Discipline: The Damaging Effects of Extremes
Methods and philosophies of discipline have been the subject of heated debate and disagreement throughout the past seventy years. Psychologists and pediatricians and university professors have all gotten into the act, telling parents how to raise their kids properly. Unfortunately, many of these “experts” have been in direct contradiction with one another, spreading more heat than light about a subject of great importance.
Perhaps that is why the pendulum has swung back and forth regularly between harsh, oppressive control and the unstructured permissiveness we saw in the mid–twentieth century. It is time we realized that both extremes leave their characteristic scars on the lives of young victims, and I would be hard pressed to say which is more damaging.
At the oppressive end of the continuum, a child suffers the humiliation of total domination. The atmosphere is icy and rigid, and he lives in constant fear. He is unable to make his own decisions, and his personality is squelched beneath the hobnailed boot of parental authority. Lasting characteristics of dependency; deep, abiding anger; and even psychosis can emerge from this persistent dominance.
Of greater concern are the boys and girls who are being subjected to physical and emotional abuse. There are millions of families out there in which these unthinkable crimes are being committed day after day. It is hard to believe just how cruel some mothers and fathers can be to a defenseless, wide-eyed child who doesn’t understand why he or she is hated.
We should also recognize that there are many ways to abuse a child without breaking the law. It can be done subtly by ignoring a boy or girl’s desperate need for nurturance. It can be accomplished by unjust and unfair punishment, including parental acts that might pass for “corporal punishment”–such as routinely hitting, slapping, kicking, and throwing the child to the ground. Then there is the entire range of humiliating behavior by a mother or father, making a youngster feel stupid and weird and unloved. Within certain limits, these behaviors are not illegal. There is no one to rescue the pitiful child who is being twisted and warped by the big people around him. Let nothing in this book ever hint at my approval for such tyranny.
Parents who are cold and stern with their sons and daughters often leave them damaged for life. I could easily be misunderstood at this point, having authored this book in which I recommend (in chapter 4) the judicious use of corporal punishment under specific circumstances and limits. May all doubts be dispelled. I don’t believe in parental harshness. Period! Children are incredibly vulnerable to rejection, ridicule, criticism, and anger at home, and they deserve to grow up in an environment of safety, acceptance, and warmth.
We must acknowledge, as indicated earlier, that the opposite extreme is also damaging to children. In the absence of adult leadership, the child is his own master from his earliest babyhood. He thinks the world revolves around his heady empire, and he often has utter contempt and disrespect for those closest to him. Anarchy and chaos reign in his home, and his mother is often the most nervous, frustrated woman on her block. When the child is young, the mother is stranded at home because she is too embarrassed to take her little spitfire anywhere. It would be worth the hardships she endures if this condition produced healthy, secure children. It clearly does not.
I believe that if it is desirable for children to be kind, appreciative, and pleasant, those qualities should be taught, not hoped for. If we want to see honesty, truthfulness, and unselfishness in our offspring, then these characteristics should be the conscious objectives of our early instructional process. If it is important to produce respectful, responsible young citizens, then we should set out to mold them accordingly. The point is obvious: heredity does not equip a child with proper attitudes; children learn what they are taught. We cannot expect the coveted behavior to appear magically if we have not done our early homework.
1. Dr. James C. Dobson, THE STRONG-WILLED CHILD (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1978)
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