Discipline VS. Self-Esteem: Mutually Exclusive Or Inseparable?

On November 7, 1997 I walked into one of my workshops - my "advanced" group, most of whom have been with me for at least several years. I was greeted with exclamations of confusion and bewilderment, resulting from an article appearing in the New York Times on that date entitled "When Parents Decide To Take Charge Again." In case you didn't have an opportunity to read the article yourself, the gist of it was that many parents are disillusioned with the "psychologically correct mode of discipline" -- concerned that "appeals to the child's better side" in an effort to promote self-esteem and help the child feel good about himself are resulting in more disorderly conduct rather than less. It suggested that parents were emphasizing high self-esteem at the expense of respect for others. Further, the article implied that a return to spanking might be the answer, provided that it is "used rationally on children between 18 months and 6 years old and in the context of a warm and engaged parent-child relationship." My dedicated, concerned group of parents, who have been working for years on alternatives to physical punishment, and most of whom have extraordinarily challenging children challenged me with the question: "Are we giving our children self-esteem at the expense of discipline?" Since that date, every group I've met with has raised this concern, wondering aloud if they should spank their children. In addition, my phone has been ringing off the hook booking me to speak to the parent bodies of various schools on the topic of "Discipline." While I'm grateful to the Times for providing me with extra work, I feel that this type of irresponsible and ill-researched reporting ultimately does more harm than good.

For one thing, discipline is a key component of high self-esteem. The two are not mutually exclusive, rather they are inseparable. Discipline refers to how parents set limits for their children. These limits help children define who they are. Only after discovering who they are can they then feel good about that person. Adhering to parental limits helps children feel confident and capable about themselves, and promotes an "I can do it" feeling. Limits also give children a feeling of safety, a knowledge that mom or dad is in charge. With that safe feeling, children then feel comfortable exploring their environment, which helps them learn, grow and become independent. Further, contrary to the article, children who feel good about themselves do behave better than children who feel bad about themselves.

Children whose parents have integrated discipline with self-esteem building are rarely rude or disrespectful. For one thing, they understand from a personal point of view what it feels like to be respected, and go out of their way to respect others. In addition, their parents have set limits when their behavior is disrespectful - both recognizing the child's feelings that are behind the misbehavior while providing logical consequences for the behavior itself. Thus, the child also knows that there are consequences for rudeness.

Many times parents (and, I guess reporters and even certain psychologists cited in the New York Times) confuse acknowledging and respecting the feelings of the child with allowing the child to misbehave or get their way. All parenting is a combination of discipline, communication and self-esteem building. It is not an all or nothing proposition. It doesn't mean discipline to the exclusion of other things, nor does it mean engaging in an intense dialogue about feelings with children who are misbehaving. As with the rest of life, we must achieve balance. We must know when discipline is called for, when talking is called for, and when soothing feelings is called for, as well as what situations call for a mixture of these things. (For example, soothing a child's tantrum by reflecting her feelings, but still adhering to the limit of no candy until after dinner.)

The style of parenting that I, and other parent educators, advocate is not easy. It requires some education, and a desire to do things differently, even if it means going against societal norms. It means thinking and acting, not simply reacting, to your child. Spanking is, quite simply, the lazy man's or woman's way out. The Times indicated that it might be appropriate within the context of a warm, engaged relationship. The problem is that spanking and a warm, engaged relationship ARE mutually exclusive. Even if the parent/child relationship is predominantly warm and loving, each spanking is a violation of the trust that children have in their parents, and it slowly undermines that very relationship. Children believe that their parents are going to protect them and provide for them. The parent's unwritten, unspoken contract with each child says "I will love and care for you. I will protect you from danger and harm. I will help you grow and thrive. To the best of my ability, I will prepare you to enter society as an independent adult." When a parent hits a child it violates the child's trust that the parent will protect them. How can you say "I will protect you from harm. SWAT."?

In discussing this issue with my husband, my daughter listened, and her viewpoint deserves to be heard here as well. She said "If people go back to spanking, you'll end up with a child who's rude to their children, plus who is rude to others. Children who are hit feel like hitting their parents back. They might not hit their parents, but they won't feel like talking to them either. The child would feel disrespected, and that makes the child want to yell back, hit, sometimes even cry. The child would feel like getting revenge. And they would use any chance they got to get revenge, but they would try not to get caught. And maybe when they learned bad words, they would start to say them to their parents too. None of my friends have been spanked, and they're very respectful to their parents and other people. I would replace spanking with "I" messages, and give the child a consequence for their behavior - like putting them in their room."

This accurate, child's-eye view describes the cycles that we engage in - violence begets violence. We pass on the legacy to our children, to their children, and so on. Ultimately, the "discipline" tool of hitting perpetuates this cycle and, either overtly or covertly, engages feelings of revenge in the child. Whether that revenge occurs today, or when the child is a teenager, or when the child is an adult, it will occur. To tell oneself otherwise is to engage in self-deception. If we want a more peaceful society, the buck stops here. Parent wisely, parent well, be a balanced parent. Relinquish violence.