Discipline a Problem? This May Be Why

Spare the rod, spoil the child.

This phrase, inspired by several passages in the Old Testament, sums up the parenting philosophy that most of us, and many preceding generations, were raised with.

Its premise- the most effective way to “teach” children to “behave” is through a combination of shame and punishment- is deeply ingrained in our culture. How often do we see a “misbehaving” child and think to ourselves, that kid needs more discipline? How often do we look at our own misbehaving child and think the same thing?

Our society is conditioned to believe that we have to be strict and stern with our kids, that we have to threaten, shame, and punish them into behaving. This authoritarian style of parenting is characterized by high expectations and low responsiveness - a tough love approach.

Here’s the deal with authoritarian parenting: while it may elicit “obedient” kids in the short-term, those kids - in the long term - tend to be less happy, less independent, less confident, less resilient, more aggressive and hostile, more fearful, and at higher risk for substance abuse and mental health issues.

The reason? No one ever changes from being shamed.

That bears repeating. No one ever changes from being shamed.

Research shows that punishing and shaming kids creates more misbehavior, not less.

Consider this scenario:

You’ve been slacking off at work and have fallen behind. You’re under the gun to finish a presentation and, admittedly, turn in a sloppy final draft full of careless mistakes. You know you can do better, but you haven’t been feeling well, have had insomnia for the past few weeks, and you’re having a lot of anxiety about your health which has been interfering with your work performance. Upon reviewing the presentation, your boss storms into your office, slams it down on your desk and yells, “What the hell is this? Are you kidding me? This is complete crap. My kindergartner can do better than this!! If you don’t have this entire thing redone by tomorrow or you’re FIRED!”

How do you feel? You already felt awful and now you’ve just had a nice dose of shame to compound your feelings of misery. You might work hard to fix the presentation out of fear of being fired, and maybe you’ll never turn in a half-assed presentation again, but did your boss’s response help address the root of the problem? No. His angry, punitive response made you feel insignificant, misunderstood and, well, pissed off. Both at yourself and at him.

Now consider this:

Same scenario except after you hand in the presentation, your boss knocks on your door and asks if he can come in and talk with you for a moment. He sits down and explains that he looked over your presentation and was surprised that it wasn’t up to your normal standards. He asks if everything is ok and genuinely seems concerned. You explain that you’ve had some recent health issues and you’ve been a bit preoccupied. Your boss listens attentively and empathizes, saying how sorry he is to hear that you’ve been having a rough time. He explains that you’ll have to stay late to revise the presentation but suggests that you take a personal day to get some rest and make an appointment with your doctor.

How do you feel? Seen, heard, and understood. Relieved. Cared for. You stay late and work extra hard to fix the presentation. You turn it in with confidence and head home feeling less anxious and empowered to finally see that doctor you’ve been avoiding.

Shame and punishment are the easy buttons. But they never result in lasting or positive change. It’s easy to yell at our kids, to send them to time out, to shame them with our words, and punish them with our actions. But this only disconnects us, creates fear and anger in our children, and lessens our influence on them.

We do not need to punish our kids to teach them a lesson, just as we don’t need to be punished in order to shift our behavior.

“But how will my child learn to behave?”, parents ask.

They learn through our modeling. They learn through connection, love, and compassion. They learn through being seen, heard, and understood. They learn through limits - consistent and firm limits - and they learn through guidance.

We have to let go of our tired and ineffective all or nothing thinking- If I don’t draw a hard line, my kid won’t learn how to behave. We need to embrace a new paradigm- I can have high standards for my child’s behavior AND tune into and be responsive to her emotional needs. It doesn’t have to be one or the other; it can be both. One of my mentors, Barbara Olinger, has a phrase that embodies this new paradigm:

Children need the most love when they’re acting the least deserving of it.

Using this to guide our actions when our kids are acting out will create a new paradigm for raising happier, healthier, more resilient kids.

What are your thoughts? Are you struggling with your parenting style? What are your biggest fears about shifting away from a more punitive style? I would love to hear from you.

Stay tuned for my next post 8 Ways to Improve Your Child’s Behavior (Without Using Shame or Punishment).


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Hi! I'm Cameron, mom of two incredible, "differently-wired" boys who have sensory processing challenges, wife of a nerdy surfer, mindfulness practitioner and Parenting Coach with master's degrees in education and psychology.