Discipline – Finding the Balance

We asked Caryn Skinner from The Parent Company to extract some of the key points from her seminar entitled Discipline – Finding the Balance. The seminar focuses on the positive and learning aspects of discipline and helps parents and carers to find their own consistent approach to discipline in their family.

“Hitting and hurting”, “shame and blame”, “leave them to cry”, “tune into their feelings and emotions”. These are phrases and advice that have been given to parents over the century. They cannot be judged or condemned – they were what parents felt was the right thing to do for their child when it came to discipline. Many of us may have been raised by some of these concepts and it did us no harm. Or did it?

Much research has been done over the last 50 years into the effects of parenting style and approach. We have also had important pieces of legislation that firmly give rights to our children about the way they are treated, handled and developed. Society is now demanding that we treat the next generation with more respect and care.

What has been learned?

Dr. Spock in his book Baby and Child Care (Dr. Benjamin Spock: Simon and Schuster) summarises what behavioural scientists, psychologist and the ordinary parent has learnt over the years:

  • Children need the love of good parents above anything else
  • They work hard all by themselves to be more grown up and responsible
  • Many children who get into the most trouble lack affection not punishment
  • Children are eager to learn if they are given appropriate age related tasks and are taught by understanding teachers
  • Unconscious thoughts are as influential as conscious ones
  • Each child is an individual and should be allowed to be so

So how do we take all of this and turn it into practical everyday discipline?

Definition of discipline

It may help to start with what exactly this thing called “discipline” really is. The Dictionary says it is about “teaching rules and forms of behaviour by continual repetition. Training, punishment, control, rules, instruction”

The key feature seems to be that it is about “learning” and therefore “teaching” by the parent and other care givers. Penelope Leach says “it is about parents doing themselves out of a job”. She talks about preparing children for the outside World and helping them to make a worthwhile contribution to it.

Steve Biddulph echoes this by suggesting it is about getting involved, teaching with no fear and helping children to find better ways.

Some of this helps; it gives us a clearer view of what we are aiming at. Steve Biddulph echoes many parent’s needs when he suggests discipline “makes our lives easier – giving in does not – no boundaries means children get worse”

We kind of know this, yet how do we go about embedding it in our everyday lives?

A framework

Discipline, it seems, cannot stand on it’s own. Many parents feel discipline is a harsh word and really means punishment. In order to put it into the context of every day parenting we may need to review our overall approach to parenting – set up a framework.

Dr. Spock uses a great analogy to show the importance of a framework when he says: “If a parent is timid or reluctant to lead a child, like a vine without a pole, they will have no shape or direction to them. Being overbearing, harsh and disappointed will make the child meek, colourless and mean to others”


Much is done about goals and standards in the work place – why not at home too? We are on a mission as parents to raise our children well, we may be helped by knowing what we are shooting for.

As Steven Covey so neatly puts it in 7 Habits of Highly Successful Families, (Simon and Shuster) the main purpose of our role as parents is “to raise the child!”

Terri Apter in her book The Confident Child (Terri Apter, PhD, WW Norton) defines long term goals as well as short term ones. Long term goals might be:

· We want our child to contribute to the development of their own internal standards
· We want them to know what is good as well as bad
· We want to raise children with strong self esteem

Short term goals are based on the development of the child at that time – you can only go with what they are capable of.

Dr Spock advises that whatever we do decide, it is important to be firm about it. If it becomes something you cannot be firm about should it really be a rule or goal? If you have made it a goal to only have one hour in front of the TV and you now cannot bear to switch it off, maybe question how important it is to you in the first place. If it is, steel yourself and do it, if it is not, why give yourself and your children grief?

Parenting Style

Deciding your overall approach to parenting helps with discipline too. The main approaches seem to be Permissive, Authoritarian or Democratic/Authoritative.

