The Discipline Dilemma

The Discipline Dilemma

I have overheard parents discussing discipline many times, and have discussed it regularly with parents in my workshops and coaching sessions.  We have pretty set ideas of how we should discipline our child, ranging from a frown all the way to physical isolation, depending on our view of the severity or frequency of the problematic behavior. At times, even just a frown or verbal rebuke can bring up a sense or fear of damaging our relationship with our child, no matter his/her age. We just don't feel good about it. On the other hand, if we don't discipline our child, we fear he or she will be out of control and not do what we feel he or she should. And wouldn't other adults consider us "bad" parents? Haven't we judged other parents on that issue of being too permissive? And isn't this a common and difficult problem between co-parents?

There is a way out of this simply because we walked right into it ourselves (but without realizing it). How did we do that?

Force causes resistance in almost every human being of every age and culture (except perhaps in some obscure culture or in a Zen master, neither of which are you likely dealing with).  When we "push" our children to do what we want - even when they see something in it for themselves, they will frequently if not consistently resist. You've noticed? No?

This is our Discipline Dilemma. How can we reach our goals when virtually every one of our dozen or so learned disciplinary strategies is a form of force, and involves removing some if not much of our child's autonomy (and agency, an important future topic)?

Instead jumping into one of our dozen learned disciplinary strategies, chill. 

Really, just pause and watch yourself, feel your anger, frustration, resentment, or confusion. Breathe. Then say, "Oh, I see. I am a healthy functioning human parent! I got upset and think it is my job to get my child to do what I think he or she should do.” Breathe again.

Now ask yourself, why do I want my child to do this? Is it about me? Or is it about my child learning to be safe, healthy, and have workable social skills? It can be about both you and your child’s growth and development. You handle your part yourself. Then, when any upset has passed, get close with your child and tell him or her why you wanted a different behavior in that circumstance. Be specific about the safety, health, or social impact, and then say, “Hey, I’m your mom (dad), and I care about you. That’s why I got upset with you. It’s normal, and it doesn’t mean I don’t love you. I do love you.” Pause and let that sink in. Then, with regard to your modeling social skills, ask your child if next time he or she would (do, not do whatever would work in that situation). See what happens.

Having said all that, I am NOT saying we should never tell or make our child do something he or she doesn’t want to do. And we, parents, are in charge, are accountable. Not being in charge, not being accountable, has consequences too. And they can be serious. It can be a learning opportunity and a relationship strengthening process to have our child do things we want them to do when they don’t want to, when they resist. When? For health and safety, of course. But also for our own well-being as parents: having some quiet time, some recreation time, some private time with our partner or other adults. How we deal with our own agendas do matter. Own them honestly, as natural and normal.

Here is tip. Avoid a victimization excuse: “I (or “you”) have to (go to work, go to sleep, whatever).”

Do we “have to” do that? If you use “have to” as an acceptable reason, so will your child. “Have to” is a piece of the language paradigm that shuts down communication and drives a wedge between us and our closest relationships. “Have to” is an efficient shortcut, but obscures huge learning opportunties. The alternative, or a piece of the alternative, is to be honest, and say, “No, Ellie, I don’t have to go to dinner tonight with mommy, and I am going to do that. It is something I enjoy and that matters and that your mom and I have agreed to do. That is why.” Wait. “And it doesn’t mean mommy or I don’t love you … we do. Just as much as ever!” Let your child be upset if he or she is. Don’t try to explain it away, or make it stop. You can just say, “It is okay, and understandable, that you are upset about this. We aren’t going to change our minds, and it is okay with us that you are upset. Mommy and I get upset when don’t get what we want, too!” Those are the words you can use, but note that your tone and facial expressions are all a part of it too. Don’t be harsh, don’t be nice. Just be honest and then trust your child’s learning process.

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