In my work as a clinical psychologist, the greatest concern expressed by parents is not knowing how to effectively discipline their children.
No surprise here.
They are often frustrated and burnt out because they have tried every technique and strategy out there to no avail. Their child’s behavior hasn’t changed and more specifically, they are on the verge of breaking point themselves.
To help parents understand why their disciplinary strategies do not work, I often do an exercise with them.
I ask them to use the word “discipline” in a sentence.
Invariably, they say something like, “How can I discipline my child?” or if they are addressing their child, they say, “I am going to think of a way to discipline you.”
I first point out how the word “discipline” is used as a verb: Something you do onto another.
I then ask them to analyze the subtext of their sentences — what do they really mean when they use the term “discipline”?
If they are really honest, they say something to the effect of, “I want a way to control them” or “I am pissed off at my kids and they are going to pay for it,”or “I am so frustrated because I cannot change how they behave.”
And this, I reveal to them, is the reason why disciplinary strategies with our children backfire. We say we want to teach our children proper behavior and help them develop self-discipline. Yet instead, we have adopted strategies that are the direct opposite of teaching and instead are just clever guises of manipulation and control.
And because no human being likes to be manipulated, our children revolt. They either revolt against themselves by divorcing from their authentic power through subservience and compliance or they rebel in a more active way against their parents. Either way they create a false persona that is reactionary to their parent’s controlling energy rather than a genuine response that emerges from a more organic inner state.
If we say that someone lives a very “disciplined life,” we mean something entirely different from when we say that the person is to be the recipient of “disciplinary action.” In fact, leading a disciplined life and disciplinary action are opposites.
The first refers to self-discipline — the ability to self-regulate, without needing someone to keep us in line. We are guided by our own internal compass to live a life in which all the spokes of our everyday existence connect with our hub, the very heart of our being, which is the source of all our true desires.
The second expression, “disciplinary action,” refers to a punitive action imposed by an external source. To see the difference, it’s helpful to understand the etymology of “discipline.” The term contains within it the word “disciple,” which comes from Latin and means “learner.” There’s nothing punitive about this term.
A learner is entirely different from someone who is the subject of disciplinary action. They are someone who wants to learn. And the most powerful teachers for our children are its parents.
If I’m to set myself up as my child’s teacher, I must first have learned how to be self-disciplined. I must have addressed, and continue to address, my own emotional immaturity. I do this by becoming an authentic person, true to myself. In this way, my child learns from me to also be true to themselves — true to their heart’s deepest desires.
This is fundamentally different from hyper-focusing on our children’s behavior and constantly “disciplining” — controlling — them to get them to conform to our wishes. The focus is instead on ourselves as parents, grandparents, caregivers and teachers, making sure that we are setting an example that creates within our children the desire to emulate our aligned and meaningful life.
Self-discipline is something we learn for ourselves, not something that can ever be imposed effectively by someone else.
When we, as parents, radiate with self-discipline, it will vibrate louder than any strategy we can inflict on our children. It will echo in the way we make our beds every morning, how we exercise our bodies, the food we eat, the boundaries we set and the ways we engage with our own purpose. Our task then is not to search high and low for a clever doctor to hand us techniques or strategies to “fix” and control our children’s lives. Instead, the paramount task becomes to align our own lives with clarity, intent, purpose and balance.
Do we have the wisdom and courage to tame our own indisciplined selves and trust that it is through this process that our children will reflect our spirit and soar?
My new book: Out of Control – Why disciplining your child doesn’t work and what will addresses these issues in a pragmatic, solution-focused manner. For a trailer on my book, click here.