The forgotten art of disciplining children

by Richard Haber, MD
One observation I’ve made in my community office is how often parents lack confidence when it comes to the notion of discipline in childrearing. In some cases, one wonders whether the role of parent and child has been reversed as we witness a mother trying to cajole her son or daughter into doing something he or she clearly doesn’t want to do. In this column on disciplining kids, I’ll restrict myself to preschool children.
In this whole area of discipline, it’s wise to remember the old adage that “a little sugar will attract more flies than vinegar.” Behavioural psychologists teach us that it’s far better to reward the child in some way — verbally, with a little hug, etc. — when the child is behaving as the parent expects rather than through punishment. If one watches an animal trainer, you can see how well this works. Animal trainers always have a reward handy when the animal does what’s asked; they rarely, if ever, punish the animal for non-compliance. I’ve often remarked to myself on how some mothers seem to be able to discipline their child with a quiet word rather than using a loud voice and repeated demands for their offspring to stop behaving badly. These are the mothers who understand the value of rewarding good behaviour.
The word “discipline” is derived from the Latin word disciplina, which means “instruction” or “knowledge,” — “instruction given to a disciple.” In the maelstrom that young parents finds themselves when they confront a recalcitrant 2- or 3-year old, it’s wise for the parent to step back and remind themselves that to discipline a child is to instruct or teach them; to give them some new knowledge on how to behave in a certain situation; to give them some insight on how to control their emotions.
A simple model

A simple model

As a young child is growing and developing, she requires external controls on behaviour that only later will be internalized into a conscience.
A simple behavioural model that I have found helpful for dealing with parents struggling in this area is the following: first, the parents need to sit down quietly together and reflect on what they wish to achieve with their child when it comes to discipline. What are the basic rules of acceptable behaviour they expect? These basic rules should take into account the child’s developmental stage; they should be simple and understandable to the child. Both parents need to agree on these basic rules and support one another in their application. Second, always remember that some battles need not be won by the parent. A pyrrhic victory is one in which the emotional energy put out in settling an issue isn’t worth the value of what’s achieved. This probably applies most often to situations in which siblings are squabbling. As long as they’re not physically hurting one another, it’s sometimes wise for the parent to allow the siblings to settle their own differences rather than always being drawn into the conflict as a referee. Invariably, the parent-referee’s decision will prolong the sibling rivalry by appeasing one child and infuriating the other. Third, there should be clear consequences if the child doesn’t follow the rule. These consequences, depending on age, can range from isolating the child from the parents for a reasonable period of time (“time-out”) to deprivation of privileges (e.g. confiscation of a video game for a determined period of time). The consequences of breaking the rule should invariably follow the event and ought to follow temporally close to the infraction. A young child who bites a playmate needs to know that this is unacceptable behaviour but if the consequences, such as “time-out” occur a week later, the kid won’t connect the two events.
The wrong message

The wrong message

Physical punishment such as spanking isn’t recommended as an effective tool in disciplining — i.e. instructing — the child. First, it creates ambiguity about the parent-child relationship. If the parent is the “sun” of a young child’s existence, the one who loves unconditionally, then… “How can my mother/father love me when he/she spanks me?” Second, the parent may be teaching the opposite of what he or she wishes to teach: aggression is an appropriate response when someone is preventing you from doing what you want to do. And third, and perhaps most importantly, it’s totally ineffective in achieving what the parent wants to achieve. Having said this, a slight pat on the rear of a young child to emphasize the danger of a certain situation, such as suddenly running out onto a busy road, may be acceptable.
Finally, I believe that many young parents are bombarded with so much pseudo-psychology on talk shows and the internet, that they’re afraid that “disciplining” their child will damage them psychologically. We’ve all seen the 3-year old throwing a tantrum while the father stands by helplessly, when in fact that child is basically asking the parent to draw a limit on his behaviour, a limit the kid himself is incapable of applying. My message is simple: effective discipline is important for creating successful and psychologically healthy adolescents and adults, and parents need not be afraid of being the “parent” rather than the “child” in their relationship with their children. As “parent,” we’re meant to use disciplina and instruct our kids. They expect no less from us.
Richard Haber, MD, FAAP, FRCPC is an associate professor of pediatrics at McGill University and the Director of the Pediatric Consultation Centre at The Montreal Children’s Hospital.