Discipline…. control or love?


I’m currently preparing for a Resources for Infant Educarers (RIE) 10 day intensive course.  And in that preparation, I’m doing as much reading as I can cram into the time I have available.  What I’m finding in my preparatory reading, is that while the focus of this information is to apply it to babies and young toddlers, it is applicable far beyond those years. I’m having reinforced many of my philosophies of working with children, as well as deepening my knowledge of theory behind the thinking.

One thing that was opened in my reflective thinking a few days ago, was the concept of “discipline”.  It’s a word that we often shirk away from in our early childhood settings.  Because it conjures up images that are very damaging to our way of thinking.  For me, I start thinking of “corporal punishment” type methods, sending children to a “naughty chair”, and other such horrid experiences for children.

We tend to try and use less threatening words for discipline.  Words like ‘guidelines’ or ‘boundaries’.  And there probably isn’t really anything wrong with this.  But maybe avoiding the stronger term is leaving us with a wish-washy approach, that sees less experienced educators feel like they are not able to enforce disciplines in their spaces.

Children need boundaries.  And there should rightly be “consequences” for breaking those boundaries.  Again – here is another word that we struggle with.  Because sometimes consequences sounds a little too much like ‘punishment’.  Sometimes words can be our worst enemy. Or perhaps not the words, perhaps more our perceptions and thinking that is provoked by words.

According to a ten-year study conducted at Harvard Medical School  (The Science of Early Childhood Development. (2007). National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. http://www.developingchild.net), there are six factors related to the eventual intellectual capacity of a child:

(1) The most critical period of a child’s mental development is between eight and eighteen months old.

(2) The mother is usually the most important person in the child’s environment.

(3) The amount of ‘live’ language directed to the child between twelve and eighteen months is absolutely critical.

(4) Children given free access to living areas of their homes progressed much faster than those whose movements are restricted.

(5) The family is the most important educational delivery system.

(6) The best parents are those who excel at three key functions: they are superb designers and organisers of their children’s environments; they permit their children to interrupt them for brief thirty-second episodes during which personal comfort and information are exchanged; finally, they are firm disciplinarians while simultaneously showing great affection for their children. In other words, they love their kids, talk to them, treat them with respect, expose them to interesting things, organise their time, discipline them fairly, and raise them in strong stable families. It’s a time-honoured recipe for producing bright (and happy) children.

“Firm disciplinarians”…… I’m sure that conjures up the same feelings for others, as it does for me.  How do we define the term ‘discipline’?  Magda Gerber (1979) writes, “I see discipline as being a social contract, in which family (or community) members agree to accept and obey a particular set of rules.”  We need rules.  Having a mutually agreeable set of rules assists us to coexist in a family or community.  In this context of being with children, these rules are the guide to a child living in a socially acceptable way.  It is how they learn to be a part of community.  We need to be consistent, but not rigid in our approach with young children.  And within these rules, must be some freedom to make choice.  We can establish good habits when we are consistent from the very beginning in our expectations.  Ultimately, we are not looking to be the ruler over children’s lives – but to guide them to develop their own inner discipline.  We will always have some areas that are non-negotiable – but we also need to have things that are negotiable, where children have choice, and there will also be those things we don’t necessarily like, but we tolerate.  Choosing our battles, is one of the toughest things for us at times.  Because we often don’t want to feel like we are not in control.

As the disciplinarian, we need to be very clear ourselves, on what the parameters are.  If we are not convinced of that, then neither will be out children.  Our children need to be motivated through consistency.  Where they have been gently and firmly guided to a place of self-discipline, self-confidence and feeling joy in being part of a community through cooperation.  We should rely on a sense of children understanding that these rules exist, not upon rewards for complying, or punishments for not complying.

“What rewards and punishments do is induce compliance, and this they do very well indeed. If your objective is to get people to obey an order, to show up on time and do what they’re told, then bribing or threatening them may be sensible strategies. But if your objective is to get long-term quality in the workplace, to help students become careful thinkers and self-directed learners, or to support children in developing good values, then rewards, like punishments, are absolutely useless. In fact, as we are beginning to see, they are worse than useless—they are actually counterproductive.”
― Alfie Kohn, Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes

Children need to be treated as competent members of our community, and subjected to rules and disciplines in the same manner as we should expect of ANY member of our community.  Would I bribe a staff member with a sticker if they did their job?  Would I send them off to sit on a chair if they did something less than desirable?  Children deserve our gentle nature, our kindness, our love and our respect.  They deserve us to be the ones to guide discipline, so that they develop into productive members of society.  And at the same time, we need to remember that they are human too – they need to make choices, and they need to learn from the choices they make.  Discipline is not a bad thing when it is defined in the right way – when we look at it from the stance of creating self-discipline and principled habits.

Discipline must come through liberty. . . . We do not consider an individual disciplined only when he has been rendered as artificially silent as a mute and as immovable as a paralytic. He is an individual annihilated, not disciplined.     

Maria Montessori

From which realm do your acts of discipline stem – control, or love?