Discipline, Nurturance, or Living Example: Which Works Best?
A Primer of All Three--- with Concrete Strategies
Posted May 07, 2015
Parenting is One, Many are its Names
Consider this a "primer" on parenting.
It may be long---but it summarizes a lot of key information.
Parenting is a complex amalgam of multifaceted knowledge and skills. Just as there are diverse pathways in typical human development, so too diverse pathways to sound parenting abound. The biomental philosophy highlights concepts describing effective parenting. Overarching themes are fostering, supporting, and managing emotional and psychological mental health. The essence of this transactional sensitivity is emotional availability. A large part of parenting involves guidance and discipline---and discipline is not a "dirty" word!
Gaining understanding is emphasized. Practical implementation enhances skill know-how. The “details of developmental parenting” include parenting skill and style. Both are informed by understanding the basic principles of child development. Examples---skill know-how--- with illustrative ages are given.
Child development is complex. Discipline from early childhood through adolescence is discussed. Corrective redirection is most useful in managing misbehaviors. Misbehaviors are those that express unmodulated impulsivity, inordinate aggression, destructiveness, unlawfulness, and destruction to property. Discipline must always be embedded in nurturance and living example to be effective. All three are inseparable. While discipline may evoke harsh images, it is merely child guidance---skillfully raising successful children.
Nurturance, discipline, and living example make up successful parenting. They are superordinate with details that add color and tone. Nurturance emphasizes affectionate caregiving. Discipline emphasizes the way parents teach desirable behaviors and respond to misbehaviors. Living example incorporates both nurturance and discipline as models for children to emulate. Each is vital. All are optimized when acting harmoniously. This dynamic interaction empowers this scaffolding to produce effective outcomes.
Good communication is both verbal and nonverbal. It partakes of empathy in great measure. Discovery, curiosity, and imagination are always in the background. Tendencies to control or manipulate are unhelpful. Transactional sensitivity is profound emotional receptivity. It is a mental contact that transcends logic and words.
Parenting grounded in nurturance, discipline, and living example counters the deleterious effects that negative emotions and aggressive behaviors instigate. Children bring an immense array of emotions, capacities, abilities, and preferences to this relationship. Parents and children, in different ways, transact to form and reconfigure one another over time. Parenting has the best chances for success when begun on day one---preparing for birth, at the point of birth, and every subsequent day.
The subject of discipline can be “off-putting” to some since it has many harsh connotations. Although this article is particularly long and detailed, my hope is that the reader will graciously power through the ideas to find them meaningful.
Discipline is Guidance about Self-Containment
Discipline (Latin for “learning and teaching”) means instructing and guiding another to follow a particular code of conduct, behavior, or order. Its dual goals are to promote desirable behaviors and to correct those actions that are disruptive and noncooperative.
Discipline helps set up health-promoting attitudes and prevents negative patterns from developing. The most effective disciplinary strategies give a scaffolding of preferences, techniques to think through negative and positive responses to these, and reinforcing remembering their consequences. Proper discipline shapes and reinforces healthy development. Its essence is self-regulation, and impulse control. Guidance is pointing the way toward healthy preferences. This is illustrated in the accompanying watercolor, "Image of the Cave," based on Plato's allegory of the wise teacher.
A decisive function of personality is conscience. Conscience is the ability to discern value judgments about differentiating right from wrong, lawful from unlawful and the moral compass to prefer and enact suitable and correct choices. Discipline contributes to the formation and shaping of conscience along the developmental path.
Effective discipline is optimal when it occurs in a matrix of nurturance and interactive example. Corrective direction and redirection, that is, discipline as a parenting skill, is caregiving that shapes and refines behavior, that is, supports self-containment and impulse control.
A parent who disciplines effectively must first learn “to hear” before implementing corrective responses. This is accomplished by focusing on a developmental perspective that enables one to understand the architecture surrounding children’s temperament, personality, and behavior.
Effective discipline fosters learning. Suitable discipline requires that parents take leadership positions on a daily basis. This role involves setting the limits between what is acceptable and not acceptable and allowing children to understand why. Saying “No” is often necessary. Offering options that fulfill children’s needs in more suitable directions should complement this response. Limits are best conveyed as reasonably firm guidelines with alternative opportunities rather than as rigid and inflexible demands. How one communicates these statements determines how effectively they will be understood and respected.
