Holding onto Discipline: Your Fear Is the Problem
FEAR is an acronym in the English language for ‘False Evidence Appearing Real.’
—Neale Donald Walsch
When you are making parenting decisions out of fear, you are not parenting in the best interest of your child.
In chapter 3 we addressed the training bullet wound and identified how parents spend time trying to Band-Aid behaviors with quick-fix strategies instead of identifying the real problem: kids are not being trained to take care of their basic needs and participate effectively and willingly within the family. Now we will take a look at the relationship bullet wound, which until this point has disguised itself as children requiring more discipline.
The Beginning of Your Family
Before the children arrive, couples everywhere dream about what it will be like to become new parents and how they will go about raising their amazing children. It’s such an exciting time. I’m sure you remember all the time you spent imagining life with your child and all the promises you made about how life would be for you and your baby. No screaming, yelling, or punishing from you. You would be a calm, confident, loving, nurturing parent who would guide your child through the ins and outs of life with the kind of ease that can only be admired. You and your child would create a special bond together, making it possible for you to cooperate and show respect for each other with no power struggles or disrespect from either party. You would provide your child with freedom without giving up your own.
Parents know what they want for themselves and for their kids, and they have a vision for what life will be like when their children arrive. They want each day to be filled with love, laughter, connection, and learning and to make memories with their kids that will last a lifetime. They want to feel the same connection with their nine-year-old that they felt when they held their newborn, and they want to be a guiding force in their teen’s life rather than being on opposite sides of every issue. They want to get out of the house on time without any fighting or nagging and to talk at the dinner table and reconnect as a family after a busy day away from each other.
Parents want to know, with some certainty, that their kids are capable of making decisions, taking responsibility for themselves, and making amends. Parents want to feel like they are their kids’ allies, their champions and cheerleaders, and they want to feel respected and appreciated in their own homes. Parents want time to enjoy life with their kids and to maintain their own lives. It’s clear that these dreams, desires, and visions for parenting are heavily weighted in creating and maintaining a loving, respectful, and fulfilling relationship with our kids.
Unfortunately for many parents, when this vision of parental bliss doesn’t materialize and their once easy-to-please one-year-old is replaced with a demanding, screeching two-year-old, parents begin to employ an assortment of tactics to “force” their real child into becoming the dream child they planned to raise. This is where the vision of parenting (great relationships in family life) collides with the reality of raising an actual child with a unique personality. Parents are suddenly preoccupied with finding any tools, techniques, strategies, or approaches that might bring back the dream, the vision, and the bliss they dreamed about having.
This is where, unknowingly, the focus of our parenting journey shifts away from developing the relationship with the kids and toward finding a discipline strategy to “get the kids” to act in accordance with our ideas of parenting. We don’t even realize we’re shifting our focus in an effort to get to what we want out of family life. Once we’ve jumped onto the discipline track, it steers us away from our original dreams of family life and into a cycle of employing Band-Aid tactics to control the kids, their behavior, and their daily lives. That’s why it’s so important to recognize when things get off track and to understand that there are solutions—real common sense solutions—that will put us back in touch with those initial dreams and refocus our attention back on building the relationship with our kids. So, what happens to make us switch from investing in the relationship with our kids to searching for discipline strategies to control them?
There are four basic fears that parents live with that cause them to hold on to a discipline approach to parenting rather than a relationship approach to parenting.
Fear Number One: Not Addressing Kids’ Bad Behavior Means Mom and Dad Become the Doormat
If this is your fear, you may have already decided that there is no way that your child is going to run the roost. You worked hard to get where you are and no little kids, even squishy-faced cute ones, are going to have you jumping through hoops while they act like spoiled brats.
Or perhaps you’re afraid of the hairy eyeball from strangers. You don’t want to go through the day with kids running loose and hear the opinions of onlookers who think you need to do something with that kid of yours. So you keep the reins tight, just in case.
You’re committed to never, ever becoming a permissive parent. And so it sounds great to back off of discipline and focus on the relationship until the kids make a ruckus in public. Then, well, there you go, right back to the Band-Aid tactics and other interfering discipline strategies.
In 1999, a mother in one of my classes who was right in the middle of this fear, raised her hand and said, “I see the reasoning in what you are saying. My problem is this: when I think of relationship strategies, I imagine my kids running the house and I can’t see where that would be any more beneficial than me running the house.” We all shared a collective laugh. Good point. She is afraid of becoming the doormat, not even to her fuzzy-headed four-year-old.
