Mia Von Scha joins Lebo Mashile on the parenting TV show, "Great Expectations" to discuss Discipline Dilemmas. Mia and Lebo chat about what discipline really means, how to speak to kids so that everyone wins, and why moms tend to push the disciplinarian role onto dads.
Should discipline techniques change to suit the child’s personality?
Every child, just like every adult has a set of values, a hierarchy of things that are most important to them. With children under 10, their highest value will usually have something to do with play. Every one of us, regardless of our age is inspired to do things linked to our highest values. These are the things that we don’t need to be motivated from outside to do – that we just do without being reminded, that we enjoy, that give us energy, that we do with enthusiasm. We also feel heard, understood and loved when someone else acknowledges our values, and we feel hurt, misunderstood and unloved when our values are challenged. Most of what parents call disciplining their children is trying to get the kids to live within their values, not understanding that a child has their own set of values that do not necessarily match those of the parent. Every person has a set of values that are fingerprint specific to them, so your child’s values, even if similar to yours, will never be exactly the same.
Now, I’m not talking about values as in social idealisms, like honesty or trust or dependability. I’m talking about things that are genuinely important to you in your life as it currently stands, so a mother may have her children as her highest priority, followed by her career and then socializing. The father may have finances, then spirituality and then knowledge as his priorities. And each child will have their own list of things that are important to them. If we understand and respect each others values, instead of trying to force our own onto the other members of the family, then we open up a new level of communication and respect where discipline can be completely redefined. We will never need to bribe or punish a child to do or not do something if they can see how doing or not doing it is helping them to fulfill their highest values.
For example, my daughter has dinosaurs as her highest value. She is intrinsically inspired to learn about, read about and play with dinosaurs. So if I want her to come and bath (I have a higher value on cleanliness than she does) then instead of fighting with her and insisting that bathing is good for her because I say it is (imposing my values into her) I simply say, “Hey Kai, I heard a rumour that there are some glow in the dark dinosaurs getting up to no good in the tub, just waiting for you to come and play with them”. You can spend an hour of shouting and bribing and insisting that a child get in the bath when they don’t want to, or you can appeal to their values and have them actually enjoy doing what you want them to do.
So yes, you will need to communicate differently with every child as every child is a unique individual with a unique set of values. Respect their values, link what’s important to you to what’s important to them and you have respectful communication rather than discipline.
Why is it important to effectively discipline our children?
Again, I would bring this back to values. Everyone in the family deserves to have their values respected, and not at the cost of anyone else. If children’s values are respected and understood, they are more likely to respect yours. There may be times where they cross the line, and yes, whether you like it or not, you will react to someone challenging your values. For example, if you are a mother and your children are your highest value and someone threatens your child, you go into mother bear mode automatically and start growling and attacking! It’s quite natural. Children need to learn that the world is like this and if you want something then you need to speak to someone in their values, not disregard their values or there will be consequences. Parents need to respect themselves and their children. We also need to be aware that boundaries will be different in every single household depending on the values of it’s individual members. It’s not about what is right or wrong, but about communication regarding what is important to whom.
We always hear the word boundaries in the context of discipline -what are boundaries and why do we need to set them? (As a parent, you can think of a boundary as the line you draw around yourself to define where you end and where your child begins. This isn’t always easy. And let’s face it, kids push their boundaries every day, all the time. They are wired to test us and see how far they can go; it’s in their nature. And it is an essential part of our growth as parents. Growth happens at the border of support and challenge, so we need our kids to push our boundaries as much as they need to do this for their own growth. As parents, we sometimes cross boundaries ourselves in our attempts to fix things for them..)
How does setting boundaries relate to effective discipline?
We are all naturally going to set boundaries according to our own set of values. For example, one of my highest values is knowledge and education. So if my kids tear pages out of books or draw in them, I feel offended by this and will draw a behavioural line that mustn’t be crossed. My husband, on the other hand has a high value on food and nutrition, so if they don’t eat their dinner or insult the food he has cooked they’re going to bring out his bad side. Again, it isn’t right or wrong and these rules will differ in every household. What kids learn through this is that everyone has different boundaries and rules and that if you understand other people and communicate well with them then you will have more harmonious relationships. For very young children you will need some non-negotiable boundaries to keep them safe – such as no running across the road or wearing a seatbelt in the car. For older children it is important to discuss boundaries with them and help them to understand this in terms of what is important to them. We want our children to honour boundaries not because we say so, but because they understand and respect the boundaries themselves. This way they will internalize them and will grow up to get along with others and live in a respectful way without some external rules keeping them in line.
What do we need to understand about the normal behavioural patterns of children to understand how and when to discipline effectively?
