The Discipline of Childrearing
We have arrived at a time in the evolution of our society for the introduction of a New Discipline, one that takes into account the new insights and understandings that have been accumulating during the past generation. It must be a discipline that both meets the needs of the children, and meets the challenge of the growing problem of alienation, as manifested by the random violence in our homes, schools, and streets.
The concept of "discipline" has broader, more flexible uses than commonly supposed. To many it means simply "punishment," with ostensible intent to train, correct and control. In the context of the Discipline of Childrearing, it is recognized that there can be no meaningful discipline for children in the broader sense without parents learning and practicing a discipline for themselves.
Childrearing discipline is another field of study and self-transformation, along with other disciplines in the arts and sciences such as journalism, music performance, dentistry, ballet, and medicine. These are all special learnings designed to bring about the changes required to make an individual fit for specific responsibilities.
In George Washington's time, medical knowledge had not advanced beyond bloodletting, then a traditional and perfectly acceptable treatment of illness. In our time we have seen that the outmoded authoritarian reward-and-punishment method of bringing up children is not only ineffective for helping a child achieve happiness and success in life, but that traditional treatment has been clearly proven by research to cause inestimable harm to the child, as well as to society.
A New View
There is the additional moral aspect: the shaping and conditioning of a child is motivated by purposes other than the child's own. Claims that it is for the child's "own good" does not change the fact that the goals are not of the child's own choosing. Philosophers like Kant have held that it is immoral to treat another human as a means to an end, however "good" that end might appear. Each individual has a natural right to grow in self-direction, and develop mastery over his or her own life.
The discipline of childrearing requires that parents, teachers and child caregivers adopt a fresh set of views concerning 1) the nature of a child, and 2) the role of those given responsibility over them. Emphasis needs to be shifted from parents' efforts to make children conform to preconceived models of "good children," to the adults transforming themselves into understanding, accepting, compassionate human beings worthy of associating with and being responsible for youngsters.
There is the need for those caring for children to develop the maturity to act as appropriate role models for those children. We all know that children learn the best and most important things by observing good role models, and the worst things by praise-and-punishment methods. A certain discipline characterizes the best role models.
Discipline without Punishment: Basic Principles
1. There is fundamental trust in the natural goodness of the child. Seeing a child as one "born in sin," inherently a sinner, leads to the view, unconsciously or otherwise, that he/she is "full of the devil," and thus deserving of punishment. On the contrary, every child's true nature is good, loving, affectionate, and joyfully responsive to gentle and caring treatment. Anything "sinful" in the child is a projection of--or caused by--the viewer. The child is innocent, born with natural goodness and love, needing protection and caring nurture.
2. The home is child-centered, not parent-centered or authority-centered. This means that the home exists primarily to meet the needs of the child. Parents (by definition) have already taken the trouble to see that their own needs have been sufficiently met to free them for focusing on the child's needs. Responsible, mature parents certainly place the needs of the child ahead of their own.
3. The role of the parent is that of provider and protector--not controller or teacher or shaper or "preparer-for-life." Life is now, not in the future, in adulthood. Responsibility includes making the home safe, free from danger, threats and fear. It is making a secure place where children can explore and play, and learn about themselves, their siblings, their parents, their world. The protection aspect includes guarding against the many kinds of exploitation by those seeking to use the child for their own purposes, whether emotional, political, criminal, governmental, religious, commercial, media, or well-intentioned neighbors and relatives.
4. Teaching is done by example only, unless specifically requested by the child. The instilling of values, attitudes and character is done by role-modeling in any case; preaching, do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do admonitions teach only hypocrisy. Parents mindful of their vital roles as models of character must needs spend time examining themselves, learning to grow as self-actualized persons: physically, mentally, socially, emotionally, culturally, and spiritually. In the New Discipline the parent strives not so much to do as to be.
5. The child is recognized as the expert on what and who a child is, what childhood is like. Others need but to observe and be open to understanding what this child is about and why, instead of trying to force the child into a mold. This requires basic trust in the child's inherent goodness. The child is the teacher, the one from whom we learn. In time, we may learn that the child is blessed with a certain wisdom of his or her own which, when recognized by sensitive, mature and compassionate parents, is respected, treasured and preserved.