This mom, like so many others, equates relationship strategies with permissive parenting. She’s not interested in being a doormat, not even to a four-year-old. Her goal—to maintain control and order—is fair, based on her fear. And since she has never trusted that her kids “helping out around the house” could actually be a good idea, filled with cooperation, order, and responsibility, she has no reason to give that fear up.
Let’s freeze this thought for just a minute and reflect on how adult relationships work.
As adults, our best functional relationships are balanced. Nobody feels like the doormat and nobody feels like the dictator. I’m not saying unbalanced relationships don’t exist for adults, but they’re probably not the ones we enjoy or are involved with for long. In balanced relationships, boundaries are established early on. There is a give and take for respecting personal preferences and the focus is on enjoying each other’s company, supporting each other as individuals, and valuing a different perspective. You accommodate for personality (yes, your friend may run late, but you love him anyway) and you negotiate solutions (you can’t afford that girls’ weekend away, but you can meet for dinner downtown).
The point is, you’d never force a friend to change or behave in accordance with what you consider a more appropriate manner because either you are willing to overlook the differences in your personalities and preferences or you know she’d walk, and click “unfriend” on the way out. You also know that if you don’t hold up your end of the relationship by investing in the health of it, it will start to fizzle, and you don’t want that so you stay tuned in. The big picture is always on the relationship, even if you have bumpy patches, not on the day-to-day details.
And if you’re thinking, Gee, well, my kid is not supposed to be my friend, consider that I am simply suggesting that you establish mutually respectful boundaries and that family members learn to accept each other’s tiny faults. I am advocating that you accept that everyone is working hard to be her best in any given situation, and not that you chum around with your seven-year-old. I am here to tell you that it is possible to parent your child while treating her like you would a treasured friend, creating a perfect balance of mutual respect, love, tolerance, and guided direction when necessary.
Relationship strategies don’t suggest that parents roll over and give unstructured, at-random control of the house to the kids or give up on raising children with moral character and values.
Relationship strategies do suggest that we, as parents, do not have an automatic right to force kids to live their lives in accordance with our preferences. Just because we can’t stand the thought of a messy room doesn’t mean we have to spend an exhausting amount of energy trying to get a child who could care less to keep it spotless. Indeed, there is a middle point, a balanced system of give and take that supports each member of the family and the family as a whole.
Children are trying to figure out who they are, what they like, and how they want to navigate the world around them. Parents who provide children with opportunities to develop their own preferences and take ownership of their own lives can hardly be considered pushovers. It’s a matter of establishing a respectful relationship and allowing children to unfold, to develop, to grow, and to change. If we invite our children to be the kids they are, instead of forcing them to be the kids we demand, we will certainly see them show up and participate more willingly and with more enthusiasm within the family. Similarly, if we invest in the relationship we have with our kids when they are young, we will most certainly receive an invitation to participate in their lives when they enter adolescence and then leave our homes for their solo journeys into the world. I’ll show you how easy and fun this can be. Just hang on and keep reading.
Fear Number Two: If the Kid Doesn’t Feel Bad, He’s Not Learning a Lesson
If you are a parent who really believes that people, including children, can only learn if they suffer just a bit, then a strategy that focuses on teaching a lesson (even if it’s a bit harsh) is your first response when you feel you have to “do something.”
Example number one: Your seven-year-old daughter is rude to a friend from school and you want her to understand that it’s not okay to treat people that way. So, in addition to the natural consequence (the friend not playing with your child, which may or may not happen this time—or ever), you drive home a series of punishments, anything from taking away cherished items to lecturing and guilt-tripping her into feeling like she did a really lousy thing and that only bad kids act that way. Your goal is to add the sting of screwing up to teach the lesson.
Example number two: Your five-year-old son has started pushing his two-year-old brother down if the little one comes too close to his Legos. The next time you see him do it, you lecture him on keeping his hands to himself, tell him you are putting the Legos away for three days, and that he can go to time-out and think about what he did.
Example number three: Your six-year-old daughter is caught playing with your iPhone without permission. You give her a fierce lecture on using your things without permission and take one of her favorite toys away from her to teach her a lesson.
First and foremost, understand that the learning process is interrupted in children (and adults) when fear, uncertainty, and stress are added to the situation. When this happens, humans retreat inward out of self-preservation, and the ability to learn and discern stops. The child is not capable of making the connection between his behavior moments ago and the lesson you want him to learn once you start to use punishment and verbal lashings to drive the point home. The “lesson” is lost, and the only thing loud and clear is the voice telling the child how bad he is, how he has let someone down, and how he will never get it right. The learning—which was intended to be a message to treat friends better, keep your hands to yourself, or to ask before you take—has stopped. It has evaporated, and what has settled in its place for the child is a residual sense of worthlessness.
