Domestic Intelligence

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Discipline: Is It What You Say or How You Say It?

Why delivery style is so important when you discipline a child.

The link between parental love and children’s successful and healthy growth has long captivated the interest of psychologists. The link between parental discipline and good outcomes is a less mainstream concern, more likely to be the stuff of intuition than formal observation. Recently, however, the ways discipline affects children’s development have gained more attention both in psychology—where styles of praise are seen to shape mindset, which in turn impacts children’s achievement—as well as in behavioral economics, where “child outcomes” and “parental inputs” are assessed.

The findings of Diana Baumrind, first published in 1966, remain a gold standard of both research and common sense. Baumrind identified three different styles of parental discipline, and three associated outcomes. Authoritarian discipline involves a kind of parental dictatorship. The parent’s word is the law, and requires no further justification. “You must do this because I say so.” Permissive parenting is at the other extreme: the parent becomes the child's consultant as to which rules to follow. In this context, parental punishment is seen as inappropriate, since the child is an equal arbiter in matters of acceptable behavior. The third style identified is authoritative, in which the parent sets out the rules and explains the reasons for these principle-based rules.

Baumrind found that neither authoritarian nor permissive styles provide a framework for self-control and self-direction. Authoritarian parents control only in the here and now, by issuing specific orders. “Do this because I say so” is devoid of principles and reason; away from the power source, a child has no internal guide. Permissive parenting that endorses a child’s views on appropriate behaviour is similarly ineffective in setting out reasoned principles that can be internalized. Authoritative parenting, however, places rules within a framework a child can understand and use.

Both Diana Baumrind, who looks at discipline in terms of behavior control, and Carol Dweck, who focuses on positive discipline (or praise), focus primarily on conceptual frameworks and mindsets. These are crucial shapers of self-management, but something is missing from these discussions, and that is the emotional delivery of discipline.

The manner of parental discipline is jam-packed with messages. Impatience, shouting and irritability, though associated with authoritarian styles of discipline, must not be equated with them. Reasons for rules can be shouted as well as spoken. But shouting is a ferocious exercise of power, however rational the words might be. It is painful, frightening and humiliating. A cluster of coercive behaviour that includes persistent shouting, personal criticism, threats or hitting has equal if not greater impact on a child than messages about principles and rules.

Occasional outbursts are unpleasant but have not been found to do lasting harm. They may be effective as a quick form of delivering the message, “I have had enough and will not tolerate this behavior.” But frequent and habitual use of coercion does have a considerable negative impact.

Not only does coercion fail to promote good behavior, it increases the child’s aggression. Angry and humiliated by parental coercion, the child retaliates in kind, and the battle escalates. Then the parent uses coercion to push back; there is more shouting, more dire threats, more pointed criticism. As the relationship becomes infused with irritation, frustration and pain, communication becomes increasingly difficult. In order to be heard above the rumbling battle, everyone has to shout at fever pitch. Shouting, louder and louder each time, becomes the established norm for interaction.

Any discussion of the structure or conceptual framework of discipline needs to be linked to delivery styles. These delivery styles can be coercive whether the discipline style is authoritative, permissive or authoritarian. When the delivery style involves genuine listening, responsiveness, and a willingness to negotiate (on some things, and on increasing matters as a child matures) then the conceptual framework – which in any case is likely to be a mix – matters less. The tug and tussle of coercive parenting distorts the overall parent/child relationship, whereas responsive concern lends a robust plasticity to this crucial evolving relationship.

In my study of teenagers and parents I found that in many parent/teen pairs, quarrels could be managed, and relations repaired, when each responded to the message contained in the other’s argument, but that quarrels resulted in meltdown when each focused on her own anger and frustration. Since the power of parental love is located in large part in responsiveness, it seems that, after all, there is not such a gap between the impact of love and the impact of discipline.

References:

Terri Apter. 2006. The Confident Child. Norton.

Diana Baumrind. 1966. Effects of authoritative parental control on child behavior. Child Development, 37, 887-907.

Carol Dweck. 2006. Mindset. Random House.

Gerald Patterson and Marion Forgatch. 1989. Parents and Adolescents. Castalia.

Terri Apter, Ph.D., is Senior Tutor at Newnham College, University of Cambridge. Her most recent book is Difficult Mothers. (2012)

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