Questions Parents Ask About Discipline

By: Dr. James Dobson

The following are a few of the questions I have been asked in my casework with parents and by various groups to whom I have spoken. Many of these items were selected from actual tape recordings, representing the recurring themes for which answers were sought.

1. My son will obey me at home, but he becomes difficult to manage whenever I take him to a public place, like a restaurant. Then he embarrasses me in front of other people. Why is he like that? How can I change him?

Many parents do not like to punish or correct their children in public places where their discipline is observed by critical onlookers. They’ll enforce good behavior at home but the child is “safe” when unfamiliar adults are around. In this situation, it is easy to see what the child has observed. He has learned that public facilities are a sanctuary where he can act any way he wishes. His parents are in a corner because of their self-imposed restriction. The remedy for this situation is simple: when little Roger decides to disobey in public, take him out of the presence of your observers. Then respond as you would at home. Roger will then learn that the same rules apply everywhere, and that the sanctuaries are not really so safe after all.

2. We hear so much about the importance of communication between a parent
and child. If you suppress a child’s defiant behavior, how can he express
the hostility and resentment he feels?

The child should be free to say anything to his parent, including “I don’t like you, Daddy,” or You weren’t fair with me, Mother.” These expressions of true feeling should not be suppressed, provided they are said in a respectful manner. There is a thin line between what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior at this point. The child’s expression of strong feeling, even resentment and hostility, should be encouraged if it exists. But the parent should prohibit the child from resisting to name-calling and open rebellion. “Daddy, you hurt my feelings in front of my friends and you were unkind to me” is an acceptable statement; “You stupid idiot, why didn’t you shut up when my friends were here?!” is obviously unacceptable.

If approached rationally as depicted in the first statement, it would be
wise for daddy to sit down and try to understand the child’s viewpoint. Dad
should be big enough to apologize to the child if he feels he was wrong. If he was right, however, he should calmly explain why he reacted as he did and tell the child how they can avoid the collision next time. It is possible to communicate without sacrificing parental respect, and the child should be taught how to express his discontent.

3. How long do you think a child should be allowed to cry after being punished or spanked? Is there a limit?

Yes, I believe there should be a limit. As long as the tears represent a genuine release of emotion, they should be permitted to fall. But crying quickly changes from inner sobbing to an exterior weapon. It becomes a tool of protest to punish the enemy. Real crying usually lasts two minutes or less, but may continue for five. After that point, the child is merely complaining, and the change can be recognized in the tone and intensity of his voice.

I would require him to stop the protest crying, usually by offering him a little more of whatever caused the original tears. In less antagonistic moments the crying can easily be stopped by getting the child interested in something else.

4. Permissiveness is a relative term. Please describe its meaning to you.

When I use the term permissiveness, I refer to the absence of effective parental authority, resulting in the lack of boundaries for the child. This word represents childish disrespect, defiance and the general confusion that occurs in the absence of adult leadership.

5. Do you think a child should be required to say “thank you” and “please” around the house?

I sure do. Requiring these phrases is one method of reminding the child that this is not a “gimme-gimme” world. Even though his mother is cooking for him and buying for him and giving to him, he must assume a few attitudinal responsibilities in return. As I said before, appreciation must be taught and this instructional process begins with fundamental politeness.

6. I have never spanked my 3-year-old because I am afraid it will teach her to hit others and be a violent person. Do you think I am wrong?

I believe you are, but you’ve made an important point. It is possible for parents to create hostility and aggressiveness in their children by behaving violently themselves. If they scream and yell, lashing out emotionally and flailing the children for their accidents and mistakes, they serve as models for their children to imitate. That kind of parental violence is worlds apart from the proper disciplinary approach. However, when the child has lowered his head and clenched his fist, he is daring the parent to take him on. If the parent responds appropriately (on the backside) he has taught the child a valuable lesson that is consistent with nature’s method of instruction. Consider the purpose of pain in life. Suppose 2-year-old Peter is pulling on the tablecloth and with it comes a vase of roses which tips over the edge of the table, cracking him between the eyes. Peter is in great pain. From this pain he learns that it is dangerous to pull on the tablecloth. Likewise, he presses his arm against a hot stove and quickly learns that fire must be treated with respect. He pulls the doggie’s tail and promptly receives a neat row of teeth marks across the back of his hand. He climbs over the side of his high chair when Mom isn’t looking and he learns all about gravity. For three or four years, he accumulates bumps and bruises and scratches and burns, each one teaching him about life’s boundaries. Do these experiences make him a violent person? No! The pain associated with these events teaches him to avoid making those same mistakes again. God created this mechanism as the child’s best vehicle for instruction. The loving parent can and should make use of the same process in teaching him about certain kinds of social dangers. Contrary to what it might seem, Peter is more likely to be a violent person if his parent fails to apply this principle, because he learns too late about the painful consequences of acting selfishly, rebelliously and aggressively.

