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THE POSITIVE APPROACH
If you are a teacher, have you been teaching long enough to remember when children sat in neat rows and obediently did what they were told? If you are a parent, do you remember when children wouldn’t dare talk back to their parents? Maybe you don’t, but perhaps your grandparents do.
Many parents and teachers today are feeling frustrated because children don’t behave the way they used to in the good old days. What happened? Why don’t today’s children develop the same kinds of responsibility and motivation that seemed more prevalent in children many years ago?
There are many possible explanations, such as broken homes, too much television, video games, and working mothers. These factors are so common in our society today that the situation would seem rather hopeless if they really explained our current challenges with children. (And we all know of many single and working parents who are doing a great job raising their children because they use effective parenting skills.) Rudolf Dreikurs1 had another theory.
There are many major changes that have taken place in society over the past few years that more directly explain the differences in children today. The outlook is very encouraging because, with awareness and desire, we can compensate for these changes and in doing so can also eliminate some of the problems that many think are caused by broken homes, too much television, and working mothers.
The first major change is that adults no longer give children an example or model of submissiveness and obedience. Adults forget that they no longer act the way they used to in the good old days. Remember when Mom obediently did whatever Dad said, or at least gave the impression she did, because it was the culturally acceptable thing to do? In the good old days few people questioned the idea that Dad’s decisions were final.
Because of the human rights movement, this is no longer true. Rudolf Dreikurs pointed out, “When Dad lost control of Mom, they both lost control of the children.” All this means is that Mom quit giving the children a model of submissiveness. This is progress. Many things about the good old days were not so good.
In those days there were many models of submission. Dad obeyed the boss (who was not interested in his opinions) so he wouldn’t lose his job. Minority groups accepted submissive roles at great loss to their personal dignity. Today all minority groups are actively claiming their rights to full equality and dignity. It is difficult to find anyone who is willing to accept an inferior, submissive role in life. Children are simply following the examples all around them. They also want to be treated with dignity and respect.
It is important to note that equality does not mean the same. Four quarters and a dollar bill are very different, but equal. Children obviously do not deserve all the rights that come with greater experience, skills, and maturity. Adult leadership and guidance are important. However, children deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. They also deserve the opportunity to develop the life skills they need in an atmosphere of kindness and firmness instead of an atmosphere of blame, shame, and pain.
Another major change is that in today’s society children have fewer opportunities to learn responsibility and motivation. We no longer need children as important contributors to economic survival. Instead children are given too much in the name of love without any effort or investment on their part and they develop an entitlement attitude. Too many mothers and fathers believe that good parents protect their children from all disappointment. They rescue or overprotect—thus robbing their children of the opportunity to develop a belief in their capability to handle the ups and downs of life. Skill training is often neglected because of busy life schedules or a lack of understanding of how important it is for children to contribute. We often rob children of opportunities to feel belonging and significance in meaningful ways through responsible contributions and then complain and criticize them for not developing responsibility.
Children do not develop responsibility when parents and teachers are too strict and controlling, nor do they develop responsibility when parents and teachers are permissive. Children learn responsibility when they have opportunities to learn valuable social and life skills for good character in an atmosphere of kindness, firmness, dignity, and respect.
It is important to emphasize that eliminating punishment does not mean that children should be allowed to do whatever they want. We need to provide opportunities for children to experience responsibility in direct relationship to the privileges they enjoy. Otherwise, they become dependent recipients who feel that the only way to achieve belonging and significance is by manipulating other people into their service. Some children develop the belief, “I’m not loved unless others take care of me.” Others may develop the belief that they shouldn’t try because they can’t do very much that doesn’t invite shame and pain. It is saddest when they develop the belief, “I’m not good enough,” because they don’t have opportunities to practice proficiencies that would help them feel capable. These children spend a great deal of energy in rebellion or avoidance behaviors.
When all of their intelligence and energy is directed toward manipulation, rebellion, and avoidance, children do not develop the perceptions and skills needed to become capable people. In the book Raising Self-Reliant Children in a Self-lndulgent World,2 H. Stephen Glenn and I identify the Significant Seven Perceptions and Skills necessary for developing capable people.
Significant Seven Perceptions and Skills
1.Strong perceptions of personal capabilities—“I am capable.”
2.Strong perceptions of significance in primary relationships—“I contribute in meaningful ways and I am genuinely needed.”
