The Problems of Discipline
The Problems of Discipline
Generally, when people refer to discipline, they mean a system of rewards and punishments used to compel the behavior they want in another, less powerful person. So we might give our child an ice-cream if she’s does what we want her to, or deny her privileges if she doesn’t do what we want her to do. This way of influencing behavior is also referred to as conditioning and has much of its justification in Pavlov’s experiments with dogs. He found that if he fed them and rang a bell at the same time, eventually he could get the dogs salivating just by ringing the bell. Parents taking advantage of this principal work toward getting the behavior they want with just “The Look.” They expect that the child will eventually have enough experience with rewards and punishments to know what will follow “The Look” if she doesn’t do as she is being told. Now just the threat is enough to compel the desired behavior.
One problem with this approach is that it requires bigger and bigger rewards and punishments and more and more power as the child grows up. Many parents reach the teen years and find they’ve run out of power. Their child is now big enough and smart enough to get away with defying them or with deceiving them. The punishments, typically “grounding” don’t seem to work for long and the child may even find ways around the punishment — by sneaking out, for example. And the rewards can become unaffordable and unpredictable in results.
Another problem with this approach is that when it works, it results in the right behavior for the wrong reason. Do we really want to train our children to be kind or honest or say they’re sorry or get good grades, etc. so that they can get paid in a reward or so that they can avoid being punished? Or do we want them to understand the true intrinsic value of these behaviors? Wouldn’t we rather our child understand that kindness to others not only encourages others to be kind, but that it feels good to be kind to others? Wouldn’t we rather our children got good grades incidentally to their passion for learning, because they have been taught the value of knowledge?
It seems so much easier and faster to just reward and punish. But when we take what appears to be the easier way, when we are not there with the rewards and punishments we cannot always predict what the child will do on his own. Patient teaching and role-modeling can take years to bring about these positive traits in our children. But when we take the slow, seemingly more difficult way, our children grow up knowing for themselves the value of such behaviors and we can trust them to be responsible adults.
The final problem of discipline is with the word itself. Its root is the word “disciple” and most adults in the western world will think of Jesus and his Disciples here. Even most non-Christians know enough of the story of Jesus’ life and methods to have it shed some light here. What did Jesus teach in dealing with sinners? Love, turning the other cheek and forgiveness. Meaning no sacrilege here, it’s unimaginable that Jesus would offer a child material goods in exchange for doing as he was told or send a young crying child to his room, much less spank a child for unwanted behavior.
Similarly, Socrates was famous for having disciples, one of which was the famous philosopher Plato, who in turn taught another famous philosopher, Aristotle. Rewards and punishments were not any part of Socrates teaching methods either. Instead he used a method which now used in prestigious universities 2400 years later: the Socratic Method. He asked questions of his disciples, getting them to think about the issues that had been raised.
But if discipline really means to make our child a disciple, what does that mean and how do we do it? Some ideas in the next column.