Since I started writing for Mothering.com, I have been asked a few times what I “do” for discipline. I was puzzled by this question until a number of months later when I saw some responses to a mother asking for discipline advice on one of the crunchy-mom-facebook-pages that I am a fan of. The mother was dealing with a “defiant” 7-year-old whose behavior she wanted to improve. Several of the responses included what appeared to be systems of attempting to control a child– things like: Tell her no & if she resists, take away her favorite toy. If she still resists, take away all of her toys & put her in her room. If she still resists, send her to bed early.
To be truthful, I was bothered by these responses. It sounded a lot like a system people would use if they were training a new puppy. & It occurred to me why people might have been asking me what I “do” for discipline– they were looking for a specific method of child-raising or possibly child-training to prescribe to that would hopefully hold all the answers. I don’t have that.
Maybe it’s the counter-culture blood that pumps through my veins, but I have a strong negative reaction to the thought of “training” a child. I have not looked at every child-training option so plenty of it could be lovely, but I don’t feel a need to train my child as much as I feel a longing to communicate with him.
It’s similar to how potty “training” happened for us. I prefer the idea of potty-learning. From the moment of his birth, he has been using the potty like a human person normally does, as often as I caught it. I have never used any type of reward or punishment for potty-learning, aside from happily congratulating my son when he made it & saying “Whoops! We missed!” when he didn’t. I simply put him over the toilet whenever I thought he might have to go & he eventually started doing it himself. I also used diapers sometimes, but some families don’t! He is almost 3 & has been completely “trained,” including overnight, for a few months now. So I suppose I did practice a method, but it wasn’t a strict system of rewards, punishments, consequences, prizes, approval or disapproval. I embraced the communication that would lead to the easiest, most peaceful results & it worked. I take the same approach to discipline.
It is unfortunate that the word “discipline” has become synonymous with “punishment.” “Discipline” means: a branch of knowledge; training to improve strength or self-control; to develop behavior by instruction and practice; especially to teach self-control. “Punishment” means: a suffering, pain, or loss that serves as retribution; a penalty inflicted on an offender; severe, rough, or disastrous treatment.
The root word of “discipline” is discipulus, meaning “pupil” or “disciple.” This makes me reflect on the stories of how Jesus treated his disciples. I understand that some people find the phrase “Spare the rod; spoil the child” to be an encouragement to take up hitting kids, but it is shown in the Bible that the rod is used by shepherds to guide their sheep, not to beat them. We see this in Psalm 23: “The LORD is my shepherd, I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul. He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”
You can view the love & tenderness of this verse in this video of a woman singing Psalm 23 while in labor at home. It is clear to me that the “rod” referred to in the Bible is not an instrument for punishing children, but a symbol woven throughout parables of shepherds guiding their sheep as Jesus cared for his flock of disciples & tells us to care for ours. In fact, Jesus specifically tells us not to be unkind to children: “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 18:10)
I don’t know enough about the other religions of our world to give insight into their scripture, but I believe in God & I do not believe that God wants us to hit kids anymore. I do know that some Christians literally use a rod—a plastic plumbing tube or something similar— to hit kids with when they are trying to “train” them. Not only do I strongly feel that this is a terrible misinterpretation of the Bible, I understand this type of discipline to be incredibly harmful to everyone involved. I know that some parents believe they have their right to decide if hitting their child is “what’s best,” but if we truly want to do what is best for children we can simply consult the empirical data that has been gathered over the last few decades. It is obvious by examining the state of our society that we are not in a healthy place. Something needs to change. This Harvard study tells us that physical discipline paired with the common detached, forced-independence style of parenting unfortunately popular in the U.S. is creating a disaster. Spanking & hitting is painful. Pain doesn’t teach children how to be compassionate adults. Our world desperately needs compassionate adults. We need generation after generation after generation of compassionate adults to begin to heal our world.
