The Trouble with Raising Disciplined Children

I was 8 years old when we moved to a big city. As my sister and I went down in the evening and began to make friends, we got to know a 6 year old boy. After a few days, we learnt that his parents and ours worked at the same place, but in different divisions. He must have told his parents, just as we told ours. They invited us to spend Saturday with them.

After lunch the dads sloped off to talk shop, the mums talked of getting trained household help, and we kids played some board game. After a bit, my mother complimented the lady on her son, “He seems so settled – not noisy or destructive. He’s so polite and well-behaved. Really, it is difficult to believe he’s only 6!” Since we’d already been there for about 5 hours, there was a point to what she was saying.

The lady smiled her acknowledgement. “Yes, he’s really very well-behaved. We are so proud of him. He does his chores around the house without being reminded, he’s very particular about doing his home work on time, he is polite, and always offers to help his dad or me with stuff. He’s quite extraordinary, really.”

As the afternoon wore on, the dads went to our house to open a few cans of beer (the lady didn’t like serving alcohol at home) and the mothers decided to go grocery shopping together. That left the three of us at home. And what a time we had!

No sooner had the moms left the house than the boy upset the board game, started shouting at the top of his voice, and pulled and pushed and punched me and my sister all over. He pulled our hair and kicked at us and in general, completely lost it. Initially, we were too shocked at the Mr. Hyde transformation to react, but we caught on quickly, and moved rapidly through the stages of trying to talk to him, avoiding his arms and legs, defending ourselves, using our own arms and legs, and finally, just opening the door and running out.

We didn’t go straight to our place. We walked around for a while, trying to settle ourselves emotionally and get our hair back in order and so on. Then we headed home. The boy’s dad was almost leaving, and my dad was fiddling with the TV to put on the news. “You played together?” my father asked. We nodded, and went to our room.

When Mom eventually got in, she couldn’t stop singing the boy’s praises. “…even our girls are not as well-behaved as he is…” My sister and I rolled our eyes mentally, and told my mother at bedtime how he had actually behaved when there were no adults around.

My parents never doubted our word, but as both my sister and I were beginning to develop bruises on our arms and legs from being his punching bags, there was not even a smidgen of disbelief my mother could indulge in. “This is awful! I will speak with his mother tomorrow – she must know how badly he behaved…”

We agreed, full of righteousness at being wronged (how human beings love to be ‘right’! 🙂 ). When my mom called the lady the next day, she encountered total disbelief. “No, no – there must be some misunderstanding. You saw how well he behaves, you complimented him yourself, the girls must have misconstrued something he said (! and got bruises from it?!)…”

Seeing that there was no way the lady would believe what she was hearing, my mother wisely stopped.  That was the end of that playmate!

Over the years, I have seen innumerable children who are ‘ruled with an iron hand’ by their parents. These parents have rules – strict rules, lots of them, for every situation and person, for every time of the day – they have long lists of do-s and don’t-s that cover every imaginable circumstance. And if ever a new circumstance comes along, one or more items are added to the DO-s and DON’T-s lists.

They want their children to be perfect – all day, every day.

Children love attention and approval – two things that most people confuse with love – so they obey as many rules as possible to the best of their ability. And their ability to obey is formidable. It looks like everyone is happy – the parents because their rules are being obeyed, and the children because they actively solicit and bask in their parents’ approval (‘love’!) by obeying the rules.

At some point, however, nature begins to assert herself. The child has a mind of his own. He finds his parents themselves don’t abide by their own rules. He finds that they enforce their rules arbitrarily. He begins to question his parents’ rules – all of them.

The child looks around at other children who are not so obedient, not so ‘good’, not so ‘loved’ – and finds that these other kids aren’t doing too badly! Quite the contrary, in fact: they are enjoying themselves, doing whatever they feel like whenever they feel like it, living life ‘their’ way, and if they aren’t getting any approval or ‘love’ from their parents, they don’t seem too bothered by it!

And he? He is stuck spending every moment of his life trying to please his parents.

Do you wonder that when this child breaks free of his parents’ rules, the break is spectacular, violent, over-the-top, subversive, dangerous? It has to be! He has spent so many years toeing the line; he has to make up for all those hundreds of thousands of moments of not asserting himself – his will, and he has to make up for it all at once.

The child goes ballistic – loses control altogether.

A girl I’ve known for 4 years was teased mercilessly by her classmates for being Miss-Goody-Two-Shoes. But behind the teasing, she was well-liked: she was fun to be around, even though she lived in deadly fear of offending authority in the slightest way (authority represented by her parents and teachers.) Her acquiescence of authority was so extreme that if an adult (I, for instance) had told her in all seriousness that I was sure the sun rose in the west, it would not cross her mind to smile at my words or smirk or utter a single word of disagreement. She would just look down, avoiding my eye. If I were to insist on her agreeing with me, she would even manage to nod (and this is a smart, knowledgeable, ‘truthful’ child!).