It is a good idea to have a broad outline of what children are going through at different developmental stages. You can find this in any developmental book in the library or even online. These are broad guidelines only. Every child is a unique individual and will develop at their own pace and in their own time. Knowing more or less what to expect at different ages is useful just to prevent you punishing behavior that is natural at that age. For example, a lot of child abuse happens because parents are not aware that children are not physically or emotionally capable of certain behaviours at certain ages. Many parents are not aware that the prefrontal cortex of the brain, the part that allows us to control our emotions and to weight up different actions before responding, only fully develops in the early twenties. And yet we expect two or three year olds to control their tantrums. This oversight can often lead parents to punish normal behaviours and teaches children not how to handle strong emotions, but how to repress them – something that can affect their health and psyche into adulthood.
To guide your child effectively, the most important thing is to know YOUR child. Spend quality time with them, observe them closely. Know what sets them off, what is important to them, what they do easily and what they struggle with. For me, when it comes to what to do with an individual child, the most important thing is the parent having confidence in themselves. Most parents that I work with KNOW what is right for their child, but because they don’t trust themselves, they take the advice of so called experts even when it feels wrong. Particularly if you are your child’s primary caregiver, you know that child better than any professional or book or parenting manual. You know what works and what doesn’t with your unique child. You know when a tantrum is because they ate too much sugar or didn’t have a bedtime nap or when it is because they’re not getting what they want. You know instinctively when something is wrong with your child and needs to be addressed. When I work with parents I don’t give them a set of rules and guidelines to follow – I help them to resolve their own insecurities and childhood issues and to understand their unique family dynamic so that they can parent confidently in exactly the way that is right for them and their particular family.
If Tantrums are not a pleasant experience for children, why do they act out or throw tantrums?
Children do not throw tantrums to “be naughty”. They have limited ways and means of communicating their needs with you and tantrums are often the most effective form of communication they have at the time. If you don’t read their basic needs of being tired, hungry, thirsty, and bored or in need of attention they’ll use negative attention-seeking behaviour strategies to draw your attention to them. Various factors could account for a child acting out: you may be busy and their tantrum is a way of letting you know they feel neglected. Your child may have tried to attract your attention in subtle ways. Their loud disobedience is their final attempt at getting it. Your child feels out of control and their behaviour is a way of feeling in control.)
Generally, as mums, we tend to push the “disciplinarian role” onto the dads: why is that?
Mothers, as a generalization, tend to be naturally more nurturing and more likely to have their children in their highest values. We also have messages from our own childhoods, the media, and well-meaning parenting books and advice that our homes are supposed to be peaceful, happy, calm places and we must do everything we can to stay calm and be caring towards our kids. This tends to give people an unrealistic idea of a one-sided family and a one-sided life. There is no such thing. Every family will have both war and peace in various forms. So the more the mother tries desperately to create a peaceful, happy, calm (and one-sided) home, the more the father has to balance this out by becoming stricter and more aggressive. Life (and families) are always balanced, and life is two-sided – there is both good and bad, happy and sad, kind and cruel in perfect balance in every moment. This misconception is the source of most guilt, shame and blame in families because they are striving for the unattainable. If everyone just relaxed, and both parents were allowed to be gentle at some times and strict at others, then kids would grow up with a much more balanced view of life and themselves. When we put all the discipline onto one parent we end up playing ‘good cop bad cop’ and children become infatuated with one parent and resentful of the other. This ultimately leads to them rejecting one half of themselves (they also have both good and bad, kind and cruel, helpful and unhelpful etc).
Do children generally respond differently to discipline from mums and dads?
Yes. In fact kids are usually one up on us in their understanding of values. They know what is important to us and what they can get away with with one parent where they can’t with another. We all know how a child will specifically target one parent when they want to ask if they can leave something out at dinner and a different parent when they want to sleep over at a friend, for example.
How about Single Mums? We have so many single mums in SA. How can a single mum best go about disciplining her child?
A single mom simply has the disadvantage of having to play both good and bad cop. As this is really how it should be with two parents anyway, I don’t see why they should discipline any differently. The only thing that I would add for single moms is that they need to be even more aware of their own needs and boundaries. It is very easy for a single mom to take on everything and not end up with time for herself and to pursue her own values and needs. She will need to have very clear boundaries and to enlist as much help as possible to ensure that she gets this time.
Can we classify children under a year as naughty?