6. The child comes equipped with a drive for self-directed learning--with a fierce eagerness to understand the world and everything in it--but on their own terms and at their own pace. Therefore "child's play" is the child's serious work, to be respected for it's central importance in that self-education. The essential need is to provide a safe place for doing that exploring, discovering, and experiencing, free from fear of reprimand, rejection, threat of punishment or risk of hurt. Parents follow the child's lead in the quest for self-teaching, and avoid directing or controlling, but rather stand by to assist and facilitate when asked to do so, and to acknowledge the new knowledge.
7. The harm done by all forms of punishment is recognized, and prohibited absolutely. Once punishment is sincerely renounced, there is no more impulse to punish than there would be to inject heroin into the child, or force him to drink Drain-O.
The curing of the punishment habit of thought does not require patience, as is commonly supposed. The benefits of non-punitive parenting are so immediately evident, and the surprising boost in self-respect is so helpful, that parents ask themselves how they ever indulged in the punishment mindset to begin with.
8. The child's self-esteem is protected as carefully as their physical wellbeing. Respect for this developing individual, his or her unique self-identity, is paramount. There is no down-putting, no "bad girl" and "bad boy," nor is there praise, as in "good girl" or "good boy" judgments.
With this approach, the rewards are thrown out along with the punishments. What is needed is to discard forever the praise-and-punishment system of control, the conditioning, the exploitive, suffocating methods of childrearing.
Praise and put-downs are equally harmful to self-esteem, since both place the praiser or punisher in the position of power, of judge. Anyone who can praise can, in the next breath, condemn; both diminish the child's assessment of her- or himself. A child senses this, but can rarely articulate it.
9. The child is a mirror, reflecting the viewer's attractive qualities as well the negative. That which we hate in ourselves, unconsciously, we tend to see in the child. The liar is furious when his/her child tells a fib; the shoplifter is outraged when the child takes what is not his. To be mindful of that is to forgo punishing, seeing the unfairness of making the child suffer for one's own character defects. The upside is feeling the joy of seeing love and affection reflected in the child. Then resolving to work on our own self-improvement, instead.
10. The political structure of the family is democratic. This departure from the autocratic or dictatorial form, unfortunately, is never seen in TV sitcoms, or children's stories and rarely even in parenting literature. In virtually all American families, (as on TV) the family is organized with all authority in the parents; leaving the children to fight for rights, respect, and a measure of self-direction.
If the child is to grow in responsibility and discipline, he or she must enjoy the rights of full membership in the family organization. Denied this, there is the feeling of disempowerment that leads to conflict in a struggle for power. Jefferson's dictum is to be taken seriously; all people are created equal, with respected rights, though differing responsibilities, roles, and functions.
Since family democracy is the governing body, there is no commanding, no issuing of orders, no meting out of rewards and punishments by the boss. In Democratic Discipline, grievances are heard at family meetings, rights protected, disputes resolved, and recommendations and suggestions made, usually by consensus. We cannot expect political freedom to be maintained by a people that have never experienced it.
Democratic Discipline in Action
How does this democratic approach play out in a family of young children, practically speaking? Within the framework of the ten principles above, the governance of the family is centered in the weekly family meeting. Primarily and ostensibly its function is to encourage and foster communication and understanding of matters that affect the family members, the relationships and interactions between them. Here is where the decision-making power of the family resides, and where problems and issues are resolved.
The Family Meeting
The functions of the Meetings are several, among which are:
1. Provide a regularly scheduled, dependable time when the members meet to communicate, voice complaints, and iron out differences.
2. Strengthen the bonding of members to each other and to the family unit.
3. Affirm and legitimize the full membership status of the chairperson.
4. Gives each member practice in leading and supervising a meeting.
5. Supports the self-confidence and self-esteem of each family member in turn.
6. Fosters respect for the democratic process, and legitimate, authentic authority.
7. Provides a view from authority's perspective, as opposed to that of the controlled.
8. Guarantees the right to speak one's mind, without fear of ridicule, suppression, or punishment.
9. Empowers each member as an individual with defendable rights, with dignity, and with respect in the eyes of self as well as of fellow members.
10. Create and enforce a rule where one is absolutely necessary to control dangerous or intolerable behavior.
When the inevitable occasion arise when a ruling is called for during the week between meetings, the caucus provides a means to settle the matter, or at least bring agreement to suspend decisions until meeting time.
Any member may at any time call a caucus, at which time all members present are obligated to drop what they are doing and support the process, which is usually defending the rights of an aggrieved member.