Setting limits provides an external model that helps build self-containment, self-regulation, and impulse control.When setting limits, parental patience and calm are helpful. Being in touch with what children are feeling is essential. This idea involves attunement to children’s enthusiasm for exploration, activity, and excitement. Children's feelings of frustration, disappointment, surprise, and confusion, particularly when they perceive parents thwarting their desires, need to be embraced.
Good parenting is being mindful of inevitable interruptions in family life. Some of these disturbances may take the form of repetitive behavioral problems. Rather than automatically reacting to such intrusions as intentional, willful, and manipulative, a broader contextual approach attempts to clarify their meaning. Special attention to antecedents (what comes before the problems) and context (in what circumstances the difficulties seem to emerge) provides clues for problem resolution.
Problems encountered during parenting can be viewed from different perspectives: (1) before the difficulties occur, (2) when they occur, and (3) after they happen. Prevention is always the best strategy to use. When dilemmas arise, prompt interventions are needed. After problems subside, reflection is necessary. Contemplating the cause and context of such behaviors can foster prevention for further occurrences. Corrective action comprises effective feedback. This process helps children learn and improve future performance.
Adult attention to good behaviors is the strongest reinforcement that can be given. Children of all ages value positive feedback to an inestimable degree. Children, as do all persons, crave timely human responsivity. Human responsivity without inordinate delay signals emotional availability and the hope of being understood.
Affirmative recognition of desirable behaviors needs to occur daily. It is important that this decisive strategy not be made feeble by excessive attention to undesirable behaviors. This cannot be overemphasized. It is one foundation for normalizing attention-seeking behaviors and remodeling them in positive ways.
Successful parenting always includes reasonable tolerance for a measure of some undesirable, unacceptable, or unusual behaviors. Finding the proper balance between harshness and leniency requires patience, perseverance, and self-reflection over time. Behaviors that can be ignored are those that are minor misbehaviors, not aggressive, destructive, unhealthy, unlawful, or significantly impairing.
Discipline is compassionate correction. Such strategies include constructive incentives understandable to a child. These approaches at times include temporarily withdrawing positive attention, such as ignoring a child acting out or temporarily using a 'time out.' Discipline may involve parental assertion strategies that include withdrawal of privileges and behavioral rewards or judicious reprimands to achieve a desired response.
Discipline means providing guidance and supervision through encouraging, motivational messages. The ultimate aims of discipline include promotion of self-discipline, self-control, emotional regulation, delay of immediate gratification, modulating aggressive impulses, and a capacity to foster the motivation to sustain these. These achievements form the journey toward attaining self-containment. Internalization of these in the face of frustration, disappointment, and intense emotions enhances ego strength.
What Discipline Is Not
Thoughtful, effective discipline is neither punishment nor aggression. It is not punitive, heavy-handed, or sadistic in reprimand. Healthy discipline is not mindless authoritarian control. Harsh scolding is unhelpful and may be traumatic to a child, particularly over time. Nagging, threatening, endless explanations, yelling, and harsh punishments are all ineffective. In fact, adult attention to misbehaviors, if done repetitively and without concurrent constructive learning interventions, powerfully reinforces “bad,” unhelpful, and undesirable behaviors. Children crave attention from their caregivers and may learn to act out to receive even negative attention.
Findings in neuropsychiatry over the last several decades have shown that both emotional and physical trauma have detrimental effects on important brain structures. The hippocampus—a center of learning and memory—and the amygdala, which signals anxiety and fear responsivity are damaged.
Often, when children are hit, they feel pain, fear, and bewilderment. The younger a child is, the more perplexed he or she is about why this aggressive event is occurring. Fear of harm (harsh discipline) triggers both passive and active avoidance. Hence, avoidance blocks learning. Fear reactivity is maintained in a hypersensitive state. Fear and avoidance prevent progressive learning from experience.
Discipline, can never be understood to be corporal punishment. Corporal punishment is an aversive stimulus sometimes mistaken to be a useful form of discipline. Parents often think that hitting a child will have positive effects on behavior. However, the sometimes-brief changes in negative behavior that occur are overwhelmed by detrimental consequences from this form of punishment.
