A child is not an adult
Children are not small adults. They are newcomers to the world; everything is a first to them. They view the world through fresh, new and curious eyes. They are inquisitive, playful, imaginative, impressionable, uncritical and driven by extrinsic motivations. Their life is about exploring and learning; they would not bother making sense out of what they see and hear in their early years. They will think in the short term and mostly about their own needs. Children are told stories about the world and about what to do and what not to do; they are told about obedience, authority and discipline. Adults around them mould their formative life.
Discipline could be from structured instructions to follow a particular code of conduct. Child discipline is about setting simple implementable rules, generally with rewards and sanctions, to teach self-discipline and to attain desirable behaviour. It is also about reducing undesirable behaviour so that children are kept safe. Its aim is to develop basic human qualities and acceptable social habits that are embedded in their character. Self-disciplined children develop with a positive character, sound judgement and good morals.
The issue of child discipline is of major concern to parents, teachers and other professionals who deal with children. There are various perspectives, such as behaviour models, developmental psychology, social work, and religious understanding. Human beings are multi-dimensional; as our values, beliefs, education, customs and cultures vary so do the methods of child discipline. The age, mental maturity and temperament of the child are important factors.
Discipline is not punishment, although punishment could be an important element. Corporal punishment of children has been customary in almost all societies and cultures, including in religious communities, in the past. It is strongly recommended in the Old Testament. The adage ‘Spare the rod, spoil the child’, although not a biblical quote, has been taken with religious spirit over centuries. The Prophet of Islam (peace and blessings be upon him) approved smacking of one’s child for not performing compulsory prayer when they reach the age of ten, but according to jurists this should be the last resort and there should be no harshness in doing this or it should not be done in anger.
Corporal punishment is still prevalent in many societies around the world. There has been a big debate in recent years over the use of corporal punishment for children in western society; in some developed countries this has all but disappeared. An increased attention is now given to the concept of ‘assertive discipline’ and ‘positive parenting’ where good behaviour is encouraged and rewarded.
Growing to be human
Discipline is the bridge between goals and accomplishment. As children grow they learn through their parents and other adults close to them. Family, school, neighbourhood and the wider society – all contribute to their developmental journey of life. They grow with informal and formal rules and regulations, the ‘discipline’, that bind them. For humans the gestation period is thus far longer compared to any other creature. A knowledge-based society has the upper hand in promoting positive discipline in children.
Positive discipline starts early, not just when a child starts misbehaving. Obviously everything starts in the family, the bedrock of human society, where parents behave as an anchor and role model. Children imitate the behaviour and conduct of their parents, adults and other individuals around them.
Good schooling is vital to assist children in this endeavour where children learn through positive discipline. All schools should focus on assertive discipline and promote positive behaviour so that children grow self-discipline and respect for others. Successful schools have robust behaviour policies, with rewards for good behaviour and sanctions to deter pupils from misbehaving. High standards of behaviour are important in helping children to feel safe and learn well.
Positive discipline techniques
Children learn things fast. Parents and carers should discipline their children at the right time if they do something out of order and correct their inappropriate behaviour. Strong but rational and consistent discipline through simple incentives and sanctions are important for children’s motivation. Rational discipline is vital for children’s success in life. Here are a few simple tips.
1) Treat children as children
Children should not be treated as adults and their innocence should not be shattered at any cost. As they get older and go to school, they become increasingly more able to talk about their feelings and are better able to understand and follow rules. They then begin to develop better self control to deal with frustrations and disappointments.
2) Involve them in setting boundaries and rules
Children may be young, but it is vital they are given respect they deserve. Explain your position, listen to their opinion and then compromise where you think it is needed. They may come up with all sorts of excuses or examples to avoid doing certain things; getting them involved in discussion will help. Don’t be too stubborn on things that can be flexible; do not allow your ego to dictate and do not fear of losing face when it comes to dealing with young children.
3) Be gentle, but firm
Let your children know it is safe to express their feelings — as long as they do so respectfully. If they act strangely with you – we all have our bad days – tell them to speak to you in a nice way. When they are more peaceful, talk gently about what was making them unhappy. Respect goes both ways, so speak with your children the way you want them to speak to you. Do not shout. Say what you need with clear voice and in a calm manner. Do not forget to say “please” and “thank you.”
4) Use do’s and don’ts with measure
Our life should not be regimented, as in the military with command and obedience. Life is not black and white. Focus on the behaviour you want to see, not what they are doing wrong. Fault-finding destroys relationship. Instead of showing an angry face or saying, “Don’t throw that ball around the house”, say “Doing that could break something. Let’s go outside and play.”
5) Find out what is behind their behaviour
Human beings are complex. Children may have a less share of this complexity, but there may be reasons of their disobedience or misbehaviour that you may not know. Maybe your son was rude to a playmate because he had had too many activities that day, or your daughter was abrasive to you because someone had poked fun at her in school that she did not like. Step back, and consider what may have caused them to misbehave. Later on, after they have calmed down, ask them what happened.
6) Keep discipline simple
Your school-going child may be better able to understand rules, but avoid going into too much detail. A lemon gets bitter if you squeeze it too hard. Over-enthusiasm in following rules or asking for an explanation about small things could be counter-productive. If soft power works in a situation, why use hard power?
7) Be consistent
Involve, consult and then agree on family rules so that children are clear what to do and what to avoid. If you waver or are inconsistent, children will know they can push the boundaries again the next time. It gives children the message that you are not certain about what you are asking or saying.
8) Avoid hard-hitting discipline measures
Whatever the misbehaviour caused for whatever the reason, avoid shouting and keep away from angry exchanges with your children. Never use violence in any situation, however hurt you may feel. Parental outburst is demeaning and undermines their authority in the eyes of their children. Anger is fire and can burn relationships.
9) Turn negatives into positives
Most negative human features or emotions have the potential to be used in positive ways. Successful parents, like successful leaders, should be able to turn their children’s negative behaviours into a positive outcome through their ingenuity. It needs extra patience and wisdom.
Disciplining children is about helping and guiding them to grow as responsible human beings with positive behaviour so that they can make good choices in life on their own. All cultures give children pivotal importance in the family and social life, as they are the future. Childhood innocence is of immense joy to parents.
Children are vulnerable, so child discipline has to be sensitive. “Do not train a child to learn by force or harshness; but direct them to it by what amuses their minds, so that you may be better able to discover with accuracy the peculiar bent of the genius of each.”, said Plato.
Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari is an educationalist and parenting consultant (www.amanaparenting.com). He is a founding member of The East London Communities Organisation (TELCO), Chairman of the East London Mosque Trust, and former Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain (2006-10). Follow Muhammad Abdul Bari on Twitter: www.twitter.com/MAbdulBari
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.