As I continue to work on things away from this blog (which is a collection of Free-Time/Casual Online Writing, Remarks, And Notes By ME Whelan) and continue to figure out what goes and what stays of my existing online-writing, the de-emphasizing of one or another continues as well....

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Myth of the Perfect Discipline Strategy for Children

During one of the many screening interviews that took place prior to my adopting one of my children, the social worker asked, "Could you tell me what your parents did as far as disciplining their children went?" It was the only question she asked that left me feeling as if I didn't have an immediate answer.

As I searched my mind for what to say, I could feel my eyes "looking" for an answer and my shoulders shrugging. After a few awkward "ums" and the realization that no answer had come to me, I said, "I don't really know. Nothing, I guess. They just talked." I was incredibly horrified and terrified by an answer that seemed so inept and unsure. The social worker wrote something down in her notes and moved on to the next question. I worried that my "horrible answer" had destroyed my chances of passing the screening. I hoped she would realize that my seemingly inept response was rooted in the fact that my own parents had been loving, skilled, and kind parents.

Thinking back as far as I can remember, I recall how kind and loving my parents always were; but also that they simply let us know what was expected of us, the difference between right and wrong, and that - if nothing else - we were to treat them with the respect with which they treated us and each other. Before becoming old enough to go to school, my siblings and I were all pretty well behaved kids at home. There was about five years between us, so we got plenty of attention.

We absolutely adored our parents, who were (in the words a young child) "so nice". We didn't view what they expected of us as "unreasonable", because they never expected anything unreasonable of us. The simple rules by which we were expected to live involved things like not breaking things, behaving well when we went somewhere, not fighting, and "NEVER, EVER" talking back to our parents. (It's important to note that they did not yell at us either.)

Once we got to be school-aged life got a little more complicated. Children of school age often just do things they shouldn't do because it "seems like a good idea at the time". When our parents found out we had done something we shouldn't have they would (as I would eventually tell that social worker) talk to us. They would talk about why what we had done was wrong, how disappointed in us they were, how they couldn't understand how we would ever do such a thing, and what other people would think of us if we ever did that thing again.

They would talk about integrity and reputation. They'd talk about how "being sneaky" would make people think very little of us. They talked about honesty, self-respect, being a good friend, what kind of person they wanted us to be - and on and on and on. It was always one of the most uncomfortable experiences of our lives, and when they'd wrap it all up with a reminder of how disappointed they were in us it pretty much sealed in the guilt rather effectively.

Upon thinking about it, though, I realize how, even though something had seemed like a good idea at the time, I, for one, had my own guilt long before I had been caught. So, when my parents did find out and would begin on one those marathon talks about the misdeed, it became quite clear what a good idea the deed WASN'T.
Still, my clever parents had managed to raise three kids without any real "discipline strategy" and by simply ad libbing as the occasion called for it. They had managed three decent, caring, people who didn't get into trouble while creating the impression that they had never really used any discipline strategy.

As an adult, and recalling the degree of "feeling rotten" that my parents managed to create in me; I have to say that I think they could have lightened up a little on the guilt. After all, I had my own conscience (thanks to their doing a good job in my preschool years) and was only a kid. Kids mess up. It wasn't that they were abusive or demeaning or belittling. It was more that they over-estimated the seriousness of the offense and let us know (or at least led us to believe) that they were worried we would turn into criminals. When you're ten years old, and you know that just because you and girlfriends rang a few doorbells it doesn't mean you're headed for a life a crime; you don't know how to reassure your parents they don't need to worry. It may not be the best thing for a child to have to think, "Wait until I grow up, and they'll see that I didn't turn into a criminal". (Then again, it was, I suppose, an effective thing.)

Once I had grown up and knew I would be building my own family I thought quite a bit about my own parenting approach. For the most part, I wanted to do things very much as my parents had, with the exception of attempting to make my children feel guiltier than they already did if they did something wrong. I would let my children know when they had done something unacceptable. I would talk about most of the things my parents talked about. If they were old enough, and if the occasion called for it, I may even impose some consequence that seemed appropriate (such as taking away a toy or not allowing television). My plan, however, was to try, too, to help my children know that even if I did not approve of their unacceptable action I understood (and they should as well) that kids mess up. It's all part of being a kid.

29 years after that interview with the adoption worker, I still don't know what she thought or wrote down when I gave my "horrible" answer that day. I passed the screening, so I like to think that my utter inability to describe my parents' approach to discipline showed that I had been raised by loving, good, parents who understood the importance of setting some reasonable rules, telling children right from wrong, and further elaborating when the occasion seemed to call for it.

I suppose the reason I essentially told that social worker my parents didn't really have any "approach to discipline" was that my parents just knew their role as parents (and how much they loved us) and never viewed "discipline" as a separate "category".

When it comes down to it, the reason there is no "perfect discipline strategy" for children is that strategies are for things like finances, business, and football games. Being a good, loving, capable, parent is about so much more than strategy - so very much more.

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