Experts who study child neglect and maltreatment agree that corporal punishment is intergenerational, so adults who were subjected to this form of discipline come to believe that it is acceptable. They use corporal punishment to discipline their own children, which reflects the learning from modeling achieved by living example.
Although parents have a wide range of beliefs in terms of what is acceptable or not, this particular area of discipline continues to be controversial. Some parents and most experts propose that all forms of aggressive interaction be omitted. Other parents say that “milder” forms such as an occasional slap or spanking are sometimes useful. These parents say that such discipline is acceptable if the underlying parent-child relationship is typically warm, affectionate, and accompanied by reasonable dialogue. Otherwise stated, occasional mild hitting or “pulling on the ear” to give emphasis to paying attention to a corrective direction is believed to be useful. This form of “hitting” is distinct from beating, which is unquestionably prohibited.
Corporal punishment, typically impulsive and enacted in anger, aims to inflict physical and emotional pain. It is best avoided. It has been officially condemned by the American Academy of Pediatrics. The American Medical Association, American Bar Association, and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry recommend against corporal punishment in schools.
While such aversive stimuli may suppress behavior temporarily, they do not change it for good and may cause adverse effects such as trauma and inordinate fear, as mentioned earlier. Such distress prevents constructive learning from occurring. Hitting or any violence to a child wrongly teaches, by “bad” example, that violence is an acceptable way to handle problems. This “bad” example has greater deleterious effects than merely its being unhelpful.
Surveys state that about 39 percent of parents never spank their children while about 61 percent admit to spanking occasionally. These parents refer to this action as “nonabusive” spanking, typically with children ages two to six years. It accompanies milder forms of discipline using reasoning and verbal reprimands.
Many parents regard the “terrible twos” and “trying threes” as chronological eras wherein spanking is often used to control undesirable behaviors, typically aggressive such as biting a sibling, or grabbing a toy away from another child. This strategy is counterproductive since it backfires into even greater unruliness.
Yet, parents find it difficult to restrain themselves from this approach. In documented studies, about 66 percent of parents of very young children ages one and two years reported using physical punishment. By the time children reach fifth grade, 80 percent have been physically punished. By high school, 85 percent of adolescents report that they have been physically punished, with 51 percent reporting they have been hit with a belt or similar object.
Research suggests that more fathers than mothers think that spanking is an effective form of discipline and behavior control. Evolutionary psychologists describe a positive correlation between physical discipline by stepfathers because of the nonbiological relationship. Professionals who disagree with this conception are keen to recommend parent management skills and effective parenting training classes to both fathers and mothers whether biological or not.
Surveys have positively correlated spouse and intimate partner violence with violence to children in the home. The notion of “ghosts in the nursery,” or being influenced by how one was treated or saw parents treat one another, is here exemplified. Early life stress, particularly caused by abuse and violence, has been shown to have lasting biological and psychological consequences. A transgenerational impact on family members downstream from the original traumatic events is postulated.
Although research findings show corporal punishment use across the socioeconomic spectrum, its frequency and intensity appear elevated among less educated and disadvantaged persons. This association may occur for several reasons. Such persons may be less knowledgable about the adverse effects of corporal punishment, for example, or high levels of stress associated with lower socioeconomic status may encourage hitting. Hitting, while a violent behavior, is distinct from beating, which is physical abuse and always prohibited.
Yelling is one form of aggression. Yelling when a child misbehaves frightens the child and elicits defensiveness. These feelings and attitudes are not conducive to redirection and learning more desirable behaviors. When parents model aggression, children learn to use it to deal with parents, siblings, peers, and others. Inordinate exposure to force and violence causes habituation, tolerance, and insensitivity to violence.
Habituation is an important form of learning in which a stimulus that is experienced too frequently ceases to produce the initial effect it first had elicited. Violence and aggression seen and felt too often cause a dulling of the emotions of horror, disdain, and repulsion. This tendency often extends into adulthood and perpetuates adolescent and adult aggression. Studies show that children who are spanked become more aggressive even by age two years. Most research shows that between 60 and 70 percent of child abuse begins as harsh spanking and progresses to even greater violence and maltreatment.