Duct Tape Moment
The next time you feel the urge to “teach a lesson,” skip it. Pull out the tape and cover your mouth. The well-intended point will evaporate in the delivery and the child will carry away feelings residual of worthlessness. It doesn’t mean you don’t care, it just means you’re choosing to react in a positive way over a negative way. Attempting to teach a lesson in a moment of anger or lashing out because “She can’t get away with this!” will never work when you’re heated, upset, emotional, or defensive. All the child will hear is a familiar voice telling her how bad she is, how she has let someone down, and how she will never get it right. You have to keep your mouth shut until you’ve cooled off and you can revisit the incident in a positive light.
Clearly, a parent who believes that feeling bad is necessary to achieve proper behavior in kids is going to have a tough time making the decision to invest in a suite of relationship strategies. But if the primary goal is to teach, then why not use one of the world’s best teachers, natural consequences. Natural consequences come up in class all the time, and if you’re afraid of switching your focus to the relationship, it’s helpful to get a good definition and understanding of the power of nature. You can eliminate your fear entirely if you understand how natural consequences work and that your child will, in fact, learn without you ever opening your mouth.
A natural consequence is the result of a behavior, habit, mishap, or “oopsy” with absolutely no involvement or interference from the parents. Natural consequences happen whether you, the parent, are present or not, and they happen whether you want them to happen or not. Here’s where we can use a classic example: it’s twenty-eight degrees outside and the child leaves his hat at home.
• It’s cold out.
• Brian leaves hat at home.
• Brian is cold at recess.
• Brian does not like the feeling.
• Brian remembers hat the next day.
• Or perhaps he’ll borrow a hat.
• Or maybe he’ll wear a t-shirt over his ears.
• It doesn’t matter because the child will figure something out.
That’s it. That’s the lesson, and nature will teach it once or a hundred times without any emotional investment in whether the child has a cold noggin at recess or not.
Often, parents want to rush the experience or they feel like they need to make it stick with an “I told you so” to anchor the lesson. But the kids don’t need it! Kids get it loud and clear, as long as mom doesn’t rush to bring him a hat and then lecture! We’ve all seen that, right?
So, if you ever find yourself in a place where you want to “teach a lesson,” but you think you’d like to choose the relationship, remember that the world is set up to help your child learn lessons with nearly every event, decision, and mistake. The daily grind of life offers kids countless golden opportunities to learn with no emotional attachment to what’s going on. Sometimes kids get away with it. Other times, it takes a long time to harvest the natural response to a behavior, like losing friends over being bossy or mean. Either way, you can’t “teach” something by adding a bite in the bottom. Think of the last time someone tried to teach you a lesson by acting like a jerk. Did you learn a bit of wisdom or did you walk away feeling disconnected and low? Use what’s readily available and it’ll help take the pressure off both you and your child and allow for a better connection between the two of you.
Duct Tape Moment
Use as much tape as you need and tape as many body parts as you must to stay out, let go, stop from jumping in, sit back, keep quiet, and refrain from saving your child from discomfort. Natural consequences are everywhere and are built in to the daily grind—you have to trust these natural lessons and let kids discover how the real world will react to their decisions and behaviors.
If your child is bossy, you can’t step in, correct, lecture, and explain how she’ll have no friends. You have to stay out and let her lose a friend, or perhaps discover that kids will stand up to her and she’ll have to change if she wants to keep her friends. Or maybe she’s funny and likeable and the bossiness isn’t a big deal with her friends. You can’t teach a lesson that is not yours to teach—and when a child learns a lesson the hard way, it’s not okay to peel back the tape for an old-fashioned “I told you so.” It’s her lesson, let her learn it without your commentary.
Fear Number Three: My Kids Are Hooligans, and If I Back Off They Will Get Totally Out of Control
At a 2008 workshop I facilitated, a parent stood up and shared with the group, “Children need to be disciplined. That is how they learn. Without discipline they will be out of control. I am not going to raise or live with an out-of-control child!” Her remarks were met with applause from the audience.
“Okay,” I said to my workshop participants, “can you give me some examples of things your kids do that require you to use discipline in order for them to learn and to keep them from getting ‘out of control’?”
A parent replied, “Sure. I have a list of things. When my kids:
• Fight with each other
• Refuse to get up and get ready in the morning
• Disrupt the family at dinner time
• Leave their toys thrown all over the house
• Come into my room and wake me up a hundred times a night
• Use a sassy, disrespectful tone with me
• Disobey the rules
• Can’t remember their stuff and make us late”
The parent continued, “I feel like I have to discipline them in order to keep the day moving and under control.”
