The words discipline and punishment have come to be synonymous in their usage but they really are not the same. Do you teach discipline or do you give punishments?
When we punish, we impose a penalty. We attempt to stamp out undesired behavior. The renowned behaviorist B.F. Skinner showed that when children are punished, they simply try another way. They learn nothing except to try to avoid further punishment. Too often, the punishment has no connection to the offending action. When a lesson is not learned, it is more likely that the inappropriate behavior will continue.
Discipline, on the other hand, is about teaching and instruction. To be disciplined is to be able to follow a set of rules. Discipline is instructive rather than punitive. It teaches children to think critically about their own behavior and to understand that the same consequence, a logical reaction, will happen every time they commit a specific act.
As you consider if your method of teaching boundaries is effective, think about the following:
- Are your boundaries focusing on what’s most important? Do you prioritize what you want to teach your children about behavior? Boundaries are important as your children test their power in the world. It is your responsibility to set boundaries that protect their health & safety and teach respect for people and property. Anything else is less important. Think about your rules. Do they all fall within those categories or are they more about your own pet peeves?
- Do the consequences of inappropriate behavior make sense? The consequences of behavior have to be consistent, predictable and make logical sense in order to teach a lesson. If a child refuses to do homework, taking a favorite toy away makes no sense. It does not teach the lesson that needs to be learned. If you refuse to do homework, the consequence is that you have to show up at school without the work and take the zero. Children who learn that lesson at a young age are more likely to integrate the notion that not meeting responsibilities has consequences in the world… and taking a zero when in the early grades will not impact college acceptance. Better to learn it young. Likewise, a child who throws a toy or hits a friend and is simply sent to his/her room learns more about isolation than about the real consequences of being unkind. A child who throws a toy should not be allowed to play with that toy for a short period of time. A child who hits a friend should have that playdate ended and told that you will try again another time.
- Do you spend the time talking about the inappropriate behavior calmly and with teaching in mind? Yelling and barking may be intimidating and stop a behavior temporarily but they don’t teach much other than that it is acceptable to yell and bark when upset. When you yell at children and they yell back or tend to yell at others, it is because that is what they have learned. They learned that when people are upset, yelling is acceptable. We know that children who were hit tend to grow up and use hitting as punishment. Think about what you are trying to teach. You aren’t trying to teach to yell or hit. You are trying to teach that a behavior is not acceptable. That requires explanation. Young children do not have a grasp on cause and effect. You have to explain that throwing blocks can hurt people or break things. You have to explain that hitting hurts other people and we cannot hurt people. Even when your children are teens, you will have to explain the rules for socializing, dating, driving and more.
We understand that we need to learn the rules of the road, but we become impatient with teaching the rules of being a good citizen, friend and family member. We don’t want our bosses to yell at us, intimidate us or treat us like we are not deserving of respect for our feelings, but we too often do just that with children. Teach and don’t punish. Be consistent. Be kind even when behavior is upsetting. Make sure that consequences give lessons about the real world. Getting out of the power struggle will be an example of handling upset and show, by your behavior, that rules simply need to be learned and are not a trigger for negative attention.
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