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Introduction: Discipline Means "Teaching"
"Discipline" -- just hearing the word sends chills down the spines of many parents. "Must I really punish this child if she gets into things?" laments the mother of a two-year-old. I believe the word "discipline" has been given a bad rap. It connotes punishment, criticism, and correction -- all negative-sounding words. However, discipline is not negative at all; in fact, it is a very positive concept. Discipline means "teaching," pure and simple; it means using a combination of explanation, reasoning, and action to train a child to understand what behaviors are acceptable or unacceptable. It definitely does not mean abuse, although many parents jump to the conclusion that disciplining a child involves reprimand, spanking, or criticism. Unfortunately, in some homes, the majority of disciplinary tactics may be just that -- negative or harsh words, screaming, or smacking. The enlightened parent, though, has many other disciplinary tools to choose from that are not only more humane, but actually much more effective.
Your reaction to your child's inappropriate behaviors teaches herthe consequences of her actions. If you generally react with harsh words or physical punishment, she'll get the idea her mom and dad don't like what she's just done, and they believe in physical aggression to solve problems. This type of discipline may or may not change the child's behavior, but it will most likely lead to an angry child, or to one who may grow immune to being screamed at or clobbered. In my more than twenty years of experience as a psychologist working with kids and their parents, I've met lots of folks who swear that they had to spank their kids hard or say awful things in order to get their attention. Even so, many have come to the conclusion that it's just not worth it. Kids tend to repeat the behavior they were spanked for, and parents feel rotten about themselves for frightening their children with a spank.
I've also worked with many families in which the kids have confided to me that the nonaggressive disciplinary tactics that I teach to their parents actually "hurt" more than being yelled at or spanked. These humane, effective tactics definitely get the kid's attention and teach him to change the offensive behavior.
T. Berry Brazelton, in his excellent book TOUCHPOINTS: YOUR CHILD'S EMOTIONAL AND BEHAVIORAL DEVELOPMENT, notes that "next to love, a sense of discipline is a parent's second most important gift to a child." Helping children learn self-discipline -- understanding and accepting life's limits and behaving accordingly -- is key. Brazelton notes that self-discipline in the toddler and young child evolves through three stages: testing the limits by exploratory behavior, "teasing" others to check out whether the behavior is appropriate or not, and -- once he learns his parent's reaction -- internalizing the new boundaries. The toddler who is firmly told no as he touches the button on the television and is then moved to the other side of the room quickly learns to expect to be reprimanded and moved away from the forbidden object. Within a few months, the child himself says no as he touches the television, removes his hand by himself, and looks around for his parent's reaction. Why? Because he has learned the connection between his behavior (touching the television set) and his parent's response (firm verbal reprimand and being placed away from the object).
This stimulus (touching)-response (discipline) connection, which will occur thousands of times within the first six years of life, teaches him the boundaries of acceptable behavior. Babies, toddlers, young children, teens, and even adults continue to need to be taught what the acceptable limits of behavior are. Children who are not given this knowledge continue to exceed the boundaries, either because they have not been taught limits by their parents or because the boundary lines have consistently changed. Some of these children tend to be anxious and unsure of themselves. Others become aggressive and out of control as they look for limit setting from their elders.
How many times do you remember noticing your child, even as a baby, looking at you as he is about to perform a forbidden behavior, such as touching the crystal vase or ripping a magazine? He's looking at you to see what your reaction will be. If he gets none, he won't learn to remove his hand, and most likely will continue to engage in the forbidden behavior. If your reaction is inconsistent (sometimes you reprimand, other times you ignore his behavior), he'll become confused and his behavior may range from timidity to aggression as he tries to figure out by himself what is appropriate (a difficult task for a toddler or young child to perform). If you consistency discipline (perhaps removing him from the situation), he'll quickly get the picture. He may not like the consequence and he may not even like you at the moment for putting him in time-out, but he will have taken one small step toward self-discipline. He'll learn that his behavior (both appropriate and inappropriate) leads to definite consequences (both good and bad) and he has the power to determine what the end result will be.
By the time he is six years of age, your son will have had thousands of opportunities to learn the connection between his behavior and your response. If the connection is clear, he'll most likely be making appropriate choices (of course, with occasional trips outside the limits). His history of externally controlled discipline, in the form of parental guidance, will begin to become internally based through this behavior-response connection. And that is the essence of teaching self-discipline, which I believe to be one of the most important goals of parenting.
If your child can make this connection by age six, he'll most likely be able to maintain it through the rest of his school years. He'll travel into adulthood secure that he understands and accepts life's rules, and because of this knowledge and self-control, he'll be productive and satisfied as an adult. Kids who have not been given the gift of self-discipline often grow up to be disappointed, ill-behaved teenagers and adults. They forever blame others for their lack of success and perseverance, and are often quite miserable.
So when your baby crawls to the television, reaches for the button, and looks to you for your reaction, think of this as a lesson in Self-Discipline 101, and begin to teach the lesson. If you don't, he'll learn nothing from class that day, but if you discipline him he's not only learning to control his impulse to touch the forbidden object, he's also beginning his voyage toward making the behavior-consequence connection, one of the most important journeys of his life!
Excerpted from IT'S NEVER TOO SOON, copyright © 1998 by Dr. Ruth Peters. Published by Golden Books. All rights reserved.