This must be a very brief and temporary measure that keeps the peace and asserts democratic control where there otherwise could be a breakdown of domestic order.
The Health and Safety Proviso
The one exception to democratic rule has to do with instances relating to health or safety. Here, the parents' say-so holds sway, not to be challenged. At the initial family meeting, this is made clear. (In actual experience, it has never been questioned, but, rather, welcomed for the security it affords.)
The one overriding general rule is this: Any behavior is acceptable so long as it hurts nobody--including yourself. In practice, even though the health-and-safety proviso gives dictatorial control in issues such as bed times, they can be decided by the democratic process in family meeting. Meal times and bath times need never be issues if they are routine and enjoyed as times with Mommy and/or Daddy.
Absolute freedom is not welcomed by a child; it is too much responsibility for a youngster to bear. The extremes of freedom constitute license, which is criminal neglect.
More Characteristics of Democratic Discipline
Children brought up in this kind of discipline are never intentionally caused to feel fear. Having never been spanked or shaken, yanked around or stood in the corner, sent to their room "to think about it" or made to sit in "timeout," they do not live under threat.
Similarly, there is no talk of monsters, of boogiemen, ghosts, or threat of police coming to carry them away to jail or to a fiery hell. Manners and etiquette are not taught directly, but learned by example. There is no direct teaching of behaviors such as "wave bye-bye" or otherwise told how to act. They are expected to act like themselves, to act as they genuinely feel. Parents, too, yell when their foot is stepped on, for there is none of the ever-so-careful worry that the children might be traumatized by someone's cry of pain.
The children are not protected from reality, but dealt with in responsible fashion, and trusted to observe and participate in this benign but not pandering world they are born into.
(Henry and Russell were never told to say "please" and "thank you" and "excuse me." Yet people remarked at how courteous they were, and today remain among the most considerate of people. Had they been taught to be polite, one wonders if they'd be so gentlemanly.)
Who's in Charge?
The emphasis in Democratic Discipline is not on a struggle for dominance, as is so common in families. The parental mindset is always: What needs of each child are not being met, and how can we meet them? No child misbehaves when his or her needs are being met.
Repeat: Misbehaviors are the result of unmet needs.
The best approach is to understand the youngster's needs and see that they are met--before misbehavior occurs. When a child is angry, or whiny, or defiant, or a thousand other negative behaviors, they are simply trying to meet their needs. They are children.
Most behavior problems are caused by parents themselves, like giving them too much sugar, or being late for nap-time. Giving orders and demanding obedience is the sure way to create defiance and rebelliousness. If a child is respected, is included in the family decision-making and rule-making process, he or she is not likely to become an adversary in a contest for power.
Ideally, no child is ever be punished in any way for any reason. That is what parents can strive for, and this can be achieved so quickly they'll be astonished at their parenting power. Skeptics should know that this ideal has already been proven and demonstrated in the "real world" and is achievable by anyone, given sufficient understanding, a few simple skills, and a certain attitude shift concerning the proper work of children and parents. Every parent can begin today to take the steps leading to that ideal.
Dining Room Basketball
It began with a basketball and hoop set at Christmastime. Outside the weather was windy and snowy, inside the garage and barns it was just too cold to play ball. Together we pondered the facts: In the old farmhouse the "dining room" (really the old-fashioned "front room") was the largest in the house and had a ten-foot ceiling: A perfect basketball half-court. We always ate in the kitchen anyway, and who "entertains" any more? Spring would soon pass, as, indeed, would the time when young children can be enjoyed. The landlord had no objection, and the gig was on.
Meantime the catalyst: The Harlem Globetrotters came to town. Their dazzling performance still lives in our memories, these three decades later. Henry and Russell could not believe their eyes at the magic the Trotters could create, and their antics with the mock-serious authoritative referees made them giggle until I feared they would choke.
Back home, up went the hoop above the locked outside door, taking care not to deface the lovely oak trim. The green window shutters we removed and installed inside. Then to the cellar, where we propped up the floor with timbers for a firmer, safer court for dribbling.
So while during the fall it had been "go long for a Roger Staubach pass," that winter we heard cries for Wilt the Stilt to make a foul shot.
No one talked of the discipline the Trotters demanded of themselves to do perfect those skills. No such "lessons" were needed; the boys understood, simply by playing with the basketball. They were not sent to YMCA and made to take instruction, making play into work. Yet they acquired experience in disciplined behavior--without the pain.
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