So What IS Discipline?

After my last piece about finding a balance in parenting styles I had several people ask, well how do you do it? How do you reach that magic place where your kids are behaving without having to beg, negotiate, or yell at them? How do you get kids to do what you want them to do?

In my mind, we’ve got it all wrong. Let’s look at the word discipline. Merriam Webster has this definition:

1: punishment
2 obsolete: instruction

And there you have it. Somewhere along the line, we twisted the idea of discipline from teaching to punishment. I’m not surprised. We’re pretty good at warping stuff here. has this definition:

discipline: activity, exercise, or a regimen that develops or improves a skill; training: A daily stint at the typewriter is excellent discipline for a writer.

Ha! Love that. It really said that. What’s a typewriter?

And finally, the Latin root for discipline is:

disciplina: teaching, learning. “Instruction given to a disciple,” from discipulus.

Have I made myself clear?

When parents begin to see themselves as teachers rather than disciplinarians, things are going to get a lot better for us.

Kids worship their parents (up to a certain age, of course). Your parents are the ones who tell you what’s right and wrong. They give you their outlook on life. They interpret what happens in the world and filter it for you. They make the rules and show you – with their actions – how to behave.

Now, if you had to be governed by your very own demi-god in your very own home, wouldn’t you want that god to be a benevolent one? One who understands how you feel and tolerates your mistakes? Who gets your whims and truly forgives your transgressions?

The behavior you want to see from your children is the behavior you should be teaching them. If you yell at your kids, are you shocked when you see them yelling? Really, that shocked? So it’s not only teaching, but demonstrating. Living. And you have to teach it over, and over, and over, and over, for years and years, until they get it. Practice and discipline.

Seriously. I’ve never said parenting was easy.

I can list off my cardinal rules for parenting, but unless you have the discipline to use them, it’s not going to work. (Bazinga!! See how I did that?)

So. Cardinal rules for parenting:

1. Remain calm. I cannot stress this enough. Kids throwing rocks in a pond want a big splash. They’ll find whatever makes you go splash and use it to their heart’s content. No splash – no rock thrown.

2. Don’t hold grudges. For God’s sake, have a fight and then be done with it. If you keep bringing up the lie he told when he was seven, how do you really think that’s gonna go over? Somehow that’s going to improve his future behavior? Let. It. Go.

3. Do not be moved by nagging, begging, whining, and all-around annoying behavior. Ignore it. Be moved by politeness and direct communication. Teach your kids how to be respectful by being respectful to them. Talk to them like they’re human. (Newsflash: they are.)

4. Reward the behavior you want to see. Constantly. Always. Whenever you see it. Don’t see them do something right and have that smug little I-told-you-so attitude about it. Celebrate it. Tell them how well they’re doing. How proud you are. This makes so much more of an impact than any other thing you will do as a parent. I swear. Even if they don’t respond, and just turn away like they didn’t hear it – they heard it. And they’ll do the same thing again within 24 hours, I guarantee.

5. Practice gratitude. We are lucky enough to live in a place where we have everything we need. Security. Freedom. Food. Shelter. Hot showers. Medical care. Protection by a virtual army of civil servants who are willing to rush to our aid at the drop of a hat. And yet, kids are outraged because they have to go to the store to buy the latest game release on DVD instead of downloading it instantly. Wow.

6. Have boundaries. Enforce them consistently, but not cruelly. This is where that whole “discipline” thing gets tricky. You don’t have to yell, intimidate, or punish your kids to get them to behave. Just mean what you say. If you say, “Don’t climb on the table,” and your child climbs on the table, remove them. Repeat steps one and two until they stop climbing on the table. After about seven or eight times they’ll get that you’re not gonna let them climb on the table.

7. Use logical consequences. We make this so complicated, but if you start practicing it, it will begin to be more obvious after a while. In fact, that’s the trick: go for the obvious consequence. When our kid breaks a window, he pays for it, and either helps fix it, or owes us time for how long it takes us (my husband swears that fixing a window is a one-man job). Taking away Xbox for a week doesn’t make sense. Did he break the Xbox?

And really, in so many situations, the true, natural consequence is simply having to make it right. Saying you’re sorry, that you regret what you did, or going back to someone you wronged and finding out how you can fix it.

We ground our kids and expect them to learn a lesson when so often the real lesson is humbling yourself enough to apologize to someone. Trust me – way scarier, more effective, and they will actually learn something that will benefit them throughout their life, instead of being pissed off and sulking around the house for a week with nothing to do.

They may even learn that being direct about what you did wrong, showing some remorse, and feeling someone else’s forgiveness is way better than carrying guilt around on your shoulders.

Coincidentally, this week I found out that the state of New Jersey does not allow its child care providers to use timeout. I mentioned this to one of my dads and he said, “Well of course, that’s because you just spank ’em.”

I humbly disagree with the state of New Jersey. One of the hardest things about being a parent today is telling your child when they’re wrong. Because we’re never supposed to do that, we’re just supposed to “re-direct” them. But if you don’t address the problem, how is wandering away from it going to help?

Humans – especially small children – are quite full of natural arrogance. At the risk of sounding a bit militant, it is our job as parents to tamp that attitude down every once in a while. Yes, you are the light of my life and the most precious creature I’ve ever seen, but you’re also acting like a total ass right now. Let’s work on that.

But most importantly, to balance all this tamping and rule-setting and deep breathing and understanding, Cardinal Rule of Parenting #8: just laugh. Please, I beg you, make it fun. Don’t take it all so seriously. My husband and I allow our kids to be outrageous at home so they don’t have to try that particular skill out in public. And when we get going, our dinner table time is hilarious. We laugh so hard. These are the best moments of my life.

And PS – put down the screens. Right now. Go hang out with your kid.

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