Living with Children: Discipline and rules

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A mother recently asked my advice concerning a discipline problem she was having with one of her children. I asked her to define the word discipline.

She thought a moment and answered, “Well, it means to create rules and enforce them consistently. Right?”

No, not right. To be fair, most parents would give similar answers, which begins to explain why something so simple — the discipline of a child — has become so difficult for so many of today’s parents. Mind you, one cannot discipline without rules, and a rule which is not consistently enforced is not a rule, but merely a wish, but enforcing rules is not the essence of discipline.

Discipline is the process by which a parent turns a child who is self-centered and strong-willed (every child ever born, that is) into a disciple who follows the parent’s lead. Discipline is a primarily a matter of rule, not rules. It is leadership, not legalism; teaching, not policing; command, not demand; proper communication, not proper consequences.

Just because someone occupies a leadership position does not mean he is a leader. The micromanager is a good example. Micromanagers are by nature obsessed with details, always busy, busy, busy. Wherever one finds a micromanager, one finds not an effective leader, but an anxious individual who is frequently frustrated, exasperated, and exhausted. In short, micromanagers are legalists, and legalism cancels one’s ability to lead.

Leadership is not a matter of one’s IQ, socio-economic status, or academic background. It’s a matter of a certain attitude, one that conveys a calm, natural authority. Like myself, most Americans over the age of 60 were raised by parents who ruled not by creating a host of rules, but by communicating broad expectations in a clear and compelling manner.

In the 1950s, for example, it was rare for a parent to so much as check to make sure a child had done his homework. And yet, we baby boomers did our homework (most of the time). Ask someone my age why that was the case, and he is likely to answer, “Well, I guess I did my homework because my parents and teachers expected me to do it.”

Leadership is expectation, not persuasion. Persuasion is the tool of the politician – someone who avoids making unpopular decisions. As such, politicians are often wishy-washy. A politician might say one thing, and then, after looking at the polls, say another. Leaders, on the other hand, compel people to their point of view. They have no problem making unpopular decisions. What leaders say, they mean.

Needless to say, many of today’s parents behave toward their children more like politicians or micromanagers than leaders. What about you?

[Family psychologist John Rosemond: johnrosemond.com, parentguru.com. Copyright 2022, John K. Rosemond]