One of the challenges that all parents face is the question of discipline. While almost no one wants to be a martinet, it is generally accepted that without discipline of some sort, children will not thrive. The task for parents is to decide how to motivate, encourage, and require the habituation of particular standards of behavior of their children.
Let’s talk about all three of these words: motivation, encouragement, and requirements. It is true that children have intrinsic motivation to try to please their parents. Very young children will work hard for a smile of support and an encouraging word from their parents. Nevertheless, as they go through the separation and individuation phase, they will begin to assert their own will to try to dominate their environment and master it. The nature of the beast is that the child will employ unconscious strategies to get his/her way. They cry and they throw fits; they seduce, cajole and use their will power in a struggle to satisfy their desires. Sometimes there is joy and positive energy in the child and sometimes there is rage and frustration. In response to these motivators they will work hard to master the situation to reduce their frustration and deplete their rage.
Parents receive a child at birth that has a personality and a level of will power and awareness. In the tabula rasa theory, the child is viewed as a blank slate upon which society and parents write to create the adult that evolves. It is through the application of reinforcements and modeling within an environment of support, frustration and mastery that the child evolves both their sense of capacity and the skills to assert their sense of self.
My father often said that he would rather my brother and I fear him than love him. In his world, it mattered more as a responsible parent that he could command our compliance than create a feeling of safety or security or God forbid, happiness. He was driven by an internal vision of us. He would mold and shape us to fit that vision. Dad was not an educated man, but he was street smart and wily. I do not know where his vision came from, but it required us to do well in school, develop the courtesies of what were considered to be “high class” behaviors (by him), and that we learn to work hard so that we would always have employment. His mantra was work harder than anyone else and you will always come out on top. He did not believe in praise or rewards. His methodology was to tell us over and over that we were stupid and hopeless and needed to work harder to be average. Our futures were very limited, in his view. We were destined to be laborers, working for minimum wages and would be lucky to get jobs doing physical work. He insisted that the saving grace in our lives would be to get a union job and work hard. The union would protect us, help us earn a living and obtain a pension for when we were old and retired. This vision was a reflection of his life. It is exactly what happened to him. He was union blue through and through. I remember being told that I was too dumb to take Calculus and that I was not smart enough to go to college. I would be better off to get a reputation as a skilled and hard worker, then someone would always take care of me because I had worth and marketability.
My parents did not encourage the arts, reading, or any activity that did not offer financial return in the short term. Gambling was OK, hunting and fishing were acceptable because they both could bring food to the table that did not have to be bought. Discipline brought the capacity for skilled repetition of behaviors that were rewarded monetarily. In order to teach that discipline and instill it at a subliminal level, my dad practiced corporal punishment and emotional abuse. I was beaten regularly for almost any failing. As children my brother and I were sent out together to get switches. The switch I got would be used on my brother and the one he got on me. This kind of psychological strategy was one of my father’s favorite ploys. Another tactic he used pretty often was to whip us at the same time, one of us would “volunteer” to go first and the other would have to watch, and count strokes at the same time so that the whippings would be “fair” in the number of lashes. There was no advantage in going last and the psychological pain of the fear of what was coming taught me to go first to get it over with. My brother never figured that out.
There were standard things that always brought a beating. We knew what they were and could anticipate them. For instance if we received a discipline note from school we always got a whipping. We were told that the teachers were right even when they were wrong. My dad believed in authority within the hierarchy. The problem for us was the randomness of other beatings. Any thing could cause one to happen. My dad could be mad at his wife, he could have gotten a traffic ticket, we could be making too much noise playing in our room, we could have forgotten to rake the leaves, etc. Any of these could and did bring about whippings.
Perhaps a word about whipping is in order. In our house it consisted of being beaten until he was tired by a belt, a switch, or by an extension cord that was kept hanging on a hook on the refrigerator for particularly egregious failings. He would hold our left hand in his and swing with his right arm and work up and down our back from our neck to our heels. He did not feel that he had done his job until there were open wounds and welts from top to bottom.
In order to survive, we learned to endure, manipulate, hide, seduce and dissemble. One of the first lessons one learns in an alcoholic family is that one never lets them know what one is afraid of, what one wants or hopes for, or what one cares about. I learned to suppress my own feelings and bury them deeply because whenever they learned that I cared about it became a weapon in the war of control. I had to wear a mask and develop a false persona in order to survive at home. I could actually feel a “switch” throw when I left home as I became another person entirely when I went to school. When I came back home, the switch would throw in reverse and I would go back to being the survivalist representation of whatever they wanted me to be at home in order to avoid being hurt.
As a result of the development of these skills and these masks, I was able to survive and achieve. I internalized a discipline and a determination that I value and appreciate today. I do not like the forces that impelled me to acquire these skills/masks, but I value them deeply today. What saddens me is the possibility that I might have developed them without all the costs that my parents discipline strategy imposed. What if, I wonder, there was praise, affection, and safety in a child’s home? Would the child become soft and lazy? Would the child internalize the character and self- discipline he needed to compete economically in the world? As a parent I need to help my child lose his innocence in graduated levels so that he has a realistic world-view and a plan of action for engaging in society. If I fail to facilitate this, then I fail as a parent.
I have two sons. I have tried to raise them to be loving respectful men with self -confidence and self discipline. I would say that I have not abused them physically or emotionally (but one should perhaps ask them.) I have encouraged them to ask questions and choose their paths rather than follow the herd and do all that they are told. I have used discipline (external) including a script that says: “You are making a choice, the choice you are making now is not a good one and comes at a consequence, the consequence will be……., is that the choice you want to make?” I think known consequences with the freedom to choose them are among the most comforting lessons a child can learn. Discipline should not be reactive and should not be delivered in anger. It is designed to shape behavioral choices and to inform and educate. Discipline with consequences should be illustrative not punitive. When a child develops to the point of transitioning to an internalized discipline script then they have good self -esteem, good self -discipline and will power. Self -esteem is based on capacity. Capacity requires the ability to anticipate and choose among consequences. Sometimes children choose to act out even though they will receive the consequence they do not desire. That is OK, they need to feel the consequences and learn through that process whether or not to continue the behavior. As Dr. Phil often asks, “How is that working for you?” I want to ask my children, do you like the outcomes of your choices? What other choices might you make? Can you afford the cost of your choices? Every choice has costs and every choice has pay offs. What do you choose?