So I don’t hit my almost 3-year-old son, my only child. I know some people say “Spanking isn’t hitting” but that is one of the most absurd things I have ever heard. Spanking may have more theory behind it than random hitting, but it is a sorely mistaken theory with lasting harmful effects. It seems there is some school of thought out there where a parent who doesn’t hit their children must just let them run wild. I don’t do that either. I do things that probably annoy some people in public, but that’s because I strongly disagree with our society’s “Seen & Not Heard” philosophy. Like once I let my son ride a little green tricycle all the way through Target. He was definitely in the way of some carts a couple times, but it was also a rare event & really fun for him. I saw that it was something he really wanted to do & that his emotional state (over-tired) was going to make shopping difficult if I tried to control his desires at that time. I don’t feel that I was “spoiling” him any more than I would be spoiling a friend who needed freedom in an emotional time. I try to avoid saying “No” because I find it annoying & I’m sure it’s totally annoying to kids who hear it all the time & don’t understand why, but my son does not always get what he wants. I simply try to discern what he truly needs in each situation.
For instance, he tends to ask for a new car every time we pass the toy car stand at the grocery store. Occasionally I say yes; most of the time I enthusiastically remind him of all his awesome cars at home. Usually he is well-rested, well-fed, & healthy so that answer goes over well. Other times he is over-tired or hungry or under the weather & the situation takes more care. If he asks again with more pleading in his voice, I’ll change the subject by cheerfully saying “Remember that new yellow car we got! That one is awesome! & You have a big dump truck at home! Smash, crash!” etc. Changing the subject or the scenery is often effective. Kids can’t help but invest themselves fully into the tragedy right in front of them & it’s not fair to demand that their feelings stop simply because we don’t like it. Maybe twice my son has started crying in the check-out line about not getting a new car. I don’t shame these tears when they arise. I don’t feel any need to punish him for being sad. I acknowledge his feelings by saying “I see you’re sad” & give him big hugs because the truth is that kids don’t “misbehave” because they want to bother us or make us mad. They don’t freak out in public because they are “bad” or because they want to embarrass us. They simply have very little control over their own emotions & that’s what we’re here for. Kids need guidance through these moments, not punishment.
More than anything, I try to avoid reaching my son’s emotional level. It can be startling if he gets upset in public, but rather than matching his intensity with anger, I try to empathize if I cannot reason with him. As I said, my son has cried a couple times over toy cars at the grocery store, but we have made it almost 3 years with only one legit “tantrum.” It was a few months ago; he was probably 2½. We were at Barnes & Noble bookstore & we had been there waiting for friends for a lot longer than I had intended. My son was probably hungry but I didn’t want to buy him bakery stuff, not knowing when my friend would get there & we’d be able to go find a healthier option. He was transitioning into a new nap pattern so he was likely tired too. I imagine that being tired for a kid is like me as a human adult staying up for days. I have done that before, back in high-school. I know what it’s like to feel completely exhausted & overly emotional. I understand the intensity of being too tired to respond rationally. So I don’t hold it against him.
We waited, our friends got there & it was soon time for us to leave because it was clear my son desperately needed a nap or at least a break from this busy public space. I tried to give him a lot of reminders that we were leaving soon so he could mentally prepare; this is something I do every time we are in public or visiting a friend’s house. Saying something like “Ok, remember we have to put your coat on & leave soon; we’re going home to eat!” a few times is really helpful. I did give him ample warnings of our impending departure, but he still tripped out when it was time to go. I tried to get his coat on & he flopped around on the floor crying, red-faced. I tried to pull him up into my arms to hug him but he flung his feet out to keep away from me. At that point I did say “No kicking, gentle feet only” in serious tone. It was really sad. I felt bad for him. & I felt good that I felt bad for him! I thank God I had just read this article because when he started to emotionally explode, I started to blush, sweat, & tear-up. This was my first time being that mom with that kid, my first experience with a public meltdown & it was embarrassing! But I didn’t let that embarrassment control my reaction, nor did I allow the stress to make me angry. Instead I felt sad for him that he felt so out of control & sad for myself that I was so helpless. I basically just gently grabbed him & his coat, said goodbye to our friends & ran out the door. Sometimes you just have to grab the kid & run :) It was a stressful situation & there was no awesome resolution, but I have seen kids getting punished for having enormous feelings like that in public, sometimes through angry words hissed in their ear, sometimes through yelling or shouting, sometimes through hitting or pinching & I am glad to have not resorted to those tactics. Hurting kids in situations like that does not teach them how to effectively handle their emotions; it shows them that they are unsupported, bad, misunderstood, & shameful. It also shows them that they cannot come to you with their feelings without being betrayed & I have a great fear of what that does during the teenage years. If kids feel that they cannot express their true feelings, I am afraid that lying takes its place & I desperately want to avoid that with my child.
