Parenting Without Punishing

Chapter 5

Discipline Is Not Punishment
Where Is this Much-Taught Discipline?

A week doesn't go by without a telephone call from some stranger wanting to speak to someone I never heard of. Why so many wrong numbers? Is the simple discipline of finding the correct number and pushing the phone buttons accurately too much for grown people to handle? After their having called the wrong party, they rarely apologize. More often, it is an angry demand, "Who's this?!" They are affronted by my answering the phone instead of the party they wanted.

Obviously the much-touted, constantly-applied "teaching of discipline" in homes and schools is not being learned. The admonitions, the sermons, the lessons, the threats, the shaming, spanking, and battering are not working.

While the methods of teaching basic disciplines like telephone use and every-day manners are defective, there are yet shrill demands for an escalation of the very "remedies" that have consistently failed to produce satisfactory results.

Is it not worth our considering new approaches to bringing about self-discipline and civility? And can we, in the process, perhaps save our crumbling society from having to choose between anarchy and a police state?

What Is Meant by "Discipline"?
Any local or national poll about childrearing and schools will show that what people want is "more discipline." What is meant is more coercion, more restrictions, more policing, more punishment, more fear. Above all, more fear. Such mean-spirited sentiment is behind the popular notion of discipline. But it is anti-freedom, anti-children, and anti-education. For fostering self-discipline is not possible in a climate of fear.

What most people mean by "discipline" is this: "Do what you're told by authority, do it without hesitation or question, regardless of what you think or how you feel; Do what is expected of you, do it cheerfully because a child's duty is to please grown-ups; Take your medicine, accept your punishment without complaint, because it is good for your soul and good for your character.

"If you fail to do what you're told, when you're told, and how you're told, there is something wrong with you. The remedy for your wrongness is to humiliate you with punishment. This will make you righteous. Now be grateful; the pain I give you shows I care about you--it's for your own good, you know.

"If you think differently, have a different vision or entertain creative ideas, if you persist in exploring your own interests and in learning in your own manner, or even (gasp) in taking charge of your own life, you will be shamed and punished until your spirit is broken, and you conform to our notion of who you should be--dependent on bosses."

Every child who is not thoroughly brainwashed and/or reduced to abject cowardice recognizes that message as the Big Lie, perpetrated on children by those who exert control over them. The pity is that such barbaric treatment is fully supported by the community.

It is thought to be "discipline." when in fact it is not discipline at all; it is undisciplined, unrestrained bullying, plain and simple. It is enforced submission to the arbitrary interests of those wielding the power to do so. It is "traditional discipline"--conditioning identical to that used by the American Kennel Club.

Punishment kills discipline--it cannot grow and mature under threat of force. Those who think it can are too dangerous to be allowed around children; they are suited more to swatting terriers and pit bulls into blind, knee-jerk obedience.

Discipline Is Natural, Inborn
Authoritarian types sincerely believe that discipline cannot be acquired except under compulsion, the more unpleasant the better and by brute force if necessary. Yet all around them are highly disciplined skateboarders, trick bicyclists, garage musicians, shade tree mechanics, expert chess players, and sidewalk lemonade entrepreneurs. There are pool sharks and merit-badge-earning Boy Scouts and NBA-bound basketball players, none having been punched or conned or battered into their chosen disciplines.

Children are born with the drive to acquire discipline in their own way, as with all learning, and would do so even if raised by wolves. Especially so. Self-discipline is a survival skill, instinctual. Only persistent punishing can discourage its maturation.

A baby begins acquiring discipline at the moment of birth, perhaps before. It is how they learn how the world works. Babies and toddlers will naturally follow the very steps scientists use to discover new truths. They examine an object, do something to it, observe what happens, reap unsatisfactory results, then try something else until they hit on the answer that produces the results they are looking for.

In time there arises an eagerness to make a positive difference in their world. In the process they deepen their understanding of the world and how it wags. This is exactly the approach used by Nobel Prize-winning scientists.

Discipline is learning. It is maturing, growing up, which every child is bent on doing, as fast as he or she can do it. Discipline is developing the skills required to accomplish goals. It is working to get what they want, and to go where they want to go.

Children respond easily to discipline of the team type. Even in a pick-up ball game there is a discipline structure; where rules of play are lacking, they are made up and agreed to on the spot.

Aversion to discipline is not inborn, nor is sin, or badness. Resistance to force, being robbed of the right to freedom--that is inborn. A child's natural direction is to acquire the discipline necessary to be free and happy.

Adults like to see orderly progress. That way they can measure it, evaluate it, exert control over it. But self-discipline does not work that way. It begins internally, progresses in fits and starts, in leaps and plateaus, in zigzag or spiral fashion.

