Saturday, 14 March 2009

'Controlling' kids

When it comes to disciplining kids, my philosophy is that no one ever learned to be a good person simply because they were scared of being punished.

I'm happy to be the mother of two kids - my 7 year old daughter, and my 2 year old son - and I'm relieved to say that they're pretty well-behaved. My partner and I try to teach the kids to think about the moral consequences of their actions - if the behaviour you're planning is likely to harm yourself or someone else, don't do it. I figure that telling kids they should behave to avoid punishment implies that it's OK to be naughty if you think no one will catch you. My partner and I occasionally use time out or talk sternly to our kids, but mostly we don't have to, because they're pretty considerate.

So far, so good - but then, straightforward ideas like these work much better for little kids than for teens. Wee ones can't get up to the same waywardness as older kids. They don't drive dangerously, take your credit card or get horrendously drunk in unsafe situations. I've got a feeling that, ten years from now, my simple parenting formula may be challenged!

This article from the Taranaki Daily News got me thinking about a range issues to do with disciplining kids. In this article, the mother of a 16 year old got a last-minute reprieve from a conviction for failing to send her son to school. The formerly truant son, who'd just had his birthday, had had a change of heart and decided to attend school regularly. He'd turned over a new leaf and enrolled in an alternative education programme (suggesting he has learning or behavioural difficulties which were causing him to struggle at school).

This is good news - but, if the son had refused to go back to school, how far could his mum have fairly been held liable? Would his truancy necessarily be a reflection on the quality of his mother's parenting? And how exactly are parents supposed to 'control' teenagers who have minds of their own?

The strangest part of the this article was the following comment from the district court judge, to the teenager's mother:

I can understand how for a mother it is sometimes hard to exercise discipline over a child, particularly one who is now taller than you.

This seems like a suggestion that effective discipline of teenagers lies in some sort of physical superiority - the ability to loom over a kid, perhaps, and intimidate with bodily presence. If that's what we regard as the right way to get kids to behave, discipline of kids will fall to men, and women (particularly those parenting alone) are set up to be 'weak', failed disciplinarians. Most mums aren't tall enough to loom menacingly over their teenage sons - and I, for one, don't want to. When my kids are teens, I hope to have a meaningful influence over their behaviour - one based on reason and consideration, not calling dad in to scare them if they won't do what I say.

The irony is that, in the case of this particular 16 year old, his decision to go back to school had nothing to do with standover disciplinary tactics. He thought about the situation, realised his truancy was about to harm his mother, and he changed his behaviour. That sounds like a good moral outcome to me.


Lucyna Maria said...

Well, I agree with your conclusion.

Having two kids older than your oldest child (ages 12 & 8), my experience has been that there are generally red-flag issues that come up and if they are not dealt with in some way, will continue to cause problems.

For instance, a tendency to lie in one child and in the other an inability to look at his own actions and recognise they were the wrong thing to do, without massive guilt and inability to cope with that guilt.

Normally, I've had to sit down and think about what was happening, and then work out a way to deal with it and not forget it as an issue. Because it's very easy, as a parent, to put things in the too hard basket and just hope things turn out ok - receipe for disaster there.

The woman in question who was worried about not being able to physically make sure her son did the right thing was probably just harking back to the days where she could just pick him up and put him in his room if he was having a tantrum or breaking things - there comes a point when children grow up and then you hope like hell that everything you did over the years counts in influencing their behaviour for the best.

Unfortunately, if our legal system requires a parent to be responsible for a child's actions when they are in effect, an adult (just an immature one), then that's dead wrong.

But then again, I also believe compulsory schooling is wrong. It's not the state's responsibility to educate children - it's the parent's.

Julie said...

I've been thinking lately about discipline based on raising your voice. Wriggly is too little for much discipline (plus he has a delightful chuckle when he thinks he getting away from something - a recent addition that I'm sure will pall in a week or two but right now is adorable). We're both committed to no physical discipline, but I'm starting to wonder about the efficacy of yelling...