Discipline. It’s a word with multiple meanings and its interpretation often depends on your personal experiences and world view.
I like to think of discipline as an “activity, exercise, or a regimen that develops or improves a skill; training: A daily stint at the typewriter is excellent discipline for a writer.” I’m pretty transparent that way—I usually lean toward the meaning that supports real learning. And it meshes well with self-discipline, which I talked about last week.
But, certainly in mainstream conversations about children and discipline, the word is more likely to mean “punishment or penalty in order to train and control; correct; or chastise” or, a bit more sinisterly, “systematic training in obedience to regulations and authority”. (Thanks, dictionary.com!)
Choosing our approach to discipline is a significant aspect of parenting. A quick web search on ways to discipline children brings up methods such as physical punishment (like spanking), emotional punishment (like taking a valued toy or activity away), consequences (like losing a related privilege), expressing disapproval (making the parent’s love conditional) etc. These are all examples of adults exerting their power over children in an effort to control their behaviour.
Leaving aside the incredible damage these methods can do to the parent-child relationship, why are these methods rather ineffective, certainly in the long term? Because these punitive actions do not help the child understand the reason why the behaviour is frowned upon; it merely teaches the child that the parent doesn’t like it. The threat of punishment may motivate the child to avoid that behaviour when the parent is around, but it doesn’t help them appreciate why they may want to rethink those actions in their day-to-day lives. These methods train, they don’t explain. Discipline keeps the focus on the surface level of behaviour: do this; don’t do that. Or else.
So let’s dig deeper. What drives behaviour? One of the main motivators is character. Our character, our traits that define us as unique people, are what we draw on when choosing our actions. So, with our eye on making parenting choices that support unschooling, let’s refresh our memory from last week on what learning about character looks like:
“The need for or usefulness of positive character traits will come up in everyday situations, just like the need for and usefulness of other skills such as reading and writing comes up in life, as we talked about last month. The key, as always, is to support our children, not try to direct them. Help them discover why certain traits are helpful; don’t demand that they exhibit them.”
We aren’t trying to train our children how to behave so we don’t need to discipline or control our children to coerce them to stay on our narrow path. Instead, we are helping our children learn about character; about the range of options we all have regarding how we choose to behave. And how do unschooling kids learn best? Through experience. And how do we best support their learning? Through conversations. Help your children experience the situations they are drawn to and then have conversations about them to help them process the experience. Talk about the situations that arose, about how they saw things, about our own experiences, about ways a person might act or react, about how things might move forward.
Open, honest, and clear communication best supports our goal of helping them learn about character, about discovering the person they want to be. When things don’t go well, instead of disciplining i.e. punishing them for behaviour that’s already happened, focus on the future—help them figure out what other choices they have available to them for the next time a similar situation arises. And as I’ve mentioned before, depending on the child, these might be longer conversations as you’re both curled up on the couch, banter around the kitchen counter, a chat in the car, or a few words exchanged here and there as inspiration hits.
I want to take a moment to touch the idea of positive discipline. The ideas and tools they suggest focus more on the parent-child relationship over punishment and emphasize working together with your child. They are definitely a great step forward. But there are still complications that can arise. Let’s take a look at the idea of “natural consequences” for example. They are described as the consequences that happen when no adult interferes in the situation. That sounds pretty reasonable, doesn’t it? No punishment, just experience?
It does seem logical, but I prefer to call that just plain living. It’s life. Things don’t always go as planned or hoped for—shit happens. But in my experience, taking those moments and calling them “natural consequences” tempts parents to purposely stand back and not help out, to not lend their experience to facilitate a situation—all in the name of their child learning a lesson. The parents deem the lesson more important than whatever the child was trying to accomplish. That isn’t natural in my world. There are enough times when I truly don’t have the experience, influence, or skill to be able to help a situation that I don’t have to artificially manufacture them. I can do my very best and life still happens, not fairy tales.
One of the benefits of focusing on helping our unschooling kids learn about themselves and develop their unique character is that as they get older, the better they understand themselves and the kind of person they want to be, and the easier it becomes for them to make real choices about their behaviour. Not choices muddied by reactionary motivations like rebellion, these are choices they are making for themselves so they don’t change depending on who’s around to see. One of the common traits of unschooling teens is that they behave the same way whether or not their parents are around. They don’t have two different personas: one for peers and one for adults. They get to just be themselves.
As unschoolers, we are focused on supporting our kids as they learn through living. And in helping them discover themselves and the person they want to be, rather than trying to mold them into our version of the “ideal” child. And our parenting choices are all in support of that. Punishment, discipline, demands—they all interfere with that learning. Instead, we communicate with our children as valuable and unique human beings and figure out ways we can best help them move forward more content and happy with their day, their week, their life.