Last week a story came across my Facebook news feed about a father in Florida who had the local sheriff observe him spank his twelve-year-old daughter because he wished to discipline her for a fight she had with her sister. The dad asked the officer to be present because he did not want to get into legal trouble. Apparently the father hit the child four times, left no mark...so there was no case of abuse, according to the sheriff. The story ran on Today Parents, along with a poll for readers to vote whether or not spanking was an acceptable form of discipline in today's world.
I also recently read a Time Magazine news story regarding a study which claims using time-outs as a form of discipline cause a child to feel isolated and rejected, the article further states this method of discipline actually changes the structure of the brain.
Knowing there is probably an expert and a study to support or negate just about any measure of discipline, what's a parent to do to get their child to behave? I asked that question on my Facebook page and got several different answers, ranging from spanking, to taking away privileges, to having the child come up with their own punishment. Although I personally have never agreed with raising a hand to a child, I know I used time outs on occasion while my children were young when I felt their behavior was unacceptable. (In brutal honesty I probably sent them to their rooms because I needed the break).
I have become very interested in the topic of kids and discipline, what works/what doesn't and what might work in the moment, but have long-term consequences. The more I read about the subject, the more I believe we [parents today] have taken the term discipline to mean nothing more than administering punishment. Which is not the essence of what the word discipline actually means.
Dr. D. Ross Campbell, who wrote a best-selling book called How to Really Love Your Child states:
While we may have different methods of corralling our children's behavior, I think we could agree that allowing kids to run hither and yon without some form of structure and boundaries will result in offspring who will not develop into "self-controlled members of society".
(How badly did I date myself by using hither and yon in a sentence...).
However, what Dr. Campbell stresses most in his book are the four behaviors parents need to practice in order to have minimal discipline issues with their children. These include:
- Eye contact. A primary means of communicating love, disappointment, and a wide range of other emotions, if we don't spend enough time engaging in eye contact with our kids (especially with regard to the positive emotions such as pride, love, empathy), their emotional tank will be low. Another casualty is our kids may struggle with looking other people in the eyes as well.
- Physical contact. A terrific way to bolster a child's emotional well-being and self-esteem, parents tend (especially with boys) to hold back on physical affection as their children age. It is especially important for boys to receive physical contact (hugs, pats on back, shoulder squeeze) from their dads in order to feel masculine. Many dads assume the opposite to be true. Regular appropriate physical affection = feeling worthwhile.
- Focused individual attention. Have more than one kiddo? It is very challenging to find the time and energy to invest in your family as a whole in today's world, let alone take time for each child individually. However, it is very important to fill up each child's emotional tank in this way. And, as your kids get older, plan for that to take a bit longer because as kids age and independence emerges, it takes them time to warm up to spending time alone with you.
- Last, but not least, Focused listening. I think this is pretty self explanatory. However, here is a good example: when I am on my computer in my office and one of my kids comes in, I immediately look up from the keyboard, turn towards them and make eye contact. I find this does two things: (a) shows them they are important to me and (b) usually helps them to share what they require of me more quickly (be it listening to a story or a problem, or looking at something, or even doing something for them) which means they tend to move along more readily so I can then get back to what I was doing.
I keep referring to a child's emotional tank....what exactly does this mean? While Dr. Campbell doesn't literally define it in his book, I believe it is the internal basin each one of us relies on to help us feel accepted, loved and cared for in the eyes of the people who are supposed to love us most...mom and dad (who are the people who have the most influence on how we feel about ourselves while growing up).
THE MOST IMPORTANT THING Dr. Campbell stresses in his book, and I would have to agree whole-heartedly, is giving your children unconditional love. Meaning...your child knows at their core that while they may disappoint you with their behavior at times, you will never stop loving them. You have separated who they are from the way they have behaved.
If my own five kids understand nothing else I have ever tried to impress on them, I want them to know that I love them even if I don't agree with, or don't appreciate the behavior they are showing or the choices they are making. Not only do I verbally tell them often that I love them, I also show them by making them a priority in my life everyday, and supporting/encouraging them even when they make mistakes or make a choice that has resulted in negative consequences.
Can you guess why I made the decision so many years ago to use this approach with my children? If you surmised it was because my parents used to spank me and ground me as a main form of discipline, you are right.
Although spanking didn't happen very often, you can bet I clearly remember the details of each incident. Not only do I recall the physical pain, I also remember the emotional distress. Being spanked was humiliating, shaming, and (in my opinion) completely uncalled for. It was done, more often than not, because my parents didn't know what else to do to control my behavior or to let me know how much they disapproved of my actions (however, at the time I took this response as their disapproval of me). Grounding became their way to control my behavior once I hit junior high school.
My parents, whom I believe love me very much, raised me to the best of their ability based on their knowledge of parenting and their own life experiences. However, we have the option as we continue down our own life path to do things differently. I chose to make changes and improvements where I felt (as a child) my parents lacked.
In so many ways today's society works against parents...the pace of our daily lives (even though we have so many modern conveniences), dual-income families with kids in twenty sports...or one sport with six days of commitment a week, kids imaginations being sucked into screens, adults feeling like they can't look like they're getting older, comparing ourselves to others and feeling like we aren't good enough if we don't have the latest cars or gadgets, media's incessant drone of immediate gratification...all of these influences are taking away from parenting our children to believe in their internal worth because, let's face it, so much of our society says our worth comes from the outside instead of from within.
What do you think would happen if we (parents raising kids today) chose to reflect on our childhood, consider how it has, or how it is, affecting our parenting and then consciously chose to make changes where needed to support our children in navigating this ever-confusing world we are facing?
I welcome your thoughts on this topic, comment here or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.