An Email Exchange about Disciplining Children

Between Bill, 24 and childless, and Cecilia, 42 year old mother of two

This is an excerpt from an email exchange I had in 1997 with a young male friend of mine. He is very intelligent, open-minded and interested in new ideas, and he loves a good debate. He invariably trips my trigger when he starts asking questions about parenting, but I think over the last couple of years, he has learned a little something from me. I hope his children, if he ever has any, draw some benefit from that.

Have you found that teaching this way [gentle discipline] has caused your children to misbehave less often because they are more confident, or do you think this is their natural disposition?

I think it's all part of a complete philosophy about kids. My method of teaching is the result of my attitude about kids. It's a terrific benefit that it also helps make confident, reasonable, well-adjusted kids. I do think it is partly their naturally pleasant dispositions, but thoughtful parenting eventually brings out the best in children just as disrespectful parenting usually brings out the very worst. I guess my answer would be: I take at least partial credit.

And what do you do when they do misbehave? That's when the spanking usually comes in. I would like to know in more detail how you handle it.

First of all it's extremely important to have reasonable expectations for what kids at different ages and stages can handle and to know what is *normal* for that particular age child. I think unreasonable expectations and a lack of knowledge on the parents' part are the real reasons for most spankings. I tend to parent by something resembling the Golden Rule (every major religion/philosophy has some similar tenet about treating people the same way you'd like to be treated).

When my kids do misbehave, I try to let the *natural* consequences of their actions do the teaching. I point out to them what those consequences are. For example, if I find out one of them has lied to me, I talk to them about what happens when you lie to people... they don't believe you anymore. For the next day or two, I may say to them now and then, "Are you sure you're telling me the truth? I don't know if I can believe you or not since you lied to me earlier." It doesn't take them long to grasp the concept. My methods don't produce immediate results, but what they do is teach the kid to control *himself* because he *knows* what the *real* consequences will be if he doesn't.

By the way, before you ask, spanking is NOT a natural or logical consequence. It may be a consequence in some families, but it isn't NATURAL and it surely isn't LOGICAL. Teaching the child to control himself is where spanking falls short. It requires that the *parent* be aware of the "undesirable" behavior in order to control it. All spanking taught me when I was a child was how to be more deceitful because I knew if my dad found out I'd get a whipping. It didn't teach me that I should learn to control myself just because it was the *RIGHT* thing to do. I didn't learn self-control from spanking. Spanking requires that the parent be the policeman. It does not produce desirable long-term results.

More on that Golden Rule concept... I try not to drag my kids around when they're tired or hungry. I tend to focus my attention on them and their needs, especially when they are very young. I love spending time with my kids so that's not a problem except when I'm with someone who doesn't enjoy or understand children. I try not to spend too much time with people like that, especially if my kids are along for the ride.

One thing I like to point out to people is something I read in Barbara Coloroso's book, Kids Are Worth It! Giving Your Child the Gift of Inner Discipline. If you're lucky, your children will be taking care of you someday. Remember that they are learning their nurturing abilities from you. How would you like it if you got to be 80 years old and not able to care for yourself and your child yelled at you for dribbling your oatmeal down your shirt? What if he or she slapped you for accidentally spilling your milk or told you something stupid like, "Well, Dad, if you get yourself dressed without me having to help you, I'll give you another sticker on your chart and, on Friday, if you have filled your chart with stickers, you can go play shuffleboard with your pals."? How insulting to your intelligence, right? Well, kids are intelligent little people, too, and this kind of coercive parenting is just as insulting to them. They just don't have the words to express the insult so they do what some people call "acting out" (translation: acting like hellions ;-)) instead.

I think the most effective parenting tool is modeling good behavior. No matter what kind of behavior you model, the kids are going to learn it so if you model undesirable behavior the kids will act like that, too. If your kids see you lose your temper and throw things or smack someone (them, your spouse, whatever), they'll think that's the appropriate way to act. It's the very reason why people shouldn't drink in excess or smoke around their kids, in my opinion. Likewise, if your kids hear you lying to your boss about being sick and then they see that you're really going fishing or taking off for Disneyland with them, they'll think it's OK to lie to you. If they see you taking things that don't belong to you or showing reckless disregard for laws, rules, and societal mores, they'll think it's OK to ignore your rules and standards, too.

By the same token, if kids see you treating people in a considerate and reasonable manner, they will eventually model that same behavior. If you consistently treat them well, they will learn to do the same. That's the concept behind saying "please" and "thank you" to your kids... so they'll learn it. You never have to say expectantly, "What's the magic word?" or "What do we say?" because they will learn it just be hearing YOU say it to them.

Like what do you do if you're in a restaurant and Trevor can't sit still or is screeching or making loud noises? I never saw him do much of this when I was around him, but I would like to know how to handle it.

I wouldn't expect a 4 yo child to sit still and quiet for too long in a boring restaurant. If there is some reason why we have to sit somewhere for a long time, I try to have things in my purse that he can do to entertain himself (have you seen my box of crayons? ;) ). If I don't have anything, or if we've already exhausted the possibilities playing quiet games like *I SPY* or *I'm thinking of an animal...*, I'll get up with him and go outside for a few minutes. This assumes there's someone else with us who is capable of sitting at the table and entertaining him/herself for a few minutes - if not, we probably wouldn't still be sitting there waiting for our food anyway. There's absolutely no sense in subjecting yourself and your child to endless waits for food, when it isn't necessary. There are plenty of other places to eat, and kids are just as happy with fast food - and that's a lot cheaper (and noisier!) than a fancy restaurant anyway.

I don't wait until the restlessness has escalated to the screeching/ making loud noises stage. It's practically impossible to calm a kid down to any reasonable level once he's gotten this bored and restless. Spanking a kid at that point would just make him sullen and withdrawn and would make any caring parent feel terrible anyway. Who's enjoying the outing at this point? Nobody, so why would anyone think spanking would be a desirable option? Better to go home and fix a grilled cheese sandwich and enjoy each other's company.

I think one of the most important things a good parent does is consider how various situations will affect the child *BEFOREHAND* to anticipate what may be needed to keep everyone happy. I don't believe in letting my child be a nuisance to others around us, but I also don't believe in subjecting my child to unreasonable expectations for his age level and abilities. I think of my child's needs first and address them in the best way I can while trying not to annoy the other adults with and around us.


Parenting Resources

© 1997 Cecilia Mitchell Miller, unless otherwise specified. All rights reserved.

As far as I know, all graphics used here are public domain and not subject to copyright laws.
If you hold the copyright for any of these graphics or know of someone who does, please email me.
I will gladly discontinue use of the graphic or negotiate for its use.