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We’ve forgotten the real meaning of discipline

Parents often want to know how to discipline a child. It starts with realising that discipline isn’t about control but empathy

Discipline is misconstrued as a necessity to teach. The word is associated with punishment, negative reinforcement, training and similar actions. Photo: iSTOCKPHOTO

A question I’m often asked as a therapist is ‘How should I discipline my child?’. It’s a question that often harks back to a parent’s own difficult memories of childhood. I’ve found that the idea of discipline is inevitably accompanied by feelings of hesitation, confusion, exhaustion, reluctance or helplessness.

Discipline is misconstrued as a necessity to teach. The word is associated with punishment, negative reinforcement, training and similar actions. This is probably one of the most unfortunate semantic shifts in the English language, impacting every family and child at some point.

The word discipline originates from the Latin discipulus meaning pupil and disciplina meaning knowledge. It’s derived from the root word discere, which means to learn. How did something that indicates learning and knowledge and is progressive, turn into an uncomfortable process of instruction and moulding?

Teaching based and reflective discipline is meant to enhance relationships and empathy in the process of sharing knowledge, but invariably ends up hurting and creating stress and disconnect.

Over time, we’ve reduced our focus on understanding our children, while expanding our goals for them—and that’s why discipline has now come to mean creating distance rather than forging ties of shared knowledge.

With the rise of behaviourism—which was largely deduced by laboratory experiments on rats, entailing punishments to modify behaviour—parents learned to own, expect and cause effects in children by punitive measures. I doubt if anyone studied the long-term impact of ‘tough love’ on the minds, health and development of rats. These experiments focussed on stress responses and learning through the alarm or shock, and it’s clear that emotions, respect and honour were never added to the list of variables.

In many homes, it’s still common to see emotional disciplining with comments about wrongs and rights, weighed down by moral judgements and constant references to sacrifices made by parents and family elders to own and control behaviour.

Discipline does not mean controlling, moulding or changing another. It means partnering, teaching, reflecting and encouraging one to gain knowledge to make choices.

Research shows that physical disciplining leads to slower cognitive growth and impacts academic achievement. Harsh discipline can chip away at children’s emotional health and confidence.

Reflective discussions, asking questions on what the child feels he or she could have done differently, what they have felt through the experience and if they would like to change, empathising and discussing options for corrective action can be a hugely positive and empowering process.

A lack of time, patience and consistency to aid this learning process costs us and our relationships with our children, their sense of self and their relationships, dearly.

For parents, the ultimate aim is to encourage learning in children while building a healthy sense of self. To help them identify, regulate and manage their feelings and behaviour, parents can opt to create dedication and commitment through challenges by guiding them to ask the right questions. These equip children with tools to cope with situations independently in life and teach them effective problem solving.

Multi-sensory reminders, communicating desires not demands, aiding goal setting, sharing experiences and allowing autonomous problem solving can help achieve discipline in the true sense of the word.

Achieving discipline by changing the way we understand and practice it can become a process that helps build bonding and trust rather than being a source of conflict, bitterness and anxiety.

Shwetambara Sabharwal is a Mumbai based psychologist, psychotherapist and a mother of two.

    08.02.2021 | 10:35 AM IST

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