Before indoor pools and ice rinks, there was a popular saying: "We learn to swim in the winter and skate in the summer." After a summer of trying to swim and failing, come the following spring the child jumps in and does the Australian crawl across the pond. All winter something was happening inside--call it "discipline"--that was "teaching" him or her to swim.

But adults delude themselves into thinking that nothing can be learned unless it is taught, and tested at every step. They think they are "teaching" by "reinforcement"--the A's, gold stars, and praise; and by punishment--the scowls, the shaming, the ridicule, and the swats. Add to this the blind belief that a credentialed authority must teach it, otherwise it won't be properly learned. This is destructive, idiotic nonsense. These are the shock troops in the War Against Children.

Children incarcerated in schools need desperately to escape the compulsory life. Kids by the millions are involved after school and on weekends in disciplines the school tells them they can't master for lack of official lessons and for lack of discipline. Witness the dozens, the hundreds of games and skills that millions of kids are engaged in, from roller-blade acrobatics, rock bands and rock climbing and rock collecting, the list is endless. (The clamor is now on to take control of these informal after-school activities too, on the theory that limiting freedom will reduce crime.)

No one who has seen the X-Games can doubt the existence of natural discipline. No one who has seen, as I have, a 10-year-old quickly master a computer that has baffled for months one of my generation. They are drawn to them because computers give them immediate and honest answers without praise or punishment, they demand neither obedience nor worship, and they are impartial absolutely.

Self-discipline grows by pleasing oneself, pursuing ones' own happiness. Authoritarian parents and schoolmasters kill discipline and destroy the spirit of freedom, then complain that there is something wrong with the child. "She's unmotivated." "He 'suffers from' a behavior problem." And the current favorite, "He's has Attention Deficit Disorder." But somehow the ADD disappears the moment school lets out.

The Key to the World
Inner discipline is self-chosen, and develops by self-direction. Within this, a child of 6, 7, or 8 chooses the rigors of ballet discipline, because she loves the beauty of it, or loves the ballet teacher, or loves her dancing mother. A boy or girl can choose the discipline of karate for their own reasons. It is a question of who does the choosing. Little success can be expected if it is imposed "for their own good."

What is needed from the adult world is trust. Faith, first, in the fundamental goodness of the child. Unless he is punished, shamed, disrespected, he will not disappoint you. Given a passable role model, he and she will grow to be a genuine, authentic person. To demand anything other is an affront to their integrity.

For discipline to develop, there must be fearlessness. It can grow only in freedom. Discipline takes us to levels of excellence realized nowhere else. Discipline is the door to the joyful experience of living. When we see that, we take delight in our practice. Our direction is right and we are on our way. The way we have chosen. We can learn from mistakes; we cannot learn from hounding and flogging.

Inner wisdom tells the child that discipline is the key to the world.

Many Disciplines, Many Kinds of Discipline
While there are many disciplines, author John Holt talks about these three kinds. At first there is the discipline of nature, of reality. Waving of arms, kicking of legs grasping at objects calls for adjusting to the laws of nature--without their being taught. When beginning to walk, the disciplines of body motion and gravity come into play. Babies must--on their own--develop the discipline needed to function in the world.

It is said that if babies were taught how to walk, most of us would still be crawling around on our hands and knees. The most important things we've learned, we have taught ourselves.

Play is children's serious work, that of learning and practicing self-chosen disciplines. Hold the cone upright, or the ice cream drops. Hit the nail squarely, or you can't build the doghouse. Keep the bicycle rolling, or you fall over.

Next there is the discipline of culture, of society. This is the collection of customs, habits, rules, expectations and agreements that glue society--its people--into a community. Children are eager to become participants, so they watch very carefully to understand adult interaction so they can imitate it. They want dearly to do things right. And whatever is modeled for them defines what is "right." Much of this stays with them all their lives.

We know now that children will do things "right" until authority punishes them, saying, "Do as I say, not as I do!" From then on, "right and "wrong" are simply rules arbitrary enforced by hypocrites. The difference between "right" and "wrong," then, depends on who's bigger, or who gets caught.

Thus enters the discipline of superior force, the brutish power of the animal realm. It is the bully, the dictator, the control freak. It is the sergeant to the private, the cop to the criminal, the school principal wielding the paddle over the cringing child. It is the mother with the strap. They all say the same thing: "Submit to my will or I'll make you suffer until you do."

Under such control, the natural discipline of the child, natural morality, can be suppressed or caused to wither away in despair, along with courage, independent spirit, and all hope for a satisfying life. Just as it retards the maturation process, punishment prevents learning.

