In my mother’s house, discipline meant to control, as it did for most parents at the time. Discipline was physical and intense, a one size fits all program, administered at a whims notice. The suspense of not knowing when or how discipline would be administered and for what reason exactly made for the perfect anxiety-ridden atmosphere. What made it worse was my mother's temper, which was like kerosine when mixed with the fuel of her frustrations. There was no such thing as a forgotten offense. And in the event that the chaotic nature of the scene placed the wrong person on the receiving end of the right punishment, well that was pre-punishment for a future infraction, and there would certainly be future infractions. As far as my mother was concerned, we had it easy. We had the necessities, food, clothing, and shelter, a solid two-parent home, and parents who cared immensely about us, whoppings were just a part of the package, how else would we learn to be obedient? After all, she’d survived far worse forms of discipline (try a butter knife to the wrist for reaching with the wrong hand), and if she turned out “alright” so would we. But “alright” wasn’t a measure of wellness or prosperity, more like a pulse check.
The Latin origin of the word discipline is Disculpus, which simply means to teach. It’s in Western adaptations of the word that we find less emphasis on schooling and more on submission. Discipline as we know it is defined as the concept of gaining control by enforcing obedience or order, keyword control. And anyone who’s ever had children knows there’s no such thing as controlling a tenacious two-year-old. But society tells us that children that are uncontrolled are socially unattractive. No one sees the rambunctious rugrat running wildly through the aisles of their local Walmart and thinks “Wow, what a healthy, happy, free-spirited child! Good job Mom and Dad.” Parents crave the social pat on the head they receive for toting well-behaved toddlers. And because our one size fits all criticism of parents leaves little room for the individuality of the individuals they’re raising, the pursuit of expedited control takes precedent over delayed positive progress. And make no mistake, it is the control we’re after, otherwise, we’d be more open to the idea that gradually guiding our children to positive behaviors was far more effective than beating their bodies for the negative ones. Because it is.
Research shows that the most effective way to address an unwanted behavior in a child is to actually address it, with words of course. The American Academy of Pediatrics found that talking with children was one of the most effective ways to communicate dissatisfaction with specific behavior. Researchers determined that children raised with parents who used clear, calm communication had less long-term behavioral issues than children whose parents used physical and verbal punishment. Not only did children who endured aggressive physical punishments display these exact behaviors outside of the home, but those who endured harsh verbal punishments did as well. In a nutshell, the research indicated what we’ve known for quite some time which is that children modeled what they saw at home, whether good or bad. Not only did aggressive punishment warrant an aggressive response from children, it created more long-term problems than the ones it initially set out to resolve, long term problems like depression, aggression, and behavioral and psychological maladjustment. Not because the children were intent on worsening their behavior, but because their brains had never really processed the message to stop the behavior in the first place. Psychiatrists found that when children were yelled at, their brains responded by activating the limbic system, the body’s fight or flight response center. So while the physical encounter was occurring the brain was focusing on preparing itself to fight, freeze or flee, never having the chance to process the actual message being delivered. It’s wasn’t that these children didn’t want to hear their parents, their parents had just chosen a method of communication that guaranteed that wouldn’t happen.
Now add physical punishment to the cocktail. Picture a 7-year-old child being dragged out of his school lunchroom by his irate mother and chastised and beaten in the chest, face, legs, and backside in plain view of friends, educators, and staff. Or imagine a young girl being made to remove her pants and then having her mother punch, beat and stomp on her because of a photo she posted on social media. Only to turn around and have her mother model identical behavior by posting footage of the beating on her social media for all to see (video not linked for the protection of the underage child). Of course, not all physical punishments are this severe, but any parent who disciplines out of frustration is just one bad outburst away from similar circumstances. Anger and frustration are uncontrollable short-lived emotions that garner short-lived responses. And the more we understand about unwanted behavior, the less likely it’d be that we’d continue to use such fruitless methods.
Not only does it take on average 66 days to change a habitual behavior or break a habit, but it also takes just as much time to incorporate a new one. Beating a child and expecting immediate change is nonsensical, it may relieve the frustration of the moment but the issue goes unaddressed. We might misinterpret the results in the moment because our children quickly learn to adjust or conceal their behavior to avoid physical blowback. But when not under the threat of imminent danger, the behavior pattern resurfaces and this is why parents find themselves beating their children for the same things, over and over and over again. Physical correction creates an escalating cycle, the correction itself becomes the focal point, not what it intends to correct. Studies say that the more children are beaten, the more their behaviors reflect that of the person beating them, in turn, resulting in them being beaten even more, but also becoming more likely to apply the same abusive methods to others they deemed small or weaker. And as the child grows in age and in size and disobedience becomes more disruptive, the pursuit of control calls for more extreme disciplinary measures. And so the cycle continues.
Corporal punishment does not equate to adequate correction, there’s enough evidence to assert that what children need is not to be muted and brought to heel. Our parents maybe had a legitimate excuse, they most likely didn’t know any better and didn’t have the resources to educate themselves, but we do. If in fact, the goal of parenting is to act as our children’s overseers then we’ve got a 400-year head start on how to do just that. But we parent to prepare and we prepare by teaching, and there’s surely no better way to teach than by modeling the desired lesson ourselves. If we want our children to be respectful, we have to model respect and yes, that includes towards our children. If we want calm children, we have to model tranquility. If we want children who communicate, we have to communicate with them, and not only when they’ve done something wrong.
We cannot expect our children to be better than us when we won’t commit to teaching them how. We don’t beat new hires to show them the ropes on the job, we actually show them the ropes. We implement training plans and procedures, we coach them using positive feedback and reinforcement. We’re sensitive to their individual work styles and reward them for positive progress. We model workplace culture for them, affording them time to become acclimated to their environment. We take their feedback into consideration. We encourage them through their weak areas and invest in their progress. And these are adults who’ve been around the block a decade or four, why wouldn’t we extend this same patience and persistence to our children? Are they less deserving of safe room to learn and grow?
Discipline doesn’t have to hurt to work. We don’t have to choose between unhealthy discipline or no discipline at all, there is a middle ground to disciplining our children and we are obligated to find it. Our children shouldn’t be afraid to come home after making mistakes or be expected to hide the evidence of our “discipline” from the other adults in their life. If our discipline is intended to instill fear in our children, newsflash, that’s not discipline at all, that’s abuse. It teaches children that they too can apply strong-arm methods to their relationships in order to garner the desired results. And the line between the two is hardly as thin as we think. We may have “survived” our parent’s abuse but we did not turn out alright, we’re scarred by those childhood experiences and the evidence of that is in our repeated attempts to justify the continued use of the same things that caused us harm.
We are too many generations into this “made it out alright” mantra for us not to have a collective piece of mental wellness to show for it. Yelling, publicly shaming, and beating our children hasn’t worked, haven’t we noticed? We keep asking what’s wrong with today’s youth as though we weren’t a part of the problem. The jails are full of men and women who know how to take a beating, our communities have more than their fair share of pain experts, do we really need to raise more? We can speak kindly to our children, we can listen to them, we can respect their opinions and voices, we can give them firm limits and set consequences, and we can do all of that without a belt or a bad word. If we expect better from our children we need to model what better looks like and we can start right now.