I know the child’s mother slightly, and I always wondered why she pushed her lovely daughter so hard. As my daughter would tell me things that she and her friends sometimes talked about, she always wondered why the girl’s mother was such a harsh parent.

“Why? It’s not fair! She (the friend) has no freedom to do anything her way!” my daughter would agonize.

“Who knows? But it’s not good. And it’s not natural the way the girl behaves. Some day all this repression will burst out of her – and that will be a very terrible day for the family. They probably won’t realize it – she’ll manage to disguise it from them, but you will know, because she is unguarded around her friends. She will need some really mature person to be there for her when that time comes,” was my response.

Today, sadly, that time has come. At an age when all children are willing to indulge in experimental speech and behavior of all kinds, she has become so out-of-control that she is shunned by her peers. She has no one to hang out with, and any group she joins mysteriously melts away. She is finding it difficult to work on group projects because the other children hasten to create their own groups to avoid having to include her.

I’m sure she feels the pain of being shunned, but the resentment and pain, the force of all the discipline she was needlessly subjected to is too strong for her to resist. And so her tongue and mind and heart have run away with her, till she’s running downhill at a catastrophic speed – running not because she wants to run, but because the slope is too much for her to resist any longer.

Let him please himself. Let him let off steam. Let him vent. Let him be. Let him talk about girls, and boys, if he so wishes it! Let him share his thoughts freely with you. The more NO-s he hears from you, the less you will know him.

Don’t be under the mistaken notion that what you see and hear is the reality. What you see and hear is what your child thinks you want to see and hear; it is your illusion – that you mistake for reality.

Relax, and let your child breathe, and be herself. If she can’t be herself even with you, her parent, whom will she go to? She will go to someone someday, but will that person be as safe as you? It is heartbreaking to say it, but your child may actually feel safer being himself with somebody (anybody? everybody?) other than you. And you have only yourself to thank (blame?) for this state of affairs.

Think about this before you push him to the wall with your demands, your rules, your discipline.

Personally, I’d rather have my child behave abysmally at home and reasonably well outside than the other way around (if there has to be a choice of where your child will lose control of herself). Let YOU be the person she tries out her craziness on. Let her get it out of her system, her head. She will feel safe. She will be protected. She will know she is loved – not ‘loved’, but loved.

And you do love your child, don’t you?

9 Responses to The Trouble with Raising Disciplined Children

  1. Palek Sharma December 3, 2011 at 6:52 pm #

    i am palek Sharma and still 19 years old. Ms. Monica zutshi is my teacher. after reading this article, my emotions, my feelings as a teenager (perhaps on the last step of my teens) purged out. I’ve been experiencing all this since 14 years with my parents and the reaction of the child which you’ve talked about is what i call “my reaction” since 3 years. from a long tym i am trying to make my parents understand all this but i see failure all the time. i just wanted to say dat dis article gave my thoughts an expression. i wish i could have dat courage to even make my parents read this article. it was a lovely article ms. zutshi………thanx !! 4 writing this article. 🙂

    • Vinita Zutshi December 3, 2011 at 9:26 pm #

      Palek, thank you for sharing – it takes courage, and you’ve just proved you have it. 🙂 It is sad how much pain parents inflict on their children in the name of ‘love’. But they too, were lost as children, and are doing the best they can at all times. Sometimes, people are not open to new ideas, and it can be a challenge reaching out and forging new connections. This is especially true for families – we all tend to get stuck in a rut, perceiving one individual in only one way…

      I am glad I was able to reach you. In fact, so much of my thinking has been shaped by hundreds of children and parents who have been generous enough to share their stories and themselves over the years. It’s nice to be able to give back. 🙂 On another note, I am toying with the idea of coming out with a workbook or course for parents and a separate one for children (no matter what age, everyone is someone’s child) to build new bonds with their children / parents, as the case may be. It will be a few months in the making, but just thought I’d bounce the idea off you…

      BTW, please call me Vinita. 🙂

      • Palek Sharma December 4, 2011 at 2:10 pm #

        thanx !! Vinita for writing thiis article………..i am glad that someone has written this. 🙂
        i know that my parents had a different kind of environment when they were children but somehow everything is in a great mess :(…….i try hard enough to make them everything understand and they too do the same but nothing actually works and it leaves us with bad taste in mouth.
        anyways !! i would definitely like to look forward to the workbook !! 🙂

  2. Vinita Zutshi December 4, 2011 at 2:40 pm #

    Keep an eye on the blog; I’ll post updates as and when. And take heart – you never know when the magic moment happens – when everything falls into place! 🙂

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