What is discipline, anyway?


Most parents I speak to tell me that discipline means “punishment”. And when we discipline our children it’s our duty to mete out punishment to teach our children a lesson. But what do they learn? Not a great deal, evidently, because they’re usually up to no good again in next to no time – but now they feel worse about themselves.

In fact, research tells us that punishment is the least effective way for us to teach our kids anything at all.

I define discipline as ‘teaching our children good ways to act’. Our standard discipline practices don’t teach good ways to act. We model terrible behaviour based around power and control when we go with those standard practices.

If we want to teach good ways to act so our children are disciplined, what should we do instead?

Shouldn’t there be consequences when our children do the wrong thing? Shouldn’t they have to pay a price?

I don’t believe so. I see the idea as misguided puritanicalism. Evangelists for punishment seem to have an overindulged sense of justice and a myopic view of mercy.

Research suggests an alternative solution that I believe is far more effective at teaching our children good ways to act – to discipline them. It’s called “autonomy supportive parenting”. Here is how it works:

  1. Provide a rationale for behavioural requests.
    All too often we tell our children what to do with no explanation. It should be obvious that hitting siblings or failing to share is bad for family harmony, but it helps when we explain why. Compliance increases when everyone is on the same page. Whether it is cleaning something up, or being kind, a rationale makes a difference.
  2.  Understand the situation from your child’s perspective.
    Recently I asked my daughter to do something. I explained why it was important. She responded that she could see what I was saying, but her point of view was different to mine. We talked it through. My request had not taken into account how she might be affected. Sometimes perspectives are irrelevant. Seatbelts must be worn – even by angry toddlers. But often we can be more flexible – or at least more understanding – than we typically allow.
  3. Offer choices and encourage initiative
    One of the most powerful things we can do when we come to a challenging situation with a child is to give them choice. “What do you think is the best way forward?” You will be surprised to see that good answers are often inside of them.
  4. Minimise the use of controlling techniques.
    Contrary to common sense, it seems that the more we attempt to control and compel our children to act certain ways, the more they resent it and the more they resist it. By encouraging a self-determining approach, our children are more likely to set their own rules (with our guidance) and stick to them.

Putting it into practice

Recently my daughter showed me her phone as part of our ‘random monitoring’ agreement. She has a phone all to herself. She allows me periodic access when I randomly ask to ensure that things are being used safely.

My daughter was using an app I was very uncomfortable with. I asked her to please stop using it. I told her I had grave concerns about pornography spammers, and other unsavoury content being served up. I expected her to remove the app. (That’s step 1 from above).

She responded by telling me she disagreed. I listened carefully (that’s step 2) and non-defensively. Rather than trying to prove myself correct, I asked her questions to see why she felt so strongly.

Then I asked her, “How do we work through this then? We want different outcomes.” (That’s step 3). She and I talked about different ways she might keep the app and stay safe. We agreed to a range of measures that left me feeling that she was safe and making wise decisions, and left her feeling trusted and honoured.

And from time to time I check her phone as part of our monitoring agreement – with the proviso that I won’t delete anything, but that instead we’ll discuss things.

The difference between approaches
I could, as some parenting experts suggest, grow a digital spine and tell my daughter she doesn’t have a phone if she doesn’t play by my rules. I suspect that she would be very clever and make sure I never caught her doing the wrong thing. But there would be no trust in our relationship, and she would almost certainly still find ways to use that app. All I would succeed in doing is that I would have driven that unwanted behaviour underground. She would be sneaky. She would use other people’s phones. She would delete the app each night and re-load it each morning. Our relationship would be built on avoidance.

Now, however, we are open. We communicate. We trust. We check in. My daughter understands what I’m concerned about and accommodates me. And I honour her perspectives and guide her towards making good decisions.

I’m not advocating permissiveness. In fact, if you look carefully at the process, it is heavily engaging, and requires high levels of parental nurturance and admonition. I am guiding – clearly and directly. But I’m doing it in a way that reflects an understanding of my daughter’s perspective.

A Concluding thought…

Discipline like this can take a long time at first. But when we honour relationships and take the time to carefully teach our children, discipline gets faster and faster over time. But even more valuable – our relationships get stronger and stronger at the time when our children need us the most.

About the Author

Dr Justin Coulson PhD is a parenting expert and the author of What Your Child Needs From You: Creating a Connected Family available from ACER press. He is available for speaking engagements via his website. Justin and his wife Kylie are the parents of 6 children.

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Dr Justin Coulson

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