values on children that are far from natural and may not make sense to a child. Discipline is largely about fairness, being realistic and consistency. Social consequences donít always teach what we expect.

What is "Down to Earth Discipline"?

As parents, our job is to raise children to become successful. Raising children is not easy. Why? Because there are no clear rules, traditions or readily available resources when parents are overwhelmed, feeling inadequate or when they lack information and guidance.

There is a natural and social structure in America. By that I mean there is a structure to our society, to a family, and there is a structure in every human relationship. For many people in this country, life can be a challenge. Sometimes life can become an ordeal. Social "realities" are much more confusing than physical realities. Children become confused, challenging or argumentative when social consequences stray to far from the natural order of the world.

The role of a parent is to bridge the gap between the natural world and the social world. I call that bridge "down to earth discipline."

Of course there is a lot of theory. Being a parent and a psychologist helps me separate theory from reality. And while there are hundreds of behavioral principals that apply to discipline, there are basically three down to earth approaches to raising and disciplining children.

Consequences. This approach is very close to the discipline of nature. Discipline based on the "rule of consequences" usually requires the least amount of parental involvement. Using this approach, parents will become more involved when a child does well or when a child gets out of line. For the most part, parents allow society and nature to teach their child what works and what doesnít work. Nature, society and parents may provide consequences to teach children what happens when they get "out of line." The key to making this approach work depends on letting your child [loose] in the "right" environment where the consequence will be appropriate and not overly severe. Consequences can include reinforcements, rewards and punishment. Iíll talk more about those in the next article.

Choices. Part of growing up involves the ability to identify our needs, think about our options and to make choices that meet our needs and protect our long-term well being. Parents who rely in this approach create and allow opportunities for children to experience nature and society. Parents allow their children to make choices and to learn from the consequences that follow. Children hopefully learn how to be successful when they experience the consequences of their choices.

Parents who rely on this approach generally avoid punishment and supervision. They allow their children to discover the world naturally with the parents acting as educators. Parents talk to their kids about the choices they are considering or made. Society and nature will become your childís principle teacher when you rely on the "rule of choices" to discipline your child. The key to using the "rule of choices" is to insure that your child does not form bonded relationships with other kids where the relationship is more important than the consequence of their behavior.

Supervision. Supervision requires parents to become involved with their children as their guides, teachers, motivators and partners in solving problems. At the most intense level, a parent will become directly involved and present with their child during such things as chores, homework, going to school and after school activities. Parents literally [participate in] these activities with their child. As children become more reliable and successful, parents may relax this intense level of supervision and then begin to monitor their childís behavior and level of success from a distance. Parents become more involved when necessary and only in a helpful, respectful and polite manner.

Discipline through supervision allows children to make choices and to experience consequences. The goal of supervision is to be sufficiently involved in order to insure that children can learn to express their potential while becoming more successful in time. Failure is an option, but not a way of life. Pain and disappointment are possible. But abuse, cruelty and neglect are not permitted. The key to using the "rule of supervision" is to maintain an emotionally bonded relationship while being involved in activities that are rewarding and inspire discipline.

copyright 2002 to 2008, Michael G. Conner