What happened when I changed the way I discipline my kids

Thoughtful parenting: ditching control and management for discussion.
Thoughtful parenting: ditching control and management for discussion. Photo: Getty

As a mother of two tweens, I've read all the books about discipline, but realised they are all forms of one idea: the control and management of children.

It's oxymoronic: We also say we want to raise children who will become autonomous, courageous, compassionate and deep-thinkers when they become adults. Citizens of a democracy. Leaders of the world. Yet our discipline in at home and at school still reflect the Industrial Revolution. A clockwork of control through rewards and punishments where sitting still and simply doing what you are told might reap benefits.

Though it may look like impeccable behaviour and good discipline, teaching kids to have their hands folded in their lap and to be yes-men is dangerous.

We are in the 21st century, an era of new culture wars: innovation, terrorism, fundamentalism, the rise of the creative class, climate change, increasing inequality, global citizenship, and disruption in higher education. Carrots and sticks discipline doesn't teach children how to think, engage or interact with these Big Questions or become morally sophisticated people.

To raise the adults who will negotiate these issues we need a new mindset. I'm reading Alfie Kohn's book Beyond Discipline. He advocates for community.

Kohn is a professional radical and gadfly, author of The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much Of A Bad Thing, and most recently The Myth Of The Spoiled Child: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom About Children and Parenting.

He writes that we have to trust each other in our homes, wrestle with what it means to live and learn together, deal with conflict and practice the skills of conflict resolution. He argues that ultimately these experiences are "more meaningful than a list of rules or guidelines." I agree with him. My rules - Put Your Laundry In The Basket, for instance - were only ever met with temporary compliance anyway.

I've exchanged rules for more time-consuming, open-end, nuanced, thoughtful conversation about how we want (if we want, and why) to keep our clothes clean. I've "brought the kids in," as Kohn suggests.

It's a mess.


It's also really interesting. My kids for the first time ever are thinking, arguing, grappling and building effective systems and I'm doing it with them, not to them.

After years of being required to do what they are told and being called "good" because they obeyed me, after not thinking too independently nor advocating too loudly for their own interests, my kids, 8 and 10, are saying, "Mom? How can we be good so we get cookies?" And I say, "Cookies? 'Rewards are control through seduction,' Mommy doesn't do that anymore. Let's make cookies together!"

They say, "Are you going to check our homework?" I say, "Why is homework important? What do you think? Does everyone agree about homework? What does it mean to have done homework well? How do you know when you have done so?" They scratch their heads and consider.

"Do we have to clean our rooms?" they ask, elbow-nudging each other over Mum's New Wacky Parenting Plan. Previously, I was a tyrant, a true dragon, about the cleanliness of their rooms. Then I asked myself "Why?" The answer "Because I said so," felt hollow from a the perspective of someone who wants to emphasise reason, personal initiative and problem-solving in her children.

So I say, "Great question. Let's call a family meeting and decide," and we do, and they decide that they'd like to arrange their toys so that they can see them.

My dictatorship is over.

I didn't feel like myself when I acted as the captain, the leader, as most of the traditional discipline books demanded I be. It always felt dishonest to present myself to my children as Wise and Powerful: Punisher Of Bad Behaviour With Consequences and Rewarder of Good Behaviour With Praise n' Cookies. Now I'm free. We are a household of learners. Just as they are, I'm working on becoming a courageous, independent, thoughtful and empathetic person. Ready to engage civilly with people who disagree with me, wrestle intellectually with the things I somewhat irrationally cling to (that Thanksgiving includes a turkey, for instance) and to open my mind and heart to the words and thoughts of my children.

The change in the dynamic of our family is dramatic. It's happier. It's warmer. I'm not Queen Of All I Survey, punishing or rewarding them. We're actually listening to each other, practicing the skills they will need later as adults in life meeting hard issues head-on.

Yes, building a beloved community takes more time, and yes, it's messy: there is more active conflict and conversation and argument, but I'm okay with that. In fact, I encourage it. It's impeccable preparation. We want our children to be citizens of the future.

My dismissal of traditional discipline has shifted my perspective on what it is to be a good parent today, raising the good people of tomorrow. It's far beyond carrots and sticks.

Washington Post