By Dr. Goh Chee Leong, Psychologist, HELP University & Director of HELP International School
PhD in Psychology (University of Otago, New Zealand)
It’s always hard to find a balance when it comes to disciplining our children. On the one hand we don’t want to be too harsh and fierce with our children as this may scar them emotionally. On the other hand, we don’t want to be too soft as we risk spoiling them. How does one strike a balance?
Let’s begin by being clear about the goal of discipline; to educate our children on the difference between acceptable and unacceptable conduct. The process of punishment must be seen in the context of educating the child. It is not to inflict damage, be it physical or psychological, on the child.
The following are some tips on how to we can strike an effective balance in our approach to discipline in our family.
There may be many different things that you can teach your child in terms of conduct. However, it will serve you well to focus on what you think are essential, important and non-negotiable.
All families have slightly different sets of values that they consider top priority. Some families may prioritise virtues like punctuality and respect, while others may value considerate behaviour and hard work.
Safety issues should also help determine some of the rules we set for our children. For example, playing near traffic, meddling with electrical points, wandering off alone in crowded areas; these are all dangerous behaviors for young children, and should be considered forbidden.
The important thing is for both parents to agree on what should be prioritised so that there is clarity and consistency in the way discipline is defined at home. Too often, we waste time struggling with our children about issues that are non-essential and unimportant.
Tip 2 : Do ensure that your child is clear on what the rules are and why they are in place
Some children may inadvertently break the rules because they are not clear on what they are. As parents, it is our responsibility to make clear to our children, what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. From the time a child is two-years and above, they are able to understand ‘boundaries’. Therefore, it is important that we define and establish such boundaries for them.
It is also important for parents to explain why these rules exist. This is known as moral reasoning. It is a form of learning in which children rationalise the meaning behind the rules we set for them. The goal is to get the child to buy into the rules.
For example, a common safety rule when we are in public is for children to hold our hands when we are walking through a crowded area. One way to convey this rule is to simply shout, “HOLD MY HAND OR I”LL SPANK YOU!” and that would have probably worked in the short term. Nevertheless, the child would not have understood WHY it was an important rule to follow.
A more constructive way to convey the importance of this rule to the child is to say something like this instead; “It is important for you to hold my hand when we walk. It is very crowded, and I am worried that if you don’t hold my hand, I may lose you, and I won’t know where you are. I don’t want you to be lost, so it is important for you to hold my hand.”
I remember telling my own daughter this when she was three years old. Three years later, she still remembers to always stay close to us when we are in crowded places. I don’t even need to remind her or scold her. She does this because she understands and agrees with the rule. This is the goal of parental discipline.
Tip 3 : Do be consistent
Sometimes as parents we punish not based on the offense (i.e. what the child has done) but based on how we are feeling. When we are in a good mood we sometimes allow our children to get away with things they should not be allowed to do. Conversely, when we are in a bad mood, we may punish our children more severely that they deserve.
Stress is one of the enemies of consistent discipline. We sometimes bring home our work stress and take it out on our children. When we are in a bad mood, even the slightest of mistakes our children make may be punished severely. This is a disproportionate response. Similarly, some parents find it very difficult to punish their children especially when they are in a good mood.
Cynthia, a mother of a five- year-old recalls, “Once my daughter threw a tantrum when my mum was visiting. She was also very rude to the guests. But it also happened to be during a good day, when my husband had just been notified of his job promotion. So the whole family was in a celebratory mood. We were so tempted to just overlook the whole thing. But then we decided that it was important for my daughter to learn that this behaviour was unacceptable, so we decided to punish her by cancelling our planned trip to the mall that night and denying her television rights.”
Parenting sometimes does require us to be firm in order for us to be consistent with our discipline. Research has indicated that children feel more secure and are more emotionally stable when boundaries are consistently applied at home.
Remember, the goal of discipline is to teach our children what the boundaries in our family are. It is a form of education, not a form of cruelty or vengeance. It is certainly not a means to release pent up stress and frustration. When we punish our children, we should always be in full control of our emotions and our action. We should clearly focus on what lesson we want to send across to our child.
Ultimately, discipline needs to be in the context of a loving and secure relationship. Our children should realise that even though we may punish them for doing something wrong, we act out of love and not out of a desire to hurt or humiliate them.