7. You mentioned boundaries a moment ago. Does a child really want to have limits set on his behavior?

Most certainly! After working with children for these years, I could not be more convinced of this fact. They derive security from knowing where the boundaries are. Perhaps an illustration will make this more clear. Imagine yourself driving a car over the Royal Gorge in Colorado. The bridge is suspended hundreds of feet above the canyon floor, and as a first-time traveler, you are tense as you drive across. (I knew one little fellow who was so awed by the view over the side of the bridge that he said, “Wow, Daddy. If you fell off here it’d kill you constantly!”) Now suppose that there were no guardrails on the side of the bridge; where would you steer the car? Right down the middle of the road! Even though you don’t plan to hit those protective rails along the side, you feel more secure just knowing they are there. The analogy to children has been demonstrated empirically. During the early days of the progressive education movement, one enthusiastic theorist decided to take down the chain-link fence that surrounded the nursery school yard. He thought the children would feel more freedom of movement without that visible barrier surrounding them. When the fence was removed, however, the boys and girls huddled near the center of the play yard. Not only did they not wander away, they didn’t even venture to the edge of the grounds.

There is security in defined limits. When the home atmosphere is as it should be, the child lives in utter safety. He never gets in trouble unless he deliberately asks for it, and as long as he stays within the limits, there is mirth and freedom and acceptance. If this is what is meant by “democracy” in the home, then I favor it. If it means the absence of boundaries, or that each child sets his own boundaries, then I’m unalterably opposed to it.

8. I have spanked my children for their disobedience and it didn’t seem to help. Does this approach fail with some children?

Children are so tremendously variable that it is sometimes hard to believe that they are all members of the same human family. You can crush some children with nothing more than a stern look; others seem to require strong and even painful disciplinary measures to make a vivid impression. This difference usually results from the degree to which a child needs adult approval and acceptance. As I said earlier, the primary parental task is to get behind the eyes of the child, thereby tailoring the discipline to his unique perception.

In a direct answer to the question, it is not this individual variation that causes spanking to be ineffectual in most cases. When disciplinary measures fail, it is usually because of fundamental errors in their application. It is possible for twice the amount of punishment to yield half the results. I have made a study of situations where the parent has told me that the child ignores the spankings he receives, going back to violate the same rule. There are four basic reasons for the lack of success:

(1) The most recurring problem results from infrequent, whimsical punishment. Half the time the child is not punished for a particular act of defiance; the other half of the time he is cuffed about for it. Children need to know the certainty of justice.

(2) The child may be more strong-willed than the parent, and they both know it. If he can outlast a temporary onslaught, he has won a major battle, eliminating punishment as a tool in the parent’s repertoire. Even though Mom spanks him, he wins the battle by defying her again. The solution to this situation is obvious: outlast him; win, even if it takes a repeated measure. The experience will be painful for both participants, but the benefits will come tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.

(3) The parent suddenly decides to employ this form of punishment after doing nothing for a year or two prior to that time. It takes a child a while to respond to a new procedure in this manner, and the parent might get discouraged during the adjustment period.

(4) The spanking may be too gentle. If it doesn’t hurt it isn’t worth avoiding next time. A slap with the hand on the bottom of a multi-diapered 30-month-old is not a deterrent to anything. It isn’t necessary to beat a child, but he should be able to feel the message.

9. We hear a lot about the “battered child” syndrome today. What kind of parent would beat a defenseless little child? How serious is the problem?

The problem of the battered child is much greater than is generally realized. Dr. James Apthorp, assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Southern California School of Medicine, stated recently that more children under 5 years of age are killed by their own parents than die of disease. He estimated that 60,000 children are beaten to death annually in America. The beatings are rarely premeditated; they may occur when an ordinary spanking gets out of hand, or when an emotionally disturbed parent loses control. Child abuse is committed by parents in all races and socio-economic levels, although younger parents of lower intelligence are the most likely to become violent with their children.

It is certainly pitiful to see the broken, bruised and starved children who are brought in depressing numbers to hospitals for children. The little victims are too young to defend themselves or even call for help, and some of the atrocities are terribly pathetic. Several years ago, for example, one emotionally disturbed mother destroyed her infant daughter’s eyes with a razor blade. Another 4-year-old girl was abandoned on a freeway late one night, where she clung to the center divider for 11 hours before being rescued by the police. Such abused children often grow up to become brutal parents themselves, inflicting similar pain on their own children.

One of my greatest concerns in recommending corporal punishment (spanking) is that some parents might apply the thrashings too frequently or too severely. Generally, however, parents are less likely to become violent with their children when they know how to handle small behavioral problems before they reach a stage of extreme irritation.