Corporal Punishment is Unacceptable
In contemporary times, corporal punishment is best omitted in any childcare context. Children, notably preschoolers, have heightened emotional and fantasy lives. When exposed to physical violence, particularly spanking, it is likely to infer that they experience this as a physical and psychological attack. Unable to make sense out of these acts, children can become traumatized or confused. Linking violence with parenting is inappropriately fostered in the minds of children who are hit. However, this process can be buffered by communication founded in reasonable, explanatory language.
When heated emotions flare and the impulse to discipline aggressively arises, it is best for parents to pause, step back, and take time to think about the situation. Self-reflection helps temper emotions and dampens automatic reactivity. This personal time-out is a sort of self-debriefing that allows a parent to defuse strong emotions, figure out what just happened, and learn from the context so that future responses may become less volatile and more effective.
Exploring reasons one would want to hit, for example, may provide important insights. Resorting to aggressive behaviors, even in the guise of disciplinary action, always is triggered by multiple provocateurs. As discussed, parents who discipline children in an aggressive manner were often disciplined this way by their own parents. Thinking about this association gives one the opportunity to review the pros and cons of aggressive discipline. Considering the range of recommended nonviolent alternatives is useful: positive reinforcement, judiciously ignoring the behavior, time-outs, logical corrective consequences, and particularly, vivid living example. These nonviolent strategies are discussed in concrete, practical terms in Biomental Child Development.
What Discipline Is
Parental discipline aims at promoting and refining a child’s self-regulation, a containment of impulsivity so that enough ‘pause’ may occur, and suitable behavioral choice may be taken.
Impulsivity Lies Beneath Misbehavior
Discipline emphasizes acknowledging the importance of impulse control as a decisive trajectory in a child’s life. While it has its own features such as intensity, speed, triggers, and other temperamental givens, learning from the environment, particularly parental influence, can contour it. Many of the “do’s and don’ts” associated with discipline come from family’s values. They learned from modeling by parents and figures in a child’s environment: relatives, peers, neighborhoods, school, religious affiliation, and media. This is the overlap among discipline, nurturance, and living example in parenting.
To understand what discipline is, a deeper understanding of impulsivity is useful. Remembering that impulse control has a developmental trajectory that differs in infancy and different eras in childhood and adolescence are essential.
Intentionally stopping oneself from at once acting on an impulse, desire, or intention to achieve a goal is a critical biomental skill. It is a refinement of managing the experience of frustration, which denotes tension in the awareness of a gap in satisfaction. Its inestimable importance can be compared to the function of brakes on a car.
Impulse control regulation has a developmental trajectory, which may be described behaviorally. For example, infants of approximately eight months appear to understand a sense of “no” and may temporarily pause their behaviors. At eighteen months, toddlers can both understand and articulate the word “no” and act defiantly. Temper tantrums may regularly occur in two and three-year-olds. Whining, a verbal expression of frustration, starts at about age three. Arguing appears at age five. All these typical behavioral displays of frustration and negative mood are regularly occurring and short-lived.
Impulse control regulation signifies a developing capacity to tolerate delay, which contributes to the regulation of cognition and behavior to secure safety and survival. It is also an important feature of emotional intelligence that encompasses emotional perception, understanding, regulation, and their integration into successful social behaviors. Behavior so modulated is investing in the immediate moment for later payoff. It is profitable psychological management.
In childhood, development of delay of gratification in part correlates with children’s internalization of their parents’ use of the terms “yes” and “no” to show what is permitted and what is not. It is best to always follow a “no’” with a “yes,” since “yes” amplifies the meaning of “no” by providing a wider range of more acceptable options. This judicious use of “no” expands a child’s “knowing.” Such effective feedback enhances the probabilities for positive outcomes. Future behaviors become increasingly governed by these positive results.
Healthy Discipline: Modulating Parental Anxiety
Healthy discipline is beneficial to wholesome growth, maturation, and development. Healthy discipline involves setting clear directions, optimal preferences, and logical and realistic consequences of unacceptable behaviors. This intervention is best accomplished by using explicit language developmentally appropriate for a child’s level of emotional and intellectual understanding. Calmness, brevity, and specificity characterize effective discussions. Beneficial discipline may be “forceful” because it is clear, explicit, firm, and decisive, though never abusive.
