Possibly Educational

An Intro to Discipline

I apologize for last post’s cliff-hanger.  I’m sure you have been dying to know what I’m going to tell you about next.  Because the topic of parenting tends to be a touchy one, I’ve needed a little extra time to think through what I’m going to discuss and how I will do it.  I definitely don’t want to come across as know-it-all-esque.  Because we all know that’s annoying.  Especially since I don’t have kids.  So here goes nothing.

We’ve established in my last post that it’s desirable for kids to learn certain skills that will help them to be successful, independent adults.  Discipline plays a pretty huge role in creating these skills.  Thus, it’s important to understand exactly what discipline is and how to use it appropriately for a huge variety of situations and children.  Before I get too far deep into the topic, I’d like to mention that a vast majority of the things I have formally learned about discipline are from my supervisor, Jen.  I took her parenting class twice as an intern and learned a ton.  She’s great.

The word discipline has taken on a lot of different implications, but it’s archaic meaning is “instruction.”  Here’s a fun fact:  The word “discipline” is very closely related to the word “disciple.”  The most common use of the word disciple, of course, is in referring to Jesus Christ’s disciples.  Those of you who are familiar with Christianity know that Christ’s disciples are his followers.  They follow what he teaches.  Another lesser known meaning of the word disciple is “pupil.”  In other words, it’s a learner.  Thus, a disciple (pupil) learns through discipline (instruction).  If you’re Christian, there are many parallels you can draw there if you’d like.  One I like is that, ideally, the discipline of our disciples (our children) should look a lot like how Christ disciplined his disciples.  Christ chastised his disciples on occasion, but he always accompanied it with instruction.

When you look up discipline in the dictionary, it never takes long to come across the word “punishment.”  Many people assume that discipline and punishment are synonymous.  This isn’t necessarily true.  Punishment is a form of discipline, but one can punish without disciplining.  I’ll explain.

If you’ve ever taken an intro to psychology class, chances are you’ve heard about operant conditioning.  Operant conditioning is essentially training a person (or animal) to behave a certain way.  There are a few different kinds of operant conditioning–punishment and reinforcement.

Punishment revolves around giving an unpleasant consequence in order to discourage a certain behavior.  A good example of this is shock collars for dogs.  If a dog barks, he is immediately shocked–he receives an unpleasant consequence in order to discourage him from barking.  After a while, the dog realizes the connection between barking and the shock and learns not to bark.

Is punishment effective in training?  Absolutely.  It wouldn’t be operant conditioning if it didn’t work.  But when you consider that the point of discipline is teaching, you have to consider what is being learned.  Has this dog learned that it’s socially unacceptable to bark in the middle of the night when the neighbors are sleeping?  Has he learned that barking scares small children?  Nope.  The dog has learned that it doesn’t feel good to bark.  He has learned that in order to avoid discomfort, he shouldn’t bark.  If the dog still doesn’t bark after the shock collar has been removed, it isn’t because he has learned to respect his neighborhood.  It’s because he has learned to be afraid of getting shocked.  The dog has been punished and trained effectively, but he hasn’t really been disciplined.

Obviously, things are a little different when you’re punishing a child instead of an animal.  Children have a much higher level of reasoning than animals.  You can’t really teach your dog to have respect or responsibility, but this is something that can be taught to a child.  When punishments are carried out appropriately, they can be effective and teach the child what you want them to learn.  For example, let’s say a family has a rule that if the kids come home after curfew, they must wash every window in the house as a consequence.  When a kid comes home late, the parents calmly sit the child down and explain why the rule is important, then administer the already-established consequence.  The parents also might encourage the child to call the next time she is running late.  Thus, the child has learned not only that washing windows is a crappy job, she also understands that her parents made this rule because they care about her and want to make sure she’s safe.  As a bonus, she’s learned how to handle the situation differently next time.  She has learned responsibility and respect without even realizing it.  Sure, she might be upset with her parents, but that comes with the territory.  When parents administer punishment appropriately (and predictably), it can teach much more than just fear of negative consequences–it teaches how to be a good adult.

If a punishment doesn’t instruct, it isn’t discipline.  What if the child had come home and the parents simply blew up saying, “I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU WERE LATE!  YOU NEED TO BE MORE RESPONSIBLE!  GO CLEAN EVERY WINDOW IN THE HOUSE, AND MAYBE THEN YOU’LL LEARN TO COME HOME ON TIME.”  The only thing she learns from this is that cleaning the windows is a crappy job.  She might come home on time from now on, but it’s not because she’s magically more responsible.  It’s because she doesn’t want to clean the windows.  She has become just like the dog who doesn’t bark anymore because he doesn’t want to get shocked.  Punishment without instruction is just training.  The instruction is what makes it discipline.

I’m sure you’re wondering what happened to the other kind of operant conditioning.  Don’t worry, it’s still there.  Reinforcement is another way of training people (or animals) to behave a certain way.  Reinforcement is the rewarding of positive behavior.  Much like punishment, one can reinforce without disciplining.  For the sake of brevity, I’ll go with another dog example.  If you want to train a dog to roll over, you can give the dog a treat every time he rolls over.  After a while, the dog will figure out the connection between rolling over and getting the treat.  Thus, he rolls over because he wants a treat.

When teaching a dog tricks, it’s usually all in fun–there’s no real reason for teaching the dog to roll over.  However, when reinforcing children to do a certain thing, it’s usually not for fun.  There’s usually a purpose.  For example, some parents reward their children with candy after they successfully sit quietly in church.  They want their children to learn to be reverent in church.  However, if parents dole out the reward without explaining to the children why they’re being rewarded and why reverence is important, the kids only learn that they get candy if they’re quiet.  When there’s no instructing–no explaining of why–it’s no different from training a dog to roll over.  Kids are capable of so much more than that.  If we want kids to be successful, independent adults, they have to know why good things are good and why bad things are bad.  We can train them to do the right thing, but it’s better teach them to want to do the right thing.

So in summary:

  • Children need discipline to become responsible and independent.
  • Discipline always involves instruction.
  • When there’s no instruction, it’s not discipline–it’s training.
  • Children can be trained, but training doesn’t encourage responsibility and independence.
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