Sunday, January 11, 2009

On Positive Discipline

(Originally posted at Rational Jenn)

Recently, I've engaged in some interesting parenting discussion over at Principled Parent and The Little Things. I'm always thinking about our parenting choices and it interests me to read about how others are handling similar issues. In trying to explain some of the methods we use around here, it occurred to me that maybe I ought to just write a post about it.

We use Positive Discipline (PD). For a brief introduction by a PD author, Jane Nelsen, Ed.D., click here. PD encompasses so many aspects of parenting, that I find it difficult to know where to even begin writing about it. It's like trying to explain Objectivism to someone who has never heard of it--where to start? (I know Ayn Rand explained it while standing on one foot, but I'm not that smart.) So I'll do my best to explain some of the general ideas and try not to get off topic too much.

Before I start, I must tell you that I'll do my best to cite works and authors and books, but that I've been reading and thinking about this for so long that I'm afraid that it might be almost impossible for me to remember just where I picked up a specific idea. But I didn't make this all up myself--I read lots and lots of books and websites and was an active reader of a Yahoo group on the subject for a couple of years. The integrations and applications are mine, though, developed in conjunction with my husband, Brendan, and my friend Kelly, who I almost consider my other "co-parent" (since we share the same principles and spend much time together). In another post, I'll put together a bibliography if there's any interest.

In a nutshell, PD is a way of raising children without punishments or rewards. Now you might read that sentence and think that that equates to Zero Discipline, which is really not true. So bear with me, lest you think my children are completely spoiled little dictators--they are not.

From Nelsen's Positive Discipline website (emphasis added for ease-of-reading purposes):

The tools and concepts of Positive Discipline include:

  • Mutual respect. Adults model firmness by respecting themselves and the needs of the situation, and kindness by respecting the needs of the child.

  • Identifying the belief behind the behavior. Effective discipline recognizes the reasons kids do what they do and works to change those beliefs, rather than merely attempting to change behavior.

  • Effective communication and problem solving skills.

  • Discipline that teaches (and is neither permissive nor punitive).

  • Focusing on solutions instead of punishment.

  • Encouragement (instead of praise). Encouragement notices effort and improvement, not just success, and builds long-term self-esteem and empowerment..

Positive Discipline techniques reinforce the principles I hold as an Objectivist and the goals I have as a parent. As opposed to a top-down parent-child relationship where Mom and Dad are handing out punishments for misbehaviors, PD encourages parents to work with the child to help him figure out what went wrong, how to fix it, why it's important to do the right thing, and helps the child succeed in the future. This thinking process is really good practice for children who will, after all, be expected to behave in certain ways once they reach adulthood. Filling a child's "mental toolbox" (a PD term) with techniques and experience in problem-solving and handling the consequences (good and bad) of his decisions helps prepare a child for adulthood in a different, and I think, stronger way than a more classic "If you do something wrong, you'll be punished" paradigm will.

Guide Vs. Control

I don't think punishment--as in Child does XYZ Bad Behavior and then I as the parent must then do something to the child in order to make them either understand that the behavior was bad or feel bad about doing it, such as sit in Time-Out or be grounded or hit or screamed at or shamed--is necessary.

I want to guide my children toward full rationality and the virtues I prize, rather than control them into it. I look at punishment as a way to try to control the child's behavior rather than teach the child what's expected. Obedience--the end result of being well-controlled--is not a virtue. I don't want my kids to know how to obey me. I want them to be Independent, Productive, Honest, be Just and Moral, have Self-Control and Integrity. And this entails Rationality, which cannot be present without volition, choice.

Kids need practice at making good decisions. (Actually, many adults I know could use a refresher course, too.) They're going to make good ones and bad ones. And they're not fully rational either [insert obvious joke about adults here]. But I think that PD respects a child's nascent rationality, and in fact, bolsters it--by allowing them to practice and make mistakes without punishment.

When Brendan makes a mistake, I don't punish him by making him sit in Time-Out. Once, I accidentally dropped his computer and it broke. I didn't go to the Naughty Chair--I got the computer fixed. PD is more in line with how adults treat each other, while making allowances for the immature brains and less experience that children have.

I think some examples are in order, to help demonstrate what we do and how it's different from punishing. You'll note that in some examples, what happens in the PD scenario and the Old School scenario (called "Old School" for no other reason than because it's how I was raised) is often very similar. But the differences, while they may be subtle, are important, especially because we are trying to give the child as much input and control as possible.

Misbehavior: Screaming at the dinner table (a popular one around here)

OS scenario: Parent says, "No screaming at the dinner table. That's too loud and we're trying to talk. If you do it again, you're going to Time Out." Kid screams again. Parent puts kid in TO (according to some predetermined formula, usually something like 1 minute per year of age.) May take several rounds of screaming/TO before behavior improves.

OS result: Behavior Stops. Kid eventually learns that screaming isn't acceptable.

PD scenario: Parent says, "No screaming at the dinner table. That's too loud and we're trying to talk. You can stay at the table as long as you can be quiet. If you need to scream, go outside or up to your room." Kid screams at dinner table again. "You want to scream. Are you going outside or up to your room?" Kid screams or argues some more. Parent escorts child to his room and says, "Please come back to the dinner table when you're ready to be quiet." May take several rounds of this.