Parents need always to monitor their own “anxiety responses” to children’s undesirable behaviors. Anxiety typically denotes pervasive emotional uneasiness that is not particularly related to a specific event. Anxiety has an amorphous quality based on nonconscious fears and conflicts. Fear, whether conscious or nonconscious, is particularly constricting because it evokes feelings of vulnerability, being controlled, and being at the mercy of forces beyond one’s control. These typically have mental content not easily accessible to conscious awareness. Such anxiety lingers and cannot be easily dismissed. It is accompanied by feelings of powerlessness to change it.
Worry, by contrast, denotes a distressing feeling about a specific event and its potentially undesirable consequences. Often, the terms worry and anxiety are used interchangeably. Preoccupation with worries applies equally to both mothers and fathers. While mothers may react with uncertainty, fathers may become either anxiously disengaged or angrily overreactive. Each gender may react in other ways, too.
When parents perceive negative aspects of themselves in their children, particularly negative moods or behaviors, the natural tendency to feel anxiety may well up. Most times, anxiety causes an automatic slowing and inhibition of both thinking and effective action. At these points, pause and self-reflection help reorient thinking and feeling and provide a normalized return to balanced assessment, so that a suitable action plan can be designed.
Discipline is often contrasted with nurturance. This distinction, however, may be misleading. Suitable discipline can be regarded as nurturance and an important aspect of caregiving. Keeping this nurturant emphasis on discipline in mind highlights discipline’s caregiving, corrective, refining, and adaptive perspectives.
Discipline is a continuing process of teaching, promoting, and supporting prosocial attitudes and skills. Prosocial behavior comprises actions that benefit other people. These strategies are discussed in great detail in Biomental Child Development. An outline here of their essential components will be helpful.
Concrete Strategies to Support Prosocial Skills
Prosocial behaviors are transmitted by techniques such as (1) modeling, or setting an example through behavior; (2) cueing, or prompting children to use prosocial skills; (3) coaching, or direct instructions about how to prepare and then use skills; (4) positive reinforcement, or recognizing and verbalizing children’s attempts and successes at using prosocial skills; (5) nonjudgmental statements, or avoiding emphasizing negative statements about children and others; (6) role playing, or creating a safe environment in which to learn and practice prosocial skills; and (7) direct feedback, or asking children for their perspective and notably what could have been done better to improve the problematic situation.
The goal of all these approaches is to reduce unacceptable behaviors. Such behaviors are those deemed undesirable, unwarranted, and violating established family rules, social customs, and moral and civil laws. Rules must be communicated in clear and direct language, facial expression, gesture, and tone, all suitable and understandable to the child and adolescent at his or her developmental level.
Brief explanations make it easier for the value of rules to be understood and accepted. Such explanations are markedly effective when they avoid taking on the attitude of “preaching,” which can be characterized as authoritarian, nonnegotiable, and unrelenting demands. Tone of voice is crucial when communicating intent. Parents making eye contact and eliciting a child's eye contact also strengthens messaging.
Emotional caring is transmitted through the eyes. The younger the child, the more nonconsciously sensitive he or she is to parental meaning and intention as expressed in tone of voice. Tone of voice together with facial expression, eye contact, gesture, and posture communicate the emotional meaning of parental communications. Well-chosen words, brief and to the point, deliver effective ideas. When conveying behavioral messages to children, phrasing them as preferences—either toward positive behaviors or toward avoiding or stopping misbehaviors is optimal.
Discipline is flexible, corrective redirection only at significant moments. This parenting maxim cannot be emphasized enough. The best adult responses and directives are grounded in understanding the dynamic and changing needs of children, adolescents, and families; hence, adult directions flexibly geared rather than rigidly unalterable toward inevitable changes have the best chances of being met with mutual success. Significant moments connote targeting unacceptable and dangerous behaviors that are absolutely unacceptable.
Put differently, not every single event viewed as undesirable is targeted. Only those behaviors that are urgently dangerous or morally unacceptable should be highlighted selectively and dealt with directly.
It is always important to decide the “battles” one addresses. Deciding ahead of time what is urgent versus what is of lower priority helps prepare for parenting “on the spot.” Once the decision for a limit is set and communicated in a clear and concrete way, it is important that it stay firm. This can be difficult, but efforts in this direction can have immense long-term payoffs. Involving children in discussions of the reasons for rules and limits is helpful. It is important that they always be part of this process.