I do get overwhelmed sometimes, of course. I have been known to make my son sit down for a bit when it seems like his rambunctiousness will get him or someone else hurt. “Dude! You need to sit down,” has escaped my lips in the past. I’ll sit with him or hold him if he cries about it. I do believe with his level of energy that he needs to sit & take a breather sometimes. & Of course nursing helps! When I feel that he is getting frantic & it’s making me panic, I’ll make us both sit down for a nursing session. I can happily say that he definitely understands consequences as much as his age & brain allow him to. He knows that if he doesn’t put his boots on, he can’t go outside. He knows he has to put away most of his toys before taking out many more. He knows if he plays too wild with his friends, he will have to take time to sit quietly with me. I just don’t use consequences as threats.
I try to regularly remember that my son is a person (it is easy to forget when he is jumping around like a baby goat). He is a human who should be respected as one. I can’t make the claim of having a super-sweet, super-peaceful little boy either; I was blessed with a child that regularly draws comments of “He’s got a lot of energy!” & “He just doesn’t stop!” He is a wild animal. I was surprised that he turned into an energetic freewheeler because I have solely practiced peaceful parenting & had imagined that it would create a super-lovey, snuggly boy who always listens. Sometimes he is an awesome listener who knows exactly what I am requesting & does it with flair. Other times he is far too distracted & after I’ve asked him once normally & a second time seriously, I usually will help him do whatever I am asking him to do. I basically just have faith that he will do what he is developmentally able to do & if he is unable to react appropriately it is because of an underlying cause. Once we had a day where he seemed unusually aggressive; he was swinging his feet in the grocery cart to lightly kick me; I opened up a snack for him because I thought he might be hungry & he wiped it on my sleeve—I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. I asked him a few times but it wasn’t until we were reading before bed later that night that he told me he was acting sad because of the dead bird we had seen outside the library earlier that day (he seems to ponder the thought of death deeply). I am glad that I didn’t allow his obvious irritation to make me angry or inspire me to punish him because it was coming from such a true place. Stories like this remind me to be optimistic about my child, honor his feelings, & stay compassionate.
I try to read things like this & this & this & this a lot. & Books like this & this. It is important for me to learn & repeat these sentiments so I can continue to remember to take control of my own feelings in tense parenting situations & not blame my child for behaviors he cannot control. It seems to be working. If something works better than hitting, why hit? Most days with my son are awesome. As I type this he is attempting to climb on his wobbly clothing shelf that will surely tip over if he succeeds. I didn’t have to follow any magic 1-2-3 steps or some requisite formula for disciplining or punishing him. I simply said “Hey buddy, that will tip over & fall on you if you don’t put your feet on the floor right now.” He stepped down. When he was a little younger & didn’t understand commands like that, I would have just gone over to him & put him on the floor with a “We play on the floor” statement, or I would have stuck him in the sling to go for a ride. Of course this is only my experience with my particular child, & I only have one child, but overall I don’t feel any need to implement a structured punishment/reward system because it isn’t needed. What I do is simple but complex & instinctual & it works for us. That is what I do for discipline.
What do you do for discipline, Dear Reader? What literature do you read for inspiration? What studies do you find most convincing? What do you struggle with? What do you do best?
About Kristen Tea
I am a 27-year-old single, attached, informed, lactivist, intactivist, peaceful Minnesotan mother of almost 4-year-old Sun Ronin a.k.a Sunny Boy. I am an artist & lover of expression. I'm also a student with many things to learn, including nutritional therapy, lactation consulting, doulahood, yoga instructing, & more. I believe that unplanned pregnancies do not have to equal uninformed motherhood, & women have the power to restore humanity to everything we touch.