All punishment is harmful. Even the apparently innocuous "time-out" has serious effects on a small child's sense of identity, emotions, feelings of security and acceptance. It happens to millions of children, day after day. It has happened to the great majority of Americans, disgruntled and stressed-out, who are now leading lives of not-so-quiet desperation while busily destroying the dignity and spirit of their sons and daughters and classroom students. This ugliness and suffering--of adults and children alike--need not be carried over to the next generation.

Self-Discipline for Parents
Beethoven's father tried to beat him into being a concert pianist, like Mozart. But Ludwig adamantly resisted superior force. Knowing he could not create without freedom, he resolutely marched to the beat of his own drum. He learned piano because he liked piano discipline. He sought out the exquisite discipline of composition teachers like Haydn and Salieri.

Hitler's father beat Adolf mercilessly to "discipline" him. The boy sought the discipline that art offered, but was rejected by the art school. His brief time as a soldier was not the kind of discipline he needed. The result was that he never acquired discipline, only indulgence in his hatreds. He knew only victimization, and having had his fill of that he set out to victimize the world. (No disciplined leader would have invaded Russia with winter approaching.) The rest is history: he started the war that killed over 50 million people. Fifty million people.

Parents and teachers and life-hating types try to mold the child into an inhibited, fearful, obedient inferior who will devote his life to duty and "don't give us no trouble." Strict disciplining is self-hate, projected by self-defined failures trying to win success vicariously.

To them, children are property, without lives of their own. Those pathetic parents, said A. S. Neill, "were never allowed to live and love, were made to submit to humiliating punishment, and are frightened by freedom." They heartily support paddle-swinging official bullies to beat their children, schoolmasters "hired to do parents' dirty work."

The "disciplinarian" robs the child of the responsibility of developing self-discipline. He or she takes over the discipline job and forces the child's dance to conform to authority's tune. It leaves the child with an unpleasant experience and a negative view of "discipline."

It is tragic for any child to be denied the chance for self-discipline to develop. Millions suffer it because of brutal and stupid parents and teachers. The result of our society's reliance on the punishment of superior force is a society that now teeters on the brink of anarchic chaos.

Continuing Narrative:
Discipline by Ice Cream and Maple Syrup

It must have been during the July berry season that the boys and I one day suddenly decided to make ice cream. Why not? We had already acquired a motorized six-quart freezer from Sears, and could get heavy cream from the landlord farmer, from whom we got our milk every day.

Out came the cookbooks to find the right recipe. We'd try a different recipe each time, we decided. In the end we stayed with the French vanilla, and simply added whatever berries we had picked that day.

At first there was the problem of arriving home with enough berries to make a batch. It was Henry, I think, who proposed the rule: For every berry we ate, a berry must be put in the berry can. That worked quite well, plus it gave us lots of giggles in its enforcement.

After the picking, and after the walk to get the heavy cream, we gathered in the kitchen to cook the egg yolks, sugar, cream, and vanilla in the double boiler. Then came the ice and salt packing, and the exciting freezer watch for the exact moment for party time to begin.

A long, cold winter in the North eventually brings spring thawing days, and the sap began to run in the maple trees in the front yard. With plastic gallon jugs and a dollar's worth of spiles from an auction, we tapped the trees and collected the sap. Soon we had to borrow 20-gallon milk cans to hold it, for the boiling-down session had to wait until Saturday.

The evaporation process made serious demands. For one gallon of syrup to be harvested, 40 gallons of water had to be boiled off. So to get only a few quarts of the sweet stuff from many milk cans of sap, a great amount of hardwood needed cutting and hauling and splitting.

Henry and Russell participated, as they did in every step of the production. The outside incinerator had to be cleaned out, and the huge evaporating pans washed. No one complained. No one thought in terms of "work," or that we liked one job and hated another. It was all one syrup-making process, from tapping trees, collecting and cutting wood, boiling down, finishing off, cleaning pans, and eating the sweet-laden pancakes. What's not to like?

No one was "unmotivated." Or was struck down by an "attention deficit" problem. We were three guys immensely enjoying a common purpose. And nobody thought the boys were "learning discipline." Until recalling it years later.

Only in the final state could the boiling be done inside, on the kitchen stove. Sometimes the boys stayed up after bedtime to help, and more than once Daddy stood all night at the pans and kettles for the finishing.

In an especially prolific season we excitedly packed jars of the hard-won stuff to send off to relatives, proudly sharing the product of our labors. Even today, some 30 springs later, Henry and his wife work at evaporators in their sugar bush, in their owner-built sugar shack, making maple syrup to send to Russell and Dad for Christmas.

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