Has Discipline Become a Dirty Word?

Discipline means training with the use of both affirmation and correction.

(photo: Pixabay/CC0)

In my last piece, Dr. Jane Anderson, a Clinical Professor of Pediatrics at UC San Francisco, explained how important it is for parents to be authority figures for their children. Authoritative parents (as opposed to those who are permissive or authoritarian) make rules and set standards for their children in a nurturing, loving way. Psychologist Diana Baumrind first identified these different styles of parenting by observing preschoolers and their parents. The children who were self-reliant and happy had parents who were nurturing, but didn’t hesitate to set limits. Studies have consistently backed up Baumrind’s findings that children raised by parents with an authoritative style have the best outcomes.

Setting limits means being able to say ‘no,’ being prepared for misbehavior, and being ready to respond appropriately. Put simply, authoritative parents must be willing to discipline their children when necessary. And if you think the concept of authority is a tough sell for modern parents, try talking about discipline.

Dr. Den Trumbull has been a practicing pediatrician for 30 years. He’s a founding member and former president of the American College of Pediatricians.

Dr. Trumbull told me he’s seen a tremendous shift in the last 30 years in how parents think about discipline. The word itself now has a negative connotation, and its use has sharply declined in his experience. The shift, he says, has been away from training and teaching (which is what discipline is all about) to maintaining and entertaining children.

“Discipline is commonly understood to mean punishment. But if you look at the definition of discipline it’s basically training that’s expected to produce a specific result,” Trumbull told me in an interview. Dr. Anderson echoes those sentiments, pointing out that the word discipline comes from the Greek word “to disciple,” which means to teach and mentor.

According to Dr. Trumbull, discipline means training with the use of both affirmation and correction. What’s missing today – or is in steep decline at the very least – is the use of correction.

I asked Dr. Trumbull what happens if parents only affirm their children and don’t correct them.

“It’s counterproductive because children are naturally self-centered and egocentric. But many modern-day experts feel that if you simply avoid conflict and ‘follow the child,’ he or she will lead you along the right path eventually. That’s based on the philosophy that children are basically good and fair and innocent. But they’re not. Any parent of a toddler knows that children are innately selfish. Therefore, they need discipline – both affirmation and correction – as training to operate respectfully and to interact appropriately with those around them starting with parents and siblings, and ultimately as adults in society.”

Keeping in mind that discipline means training, Dr. Trumbull suggests parents focus on these four things:

First, the relationship between parent and child must be healthy. Rules without a relationship lead to rebellion. Parents need to slow down and build a relationship with their children. That means spending time with them. A parent/child relationship isn’t a friendship, it needs to be authoritative. Parents must be lovingly firm.

Second is instruction. Make sure it’s clear and age appropriate. Toddlers can’t follow complex instructions, so repetition will be necessary.

Third is affirmation. Children need to be praised for their good behavior. If parents find that their acts of correction outnumber their acts of affirmation, they may be “parenting on the fly,” as he puts it. Correction won’t work unless parents take the time to love their children and show them what to replace inappropriate behavior with.

Fourth is correction. When children misbehave, they must be corrected or punished. Playpen timeouts are reasonable starting at around 15 months of age. By 18 months to 2 years of age, most children are ready for chair timeouts. At age three and a half, privilege removal is reasonable. And then there’s spanking.

Because spanking has become so controversial, I asked Dr. Trumbull for guidelines for those parents who choose to use it. Here’s what he said:

  • Typical ages for using spanking are between 2 and 6.
  • Spanking should always be a planned action, not a reaction, and not done in anger.
  • It should always occur in private to avoid humiliating the child.
  • Use an open hand for one or two swats to the bottom.
  • Always follow it with a review of the offense with the child and the reassurance of the parent’s unconditional love for the child.

The most commonly used argument against spanking is that it teaches children that it’s OK to hit. Here’s what Dr. Trumbull has to say about that: “When spanking follows a proactive, forewarned procedure, the child does not perceive that as hitting. However, when it’s reactive and delivered in anger, that would not be appropriate.”

He adds that spanking should be used when milder measures have failed. It shouldn’t be a parent’s first option. But when milder measures have not worked – such as disapproval, timeout, or logical consequences – spanking is appropriate.

Dr. Trumbull shared with me some thoughts on why modern parents are hesitant to lead their children, to be authority figures to them.

“Parents today seem paralyzed by uncertainty. They don’t know what to do or how to do it. They want to be their child’s friend. Parents seem to want to avoid conflict and keep their children happy all the time. But happiness comes with self-control and self-confidence. And confidence follows discipline; it doesn’t precede it.”

He also believes that many parents today are simply too busy to invest the necessary time in building relationships with their children. Technology can be a problem, too, when parents and children spend too much time in front of screens and not enough time talking with each other.

For more information on Dr. Trumbull’s thoughts on discipline and other child-rearing issues, visit his website at goodparent.org.