Teaching discipline: Hold the reins

You may take pride in the fact that you have a disciplined child, but if you’re using spanking, shame or isolation to discipline her, there’s something seriously wrong in your approach

As we begin to discuss discipline, it’s helpful to have a long view of the territory. Let’s look at the three most common forms of disciplinary actions parents take and their effect on the child.

Spanking

In our modern, supposedly civilised society, hitting as a means of teaching is still shockingly prevalent, despite numerous studies proving its destructiveness. Any perceived effectiveness of slapping or spanking is nothing more than short-term compliance rooted in a child’s fear of the parent. Rather than internalising any moral message or noble value by being spanked, a child grows resentful and avoidant of the parent. This, together with the inner contortions of denial and dissociation from the distressing negative feelings that a child must perform, exact a steep, enduring toll on their wellbeing. Spanked toddlers are less likely to listen, are less compliant and have more poorly developed motor skills; spanked adolescents are more likely to suffer depression, alcohol addiction and suicidal thoughts. Children who are hit are more likely as adults to hit their partners and their own children—and so it goes, the transgenerational-go-round of violence, which ripples outward from family to community to society.

Shaming

Punishment need not be physical to exact a toll on a child’s developing personality and the lifelong neural templates for how he will relate to himself, others, and the world. And indeed, a far more common form of violence routinely used in disciplining children is shaming. Shaming is more subtle than hitting, but in many ways, more insidiously damaging—because the child cannot consciously point to the hurtful moment of impact. Rather, shamed children sustain an incremental erosion of their competent, loving, “good enough” selves with each verbal rebuke.

In her 2010 TEDTalk, shame researcher Brene Brown aptly defines shame simply as the fear of disconnection: “There’s something about me that, if other people know it or see it, I won’t be worthy of connection.”

Such exclamations as “Bad boy!” or “You’re very naughty!” are clear examples of shaming, in which the message is a diminishment or accusatory diagnosis of the child.

One problem with shame is that it’s not always so obvious—and thus so readily available for reconsideration by parents seeking a more constructive mode of parenting. Experts through the years have counselled parents to focus on expressing displeasure with the behaviour and not the person doing the behaviour, but this can easily lead to shaming as well, as in, “Your whining and crying is not okay.”

Shame is like the stealth bomber of emotional zingers: it can slip into almost any verbal exchange. It all depends on what’s going on in the mind and heart of the person uttering the words. For example, “That’s so silly” can be delivered during a loving, playful exchange in a tone that cultivates warmth and connection, or it can be landed as a shame-based dismissal of a child’s earnest feelings, thoughts or actions.

And this lacing of garden-variety words with something as corrosive as shame is a process that is virtually unconscious. Few parents—or should I say, few parents who’d be inclined to read this article—open their mouths with the conscious intention, “I’m going to shame my child now.”

And it’s practically universal in our culture; the vast majority of us have been shamed as children by parents, siblings, teachers, peers. For us to become aware and sensitive to shame is like a fish becoming aware of water. But we may be aware of shame’s fallout, either in ourselves or in those close to us. Then over time, shame becomes a part of us. Those who have internalised shame tend to specialise in—and often fluctuate between—one of two polarised patterns of expression: emotional muteness, paralysis and dissociation from their own feelings and needs; or bouts of hostility and rage, which is either expressed outward toward others or internalised as depression, self-destructive behaviours and even suicide.

Shame corrupts social intelligence by inhibiting the development of empathy and the ability to take responsibility for oneself, leading to a habit of blaming. The effects of shame begin in the earliest moments of a child’s life; a comprehensive August 2010 New York Times article on depression in preschoolers zeroed in on the shame that parents [unintentionally and un-wittingly] inflicted on their young children as a causal factor.