I would never classify any child as naughty. Every single person on this planet has both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ traits. We are all sometimes helpful and sometime unhelpful, sometimes stingy and sometimes generous, sometimes pleasant and sometimes grumpy. Labeling a child is the first step to creating lifelong problems. When I work with parents I look at the limiting beliefs that they have picked up over their lifetime. The most predominant of these are a variation on one of the following: I am not worthy, I am not lovable, I am not good enough. The main reason that 99% of adults are walking around with these beliefs running their lives is because they were given the message that we are supposed to always be good. Always be kind, happy, helpful, agreeable, loving, sharing. And so we end up rejecting one half of ourselves. EVERYONE is also mean, sad, uncooperative, difficult, hateful and stingy – sometimes. It is the hierarchy of our values that will determine how and when we display these traits, but we all have all of them. Labelling a child as naughty makes them believe that they only have the so called negative end of this spectrum and not the ‘good’ traits. This is just as unhealthy as striving in vain to only have the ‘good’ traits and avoid the bad. In order to love ourselves and other people we need to embrace both sides. My favourite quote is by Dr John Demartini: “No matter what I have done, or not done, I am worthy of love”. Love is about wholeness. And most of our discipline gives the message of separation. No child can be one sided and this obsession with trying to make them this way is the very source of all our problems with discipline.
Mia, a big debate is generally who is allowed to discipline our children. Is it ever appropriate for someone else, except mum and dad to discipline a child?
Whether your like it or not, other people are going to react when your children challenge their values or push buttons on their own unresolved stuff. This is neither good not bad – Children will learn that everyone has their limits and they will learn about the natural consequences of interaction with other human beings. As I said earlier, every household will have it’s own rules based on the values of the people living there. This is part of learning how to socialize – seeing that other people have different values and ways of being can help a child to broaden their horizons and see different perspectives. Obviously if someone handles discipline in a traumatic or degrading way, you will keep your child away from these people in future. If you disagree otherwise, I would simply discuss this with your child as a way of pointing out that other people have different rules based on what is important to them. This is normal, and it does not mean that the same things will be allowed (or not allowed) at home.
Should mums allow nannies to discipline their children?
I think it is important to discuss with your nanny what you have decided as a family are the boundaries and allow her to follow through with this. The one thing I would add would be that the nanny should also have the right to her own boundaries and to be treated with respect. I have seen many children speaking abusively to a nanny with the parents watching on and not intervening. Children in these situations will learn to treat some people as less important than others and not to treat all people with respect simply by virtue of them being human.
Is it ever appropriate for me to discipline someone else’s child?
Again, if someone else’s child seriously challenges your values or pushes your own unresolved buttons, you are likely to react whether you want to or not. I think it is totally appropriate to discuss the ground rules of your home with a visiting child or his/her parents. This way everyone is clear from the outset of what is ok or not in your home. Obviously if a child is harming you or your child you need to intervene .It may help to remember that with children under 10 it is most likely that their highest value is around play. Keep the kids busy with good games and suggest new ones when tensions rise or boredom sets in and they shouldn’t get up to too much nonsense!
If we see someone is inappropriately disciplining our child, say an aunt or cousin, what’s the best way to conform the situation?
This comes down to your confidence as a parent and as a human being. You need to learn to speak up for yourself and speak up for your kids. You have every right as a parent to be specific as to how you want your child to be treated. It may help, in a situation like this to find out what triggered the discipline in the first place. If you can figure out what boundary was crossed or what value was challenged, you may be able to explain both to your child and the offending adult what just happened and how it can be avoided in future without the need for discipline. It is all about open and respectful communication. An aunt or cousin who feels that they have been heard and understood is more likely to listen to your alternatives.
If a mum or dad started off wrong with their discipline techniques, is there still hope for them? Can they change the way they discipline their children moving forward?
It is never too late (or too early) to make changes in your life. Children are incredibly adaptable and will respond positively to any changes that you make in the right direction. In fact, kids learn mostly from who we are, not what we say, so any positive changes that you make in your own life will reflect in them as they model your new ideas and behavior. I would also urge parents to let go of any guilt they may feel for how they have behaved in the past. Every parent has things that they wish they hadn’t done, but if you take the time to look at those things and find the benefits in them, you’ll see that nothing in life is one-sided – there are benefits in all the traits we call ‘bad’ and drawbacks in all the traits we call ‘good’.
Who or which organization can mums contact if they need help changing the way they are disciplining their children?
I would suggest that parents who are unhappy with the way that they are disciplining their kids, or anything else about their parenting, should contact a good coach or therapist who can help them to work through their own unintegrated childhood issues. Most of our negative disciplining comes from us modeling our own parents and recreating unprocessed childhood issues.
If parents should remember just one message about discipline from today’s show – what would it be…from each of you?
There is no such thing as a naughty child. Every child will be cooperative sometimes and uncooperative at other times, helpful and unhelpful, respectful and rude – just like all the rest of us. Children deserve to be loved no matter what they have done or not done.
Please recap your top tips for positive discipline techniques?
Know your child’s values, respect these, and communicate to them with these in mind. Communicating what you want or need your child to do in their own values will minimize any need for discipline or rewards.
Know your own values and Find links between yours and your child’s. This will improve your communication and show love and respect to both you and them