3.Strong perceptions of personal power or influence over life—“I can influence what happens to me.”
4.Strong intrapersonal skills: the ability to understand personal emotions and to use that understanding to develop self-discipline and self-control.
5.Strong interpersonal skills: the ability to work with others and develop friendships through communicating, cooperating, negotiating, sharing, empathizing, and listening.
6.Strong systemic skills: the ability to respond to the limits and consequences of everyday life with responsibility, adaptability, flexibility, and integrity.
7.Strong judgmental skills: the ability to use wisdom and to evaluate situations according to appropriate values.
Children developed these perceptions and skills naturally when they were allowed to work side by side with their parents, receiving on-the-job training while making meaningful contributions to the family lifestyle. The irony is that in the good old days children had opportunities to develop strong life skills, but had few opportunities to use them. Now the world is full of opportunities for which too many children are not prepared. Today children do not have many natural opportunities to feel needed and significant, but parents and teachers can thoughtfully provide these opportunities. A wonderful fringe benefit is that most behavior problems can be eliminated when parents and teachers learn more effective ways to help their children and students develop healthy perceptions and skills. Most misbehavior can be traced to a lack of development in these Significant Seven Perceptions and Skills.
Understanding why children do not behave the way they used to is the first step for parents and teachers who are facing child-discipline challenges. We need to understand why controlling methods, which worked so well many years ago, are not effective with children today. We need to understand our obligation to provide opportunities, which were once provided by circumstances, for children to develop responsibility and motivation. And most important, we need to understand that cooperation based on mutual respect and shared responsibility is more effective than authoritarian control (see Table 1.1).
The attitude of parents or teachers who choose between each of the three approaches is very different.
Strictness—“These are the rules by which you must abide, and this is the punishment you will receive for violation of the rules.” Children are not involved in the decision-making process.
Permissiveness—“There are no rules. I am sure we will love each other and be happy, and you will be able to choose your own rules later.”
Positive Discipline—“Together we will decide on rules for our mutual benefit. We will also decide together on solutions that will be helpful to all concerned when we have problems. When I must use my judgment without your input, I will use firmness with kindness, dignity, and respect.”
As a fun way to illustrate the extreme differences between the three approaches, Dr. John Platt3 tells the story of three-year-old Johnny at breakfast time in each home. In a strict home, where Mom knows what is best, Johnny does not have a choice regarding breakfast. On a cold, rainy day, controlling mothers all over the world know that Johnny needs some kind of hot mush to get him through the day. Johnny, however, has different ideas. He looks at the mush and says, “Yuck! I don’t want this stuff!” One hundred years ago it was much easier to be a strict, controlling mother. She could just say, “Eat!” and Johnny would obey. It is more difficult today, so Mom goes through the following four steps in her effort to get obedience.
Step one: Mom tries to convince Johnny why he needs hot mush to get him through the day. Remember what your mother told you hot mush would do inside your body? “It will stick to your ribs!” Have you ever thought about what a three-year-old thinks when he is told hot mush will stick to his ribs? He is not very impressed.
Step two: Mom tries to make the mush taste better. She tries all kinds of concoctions—brown sugar, cinnamon, raisins, honey, maple syrup, and even chocolate chips. Johnny takes another bite and still says, “Yuck! I hate this stuff!”
Step three: Mom tries to teach him a lesson in gratitude. “But Johnny, think of all the children in Africa who are starving to death.” Johnny is still not impressed and replies, “Well, send it to them.”
Step four: Mom is now exasperated and feels that her only alternative is to teach him a lesson for his disobedience. She gives him a spanking and tells him he can just be hungry.
Mom feels good about the way she handled the situation for about thirty minutes before she starts feeling guilty. What will people think when they find out she couldn’t get her child to eat? And what if Johnny is really suffering from hunger?
Johnny plays outside long enough to build up guilt power before he comes in and claims, “Mommy, my tummy is so hungry!”
Mom now gets to give the most fun lecture of all—the “I told you so” lecture. She doesn’t notice that Johnny is staring into space while he waits for her to finish so he can get on with life. Mom feels very good about her lecture. She has now done her duty to let him know how right she was. She then gives him a cracker and sends him out to play again. To make up for the nutritional loss suffered from lack of a good breakfast, she goes into the kitchen and starts fixing liver and broccoli. Guess what lunch will be like?