Many behaviors can be ignored if they are deemed to be safe. Not directly addressing such undesirable behaviors avoids reinforcing them. Parents need to discern impish and overly enthusiastic explorations and silliness from dangerous, willfully oppositional, and malicious behaviors. This differentiation may be hard to do when parents automatically react to undesired behaviors as if this were a reflection that their child is not as “perfect” as hoped. This delineation also may invoke parental guilt at not being as “great” a parent as they or others expect them to be.
Corrective redirection in response to unacceptable behaviors operates to set implicit limits within an atmosphere that minimizes intrusiveness. When parents behave in a nondomineering manner, cooperation rather than opposition is solicited. Selectively targeting undesirable behaviors and informing children why decisions have been made involves setting explicit limits authoritatively.
The parental mood accompanying such “learning moments” is most effective when it is sober, firm, and warm—not caustic, frightening, violent, or aggressive. Such a tone averts fear and unnecessary shame, allowing children to learn more effectively. Effective discipline avoids humiliation, embarrassment, and dehumanization. Using sensitivity and tact is always beneficial.
This approach prevents trauma—the feeling of being abused and tortured— to both child and parent. The child’s dignity and self-worth are thus preserved. Effective discipline includes a calm, firm, decisive tone of voice. Such a disciplinary style fosters increased motivation for cooperation and enhanced receptivity for improvement.
When a child misbehaves, a parent’s immediate reaction might be to yell loudly under the impact of this stressor. For children who are preadolescent, misbehavior can show that more acceptable alternatives are not available in memory. They may not yet have been learned. It is best for parents to remain calm, to identify and articulate in clear, simple language the inferred feelings involved (first in the child, and later on, in the caregiver), then offer redirection to acceptable behaviors.
Often, it is useful to say to the child, “I think you must be feeling upset, frustrated, and angry. Rather than hit or throw things, it’s better to say how you feel by using words. Tell me how you feel, and we’ll figure out what’s happening together.” This shows an example of parents’ modeling of problem-solving skills in action. This illustrates living example.
Staying as calm as possible cannot be overemphasized. This is of special note when feelings of anger—in the child and elicited in the adult— are triggered. Anger stimulates reactive anger, which provokes the fight-or-flight reaction. Feelings associated with fighting are emotionally “hot” and often uncontrollable. Flight reactions involve denying the unpleasant situation and leaving the field. Fighting and fleeing increase angry feelings. The payoff for reacting with anger, therefore, is a “no win–no win” situation for everyone. At these times parental self-reflection is indispensable to allow for effective parenting. Such method also provides children with a model of how to handle such situations.
Helping children to identify feelings within themselves and as they are expressed in others is essential in promoting healthy emotional development, intelligence, and self-management. The ability---emotional literacy---to reasonably communicate subtle emotional states fosters enhancing of emotional regulation, which is a significant substructure of consciously experienced feelings. It builds social intelligence, social skills, and social competence. These abilities are often referred to as sociability.
Validation of Feelings
This strategy is sometimes called a “validation of feelings.” Accepting the verbal expression of feelings and helping children to articulate the feelings behind behaviors are part of a corrective redirection showing warmth and tolerance. Identifying core feelings in words, then describing the behavioral actions in terms such as “bad, which means unhelpful,” unsafe, risky, unkind, and so forth, and why they are unhelpful, allows everyone to pause and step back.
A direct instruction such as, “When you are mad, don’t push. Instead, say in words how you are feeling, then come to figure out the next step,” offers a child the opportunity for multiple learning moments over time. Validation of feelings thus entails accurately describing both positive and negative presentations, no matter how painful. For example, when anger, rage, or sadness is expressed, blunted responses or false reassurances are unhelpful and ineffective.
Corrective Redirection Embedded in Nurturance and Living Example
This positive approach to child guidance is an engaging inducement reflecting team effort rather than authoritarian control. Forceful imposition and harsh indoctrination are counterproductive, if not traumatic. Perpetually maintaining attitudes and operating principles whose underlying premise is teamwork works best.
Relationships and emotional processes support the growth of the mind. These influence how learning occurs and what is learned. Emotional intelligence is enhanced. The fruits that gradually mature in adolescence and adulthood include self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. Focusing on good behaviors optimizes success. Starting from day one is essential. Children and adolescents remain open to positive feedback at all points in their development.