Teach Your Child Discipline – When to Begin

Discipline (verb)   : to train by instruction and exercise;

: to bring to a state of order and obedience by training and control

When I was at university, I met a piece of advice I liked so much that I implemented it right away. And I’ve never stopped. It is this:

Start as you mean to go on.

But we don’t really apply this in life, do we? Usually, we start out formally.

  • Your first day on the job, you are correct, careful, punctilious.
  • Your first date, you might be so careful to impress and to avoid offending that your date has no idea who you really are.
  • The first few weeks of your marriage, you cover your mouth when you yawn, say “Excuse me” every time you sneeze. And this with someone you are so intimate with! 🙂

So we start carefully, correctly, trying to ensure nobody can find fault with us or with what we do.

Over time, we relax.

  • On the job, you start cracking jokes – maybe even risqué ones.
  • After a few dates, you might feel free enough to go for a walk (with your date) on which you crunch every single dry leaf underfoot. You’re no longer worried about looking silly or childish.
  • After you’ve been married a while, you don’t even think twice about yawning in your spouse’s face even if you’ve just eaten a garlicky meal. 🙂

But there is one exception to this rule. It is an exception that proves the rule.

With your child, you start out all goo-goo ga-ga. You pet her, indulge her, spoil her, fulfill her every wish, wipe her every tear, battle her every fear, take up arms on her behalf whether she insists on a new toy or on ‘revenge’ from a playmate who didn’t give your darling her turn on the swings for long enough.

As she grows cosseted beyond belief, a niggling voice at the back of your mind says “Start now. She’s old enough to learn some rules, some discipline.” When you begin to listen to the voice, you are taken aback by your child’s reaction. The sweet, loving child is transformed into a mulish, sulky, rude monster that doesn’t care what she says and how she behaves so long as she gets her way.

You back off quickly. “Let’s deal with this tomorrow. Maybe she’s too young to understand – that’s why she’s behaving like this.”

Guess what? You’ve just allowed yourself to teach your child indiscipline. Yes, the opposite of what you intend! Here is how it happens:

Every experience your child (or anyone) goes through teaches him something. And what he just went through taught him 3 things.

  1. When things are not going his way, he can rearrange the situation to suit him better if he makes himself unpleasant.
  2. The more unpleasant he is, the quicker you give in.
  3. The more unpleasant he is, the more extravagantly you give in.

As you read this, you might wonder: “But if he loves me, and knows I dislike his spoilt behavior – that it annoys me – why would he continue to throw tantrums? He should be trying to make me happy instead!”

Your child loves you – probably more than you love him. 🙂 But love doesn’t enter into the picture when he wants to get his way. So instead of your teaching him discipline, he teaches you to bend to his will.

Practice makes perfect, and in a short while, every struggle of wills with your child sees you battered into submission. You give up. And his learning (and yours) is reinforced: he demands; you give in.

Why not try another way? It is a way you know extremely well. Except that you have never thought of using it with your child.

Start out formally, correctly, punctiliously – from day one. Yes, day one of your child’s life. Stay this way for the first 4 or 5 years. Then, s-l-o-w-l-y, you can relax.

This doesn’t mean you don’t cuddle, laugh, play, have fun, jump around, make noise. You can do all this , and still teach your child discipline.

The first time she does something you’d prefer her not to do, tell her. Clearly. Explicitly. In no uncertain terms. Explain exactly what you are objecting to. Tell her why you object to it. It doesn’t matter if you feel she is too young to understand your words, or language. Your tone, facial expression, gestures, body language – everything will tell her that you disapprove of that behavior.

Repeat this every time your child does something you’d prefer her not to do. Then go back to doing whatever fun things you were doing together.

As you repeat yourself, the message gets reinforced. Now, your child  is going through a different kind of experience, one which teaches her different things:

  1. She upholds your laws (these are the big YESes and NOs you’ve set).
  2. Misbehavior and tantrums won’t help her get her way. She is most likely to do so by behaving reasonably.
  3. It is a pleasure to keep to the rules.

And as easily as that, you’ll find you have taught your child discipline! 🙂

But what if your child has already trained you to bear the brunt of her tantrums? Look for answers in the next post.



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