Most experts suggest that the Democratic/Authoritative style is the one to adopt, or as Steve Biddulph defines it – “Firm Love”

His four main styles are:

  • Cold and Firm – the autocratic parent who can set boundaries and rules but lacks warmth and affection.
  • Cold and not strong – not a lot of affection and a difficulty in setting any limits.
  • Soft but not firm – the well recognised “soggy” parent. Loads of affection and interest but very vague on rules and boundaries.
  • Firm and soft – this is where we need to aim for in Biddulph’s eyes. Rules when necessary, guidelines and acceptable/unacceptable behaviour – and lashings of affection and approving looks!

As Dr. Spock so beautifully puts it: “How bad do I have to be before someone cares enough to stop me?”

Arriving at just the right balance can be extremely difficult. If you are not comfortable with close physical contact or cannot lay down rules it is a hard slog. Our own upbringing will have a major impact on our capabilities as parents – and so will the opinion of powerful people around us who love telling us what is best for us and our children.

Everyday Ideas

There are many sited by the various authors on the subject here are a selection.

Power of Touch
There are many ways to touch – cuddles, pats, strokes, massage, hand holding – and they can be integrated into our lives both for our children’s and our benefit.

Be Positive
Lets look for the positive qualities in our children and point them out to them. This encourages us to look for the positive and not the negative all the time. If we say “you are always ill” they become a sick child. Therefore, if we say “I like the way you shared that toy” this behaviour will be reinforced too. Acknowledging good behaviour means it will become the norm.

Make requests positive not open to interpretation e.g. “can you come for lunch?” will elicit a “No”. Try “We are having lunch now”.

Establish Clear Rules and Limits
You may need universal rules – “always say thank you” – and specific occasion rules, “we don’t go upstairs at Grandmas because she has precious things up there”. Be prepared to carry them through.

Move with your Child
Keep aware of their stages of development. Try not to expect too much of them but recognise when they need your help to set limits and boundaries to their behaviour. We need to watch that we do not scold a baby for being a baby – they pull the mug of tea over, well that is what a baby will do if they are given an opportunity to be curious. We are the adult so we must protect them.

The baby who gets what it needs because it is unable to do anything but cry for the basics turns into a toddler who wants a whole range of sophisticated things which may be unsafe or unsuitable. Being tactful with these changeovers can smooth the way – the toddler needs help to become one and not a baby anymore.

Allow Expressions of Feelings
Show your child it is OK to be angry, you understand this, but let’s look at a better way to express it than hitting your brother!

You are the Steering Wheel
A child has the power, will and energy to move forward, we can be the ones who steer them in the right direction. How well depends on:

  • Consistency
  • Meaning what we say
  • Having a good reason

Punishment comes only after the firmness has not worked.

Respect their Point of View
We can try to begin to develop the idea that they have rights too – and so do we. At an appropriate age get them to help you make a decision, it is an excellent skill for them to have as an adult.

You have rights too
It is important that we make clear “I” statements about how we feel so that our children do not rule the roost. It is Ok to say that you are tired and cannot play their game – try to offer an alternative.

Allow Mistakes
When our children have accidents or are careless there is often no need to punish – they are usually as upset as we are. We often learn from our mistakes so help your child too as is appropriate to their age.

Body and Feelings
No kissing or hugging should be forced – it is their body and they have a right to have that respected even by you.


There is general agreement here that a punishment needs to come only when we have run out of options. The punishment should be brief and fit the crime. Banning ice cream for 3 weeks means that the “crime” is re visited every time the “ice cream” issue is raised. Get it over and done with.

To smack or not to smack is a whole different issue. There are not many child care experts who agree with this although Christopher Green makes some very interesting points which may be useful to parents facing this issue themselves.

The overall message seems to be around raising children who become adults and therefore part of the wider society. Our aim is to help them go forth into the World. We need to be on our children’s side – they need to know that with us they can feel safe, understood and that they have our support.

If all else fails – lock ’em in the dungeon!


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