What Does Discipline Really Mean?

Discipline Means to Teach — Not to Punish or Control

One of the most important tasks we parents have is molding our children into adults prepared to thrive in a world full of rules and expectations. How is this accomplished? Through discipline.

Parenting involves turning a little human being focused on his own needs and immediate pleasure, into a person who will follow rules and be prepared to coexist in a world that includes many other people — each with their own needs. More than coexist, we want our children to grow up into respectful people who, in turn, earn respect from others. We want them to be successful — and that means they must behave in school, and ultimately in the workplace.

To understand how best to discipline effectively it is helpful to understand the word  — discipline — itself. Discipline shares the root with the word “disciple.” It means to teach or to guide. It does not mean to control or punish. You might choose to take it even a step further. In keeping with the word “disciple,” you could interpret it as meaning “to teach” or “to guide,” in a loving way.

Understanding Discipline

Discipline should shape behavior, not impose control. In fact, children who are disciplined in a controlled manner often rebel. Think about how children raised with the authoritarian parenting style — “You’ll do as I say. Why? Because I said so”– turn out. They are very well-behaved . . . until they stop being well-behaved. Numerous studies reveal that young people raised by authoritarian parents (lots of rules, not very much warmth) engage in high levels of risk behaviors. They are obedient when young, but not into the teen years. When discipline feels like “control” it can backfire because people only tolerate being controlled for so long.

When discipline feels like punishment, it does not lead to the reflection and growth that makes lessons long-lasting. Don’t misread this as suggesting that there should not be consequences to unacceptable behaviors. There should be clear consequences that make sense to the young person. “I did this. Therefore, I lost this privilege.” On a deeper level, conscious or not, we want our children to make an even clearer connection. “The consequence to my action makes sense because the privilege I lost is connected to what I did.” For example, if your child is thirty minutes late for curfew, there is no logical connection between that and losing a video game or a phone. On the other hand, it would be understandable if curfew was moved earlier by an hour. If a child does poorly on a test because they didn’t study, it makes no sense to ground her. It does make sense to be sure that she must be home in time to do her homework and that she cannot play video games or go on social media until all her homework is done. It further makes sense that these nightly rules are kept in full force until she demonstrates that her school performance improves.

How would she have felt if she were grounded entirely? Punished. She would have felt victimized. When a young person feels like a victim and there is no logical connection between their action and the consequence, they are too angry to absorb our intended lesson.

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Offering Love and Rules

Parents who have a balanced style of parenting — offering both love and rules — raise children with better academic achievement, better emotional and mental health, and less involvement with risky behaviors.

Balanced Parents communicate two key thoughts:

  1. “I love you and I am going to let you learn many lessons on your own. That will include making some of your own mistakes. But for things that might affect your safety, or that are immoral, you’ll do as I say.”
  2. “My goal is for you to become independent. I know that means giving you more and more privileges when you can handle them. And, you will get those privileges when you earn them. Until you are ready to handle increasing freedoms, you won’t get them. If you demonstrate that you can’t handle a privilege you already have, then I will be forced to take it away until you again demonstrate you are responsible enough to handle it.

Who is in control? Your child is. He is in charge of precisely which privileges he earns through demonstrated responsibility. Try this, you’ll be amazed with how much your child learns when he understands that he is in charge. And, a young person who has learned has been well-disciplined.

Share this prep sheet with your teens to get a discipline plan started today!

About Ken Ginsburg

Ken Ginsburg, MD, MSEd, is Founding Director of CPTC and Professor of Pediatrics at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. He travels the world speaking to parent, professional, and youth audiences and is the author of 5 award-winning parenting books including a multimedia professional toolkit on “Reaching Teens.” CPTC follows his strength-based philosophy and resilience-building model. For more on Dr. Ginsburg visit www.fosteringresilience.com.

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