10. If it is natural for a toddler to break all the rules, should he be punished for his defiance?

Many of the spankings and slaps given to toddlers could and should be avoided. They get in trouble most frequently because of their natural desire to touch, bite, taste, smell and break everything within their grasp. However, this “reaching out” behavior is not aggressive. It is a valuable technique for learning and should not be discouraged. I have seen parents slap their 2-year-old throughout the day for simply investigating his world. This squelching of normal curiosity is not fair to the youngster. It seems foolish to leave an expensive trinket where it will tempt him, and then lash him for taking the bait. If little fat-fingers insists on handling the china cups on the lower shelf, it is much wiser to distract him with something else than to pound him for his persistence. Toddlers cannot resist the offer of a new plaything; they are amazingly easy to interest in less fragile toys, and mother should keep a few alternate goodies available for use when needed.

When, then, should the toddler be subjected to mild punishment? When he openly defies his parents’ spoken commands! If he runs the other way when called – if he slams his milk on the floor – if he screams and throws a tantrum at bedtime – if he hits his friends – these are the forms of unacceptable behavior which should be discouraged. Even in these situations, however, all-out spankings are not often required to eliminate the response. A firm thump on the head or a rap on the fingers will convey the same message just as convincingly. Spankings should be reserved for his moments of greatest antagonism.

I feel it is important to stress the point made earlier: the toddler years are critical to the child’s future attitude toward authority. He should be patiently taught to obey without being expected to behave like an adult.

11. Can you provide some “ground rules” for the use of corporal punishment for strong-willed toddlers?

Mild spankings can begin between 15 and 18 months of age. They should be relatively infrequent, and must be reserved for clear defiance, not childish irresponsibility. A heavy hand of authority during this period causes the child to suppress his need to experiment and test his environment, which can have long-lasting consequences. The toddler should be taught to obey and yield to parental leadership, but that end result will not be accomplished overnight.

When spankings occur, they should be administered with a neutral object; that is, with a small switch or belt, but rarely with the hand. I have always felt that the hand should be seen by the child as an object of love rather than an instrument of punishment. Furthermore, if a parent commonly slaps a youngster when he is not expecting to be hit, then he will probably duck and flinch whenever Father suddenly scratches his ear. And, of course,a slap in the face can reposition the nose or do permanent damage to the ears or jaw. If all spankings are administered with a neutral object, applied where intended, then the child need never fear that he will suddenly be chastised for some accidental indiscretion. (There are exceptions to this rule, such as when a child’s hands are slapped or thumped for reaching for a stove or other dangerous object.)

Should a spanking hurt? Yes, or else it will have no influence. A swat on the behind through three layers of wet diapers simply conveys no urgent message. However, a small amount of pain for a young child goes a long way: it is certainly not necessary to lash or “whip” him. Two or three stinging strokes on the legs or bottom with a switch are usually sufficient to emphasize the point, “You must obey me.” And finally, it is important to spank immediately after the offense, or not at all. A toddler’s memory is not sufficiently developed to permit even a 10-minute delay in the administration of justice. Then after the episode is over and the tears have subsided, the child might want to be held and reassured by his mother or father. By all means, let him come. Embrace him in the security of your loving arms. Rock him softly. Tell him how much you love him and why he must “mind his mommy.” This moment can be the most important event in the entire day. And for the Christian family, it is extremely important to pray with the child at that time, admitting to God we have sinned and no one is perfect. Divine forgiveness is a marvelous experience, even for a very young child.

12. Is my 10-year-old too old to be spanked?

Physical punishment should be relatively infrequent during the period immediately prior to adolescence. Of course, some strong-willed children absolutely demand to be spanked, and their wishes should be granted. However, the compliant youngster should have experienced his last woodshed experience by the end of his first decade (or even four years earlier).

13. Should teenage children be spanked for disobedience or rudeness?

No! Teenagers desperately want to be thought of as adults, and they deeply resent being treated like children. Spanking is the ultimate insult. Punishment for adolescents should involve lost privileges, financial deprivation and related forms of non-physical retribution.

14. Sometimes my husband and I disagree on our discipline, and we will argue about what is best in front of the child. Do you think this is damaging?

Yes, I do. You and your husband should agree to go along with the decision of the other, at least in front of the child. The wisdom of the matter can be discussed later. When the two of you contradict each other, right and wrong begin to appear arbitrary to the child.

15. My husband and I are divorced, so I have to handle all the discipline of the children myself. How does this change the recommendations you’ve made?

Not at all. The principles of good discipline remain the same, regardless of the family setting. The procedures do become somewhat harder for one parent, like yourself, to implement, since you have no one to support you when the children become defiant. You have to play the role of father and mother, which is not easily done. Nevertheless, children do not make allowances for your handicap. You must demand their respect or you will not receive it.

16. Do you think parents are now beginning to value discipline more? Is the day of permissiveness over?

Parents who tried extreme permissiveness have seen its failure, for the most part. Unfortunately, those parents will soon be grandparents, and the world will profit little from their experience. What worries me most is the kind of discipline that will be exercised by the generation now reaching young adulthood. Many of these new parents have never seen good discipline exercised. They have had no model. Besides this, they have severed themselves from their best source of information, avowing that anyone over 30 is to be mistrusted. It will be interesting to see what develops from this blind date between mom and baby.

(The above material was published by Focus on the Family, Colorado Springs, CO.)

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