With respect to parenting for a more peaceful, constructively interdependent society, Robin Grille points out that so many of our most problematic social behaviours are compulsive covers for inner feelings of shame. To conceal our shame, we sneer at others, we criticise, we moralise, we judge, we patronise and we condescend... Finally, the shamed tend to anticipate feeling humiliated and disapproved of by others, and this can lead to hostility, even fury. Quite often, shame makes us want to punish others. When angry, shame-prone individuals are more likely to be malevolent, indirectly aggressive or self-destructive—their anger finds no appropriate expression.

Isolation

So here you are one afternoon, at the end of your rope with your out-of-control three-year-old. You know you won’t spank her, and you have become mindful of avoiding shame-based measures, so what’s left? Is time out the answer? At the risk of incurring the frustrated wrath of parents everywhere, my answer is NO. While time out was conceived as a more humane alternative to spanking, it lands a blow to the brain and psyche rather than to the bottom.

Right at the moment when the child is overwhelmed by a flood of emotions that she cannot manage, and she most needs the regulating presence [that is, close physical presence] of her attachment figure, she’s banished to her room or her “naughty chair” or her “thinking rug” or her [fill in the blank with any of a list of prettied-up names people have devised for this particular form of exile].

What a tantruming child [or, more helpful to think of her instead as a struggling child] most needs is time in—that is, in secure, soothing arms, in the steadying, regulating sphere of your engaged presence. Time out is developmentally and neurobiologically counterproductive: it deprives a child of regulation just when she needs it most, throws her system into protection mode and erodes her trust in, and relationship with, her parent.

holding-the-reins-2-320x224After all the fussing is over and order is restored, the memory trace etched in her social brain is When I’m having trouble, I’m on my own. This is not the foundation we’re striving to offer the next generation. We wish for them the suite of healthy social and relational capacities of resilience, which includes being comfortable reaching out for help when needed. Let’s not extinguish that skill with our well-meaning attempts at positive discipline!

The foregoing forms of “discipline”—punishment is not true discipline, thus the quotation marks—short-circuit Nature’s plan for the unfolding peace-loving intelligence. And they don’t happen only in my-way-or-the-highway authoritarian homes. Because of the unconscious, reflexive nature of how parenting often goes—in which we either reprise with our own children the way we were raised, or, in an effort to never do to them what they did to us, seize on predominant cultural parenting modes—these corrosive approaches also feature in homes where well-meaning parents regard themselves as progressive and enlightened. Indeed, in the course of a single generation, Time Out has become the gold standard in discipline for savvy parents. And thus the cycle of [usually unintentional, often subtle] parenting violence continues.

As Robin Grille points out: Child rearing has historically been so violent... that almost all of us are either battered children or descendants of battered children. It is no wonder that violence persists in so many forms, across all age groups, and that most of us are capable of slipping and treating our children violently on occasions, even if we strive against it.

Fostering growth while keeping peaceful boundaries

As a sound alternative to both of the above measures, consider using a time-out in the way it was originally conceived in sports: for a team [not just one struggling player] needing to take a pause to regroup, rethink its strategy, and return refreshed. Used in this us-as-a-team manner—"Let us take a time out"—it is a demonstration that while you’re not happy with the way things are going or the choices he has just made, you are on his side in this challenging moment—and always.

You can find your own name and style for this regrouping process; in psychologist Lawrence Cohen’s family it’s “A Meeting on the Couch”: Discipline is a chance to improve your connection with your children instead of forming another wall that separates you. The best way to make discipline more connecting is to think We have a problem instead of my kid is misbehaving.

Sometimes just changing the scene and making reconnection a top priority can create a dramatic difference, and the tension is gone as soon as you get to the couch, so you might end up just goofing around and being silly together.

Parenting for peace is all about providing the most fertile ground possible for the blossoming of our children’s social and cognitive intelligence.

This was first published in the September 2013 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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Marcy Axness
Marcy Axness, PhD, is a professor of prenatal development, and she also has a private practice coaching parents-in-progress. She is a member of an international magazine's online expert panel, and a popular international speaker. She provides training for childcare, adoption, education, and mental health professionals about the latest findings in the science of human thriving.

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