“She lacks discipline”
“All he needs is discipline”
“We need to teach our children discipline”
What is this ‘discipline’ we keep talking about? Isn’t it all about getting our children to be more compliant, to follow our rules, our orders and generally be ‘good kids’ so that our life can be easier? Ask a typical parent how she disciplines her children and she would tell you (if she is honest) that she uses shouting, criticism, threats or even anger and punishment as a way to get the kids to obey her. But does it really work?
Take the example of 10-year-old Raghav, who is refusing to do his homework — “It’s so boring. I hate math!” The parent immediately gets into discipline mode: “What do you mean you do not want to do your homework? You are so lazy! No TV for you tonight if you do not do your homework.”
There is a lot of moaning and groaning, leading to shouting and possibly the child being forcibly made to sit down. In the end, there is an unhappy child who associates homework with punishment and a guilty parent who feels helpless and inadequate. If this is discipline, then every home is better without it.
Let me be honest here: I admit I have been that shouting mother at homework time when my children were little. I too wanted to discipline them. Especially with my older one as he was allergic to homework (with good reasons). It took a lot of soul searching and reflection for me to realise that we were stuck in an unhealthy pattern which was impacting our relationship. And definitely no homework was worth it.
According to popular practice, disciplining is synonymous with power struggle with the parent using her dominance to make the child give in to her demands. Instead, the approach I prefer is ‘coaching’, where the objective is not to have an obedient child but to build necessary self-regulation skills; where the child becomes aware of his choices, understands the consequences of these choices and learns to control impulses. Imposed discipline does not help in self-regulation as the sense of control is external (“I will do homework otherwise mom will get angry”) whereas coaching is about nurturing the sense of agency in the child (“I don’t like it but it needs to be done”).
Let’s see how we can build self-regulation skills in our children:
Connect is a prerequisite to coaching
In my previous column, The Myth of the Badly Behaved Child, I had highlighted how ‘connect’ is at the core of the parent-child relationship. It is only when our connect with the child is strong, with acceptance and celebration of the child as he or she is, can we think of taking on a coaching role. Otherwise, it is inevitable that the child will fight back or refuse to engage, leaving us thinking that she is not capable of learning.
Understand the child’s ZPD
ZPD is a simple yet beautiful concept developed by Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky to explain the skill level of a child in any specific area and where she can reach with some scaffolding or support. Raghav’s self-regulation skills to get down and do his homework might be at the lower end, especially for math, a subject he struggles with. On a scale of 0 to 10, suppose his mother expects him to be at 8 and he is at 3, there is bound to be strife and struggle and not much learning. Alternatively, if his mother accepts his skill level at 3 and supports him to reach a 4 or 5 with gentle supervision, his learning can be optimised.
We all want our children to excel, work hard, be physically fit, stay active, socialise (and be popular), listen to us, be organised, manage their time well, not be angry, rude or scared, be happy and do all of this really fast! And if they do not, we feel we have every right to be disappointed or show our anger. It does not occur to us that, maybe, for some children, these skills might not come easily. So instead of getting angry, if Raghav’s mother could empathise with him, telling him, “I know doing math homework is not much fun. I remember feeling the same when I was in school,” Raghav would feel understood and a little more open to communication.
Ask, not tell
Rather than badgering Raghav with “you need to work hard”, “don’t be lazy”, it might be more effective to ask him, “What is it about homework that you do not like?” Or, “If you could choose 30 minutes every day for us to sit and work, what time would you prefer to do that?” When we tell and command our children, they rebel or disengage, but when we ask them, we are giving them a sense of control and agency in their life.
Learning is neural
As children start learning and developing skills, their neural circuits start developing, attaining stronger neuronal bandwidth. This brain process is called myelination and it depends on deliberate practice of not so much as how much but more in terms of how often. Therefore, for Raghav, it is not so much as working once a week for two hours (with all the moaning and groaning) that is as effective as working even for 20 minutes every day which is within his ZPD and do-able for him.
Boundaries and consequences
Raghav might get scolded and threatened every time he is rude or hits his sister — “Behave yourself or you will be in trouble.” Yet, there is hardly any learning and the pattern continues as the boundaries are not very clear or spelt out. Setting boundaries is only effective if there is clarity on what behaviour is okay and what behaviour is not and there is a clear understanding of the consequences – “In our family, we will not use foul language or hit. If somebody oversteps this boundary, then this is what he or she would have to do.”
Then, it is best to give natural consequences as are used in the real world to “pay up”. Just like you are fined for overspeeding, the family could decide what kind of consequences would work for each one of them — washing the family car, watering the plants, writing an apology letter. The trick to make boundaries work is to make them clear, have a common understanding of what the natural consequences would be if they are crossed and make sure all the family members follow them. Obviously, it is not going to work if you tell the child not to be rude when he has witnessed you shouting at the domestic help.
I am an imperfect parent of imperfect kids, so no way am I suggesting that this approach will make your children perfectly behaved. Where typical discipline forces children to become what we want them to be, coaching helps them to connect to their own sense of agency and build necessary life skill of self-regulation, muscles of responsibility and take charge of their own life.
Be a coach, not a cop!
(Shelja Sen is co-founder of Children First, a child & adolescent mental heath institute, and author of Imagine: No Child Left Invisible; All You Need is Love: The Art of Mindful Parenting; Reclaim Your Life: Going Beyond Silence, Shame and Stigma in Mental Health.)