Discipline…. control or love?

self-discipline

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?

Agency Vs. Being the adult.

Agency Vs. Being the adult.

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I call myself a fierce advocate for children’s agency. I like to think that I am current, progressive and contemporary in my thinking and practice.

The children in my world experience a great amount of freedom.  They get to make decisions about their days that many would only dream about.  <insert mental image of a child lying on a grassy green mound, staring up at the sky with a big empty fluffy white thought cloud>  They get to choose when they eat, play, sleep, poop, sing, read, climb…….. you get the picture.  There is an exponential amount of freedom for them.  And they love it.  It facilitates joy.

There are some things they don’t get to choose though.  For instance – they don’t actually get to choose that they come in the very first place.  Very few of them anyway.  They come because the adults in their lives make that very significant decision for them.  For some it is because parents are working, for some it is because parents need their own space for a time for their well-being, for some it is because parents feel they need something more and different than home provides.

While I would be so bold as to say and assume that most children enjoy most of their time with us – they aren’t really given the agency to make that decision.  Don’t get me wrong – this is not a bad thing. It is because we as the adults in the lives of children sometimes have to make choices for them.

Giving children agency, does not mean that we stop being the adult in their lives.

One thing I know about me – is that I am adult.  Just that.  There are times when I have to help children through a situation.  There are other times I need to make decisions FOR children…. in their best interests.  It is my job as an adult to make sure that the children in my world are safe from harm.  It is my job as an adult to ensure they know how to keep themselves safe from harm.  So they don’t always get completely free reign.  There are times when we have to step in.  There are times when we have to direct.  And there are times when we have to say no.  Of course – we can also choose exactly how we go about those things too.  We can certainly do it without creating a dictatorship. or making children feel inferior.  It’s not about superiority – it’s just about having been on this earth for much longer, and knowing more about it – the joys and the perils.

There are several things that speak to me, telling me that no matter how much agency I wish to afford a child – I HAVE to, at certain points, be their rock.

The Early Childhood Australia Code of Ethics calls me to “act in the best interests of children” and to “create and maintain safe, healthy, inclusive environments that support children’s agency and enhance their learning”.

The Early Years Learning Framework states that, “Children’s agency, as well as guidance care and teaching by families and educators shape children’s experiences of becoming.”

Whilst giving many statements around children making decisions in their lives and having control – the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, article 3:  “States Parties shall ensure that the institutions, services and facilities responsible for the care or protection of children shall conform with the standards established by competent authorities, particularly in the areas of safety, health…..”

As professionals, many of us use and promote the concepts of the Circle of Security in our work with children.  The top part of which promotes a secure base for children to be in, and experience the agency of their world.  The lower part creating that foundation of a safe haven for children, where adults keep children protected by their very presence.

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There are many places that support agency for children, but also rule the line for the need of the existence of adults in children’s lives, and their input.  And aside of all these professional directions – there is the plain old human instinct we are given.  We don’t allow children to put themselves in harm’s way.  We teach them that the world is not an innocent place, and that they need to be and act in certain ways to protect themselves.

As we strive in our work to allow children agency to make decisions – let’s not forget that we have a responsibility to them to keep them safe.  And while I love nothing more than to see children in control of their world, there is a certain specialness allocated to us, to also be their champion, and to be the one to wrap our arms around them at the end of all that is said and done.

“Agency” and “Being the adult” to not have to be in competition with one another.  There can be a harmonious balance.

“Always: be BIGGER, STRONGER, WISER, and KIND.
Whenever possible:  Follow my child’s need.
Whenever necessary:  take charge.”