(Let me preface this blog by saying it is an expansion on a previous blog, It Takes Courage to Be the Parents Our Children Need Us to Be. I submitted this to New York Parenting for the month of April, but there was not enough room to include it, so they were going to put it in the May edition. However, I really want to write something about Mother’s Day in May and Father’s Day in June, and back-to-school issues in August, so I asked them to hold this until September. So you are getting to read it first.)
Recently, I had reason to rent a tuxedo for my 14-year-old son. While he was being fitted, I struck up a conversation with the floor manager. (This is a habit I picked up from my mother who has discovered relatives in the check-out line of stores in practically every city she has ever visited.) This young lady was complaining about her eight-year-old daughter wanting to wear make up “because all the other girls are” and enumerating the woes of raising children these days. She declared, “Kids are just so different from when I was growing up!” Now in the past, upon hearing a statement like this, I would bite my tongue, plaster a fake smile on my face, and nod like a bobble-head. But not this time.
I looked her straight in the eye and politely suggested that kids are no different now than they have ever been. Children are coming into the world the same way and transitioning through all the same developmental stages. What is different are “the times,” and defining “the times” is the realm of adults, not children. She stared at me with her mouth open for a moment and replied, “You know, you’re right. I hadn’t thought about it that way before.” At that point my son was finished and the conversation ended, but my mind was racing.
I was transported back in time to 7th grade when I begged my mother to let me get my ears pierced because “all the other girls were getting theirs pierced!” (Actually, it was only one girl, but she was popular so I was sure it was only a matter of time before “all” the others followed suit.) In spite of my pleading and whining, my mother stood fast to her position on ear piercing – “You will not poke any holes in your body as long as you live in this house.” She proceeded to add some version of one of my favorite Atticus Finch quotes, “From now on it’ll be everybody less one.” And that was that.
Now, did I like it? Of course not. But that didn’t matter. She didn’t tell me I had to be happy about it. She had the courage to endure my disappointment and the resulting anger directed toward her. She had confidence in the strength of our relationship. She was counting on her opinion of me meaning more to me than that of my peers.
We are living in a time when our children are exposed to influences, pressures, information, expectations beyond anything we ever imagined. And all of these are occurring earlier and earlier, at ages when they are not developmentally prepared to deal with them. They do not have the social, emotional, intellectual maturity to handle the decisions they are facing. That is why they have parents. They need us to be the adults so they can safely experience and enjoy their childhoods. They need us to be willing to say, “No,” and make unpopular decisions. They need us to have the courage to discipline.
Discipline is perhaps the most bewildering responsibility parents face. What is discipline? What’s not? What’s too much? What’s not enough? What’s the goal of discipline? Each of us must answer these questions for ourselves and create our unique disciplinary style. However, increasing our knowledge and understanding of discipline can help us find the courage to become the parents our children need us to be.
Discipline is not parenting. Discipline is only one aspect of parenting.
Discipline is not punishment. Punishment is something we do to our kids. It is usually employed out of the frustration of not knowing what else to do. It is typically a knee-jerk reaction to misbehavior that has been allowed to go on too long. Discipline is something we do for our kids in order to teach them self-discipline. It is an expression of the love we feel for our children. Because we love them we care enough to say, “No, I can’t let you do that. I will have to stop you until you have learned how to stop yourself”. Discipline is designed to help, not hurt.
Discipline is most effective when it occurs within the context of a relationship characterized by unselfishness, empathy, affection, attentive listening (listening does not guarantee agreement or approval), realistic expectations, reasonable limits, acceptance of emotions, (all feelings are acceptable, all behavior is not), open communication, equal emphasis on privilege and responsibility, and unconditional love, (unconditional love does not mean unconditional consent). Effective discipline is provided by adults who model the behavior they expect.
Discipline changes over time to meet the changing needs of the developing child.
Discipline is thoughtfully planned action that teaches children what is acceptable behavior, how to correct mistakes, how to make good choices and thoughtful decisions, and how to avoid problems in the future. It is designed to guide, not control. The goal of discipline is to invite cooperation and compliance out of affection and respect, not fear.
Discipline takes many forms including setting age appropriate limits, time outs, natural and logical consequences, limiting choices, modeling desired behavior, demonstrating and teaching, acknowledging and expressing appreciation for desired behavior. (WE – our time, attention, and approval – are our children’s favorite reward! I once heard Rosie O’Donnell ask Sherri Lewis, “What do kids like to play with most?” to which Ms. Lewis replied, “Their parents.”) What works with one child may not work with another. What works in one situation may not work in another. What works one day with a child may not work the next day with the same child. When it comes to parenting, we can only do what we know – so the more we know, the more we can do. By increasing our knowledge, we increase our options.
Discipline requires a tremendous amount of self-discipline. Sometimes discipline requires the use of a firm, serious, but controlled voice. When parents get out of control, children get out of control, the situation escalates out of control, and the result is usually punishment, not discipline. Over time this leads to the erosion of the parent-child relationship. Effective discipline requires that we remain calm and avoid taking our children’s behavior personally so that we can take action that is in their best interest.
Discipline is concerned with the here and now as well as with the future. The discipline we use needs to be consistent with the goals we have for our children. By taking the time and making the effort to thoughtfully and purposefully discipline our children today, we are investing in the self-disciplined adults they will become. Effective discipline promotes self reliance, personal responsibility, and social conscience.
Discipline recognizes mistakes as inevitable and uses them to teach. There is no such thing as a perfect child. They will make mistakes. We will be there to help them learn from them and find the motivation to do better. There is no such thing as a perfect parent. We will make mistakes. We can learn from them and use them as motivation to do better. H. Jackson Brown, Jr. wrote, “Parents are pals nowadays because they don’t have the courage to be parents.” We can prove Mr. Brown wrong.
By the way, in case you are wondering – yes, my ears are pierced. I had them pierced when I was in college. And I am so glad I waited until I was mature enough to make that choice because I wanted them pierced, not because my peers did, and not because my mother didn’t.