I’ve heard experts say that children should never fear you or your discipline. Sometimes my son, 6, looks pretty scared when he’s done something wrong and I’ve found out. Now I’m starting to feel guilty.
A number of once respected words have lately been given a bad sound — undeservedly so — within some trendy childrearing theories. Among those most popular “dislikes” are discipline, punishment and fear. The message is: If you are psychologically savvy enough, you’ll seldom have to discipline, much less punish — and you’ll never invoke fear.
On a television show, I was debating the pros and cons of spanking with a childrearing specialist. (There’s something odd about having so many specialists these days telling parents how to correctly do something they’ve been doing without us for millennia.) Violently anti-spanking, this expert asked me if I’d ever spanked my children. “Yes, for certain misbehaviors,” I said. She practically smacked me with her response: “Then your children must fear you.” Temporarily off-balance, I replied, “How can you say something like that? You don’t know me or my children. Besides, I want my kids to have a healthy fear of particular consequences. At times, their fear might temporarily be attached to us. With maturity, they’ll come to understand the love behind our actions.”
My reasoning didn’t budge her position. In her eyes, anyone who at any time for any reason swatted a bottom was a fearmonger. Period.
My wife and son, age 5, were watching the show at home. Turning to him, she asked, “Andrew, are you ever afraid of Daddy?” “Nah,” he replied. I think his answer bothered me more than the expert’s rebuke.
How often have you or another adult, after watching a child bullying his parents or being otherwise obnoxious, said something like, “If I’d have tried that with my parents, it would have been all over. I just knew better.” Most parents with such recollections — often said in warmth by the way — grew up in loving homes. Was fear a part of their discipline? Sometimes. It wasn’t a fear that made them tremble when a parent walked by. It was a fear based in respect, not to mention wariness of the unknown. What would Mom or Dad really do if I was foolish enough to push them that far?
I have no fear of judges. I like them. Society needs them. Yet I’m very afraid of what they could do to me if I ever earned a visit to their courtrooms.
The fact that your son occasionally looks upset in the face of discipline is one sign he’s developing a conscience. And as far as I’m aware, not too many people are calling conscience bad — yet. A measure of fear and guilt, whether we like it or not, is inextricably tied to a healthy sense of right and wrong.
Because your son does worry about your reaction, say, if he leaves the yard without permission, he’s less likely to wander away. Not only does he stay safe, but you and he spend a lot less time wrangling over the issue. Your boundaries are clear; he knows that — and he’s assured you’ll back your words with action. Maybe his fear is better called a mature regard for reality.
Dr. Ray Guarendi is a clinical psychologist, speaker and author
of You’re A Better Parent
Than You Think! and
Back to the Family.