New School Parenting:
Discipline Means Teaching Children to Care
I can think of no more confusing and problematic topic for both parents and professionals than the matter of the proper discipline of children. Before getting into how I approach this most important topic, I want to make two points.
“Discipline” Means Teaching and Learning.
First, the meaning of the word “discipline.” The words disciple and discipline come from the Latin word, disciplina. This Latin word has different meanings, including both “teaching” and “learning.” This makes sense because if a person is really teaching something, then that means someone else is actually learning something. On the other hand, if a teacher in a classroom is attempting to teach a group of rowdy students who are not paying the least bit of attention, then we could hardly say they are learning what the teacher is “teaching.” Since they are not learning, the teacher is, unfortunately, just going through the motions, and not really teaching.
I introduce this concept in order to show how far the English word “discipline” has deviated from the original meaning of its root word, disciplina. In my interactions with parents and professionals over the past several decades, I have found that the English word “discipline” has almost universally been used by them to mean “punishment” (noun), or “punish” (verb). For example, when both parents and professionals say, “That person must be disciplined,” they almost always mean “That person must be punished.” Similarly, the question, “How do you discipline a child who lies?” almost always means, “How do you punish a child who lies?” Exceptions to these uses of the term are rare indeed, even among professionals.
I am proposing an exception however, by suggesting that we go back to thinking about discipline as a process of teaching and learning. It’s a much richer and much more positive approach than just thinking of discipline as “punishment,” although it can include punishment. I think you will find that it makes the whole subject of discipline (including punishment) much more easy to work with, and much more beneficial to both parents and kids.
I am convinced that parents usually know, almost “to a tee,” how it is that they want their children to behave, and what values they want their children to learn and to live by. For example, when a parent asks “How can I get my son to stop using foul language?” or “What should I do if my daughter continues to defy me and come in later than curfew?” the parent knows exactly what behaviors they want from the child. It’s a question of how to get them. Parents know what they want to teach their children. The challenge is how they can best do it.
Now let’s go back to the matter of discipline as teaching and learning. When most parents want to discipline a child for using foul language or coming in after curfew, they think about disciplining the child by punishing him/her. They often want to punish the child for the purpose of teaching them a lesson, or teaching them to do the right thing, by causing enough pain or discomfort that the child will not want to do the same thing again and incur the unpleasant consequence again.
Making Things Worse
My second point about the punishment approach to discipline is that it usually doesn’t work very well. The child might very well repeat the behavior in the future, and may try to get better at not getting caught, or lying about it. On top of that, parents often say that they have “run out of things to take away,” or that “the kid just doesn’t seem to care what the punishment is.” Finally, sooner or later the child is too big and too strong and too smart to be “pushed around” verbally, physically, or with deprivations, and will start openly fighting back and defying the parent. And the parent can’t stop or prevent it, since every person controls his/her own behavior based on their own thoughts and feelings, and not the parent’s (cf. my Volcano Theory).
Beyond this, punishment is an Old School method designed to control behavior by inflicting pain. It is rather primitive, and I dare say a disrespectful attempt at behavior control–and control is not only impossible, but it often invites an angry response in the child. After accumulating enough angry responses, the child (rightly or wrongly) begins to harbor a certain level of resentment toward the parent, and perhaps some fear as well. This often results in all kinds of negative, hostile, defiant, withholding, disrespectful, or dishonest “payback” from the child–just the opposite of what the parent is trying to teach.
By trying harder with an outmoded (Old School) system of discipline, the parent might very well be making things worse for their kids both outside and inside their home. There’s a more respectful, and more effective, way–the New School way.
Discipline = Teaching Children to Care (CAIRE)
We first need to understand more about the idea that a New School approach to discipline means teaching children to care, which I like to spell CAIRE. When parents effectively teach children to caire about self and others, the children (by definition) also learn to caire about self and others.
So in approaching the subject of disciplining children, I boil the teaching-learning process down to a few of the most important qualities that people need to succeed in relationships and in life: cooperation, accountability, integrity, responsibility, and empathy (CAIRE). Let’s define these important concepts, and then we can talk about how to teach them.
Definitions of CAIRE
I use Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition, to define these all-important moral concepts, except for the second definition of “Integrity,” which is from Landmark Education, Inc.
1) Acting or working together with another or others;
2) Associating with another or others for mutual benefit.
1) A willingness to accept responsibility;
2) A willingness to account for one’s actions.
1) Firm adherence to a code of moral values;
2) Doing what one says s/he will do. (from Landmark Education, Chicago)
1) The capacity to accept obligations;
3) The capacity to choose for oneself between right and wrong.
1) Understanding of, awareness of, sensitivity to another’s thoughts and feelings
2) The capacity to understand, be aware of, and sensitive to another’s thoughts and feelings
How to Teach Children to CAIRE
When building a house, we must start with the foundation. The living space is developed next, and finally the roof. I compare this to developing a relationship. I consider the foundation of any relationship to be listening. This is where trust is built through acceptance of another person’s intimate thoughts and feelings–which always motivate and determine behavior, both in children and in adults.
Even if a child’s behavior is unacceptable, the motivating thoughts and feelings must be understood by the parents and accepted as the child’s truth at that moment. If the parents can listen to the child’s self-disclosure about how s/he thinks or feels, the child learns to trust and confide in the parents. In addition, the parents learn to understand the child.
