I have been battling to put my finger on this exactly but have now been able to put into words why I find the discipline balance so very difficult with my daughter. I am often conflicted about when to draw the line on disobedience that is also self-expression. My daughter can be incredibly sweet yet when she’s difficult she’s very difficult because she has strong willpower. I obviously do want her to realise there are times when she has to sublimate her needs and respect boundaries. She does have to realise the world is not going to revolve around her and that boundaries are very often in place to protect her or others.
However, I don’t want to squash my daughter, her willpower and her self-expression and teach her to become a pushover. I don’t want her to be think she has to please people all the time. I don’t want her to believe she does not have a right to stand up for herself (even if she does sometimes still not get her own way after doing so).
I attended an amazing series of talks recently and it made me think a lot about how I discipline Jocelyn. Often discipline is a no-brainer, especially when it involves safety and respect of others. However, there are also a lot of boundaries which are about MY needs and not about her needs. Often I get angry when she wants something different from me or does not want to listen, because it makes life more difficult for me or because it makes me feel like I am losing control and I don’t like to feel powerless. However, I believe it is crucial that I nurture her self-empowerment too and teach her that she is important. I am not giving her a very good message if I keep telling her my needs are more important than hers and never let her have a little self-expression.
Don’t get me wrong, as a psychologist I have seen full-well how important and necessary boundaries are and how a lack of healthy boundaries can severely undermine a child’s self-esteem and sense of safety. I think it’s important that parents be the parents and it’s very important to not be afraid that your child may not like you when you are disciplining them. You do not have to be your child’s friend BUT don’t squash your child when you discipline.You still need to respect him or her as a person. You are shaping the person they are and will become.
I remember reading a very powerful blog about a little girl who grew up to be a shell of herself due to her mothers constant reprimands and demands. She developed so many masks she stopped knowing who she really was while trying to be what her mother wanted. When her mother realised this and attempted to let go a great deal on many of her expectations it took a very long time to get her daughter and her trust back. I have seen plenty of people in my practice who were stifled and reprimanded and they attend therapy due to relationships or work difficulties – because they cannot assert themselves, keep taking on ‘stuff’ for others, feel resentful because their needs are never met, and they all battle with low self-esteem.
At the same series of talks I attended I learned a great strategy from a pastoral psychologist and mother. She spoke about teaching your child emotional intelligence (EQ vs IQ). This is very dependent on the parent being able to control and manage their own emotions. I am aware of all of this and aware of the fact that I often get angry very quickly and it is often not necessary. The stategy she shared was thus very useful and was taken from rugby. When about to scrum the players are told to “touch, pause and engage”. To put this in practice before battle with children means touching/tuning in to my own emotion as it is triggered; pause with it, figure out what it is about and then engage with a response to my child. My husband and I have even started to use this with each other when we see one another losing our temper with our children. James will gently remind me “Kerry….touch, pause and engage”!
I have also been thinking about how to discipline in a more constructive way so that instead of my daughter feeling wrong, ashamed and powerless she can instead own her mistake and feel empowered to fix it. My default is often to shout and then afterwards to talk about the situation and why I was angry (or at times apologise for being unnecessarily angry!). In the same series of talks the suggestion was made that as parents we can side with our child against the ‘sin’ – e.g. “Oh no, now you are going to have to clean that up”, or “Oh no, that really hurt your mother and now you’re going to have to find a way to make it better.” Yes, the child has done something wrong and there is a consequence to that action. This is acknowledged but you also acknowledge that they have a problem now and it can be difficult for the child to know how to fix this so you offer to figure that out as a team. This involves creative discipline i.e. “what can we use to clean that up?” “How can you show mommy that you are sorry for what happened”? Shouting, getting angry and then leaving a crying heap of a child or a sullen child in the wake of the ‘sin’ leaves them powerless and demeaned and does not solve the problem or help them to know how they can do it differently.
I have always believed that I want my child to internalise her behavioural modifications i.e she behaves like this and not that because she believes that is the best for her or others and not because she will get into trouble if she doesn’t. So the above method of creative discipline assists a child to be aware of consequences of actions and how the actions could be different, as well as the consequences of doing it differently, versus feeling punished and shamed.
The way we discipline can have a very real impact on how a child learns to regulate behaviours. I saw this with many of the male offenders when I worked at Pollsmoor Prison – they had authoritarian fathers who beat, criticised and/or shamed. Obviously these were the extreme cases. However, as a result, as children and later adults they did not learn compassion and empathy and did not consider consequences from an internal perspective. Many of them were clueless and powerless as how to be different.
I once read a book called ‘French Children Don’t Throw Food”. The author is an English mother bringing up children in France. She mentions the use of the bêtise which essentially refers to a small fault, one not worthy of discipline. This concept has helped me to choose what I get angry about and what to let go. There are the non-negotiables (dishonesty, disrespect of others or jeopardising safety). However, there are a lot of times when I use “touch, pause, engage” and then realise it’s really not the end of the world if my daughter wants to finish her TV programme and does not want to bath right away or if she does not want to eat all the food I put on her plate. After all, I don’t like being interrupted in the middle of a TV programme and I don’t always eat everything that others may serve me. Instead, I assist her to tell me what her needs are and to ask if she can watch a bit more or leave the food etc rather then get defiant, rude etc. I attempt to be respectful towards her needs (when these do not fall in the non-negotiable category or impinge too much on my own needs) and ask her to be respectful in asserting her needs.
Last night, after writing this, my 20 month old son (unlike the French children!) decided to throw his food and refused to eat a lot on his plate, which is totally unlike him. When I removed his plate with the food he did like, telling him he can’t have the plate if he is gong to throw his food, he responded by banging his head on the table! It appears that my creative discipline; and touch, pause and engage are going to be taken to a whole new level as number two begins to flex his willpower muscles!