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Why everything we know about discipline is wrong

Posted on 18 August 2015

Not knowing how to effectively discipline their children is “the greatest concern of parents today,” say leading UK and US child psychologists.

This finding won’t come as a surprise to readers of this newsletter.  We pay close attention to which articles are viewed the most to ensure we provide relevant content. Articles including the words “discipline”, “behavior” or “punishment,” attract the greatest interest.

Bamboozled by conflicting advice from experts with different approaches to childrearing it’s no wonder parents are confused.  Most parents share a common aim of wanting to raise well-adjusted, considerate, respectful, polite children who fit in nicely at home, school and wider society. 

Like me you may have tried a range of strategies promoted by experts in the media spotlight only to discover they don’t work for us or only work at specific ages and stages of our child’s life. 

The reason why discipline strategies backfire

In her groundbreaking work, clinical psychologist Dr Shefali Tsabary argues the reason none of these strategies work is down to how we think about discipline. We say we want to teach our children proper behavior to help them develop self-discipline but use manipulation and control thinly disguised as “behavior management strategies”.

To illustrate her point Tsabary asks parents to use the word discipline in a sentence.  Invariably they respond with “How can I discipline my child?” or addressing their child, “I am going to think of a way to discipline you.”  Here discipline is a verb – something that is done to children.

Our children respond to manipulation and control as any human would by either becoming subservient and compliant or rebellious.  Neither of which helps them develop the holy grail of self-discipline. 

What approach to discipline works?

Tsabary invites parents to think about discipline in terms of its original Latin meaning, “learner.” Learning is entirely different to punishment.  A learner is someone who wants to learn and Tsabary argues we as parents, are our children’s most powerful teachers.

The hard bit

In order to become our child’s teacher we need to develop self-discipline ourselves.  Tsabary says our job is not to search for techniques to fix or control our child’s behavior but to model self-discipline to them. 

Being a good role model requires us to spend time with our children and exercise patience that would test a saint.  I don’t know about you but as a working parent I frequently find both resources in short supply!

Quick win self-discipline

We’ve read a range of tips from a variety of experts and identified 5 opportunities for busy parents to easily incorporate Tsabary's approach into everyday life.

1. Ban all screens and gadgets at mealtimes.

Without these distractions you can model healthy eating, good manners and conversational skills to your children.

2. Set reminders that over time become routine behavior

Conflict between parent and child often arises because we need them to take the initiative, be organized and think ahead, be that getting homework done or simply packing their school bag.  I have a friend who left sticky notes on the hall mirror at the beginning of term to remind her daughter what she needed to do to get organized for the next school day.  Over time her daughter internalized these jobs as routine and no longer needs prompting.

3.  Use travel time help your child make good choices

Conversation is the most powerful tool to help your child make good choices.  Use the journeys to talk through the day ahead or review how your child’s day has gone, how they handled various situations and the decisions they made.

4. Set boundaries around work when at home

Mobile technology and flexible working have enabled so many working parents to spend more time with their children.  On the flip side most of us are guilty of spending time on work at home when we our children need our attention, which results in attention seeking behavior from them. Set boundaries for mobile working; share them with your children and stick to them.

5.  Share the responsibility

Explain Tsabary’s approach to your child’s other caregivers – grandparents, uncles, and child minders asking them to become co-teachers rather than enforcers of whatever discipline strategies you previously used.