Think for a moment about the ways you discipline your children when they act in challenging ways.

Perhaps your three year-old has just stabbed his older brother in the face with a fork. Or maybe your teenage daughter has screamed an obscenity at her younger sibling. Or you’ve just discovered your eight year-old is pocketing coins from your purse to spend at the tuckshop. Or maybe it’s just that you’ve asked and asked and darned-well asked time and again for ‘those shoes to be put away’ and no one has listened.

What are our standard methods for disciplining our children?
When I ask this question at my parenting workshops, the responses are predictable. With a mild degree of shame and guilt, parents confess that they raise their voices – a lot. And they use threats. Lots.
Then the big guns come out. Parents use withdrawal of privileges, time out (or solitary confinement – which the UN has indicated is a violation of human rights, but we use it daily in our homes), and even smacking.
My next question is this: What are the results of these discipline methods?
Most parents point out that the challenging behaviour stops. And it’s true. Research tells us quite plainly that any of these strategies will stamp out problem behaviour. But only when we’re around. And often not even then. In fact one recent study demonstrated that in 74% of cases where children are smacked, they are back at their ‘forbidden’ behaviour (or something else equally outlawed) within 10 minutes.

But there are other issues with these forms of ‘discipline’. Not only do they not really work, but they:

  • drive a wedge in our relationships with our children
  • undermine our children’s sense of worth
  • drive unwanted behaviour underground (kids just get sneakier)
  • model anger and aggression as the solution to difficult situations. Power gets results is the lesson they learn.
  • create resentment, fear, sadness, and more anger (emotions are contagious)
  • eventually stop working as kids get bigger and less fearful of our power
  • stop children learning.

Yet we persist in using them. Why?

In my workshops on discipline, I often invite participants to draw a picture of a house. Everyone draws essentially the same thing:

In fact, that is a much better version than what I typically see. But why is it that we, as adults, draw the same house we were drawing as 6 year-olds?

When I ask the question, these are the responses I get:

  • It’s quick
  • It’s easy
  • It doesn’t require any thought
  • I only had a minute to get it done
  • It’s how I’ve always done it
  • It’s how I was taught
  • I don’t have the skills to do it any better than that

But what if we could learn the skills? What if we could discipline in ways that were powerfully effective?

I suggest that the way we draw houses (and the excuses we give for drawing them so poorly) is correlated with the way we discipline.

We go with those typical reactions I described earlier (yelling, threatening, grounding, time out, hitting) because they’re quick, easy, require no thought, require limited time, and it’s how we were taught and how we’ve always done it. Perhaps most poignantly, it’s because we don’t think we have the skills to do it any better.

Those standard disciplinary techniques really require no skill, no effort, no thought, no perspective, and no compassion. And they don’t really do the job particularly well – just like most of my workshop participants don’t draw houses very well.