I was very lucky to attend a local event where we had Kim John Payne (see http://www.simplicityparenting.com) come to give a talk on child discipline. Kim has a Masters degree in education and has been a school counselor, adult educator, consultant, researcher, educator and a private family counselor for twenty seven years. He regularly gives key note addresses at international conferences for educators, parents, and therapists and runs workshops and training’s around the world. Our event was sponsored by our local Waldorf School here in Nelson, B.C..

Kim started off with a clarification on the word “discipline”.  It really comes from the word “disciple” which means “to be followed”.  This underscores the importance of how parents must set an example for their kids, who are constant imitators of our actions. Kim then gave some historical perspective on discipline by pointing out that before the 1930s, there was no discipline.  Children back then simply worked, and so were judged by the quality of their work rather than their behaviour. In fact, homework, was literally that – baking, cleaning, taking care of animals, fixing/building and so on all done within the home.

In the past, according to Kim discipline has been all about “behaviour modification” and telling children about “natural consequences” of their actions to change behaviour.  The flaws with this approach are that changing child behaviour often leads to “sneaky” children, and also denial of their actions.  Children are motivated individuals, and will find a way around obstacles that their parents present.  Kim talks about thinking about children as being “disoriented” rather than “disobedient”.  He made a great metaphor about discipline being similar to how a sculptor takes away all the unwanted materials from a block to reveal what is left behind as the sculpture.  This allows us to concentrate on de-emphasizing unwanted behaviour, and focus more on the positive outcome of how we want our children’s values to be shaped.

Kim is also much more fond of “time-ins” vs “time-outs”.  He sees many issues with time-outs (our most popular article by far on rootparenting.org).  The main issue he feels is that they are a means of sending away your problems rather than addressing them.  This approach will encourage our children to grow up and avoid/walk away from problems or stressful situations rather than talking about them and addressing them.  These times are opportunities for resolving tough issues and forming stronger bonds with our children.  Gordon Neufeld is also greatly opposed to the use of “time-outs” with children.

Kim continues to revisit the history of discipline by talking about how, during the 1990s, our parents were deeply entrenched in working in team focussed environments.  This time was where parents who were often managers in their companies would bring this corporate approach home to use to “manage” their children.  As Kim says, when children are managed, “they will unionize!”.   Our parents were also part of a generation who started to give children too many choices.  Children at a young age especially he says, feel unsafe when given choices because it makes it appear that their parents don’t know what is best for them.  Children need the security of a parent who will make the important choices for them to guide them.  Kim talks of a parent needing to progress from a caring “governer”, “dictator” or “authoritative role-model” during the younger years (under age 6 or 7) to then a “gardener” (age 7 to 12) to finally a “guide” when they reach their teen years.  This is a key concept since when a child is “rebelling” or “disoriented” in their behaviour, they must be brought back to a previous stage until they earn their parents trust again.

Kim is also not fond of any kind of reward or punishment model.  Parents who give their children under the age of 9 or 10 years consequences will not get results, since children simply don’t fully understand them at that point.  It’s not until age 5 or 6 that the left and right brain have actually started to connect, so that they can connect rational and creative thoughts.  Children at a young age may appear to understand that if they don’t treat their sibling well, they won’t get dessert, but more often than not, they are operating in the present rather than thinking much at all about the future.  Their brain simply isn’t wired yet for that complex forward thinking.

Then there are the “good jobber” parents.  Kim talks of many “praise junky” parents who can’t help themselves from saying how great their children’s paintings, block houses or somersaults are.  They reality Kim says, is that this is teaching children to rely on your input and approval, rather than their own sense of satisfaction and self worth.  When a child brings you a painting, he suggests that you ask questions about it and show interest (why did you choose all black for this part?) rather than blind praise.  Children are also smart enough to know that when parents offer nothing but positive comments on anything they do, they start to become naturally skeptical.  Kim feels that words are not always required to show your child your approval.

When children start to “push our buttons” as parents, what they really are doing is testing us for approval.  They need to become oriented towards what is right and wrong, and so constantly “ping” us for feedback.  Being honest (even if negative) is actually a more healthy approach rather than sugar-coating the truth.  Kim says parents, as much as 80% of the time, ask questions too politely to get their children to do things, rather than “telling them” what to do.  We need to be clear and authorative with our kids, so they know their boundaries and what is expected of them.  As Gordon Neufeld also says (and Kim quotes Gordon often), you must “connect, then direct”.

“Stand on 2 feet, be 2 feet away, look at your child squarely in the eyes, and tell them what to do. Say it only once. “

If you start having to repeat yourself, you are simply not connecting with your child and will lose their attention.  When a young (4 to 6 years)  child interrupts you, you must be clear and even use your hand as  sign language to indicate that you are not ready to talk to them.  Pause and stay close, but you need them to respect and listen to you.  You still need to foster a connection with them for them to listen, but stick to your guns even if they start to cry and meltdown.  When telling a child to do something, like get dressed to go to the car, Kim says you need to “pause, start small, insist and stay close”.  This is not easy, but as long as you stay focussed on your child (vs your phone or computer especially), they will listen and follow your lead.  It requires patience, but a consistent approach like this is typically effective within not more than 3 attempts according to Kim’s 27 years of experience.

When dealing with teenagers, who are now aware of consequences, your approach is a little different.  Kim says that you must “meet them in the middle” so that they feel heard.  Your role is still the guide, so you must help them draw boundaries with their decisions.  They are capable of being able to decide among choices, and this is empowering to them, so be respectful of what they want to do, and try to find a safe alternative to ideas that are not favourable to you.  They still need to feel a connection with you, and feel loved and listened to.