I stopped her there and said, “From my perspective, nothing on this list constitutes a discipline problem. In my mind, these fall into two categories: they are either lack of training problems or fractured relationship problems, and both types are easy to solve.”
The mother’s jaw dropped and I continued, “I’d like to ask everyone in the audience a few questions. Raise your hands if you have used a specific discipline technique more than ten times to deal with one specific problem and maintain control of the kids and the house. This includes daily doses of nagging, reminding, lecturing, counting, time-outing, bribing, and saving, all standard parenting strategies for controlling behavior.”
One hundred and twenty hands shot up.
“Keep your hand up if you have used the strategy more than twenty times.”
One hundred and twenty hands stayed up.
“Keep your hands up if you believe that there is any possibility that using the same strategy another twenty times, fifty times, or a hundred times will cause the problem to disappear.” There was a long pause. And then the hands began to drop. Five hands stayed up. I counted.
“Here is my last question: raise your hand if this is how you want to spend time with your kids.”
Not one hand went up.
The fear of losing control leads parents to overuse ineffective discipline strategies and Band-Aid tactics to control kids, which in turn has the opposite effect on the children. The more times a parent employs one of these techniques, the more “out of control” the kids seem to be, especially when the parent is not around. There also seems to be an increase in fighting and power struggles between family members, not a lessening of them. The more focus there is on controlling the kids so they “do what they are supposed to do,” the less positive connection there is between parents and their children. This interferes with the ability to develop strong, loving, respectful relationships.
Parents must be ready to walk away from the paralyzing idea that their children will become out-of-control hooligans if they are not under constant surveillance. I understand the desire for order, for routines, and for respectful kids. But the mentality held by many parents today who believe all little people are destined to turn into out-of control monsters if a parent doesn’t clamp down on them is just too far-fetched. In fact, when I listen to parents divulge their fear stories, I find myself wondering who in the world they are talking about. Surely not that towheaded four-year-old, highly engaged seven-year-old, introspective nine-year-old, socially sophisticated thirteen-year-old, or determined sixteen-year-old I met at school or in my home! And I bet you’ve experienced this same confusion. A parent comes to you with what seems to her like an end-of-the-world story about her six-year-old and you giggle or shrug it off because you know the child and you know he is most certainly not out of control, a hooligan, or a jerk when he is around you and other adults. If we can think like this about our own kids, a lot of the stress begins to fade.
If you see yourself here, write down exactly what out of control would look like to you. There’s no right or wrong. Perhaps as you scribble down all the worst-case scenarios, you’ll see that they might just be stories in your head. Most of the time, it is fear that creeps in and sticks, even though it is really just nonsense. Obviously some fears are valid, but if you write everything down, at least you’ll see true concerns versus hyped-up fiction in your brain.
Fear Number Four: My Relationship Strategies Simply Won’t Work
In class, when I ask what relationship strategies parents are using, the list often includes:
• Reading with the kids
• Spending time doing fun things with the kids
• Playing games with the kids
• Snuggling with the kids
These are not relationship strategies. These are the ways we spend quality time with our kids. This is part of the confusion that cranks up this fear. These strategies won’t work as relationship strategies because they aren’t! Relationship strategies go beyond just hanging out and playing with the kids because we love them. Relationship strategies take time to set up and they are not reactive to the situation of the moment.
They are designed to:
• Create healthy habits
• Develop routines that support all family members
• Teach children problem-solving techniques
• Demonstrate respectful communication
• Distribute family work equitably
• Handle squabbles between siblings
• Create realistic expectations for behavior
• Instill purpose and value for all family members
• Model values and behaviors
• Deepen and strengthen relationships between all family members
The relationships we enjoy most are cooperative, supportive, respectful, loving, empathetic, and understanding. When challenges arise, we find ways to work things out. We talk, we listen, we brainstorm, we disagree, we compromise, we agree, and we move forward. In other words, we invest deeply in our most important relationships and we are open to changing in order to keep the relationship healthy. And maybe more importantly than that, we accept the other person in the relationship for who they are, with an understanding that they too are in the process of growing and changing.
Finding the balance between maintaining a strong, healthy relationship with our kids, helping them become independent, thinking, responsible, resilient people, creating powerful memories of love and connection, and maintaining order in a respectful and manageable way can be tricky, but I guarantee you that it is possible, that it can be a fun and exciting journey, and that it is worth every moment of uncertainty.
More than any of the other solutions I’ll share with you in the following chapters, the foundation for a strong, respectful, fulfilling relationship with your children is determined by the emphasis you put on implementing relationship strategies and setting aside your desire to manage, punish, or control.