Don’t disrespect discipline

Doing the dishes together. Picture: DGLimages/Getty Images

Doing the dishes together. Picture: DGLimages/Getty Images - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Parenting coach Andrea Rippon says discipline is about learning, not punishment

Discipline is, neuroscientist Dan Siegel tells us: 'One of the most loving and nurturing things we can do for kids.'

I asked my 15-year-old daughter what came to her mind when I said 'discipline' and her response was telling. 'It means I need to be taught a lesson but in a bad way.' To her, discipline means being punished. There are two aims in discipline and some of us get stuck at the first. The immediate (short term) aim is cooperation. When we don't get this we punish. The second (long-term) aim of discipline is to teach. This is the original meaning of the word, which I would like to reclaim. It comes from the Latin 'disciplina', meaning instruction, teaching, learning and knowledge.

If we use punishment to achieve our first aim of cooperation, we will not achieve the second aim of learning. This is because fear-based motivation forces a child away from their own experience towards the power of the parent. Their brain (the amygdala) registers a threat and a stress response will kick in (fight, flight, faint or freeze). The heart rate will rise, breathing speeds up and blood pressure increases as it is diverted to their limbs. Even if the child manages to take in what is being said, the information won't be processed properly or stored in long term memory.

Good 'teaching' discipline is something that can happen in families all the time, so that children can learn things like self-regulation, kindness, responsibility, a sense of right and wrong and what healthy relationships look like. Invest the time in discipline and you've got the foundation upon which to build all those other life skills – managing money/time/screen use, helping around the house, doing school work, keeping themselves safe, etc.

Parents who come to my classes often know what they don't want to do but are at a loss about what to do instead. Given that I would normally need 24 hours to take you through a full class, I've picked three essential steps to discipline.

1 Build a sense of secure attachment within your child. You can do this at any point in their life, with the most impact being had at 0-5yrs and 9-14yrs. Secure attachment means that your child develops a general trust that you are emotionally responsive and will meet their needs. Research on secure attachments shows that, in the flow of everyday life, being 'out of tune' with your child will happen about 70 percent of the time. The key is to repair these mis-matches. This mixture of being in and out of tune will provide your child with the levels of connection and stress that help them develop both confidence and coping skills.

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2 Be 'intentional'. You're aiming for the short and long-term, so think about what you want to achieve. And what do you want to teach? Children learn from experience - give them effective problem solving and conflict resolution skills and you will help their brains wire in such a way that they can delay their own gratification and flexibly deal with not getting their way. Actively listen to them first, to help move them from disappointment (which may look like anger/withdrawal) towards reason.

3 Your relationship with your child is more important than what you want them to learn. You need the relationship (secure attachment) in order for discipline (learning) to be received. Use discipline that is high on relationship and respect and the learning/cooperation will follow, resulting in a better relationship. And so it goes on – 'what goes around comes around'.

Reference: Siegel, D and Payne Bryson, T (2014). No drama Discipline. Scribe Publications.

Andrea Rippon is a Certified Parent Educator and a mum of two teenagers. She helps parents build strong, long-term relationships with their children (toddlers to teenagers) by using evidence-based communication skills. Her next course starts in September 2018. She also offers parent coaching by Skype. If you've got a question for her, please contact