PD result: Behavior Stops. Kid eventually learns that screaming isn't acceptable and learns to do screaming elsewhere.

The Difference:

In the PD scenario, the child has decisions to make (to scream or not to scream, to go to his room or outside), and his decisions are respected (for good or bad). If he keeps screaming, then he's showing you that's his decision. But he must respect the rights of the others at the table to have a scream-free dinner, so his screaming must be done elsewhere.

He is also given as much time as he needs to decide to comply with the dinner table rules--there is no arbitrary timeline set by Mom. The decision to comply (or not) is his and his alone, and he also gets to decide how long it takes (sometimes it might take 10 seconds, if he's really hungry; sometimes, 20 minutes or longer). He is learning self-control and learning that decisions have consequences--screaming might be fun, but it might not be as fun if you're all alone in your room. He is learning that the others in the family have needs and wants that must be respected and that he is expected to respect them. And he is learning that if he can't respect them, then Mom will help him do what's necessary (leave the table).

In the OS scenario, I'm not sure what the child learns, since we don't use it. My own experience with TO taught me that A) I'm bad because they sent me away, or B) I resent Mom because she did this to me, or C) I'm going to be sneaky next time so I won't get caught. Obviously 'C' doesn't quite apply to the screaming at the table thing, but that is something I thought. I'd be interested in what parents who use TO as a discipline tool think about this--I honestly don't know what the child is supposed to be thinking.

Misbehavior: Splashing water out of the tub

OS Scenario: Mom reminds kid of the rules--no splashing water out of the tub, possibly explaining the reason. Splashing continues. Bathtime is over and kid is punished (I don't mean to pick on Time-Outs only, but I know that's a popular discipline method--there are other ways to punish, of course). Maybe the child will help clean up the water.

OS Result: Bathtime is over and enough repeat scenarios will teach the child that he will be punished for splashing water out of the tub.

PD Scenario: Mom reminds kid of the rules--no splashing water out of the tub. Mom will always explain the reason for this. Splashing continues. Bathtime is over.

PD Result: Bathtime is over and the child is expected to clean up the mess (with help, depending on how old of course).

The Difference:

There's not much difference here--except there is no punishment imposed on the child. The consequence of making a mess is not getting to have a long (or deep) bath. And having to clean up the mess. The child is taking responsibility for his decisions and he will learn to keep water in the tub (or take a shower), even without the extra step of parental-imposed punishment. The same lesson, for less effort on my part--yay!

One more example, this one from real life.

A few months ago, I wrote a post about how Ryan and one of his friends were throwing rocks around and broke the windshield of a neighbor's car. Here's what we did, the PD way:

  • We acknowledged that what happened was unintentional.
  • We were firm in communicating to them that even though it was unintentional, it was still their responsibility to fix the problem.
  • We took them to the neighbor's house to tell him what happened, apologize, and offer to fix the windshield.
  • When the neighbor gave us his bill, we had Ryan pay a reasonable (according to his income) portion of our half (his friend's parents paid the other half).
  • We took both boys, with cash in their hands, over to the neighbor's house and had the boys hand them the money.

We did not punish Ryan. If I had done something like this when I was a child, I can 100% guarantee that I would have been either hit, grounded, and/or screamed at. My parents would have made me pay for the damage and talk to the neighbors, but there would have been Adult Imposed Punishment designed to make me feel bad or "think" about what I did or something along those lines.

We never hit our children, but neither did we scream at him or ground him or otherwise try to make him feel guilty about what happened. And you know what? It wasn't necessary to punish him. He knew what he did was wrong and felt bad about it already. He didn't need us making him feel worse about it. He didn't know how to fix the problem, though, and THAT'S what he needed help with. He needed to know that people are responsible for their actions, even when it's an accident. He needed to know that Mr. Neighbor shouldn't have to pay for the damage, that he and his friend--the responsible parties--did. He needed help paying for the damage. He needed me there while he owned up to his responsibility. He needed to know what the next steps were.

That's what he needed, and that's what we did. We guided him through the process, allowing him to be as independent as possible, not making his guilt any worse. No additional punishment necessary. What if he hadn't shown remorse? We would have handled it the same way, perhaps expressing our disappointment that he didn't have remorse. But still--no punishment. Punishing him would not have put remorse into his head, would not have made him feel guilty. Only mad that he was being punished, I think, and probably much less likely to have owned up to it the next time. Yes. VERY much less likely to come to us with a similar problem.

I know this is a super long post, and if you've made it this far, I hope I've done an okay job of explaining a little bit about how PD works. In a future post, I'll write about why I think PD is an excellent "fit" with Objectivism. I really want to write lots and lots more about PD and Objectivism and have many (shorter!) posts planned on the subject. I think what I might do is write a bit more about some of our discipline issues and how we handled them. I definitely understood PD more once I began reading real-life examples.

So. What say you? I'm interested in constructive feedback and questions. Thoughts?

No comments:

Post a Comment

We'd love to hear your thoughts, so let's hear 'em! We're exploring serious ideas here, and think that a good intellectual discussion is a great way to fine-tune one's thoughts. Especially welcome are concrete examples from YOUR life, questions, and thoughtful challenges.

Personal attacks, spam, etc. is not welcome and will probably be deleted, unless we choose to keep them for our own amusement.