Many parents see the ultimate goal of guiding and parenting a child to be that the child will have an ability to “discipline” him or herself, an ability to have initiative but also be able to think before acting, and that the child/ young adult will ultimately take responsibility for his or her own actions.
The question is how to do get to this, of course. Parenting sites all over the Internet talk about the “obedience” of the small under-7 child, “defiance” and every other thing out there that makes it seems as if children are not part of a family, not part of following the mother and father, but this Oppositional Force To Be Reckoned With.
We have to think of discipline in the light of two things: CONNECTION, and DEVELOPMENTAL STAGES. I have written about these two things over and over, and I guess I will keep saying it until more parents hear.
Connection is your number one key to discipline and guiding of a child. Didn’t you ever do or not do something as a grades school child because you were so connected to your family, to the expectations of your family’s culture? Not through shame or coercion, but because of love. That is what I am talking about. Looking up to a loving authority because it is so.
Small children are not really at this point yet. Their impulses often far outweigh their thoughts. It is not that small children do not ever think, please do not misunderstand, but their physical impulses and lack of impulse control is really, really strong. They need a lot of physical help from you, a lot of repetition, to really do the right thing. They are more likely to do what you do rather than to do what you say. You cannot drive the car of the small child by using your horn (yelling)- you also have to use the steering wheel (involve their bodies!) They are SMALL. A child under the age of 7 is SMALL.
So, to instill self-discipline or inner discipline in a child is a much longer process than people in American society would like. They would like the child to be self-disciplined, “obedient”, yet able to problem-solve and think for themselves and be mature, pretty much from the womb. Be independent, yet fold right into the family culture without so much as a peep. From birth.
Let me assist you for a moment with my vision of working with a child toward inner discipline, based upon attachment parenting and Waldorf parenting. Pick what resonates with you and your family’s culture. You are the expert on your own family.
Birth – Age 7: These are the years to establish TRUST with this child. This will make a PROFOUND difference in the years of 14-21 if you will just do this one step. Do not be afraid to breastfeed, sleep with, bathe with, hold this child. Show this child GOODNESS. We do this by giving them something worthy to IMITATE. They are not ready to run around and be independent yet, but they are ready to learn things with you, by your side. The child is in a period of remarkable PHYSICAL development, and that is the realm in which we must work with the child. Being outside is important from this physical perspective. This is also your time as a parent to really discern the ESSENTIAL things in your family life, and to find that it is okay to not do everything all at once. Rhythm is your helper and friend. Less choices, more relaxed presenting of clothing, food, but also knowing when it is okay that your child wants this over that. Also, this notion of PROTECTING the child and the child’s senses. It is okay to do this! That is the fine art of parenting, and it takes practice!
Age 7-14: These are the years to present to the child a LOVING AUTHORITY. Show this child BEAUTY in the world through artistic work, creative work and by being outside, seeing that beauty in nature; children at this point FEEL things so strongly. This is also the time for community, for other trusted and like-minded adults. This is also a time for a spiritual practice, a child coming up on nine has many questions about the world, about their Creator, about religion – it really is important that you become clear about how you feel about all this. This is the time to think hard about doing things at the right time: is it the right time for my child to go to see a movie? Have a cell phone? Walk to the store alone? Most of all, these are the years to really cultivate WARMTH toward your child and where they are. Some mothers wrote in under the post asking for discipline challenges about their negative 10 and 11 year olds – can we have warmth for these children? It is vital in this stage. After the ninth year, the child has a MUCH better sense of natural consequences, a stronger sense of self, and now is the time to give weight to his ideas, thoughts, perhaps relax that rhythm a bit, but also to give MORE RESPONSIBILITY. Negotiation and compromise become more important, but BOUNDARIES are still there. Finding that Middle Way between the polarities of life.
Age 14-21: These are the years to present to the child TRUTH. They are THINKERS; the teenager can make decisions and take responsibility for his or her decisions. Boundaries are there to push against, parents are there to help and to guide. Keep connecting with this child through the gift of time and listening. I highly recommend Barbara Coloroso’s “Kids Are Worth It! Giving Your Child The Gift of Inner Discipline” as a framework of gentle discipline for these years, really from twelve up.
Many blessings as you discern what is right for your family.