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As a newspaper columnist, Nancy Devlin, Ph.D. has written over 700 articles on subjects related to education and parenting. Welcome to her Classroom!

Discipline – What Does It Mean?

Renee Polreis of Colorado was convicted of beating her adopted two-year old son to death with a wooden spoon. Like their parents before them, many adults feel it is necessary to use force to punish children “for their own good”. It is time for all adults who have children in their care to think about what the verb “to discipline” means to them.

Discipline is derived from the Latin “disciplina” meaning teaching and learning. What does a concrete-thinking child learn from adults who “discipline” by hitting him either with their hands or with objects?

A list of some things he learns might include: Might makes right. It is okay to hit someone smaller if he cannot hit you back. Adults find it is easy just to hit me. I am not worth the time and effort it takes to teach me another way to behave. Lying is a way to avoid being hit. Behavior which annoys adults gets their attention. Physical abuse is better than being ignored. I must be very bad and unlovable otherwise I would not be hit so much. Nothing I do pleases so why bother trying. It is best to be very quiet, withdraw and hide because when they start to hit they do not stop, and the angrier they get, the harder they hit.

The last behavior is what caused the problem for Mrs. Polreis. She lost control. Today’s parents are under great stress. It is easy to “lose it” and “just hitting” quickly becomes abuse. The wonder is that more children are not abused.

Consider the following sources of stress. Could any of them cause you to lose it? Your boss gave you a really hard time at work. You just learned your car needs a new engine. Your neighbor is threatening a law suit over some trivial dispute. Or, you are stuck in the house all day, with no support system, and the children are screaming and hollering at each other. The school called and complained about your older child’s homework not being done and poor behavior in the classroom. Two of the children spit up their supper. The baby-sitter cannot come and a substitute cannot be found at the last minute for your only night out in a month. The TV dies. You are exhausted and depressed. All you want is peace and quiet. Then two of the kids start to scream at each other right in your face.

It is dangerous to advise today’s parents that it is okay to use physical force on a child. The wife of a Colorado minister testified that she taught Renee Polreis to punish her adopted Russian son by hitting him with wooden spoons. You would have to know somebody very, very well before this advice could be given safely. Maybe somebody could use the spoon sparingly, but most people, once they start hitting, get more and more frustrated, and more and more angry and cannot stop. What might have started out as punishment quickly turns to abuse. And sadly, in Mrs. Polreis’ case, to murder. It is best not to rely on hitting in the first place.

Not only is physical punishment dangerous, it is ineffective over the long haul. An adversarial relationship exacerbated by hitting and protracted over a long period of time, must eventually result in failure for the adult. As the child get older, taller, and sometimes stronger than the adult, hitting is no longer possible. Adults now have no control over the child and the child does not know how to discipline himself because he was never taught.

Remember, there is no such thing as just a little spanking. Spanking is hitting and hitting children is not discipline. It is punishment. Punishment is usually violent and done in anger. Often the real sources of an adult’s anger and frustration are not available but children are, and they become the easy and defenseless targets.

True discipline is thoughtful and caring. It takes time, effort and know-how. Like all parenting skills, how to discipline can be learned. If you need help, reach out and ask for it. It is there for you. Do it for the children. They and their children and future generations will be forever grateful.

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