Next in constructing a house, comes the living space. In developing the parent-child relationship this is where the parents do the speaking (or illustrating) their values in word and deed. By their actions they model their values and their skills–and shortcomings–which the children are sure to pick up and assimilate as their own. Parents have much to teach kids, and they do it verbally and non-verbally.
Finally, the roof goes onto the house. In my relationship analogy, the roof is disciplining. This is where the relationship rules are defined in terms of acceptable and unacceptable behaviors, limits, expectations, consequences, etc. In adult relationships the most important limits and expectations are negotiated verbally. Unfortunately, in parent-child relationships, they are rarely negotiated. In typical Old School style, parents just naturally define and impose the rules on children and expect obedience. That’s what they learned to do from their own parents. Then they tend to punish behavior that is non-compliant, often setting up parent-child conflict. There is a better way.
In my New School approach, the teaching and learning of CAIRE rests on the parents’ ability to listen first and talk second, just as the roof rests on the foundation first and the living space second. In other words, the parents teach CAIRE, and the children learn CAIRE, through dialogue.
If the parents can listen respectfully and talk (illustrate) respectfully, they are capable of having a respectful dialogue with their child. The child, in turn, learns to listen and talk respectfully by imitating the parents, who illustrate how it is done. Here I will provide a brief summary of the parent-child dialogue as the how to of disciplining, or teaching children to CAIRE.
Dialogue in Discipline (i.e., in Teaching CAIRE)
1. In my New School approach, “rules” are seen as “agreements” about expected behaviors and consequences. Instead of imposing their own rules about child behaviors and consequences, parents negotiate agreements about the behaviors, their rationale, and their consequences, even with very young children, in language the children can understand. E.g., “I don’t hit you because I know it hurts. How do you think it feels when you hit?” (Wait for the child’s response.) “So, can we agree that you will not hit me, or your baby brother?” (Wait for child’s agreement.) “Okay, now if you forget, and do it anyway, what do you think should happen? What should I do? What should be the consequence?”
2. The goal of this dialogue aimed at agreements is the child’s cooperation. This is very different from the child’s obedience to parent-imposed rules. Inviting cooperation by inviting the child’s input is much more likely to result in child cooperation (particularly if the child is headstrong, argumentative, or defiant), because people tend to live up to standards they have helped to establish much more than to what they are ordered to do.
3. Parents are the ultimate, legitimate authority in the family. While they often complain that negotiating with children feels like they are giving in, or giving away their parental power and authority, the are not. Instead, they are using their parental power and authority in a different way. They are sharing it–for a higher purpose, namely to invite cooperation rather than to demand obedience.
4. If a child refuses to “play ball” with parents by refusing to negotiate agreements about right behavior and consequences, then the parents have the power, authority, and responsibility to impose their rules on the child. This is reverting to Old School power and control tactics. The best way to do it is to start by offering the child choices. If this fails, rules are imposed, both for behaviors and for consequences.
5. If the child refuses to “play ball” by refusing to negotiate acceptable behaviors and consequences, and then later decides to try negotiating in order to change a rule or a consequence, New School parents are open to negotiating something new. They want their child’s input, because they want their child’s cooperation.
6. As in life, the most important agreements (“rules”) always have both positive and negative consequences. They may be either:
a. Natural: they occur automatically, naturally (such as, Mom and Dad are happy when I cooperate);
b. Logical–they are devised (negotiated) by people in the family (such as, Mom or Dad puts my toys away where I can’t get them if I don’t put them away myself.)
7. The basic rationale for parents holding children to their agreements is the Golden Rule: Treat others as you want them to treat you. When children break an agreement with their parents (and also vice-versa!), the bottom line in my New School approach is accountability, and NOT punishment.
The parent really wants to know how the child thinks about this most fundamental standard, The Golden Rule, and there are a number of good questions the parent can ask the child to invite her to say what she thinks about it. I call this the “accountability dialogue,” or the “you-and-me dialogue,” and the parent is the one who initiates it and guides the discussion using some or all of the following questions.
a) “How do we treat each other here? “Do you like it when I break my agreements (or promises) with you?
b) Then what makes you think it’s okay for you to break your agreements with me?
c) How do you think I feel about that (or toward you) when you break an agreement with me?
d) Do you know what the Golden Rule is?
e) What do you think about the Golden Rule?
e) What do you think the consequences of your breaking your agreement should be?
Notice how the parent’s response is not one of condemnation or judgment or criticism or anger. In fact, this conversation is not even about the original offense by the child (say, hitting his sister). It’s using the listening skills to understand how the child truly thinks about the Golden Rule, and teach the child that the parent takes this business of breaking agreements very seriously, and very personally. It’s not about what you did (hit your sister), we can deal with that later. Instead, it’s about you and me, and how we treat each other when we make agreements with each other.
8. Parents are responsible for monitoring behavior, administering positive and negative consequences consistently, and initiating dialogue about broken agreements. This means acknowledging children’s good behavior (caring), and “holding their feet to the fire” over broken agreements. It is done respectfully, with the parents willingly trying to learn what their children think about the Golden Rule, and also sharing with them what they themselves think about it also.
This New School approach to discipline is very different from the Old School method of using punishment for bad behavior. It’s all about taking the time to actually find out how the child thinks about the basics of human relationships. And in inviting the child to share about that, the parent teaches a very powerful and uncomfortable lesson that not only makes the child squirm, but is far more effective than taking away a toy.
3 Steps to Parent-Child Harmony is my book that describes in detail the differences between the Old School Parenting model and the New School Parenting model. Please see these links if you are interested in more information or wish to purchase.