Discipline: What Is It?

Discipline: What Is It?

Disciplina, in its original Latin usage, means both “teaching and learning.” It’s an interesting word because it means that If there is teaching going on, then there is also learning going on. If someone is learning something, then someone or something (like life or personal experience) is teaching it.

“Discipline” Wrongly Means “Punishment”


Parents discipline children in order to teach them something specific, like right from wrong, good behavior from bad behavior, obedience, the importance of limits and self-control, and so on. Parents teach these things in many different ways. However, in our culture when parents say they are disciplining their children, or want to know how to discipline them, they almost universally use the term discipline to mean punishment as the means of teaching the intended lesson.

Thus, the word discipline has come to mean punishment. (This is true not just in families, but throughout society, in all institutions and organizations.) When I “discipline” my child, it means I am punishing my child in order to teach a specific lesson. When you hear of someone being “disciplined,” you know that they are being punished.

Unfortunately, with a head-strong, resistive, or defiant child who is being disciplined, what is really being learned is often very different from what the parent is intending to teach through the use of punishment. For one thing, the child has usually been taught by parents and others what the expected and appropriate behavior or value is. They already know what’s right or wrong, and what’s expected of them, and why.The lesson they are learning from the punishment, then, is that if they do not conform to expected standards, then parents (or other authorities) will inflict a certain kind of pain in the form of some punishment in order to get them to submit, and to conform to the parent’s (or authority’s) will. What is being taught–and learned–is not right from wrong, but what specific negative consequences will be inflicted for disobedient or inappropriate behavior.

Thus, discipline, as punishment, is nothing more than a means of trying to control others’ behavior used by those who have power and authority over them. There are many justifications for punishment that parents and other authorities use. But they are wrong, because control is a delusion.

Effects of “Discipline” as “Punishment”


In other words, discipline as punishment is a power and control tactic used to exact conformity. It’s a sure sign that there is a power struggle going on. And, while it might be effective in the short run by exacting conformity (obedient behavior) for fear of some impending pain, it is too often ineffective as a teaching tool because it invites the very opposite of what the parent is trying to teach in a number of ways.

  1. It invites the child to learn better ways of disguising, or lying about, disobedient behavior.
  2. It teaches the child that it’s okay to bully someone into submission.
  3. It completely misses the mark in terms of teaching the value of right behavior because it fails to adequately deal with the child’s thoughts and feelings that motivated the misbehavior in the first place.
  4. It invites the child to defy the parent in the future in order to save face, exercise personal autonomy, and win the power struggle.
  5. It teaches children how helpless parents really are–though they won’t admit it–to control their behavior.
  6. It makes the parent an enemy instead of an ally.
  7. By encouraging anger in response it encourages a child to exact “payback” from his parents by “pushing their buttons” if he’s angry enough and wants to punish them. (See The Problem with Punishments for an expansion on these ideas.)

A “New School” Approach to Discipline


So let’s consider discipline in a new light–namely, as an interactive process of teaching and learning in which the parent teaches the child the good things the parent really wants to teach, and the child really needs to learn.

I like the Buddhist term “right behavior” because it can include all the good things any parent would want to teach their child: things like love, caring, empathy, consideration, respect, kindness, hoesty,  responsibility, integrity, self-control, etc., as well as specific behaviors that actually do conform to the parent’s expectations regarding things like chores, hygiene, routines, etc. An effective approach to teaching a child right behavior would deal in one way or another with the child’s motivations: her own (immature, self-centered) views as well as her raw emotions.

On the one hand, failing to deal with the child’s motivations (thoughts and feelings) by focusing exclusively on behaviors misses the mark. On the other hand, how to parent in a way that adequately deals with the child’s motivating thoughts and feelings is not so self-evident or so easy. But when parents commit to being a parent who functions from a  New School perspective rather than the Old School perspective they were raised with, fantastic changes can happen.

In “Two Approaches to Parenting: Old School and New School” I lay out the structure of the two different approaches to how to be a parent. And, this of course means how to discipline. Briefly, these two radically different ways of being a parent are the following.

  1. Old School approach starts with the belief that 1) the parents are the bosses and 2) lay down the rules for right behavior. 3) The child is expected to obey. 4) When the child disobeys the parents use punishment to teach a lesson.
  2. The New School approach starts with the belief that 1) parents and child together discuss what right behavior should be (the “Behavior Dialogue”), and arrive at specific agreements about 1) what those behaviors will be, and 2) the consequences for not following through with them. Instead of obedience, 3) what is expected of the child is cooperation. 4) Instead of punishment when the child breaks her agreement (as she certainly will at times), she is subjected to a process of accountability as to what motivated her breaking the agreement. This is the “Accountability Dialogue,” or the “You-and-Me Dialogue.”

In the Accountability Dialogue the focus is on the child’s breaking her agreement with the parent, not on the original misbehavior. It invokes  the Golden Rule in relation to living up to agreements. It invites the child’s ideas about how she feels if the parent breaks and agreement; how she things the parent feels when she (child) breaks an agreement; how she thinks the parent should handle this transgression (breaking the agreement), and what she (child) will do next time.

Another agreement about right behavior and what it means to live up to agreements is reached. This learning process is a powerful emotional experience, and punishment is not the teaching tool. This is discipline at its best: a true interactive teaching-learning process about right behavior and the Golden Rule.

“Co-Creative” Dialogue Means Unpredictable Results

The mutual, interactive process of listening and talking constitutes a genuine dialogue resulting in agreements, and even two-year-olds can do it. When either the Behavior Dialogue or the Accountability Dialogue takes place, the results will be unpredictable ahead of time. Both parent and child exchange ideas and listen to each other. The parent invites the child to be a good listener by modeling it: the parent listens first to the child’s ideas, and talks second, sharing his/her own ideas. As with any exchange of ideas, there is no telling ahead of time where the conversation will go, where it will end up, or what the final agreement will be. Thus, parent and child co-create that conversation, and they reach an agreement that both can live with by using the ideas of both.

The parent guides the conversation, discussing, in the child’s language, profound principles like cooperation, accountability, integrity, responsibility, empathy, honesty, self-control, and others associated with right behavior. In the process the child learns to listen by being listened to, learns to be honest by repeatedly hearing the  parent’s honesty. The child learn to be open with his feelings, thoughts, and motivations by watching the parent be open about his. This is the true power of the parent’s word, as Don Miguel Ruiz describes in his wonderful little book, The Four Agreements when he discusses the first agreement, “Be impeccable with your word.”
The parent must be able to tolerate the anxiety associated with actually taking the child’s ideas seriously, and with not knowing what the final agreement will be ahead of time. If the parent can do this, the outcome will be 1) unpredictable, and 2) beneficial. The dialogue process will have integrity, the teaching and learning will be of high caliber, and it will result in a child and a parent who care about each other–and themselves. It takes a lot more effort, and it might be more stressful, for the parent to discipline (teach) this way than by imposing rules and punishments. But the results (a child who cares and cooperates) will be far more rewarding, and far more fun to achieve. Discipline becomes a fun game to play, with unpredictable outcomes, and win-win solutions. And it’s all done without punishments.

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.

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