Discipline and your Child

by Louis M. Najarian, MD

Discipline is defined in the dictionary as “training to act in accordance with rules” and is derived from the Latin disciplinaria, which means Instruction. The basis for discipline with children should be parental approval and the consequence should be disapproval and loss of love.

The origins of discipline always begin in the home with parents from infancy onward. As children venture into society outside the home and attend school, a broader set of rules is introduced. As children develop through adolescence, discipline evolves with increasing self-regulation. School and community offer models of discipline and unfortunately public figures such as elected officials, sports heroes and entertainers often present faulty models for discipline and self-regulation.

Let’s look at the child from a developmental point of view and understand normal discipline. Some cardinal rules are: 1. The punishment should suit the crime, 2. Discipline should be immediate and not postponed, 3. One parent should not relegate it to another parent, e., “wait until your father comes home” or “you’ll get it when we get to the car.” A screaming toddler in the supermarket should be dealt with firmly in the aisle or counter line and not be allowed to manipulate a purchase.

When do we discipline? When it’s needed.

Infants are taught not to bite when breast-fed and are shown a scowling face by a nursing mother when they do bite. When a toddler crawls to the television set to play with the controls or touches the electric plug, they often look to see if they are watched. Actually they are testing the limits and require physical restraint. This may require a firm tap on the hand and to show physical restraint with a disapproving look. The home of a toddler should be “baby proofed” by placing breakable objects out of their reach rather than punishing them for pursuing their curiosity. Puzzles, paints and books should be available to encourage appropriate curiosity. A useful tip is to put a child in a crib or playpen that is identified as a “time out” area after a warning of restraint.

As development proceeds with the school age child, the benefit of more complex language and an emerging conscience offers opportunities to encourage limits, restraints and boundaries. A little guilt may go a long way in helping a child maintain proper boundaries and restraint as long as it is not excessive. I will never forget the time our eight-year-old son was sent to his room for misbehaving and he took out the story of Pinocchio and read to himself. Pinocchio is a beautiful fairy tale of a boy who struggles to follow the rules and emerges as a whole person when he finally learns right from wrong and suffered punishment. Parents of school age children have many opportunities to offer discipline for inappropriate behavior by limiting activities such as grounding and not attending movies, canceling play dates and sleep overs, limiting recreational activities and requesting extra chores around the house such as household help and yard work.

When parents of adolescents feel helpless, the basis for discipline is lost. Suburban life fosters adolescents to depend on parents, as they need parents for transportation. Denial of transportation, extra household chores, and restricted allowance are all convenient vehicles to provide discipline. Earning a lost privilege is another vehicle to demonstrate discipline.

Children don’t like to be screamed at because they become screamers. Hitting a child doesn’t help because it only means “I am bigger and stronger than you” and someday the child will be as big and strong as the parent. Parental models for self-discipline, restraint, and honesty are the best guides (remember the definition) in order that the child is able to establish self-restraint, regulation and limits.

There is no easy recipe for the art of parenting and providing appropriate discipline. Red Aurebach was a famous coach for the Boston Celtics professional basketball team and under his coaching, the Celtics won more world championships than any other professional team in sports history. When asked his solution to success, he answered, “It’s easy, you have to know when to kiss and when to kick.”

When parents have questions about discipline they may always consult with their pediatrician or a child psychiatrist regarding appropriate disciplinary management.

Dr. Najarian completed his Residency in Psychiatry and Child Psychiatry at Downstate Medical Center-Kings County Hospital. His professional activities include private practice of adult, adolescent and child psychiatry. He is an Attending at North Shore University Hospital, teaches Child Psychotherapy to Child Psychiatry Fellows and is a consultant to the Port Washington Public School District. He has conducted clinical research and published findings on PTSD and has been invited by the APA and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry to present at annual meetings on the results of clinical research on children’s reaction to trauma of natural disaster. He is also a reviewer for the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Currently a member of the GLIPS Board of Directors, Dr. Najarian is the 1999 recipient of the APA’s Bruno Lima Award for excellence in disaster psychiatry. He was recently elected as a Distinguished Fellow to the APA.

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