This is just a brief posting on a big subject that always seems disjointed to me when it is discussed out of context, but also a subject that parents and other caregivers have such headaches about that it deserves attention now and then.
There are two main points I want to make about discipline in this piece. The first is, discipline serves to maintain safety and to communicate values. The second is that discipline frequently gets mixed up with deep – both unconscious and nonconscious – reactions in the caregiver that influence the way the discipline is delivered. We all know both of these points. I am going to simply comment on examples of good discipline I have observed both at Deenabandhu and at Love and Hope and try to identify some of the features that make them effective. As for the deep reactions of the caregivers and how they influence the caregiver’s behavior, I will leave that for a later entry. Some insights for parents about this issue can be found in Parenting from the Inside Out (Siegel and Hartzell, 2003).
One observation I have made is that it is often easier in children’s homes than in single families to establish a consistent set of rules and consistent consequences for noncompliance with those rules. At Love and Hope these rules for behavior are listed in colorful posters on the walls of the dining hall. These rules also communicate the Christian values – such as generosity and compassion – that play such an important role in the life of the Home. Consistency takes some of the stress out of discipline from the point of view of the caregiver. That is very important, because those deep unwelcome reactions that cause caregivers to “blow up” at their children are in part stress reactions. In other words, the loss of perspective and even loss of control on the caregiver’s part is probably mostly generated by stress. If the caregiver can stay calm and reflect on the situation, he or she is more likely to respond to the child’s behavior appropriately (that is, in a way that fits his or her best values).
There are many ways to address the stress reactions that interfere with good discipline practices, and consistency in rules and consequences is only one of them. When caregivers can gain insight into the deep reactions, it is also useful. However, insight is a “top down” phenomenon, and often the stress reactions of the lower parts of the brain trump attempts to keep perspective with the thinking brain. When the caregiver can also use a “bottom up” response to stress, insight is even more effective. Bottom up strategies include ways of calming, or regulating, oneself.
One way of doing that is to disengage, that is, try to distance oneself from the intensity of the situation. That can be very helpful and is commonly called “time outs” either for the child or for the caregiver. Physical distance is often a critical part of this strategy. Another partial solution to this caregiver dilemma is the support of another caregiver, either in a partnership or in a group. When individuals develop supportive relationships with each other, they offer not only ideas, but also implicit patterns of mutual regulation that can be engaged when one caregiver is stressed, and that is calming. It is a cliché to speak of two parents working as a team in setting limits for their children. Yet, the stress generated by a noncompliant child can polarize caregiving teams, also. So, it is best to try to use all of these strategies when disciplining children.
Finally, there is the function of communicating values. This relates to Peter Fonagy’s “epistemic cues”. Values in a culture are transmitted by the way the caregiver communicates, not just what he or she communicates. If the caregiver, in the context of a trusting relationship, lets the child know that the child’s behavior is simply not acceptable – through calm but firm voice, facial expression, and gestures, indicating significance by emotional tone – the child will learn that behavior is unacceptable. This is key because cultural values fit the cultures they belong in, and they cannot be transposed from one culture to the next.
Let me give you an example of what seemed to me to be effective but also culturally specific discipline from Deenabandhu. At Deenabandhu, just as at Love and Hope, the expectations for behavior are clear, as are the consequences and usually involve taking away something small such as no television on one of the rare occasions when it is allowed. The little boys were throwing food in the courtyard. Prajna gave them a consequence. She explained to them and to me that food is given to them to eat by the benefactors of the ashram and produced by the efforts of the farmers, and that therefore wasting food is not acceptable. You can see that this reasoning would not work particularly well in most families in the U.S., but it works here. The values that are being communicated reflect the meaning of giving and serving that I mentioned in an earlier posting. Another time, Prajna gave the boys a similar consequence for running through the courtyard without restricting themselves to the lighted areas. It initially seemed to me a pity to stop them, because they were having so much fun and interacting so well as a group. However, Prajna explained that there might be snakes in the dark (sometimes cobras! One boy had recently been bitten by a non-poisonous snake.) And also trampling the plants was not acceptable. Then I understood.
Siegel, D. & Hartzell, M. (2003). Parenting from the Inside Out: How a Deeper Self-Understanding Can Help You Raise Children Who Thrive, New York, Penguin Group.
photograph by Ginger Gregory