Child Discipline: NOT One-Size-Fits-All

Posted on November 15, 2013


Time for Ivory Tower academicians to butt out

With every passing year, changes in the way Americans parent, and the way US kids grow up, only makes me even MORE glad that I never had children.  The latest: child discipline is back in the news, and frankly, I don’t know what’s left for parents to do when their children cause serious problems.

Remember the 9-year-old who recently stowed away on a flight from Minneapolis to Las Vegas?  Turns out this kid has quite the history.  When police previously returned the boy to his father after the child had stolen a delivery van, the father remarked the he would “whip his butt.”  The officer responded that if he saw the father hit the boy, he would have to arrest him.  As CNN reports, “What can I do?” the father tearfully asked. “If I whip my son, I get locked up. If I let him keep doing what he is doing, I get into trouble. Someone please, please help me.”

And now, it’s not just spanking that’s taboo.  A new academic  study concludes that yelling at your kids can be just as “damaging” (whatever that means) as physical punishment.  As Katy Waldman laments in her article in Slate, what’s left?  “Timeouts don’t really work. Bribery is wrong. Death-stares, displaying no reaction, walking away, distraction, and gentle explanation of wrongdoing are all suboptimal,” writes Wald.

Most articles that answer the question of what you CAN do recommend imposing some pre-determined, pre-agreed consequence of misbehavior, which you and your child have worked out previously as a sort of system.  That’s all great for a tween or teen… IF they are more or less average kids with average childhood or adolescent transgressions, and IF you have effectively raised your kid to that age and level of character in the first place.  But how do you even get to that point?

Somehow, I don’t see this approach working very well with a two-year-old or four-year-old.  So what does a parent do with a defiant two-year-old who wanders in traffic, or a four-year-old who repeatedly plays with fire or torments the family pet?   We would all do well to remember that very young children can actually do very harmful, dangerous things to themselves and others – things that require a strong, immediate intervention, and frankly, with very young children, our options are pretty limited.  So if we can’t spank or yell, and all those other measures are wrong or ineffective, exactly what ARE we supposed to do?  What’s the very young child’s expectation of a consequence for doing bad things?  I’m not finding a whole lot of advice on this, but I know one thing: parents must establish themselves as the authority figure pretty much immediately in a child’s life.  The time to implement your Ivory-Tower-Approved disciplinary approach is NOT when the kid is already a tween or teen and running amok.

Back to the case in point, what does a parent do with a 9-year-old who has already been investigated four times by CPS, has stolen a delivery van, and stows away on an airline? Consequences don’t seem to be working in that case.  And what about teens whose bullying contributes to another child’s suicide, who then show total disregard about the death they helped cause?  These are not average cases , which only emphasize that there is no such thing as effective one-size-fits all discipline for everyone.

I have a suspicion that shame is a missing essential element here.  We are warned away from it, lest we “damage” our little darlings:  as The Washington Post quotes parenting coach Meghan Leahy, “If you yell at your child, you either create somebody who yells back at you or somebody who is shamed and retreats.  You’re either growing aggression or growing shame. Those are not characteristics that any parents want in their kids.”

Excuse me, but YES, I DO want shame instilled in today’s kids.  I think there is a pretty strong reason that we ever developed the emotion of shame in the first place: we are social creatures, and when the group or an authority figure or a loved one makes us feel shame, it discourages disapproved behavior and nudges us to find other, more acceptable behaviors to engage in.  People of any age who feel shame, embarrassment, and disapproval of their actions are a lot less likely to engage in those actions again.  The feeling of having done wrong is internalized, which is important; the discipline comes from within at that point.  Do we really NOT want our children ashamed of the fact that they shoplifted, or bullied a smaller child, hurt their sibling’s feelings or hurt  the family pet?  Shame is the difference between a person who is truly remorseful, and the one who is only sorry he got caught.

Is there really no gray area in discipline, no middle ground, no variation allowed any more between families or individual children and their unique circumstances and personalities?  Is there really no difference in how we discipline a child based on the seriousness of their bad behavior?

Apparently, if academicians had their way, parents would be reduced to two basic options in discipline: calm reasoning with the kids – not always possible, as parents are only human – and involving law enforcement for such out-of-control cases as the Minneapolis stowaway or the Florida bullying suicide, or even just outrageous tantrums (remember the police handcuffing the six-year-old in Georgia?).  With this latest pronouncement that yelling at your kids is harmful, I’m more than ready for the academics to butt out.  Parents need more options than that – real options –  and so do kids.