16 Jan

“People whose integrity has not been damaged in childhood, who were protected, respected, and treated with honesty by their parents, will be–both in their youth and in adulthood–intelligent, responsive, empathic, and highly sensitive. They will take pleasure in life and will not feel any need to kill or even hurt others or themselves. They will use their power to defend themselves, not to attack others. They will not be able to do otherwise than respect and protect those weaker than themselves, including their children, because this is what they have learned from their own experience.” – Alice Miller

It is always disturbing when parents and teachers defend physical discipline, like spanking, on religious grounds. Knowledge about child development and the effect of different ways of disciplining have changed radically in the past 30 years. The American Academy of Paediatrics emphasises that discipline rests on healthy, warm relations in a family. Discipline is much more than an old-fashioned spank on the backside. As a matter of fact, corporal punishment has little to do with the true essence of discipline. The first thing adults should remember, is that the purpose of discipline is not to make life easier for adults. When we discipline a child, we are in fact encouraging them to develop self-discipline. Unfortunately, this also means that as a parent you will repeatedly have to engage in conversations and actions with your child, at inopportune times and places.

Positive discipline always rests on good relationships.  Young children look for approval and love from adults, which is what the brain needs in order for learning to take place. Children may ask for toys, sweets, or instant entertainment; but what they really want is your attention, your love and especially your time.

Before the age of seven, 90% of brain growth takes place.  From the age of one year, impulse control starts developing along with the development of the frontal lobes. Developmentally suitable self-control should therefore be part of the education process from the age of 18 months.  What does this mean?  It means that age-appropriate limitations should be set from day one. Unacceptable behaviour should be discouraged – not only with words but also through body language. In other words; you should look as if you are serious about what you want. You should also talk as if you expect your child to listen. Every child can pick up on uncertainty and guilt in a parent’s voice and use it to their advantage.

Limits should be such that young children will still have the opportunity to explore by themselves, to discover, to make mistakes and to learn from them. Discipline does not mean that we as parents and teachers should control every action, word and decision of children. This is not discipline at all – it is tyranny, even if it is done in love.

It is very important that children experience from an early age that parents are consistent in their behaviour. Disciplinary actions should not change when the adult is tired; or does not feel like getting on the emotional roller-coaster that can sometimes accompany a child testing the limits set by parents. Children should know that both parents speak from the same mouth.  If you and your partner have different opinions, talk to each other, compromise and decide on a unified disciplinary system. Children have the amazing ability to manipulate their parents so subtly that they trap them before the parents realise it. I always call it the national sports for babies, toddlers and preschoolers:  how to control your parents without them realising it!

It is very tedious and also emotionally dangerous for children to try to discover the rules of life on their own. Those of you who have read “Lord of the Flies” by William Golding, will remember the sad way that the group of little boys tried to develop their own rules. Children need someone to show them the way. Knowing that someone cares enough to set boundaries makes it easier for young children to develop impulse control.

If we return to what Alice Miller said in the quotation at the beginning, we should always be aware of our immense task to develop functional adults – people who will be loving and caring, who will not willingly hurt others, whether human or not. In order to become these people, our children need to experience firm, fair and empathic discipline. We all would like to inspire our children to be reflective and aware of the needs of others. This can only happen if they experience consistent loving care from the emotionally important people in their lives. The foundation of a loving, compassionate human being is established by developing trust in the capable and physically present caretakers in your life.

Although children will test the limits you as parent or teacher have set from time to time, such limits and structure provide security. It is this experience that provides the impetus to grow up with what Dr Albert Schweitzer called the most important aspect to teach young people, namely respect for all life.

Photo credit: Wayne Silver at Flickr – http://www.flickr.com/photos/psycho-pics/3972332660/


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