The Tale of Two Discipline Styles Part II

Piano Sonata No. 11 (Mozart) Rondo Alla turca

Image via Wikipedia

In my last post I stated that I would explain what I meant when I said that a micromanagement mindset is prevalent in our society, but not manifested in quite the same way as in Amy Chua’s society. I never actually went on to explain what I meant and so I will take a moment now to do so.

Every household and classroom operates by a set of rules; life would become chaotic rather quickly if they did not. The way that a parent or teacher handles an infraction of the rules says a lot about their discipline style. For example, in one classroom there is a rule that states that we should clean up our toys when we are done playing with them. If we don’t clean up our toys, we receive a warning that consists of the teacher reminding us that we must clean up our toys. If we still don’t clean up our toys we get a time out that consists of sitting in a designated spot for a pre-determined amount of time. Why? We aren’t sure, but we know that we didn’t do something right. In fact, we know that we did something wrong earlier when that girl took our toy. We wanted it back so we hit her, but then we had to sit in time out. Why? We had the toy first; she shouldn’t have taken it from us. And then there was lunch, when we were trying to wash our hands and got water on the floor. The water felt really good on our hands and we wanted to see how it felt if we moved our hands a different way, but we made the water spray on the floor and then we had to sit in time out. Why? We didn’t mean to get water on the floor.

A teacher that sees the behavior and the result of that behavior and puts the child involved in time out may feel like they have done a great service to the class as far as stopping bad behavior. They may have even taken a moment to tell the child “We don’t hit,” or “We don’t play in the water,” or “We need to clean up our toys.” But the teacher has done nothing to solve the problem.

In another classroom a child is not helping in the cleanup process. The teacher talks to the child, telling them “We need to help clean up our toys! What if we left all of the toys on the floor? We could trip over the toys and get hurt!” There are a myriad of reasons for why we should clean up the classroom and the class can discuss these point by point. But the bottom line is that the student then knows the “why” of the rule. The student has undoubtedly tripped and fallen before; they know that it isn’t a good thing. They have a very clear and tangible reason for wanting to clean up the toys. Likewise, if we simply put a child in time out because they got water on the floor, the child won’t learn that the reason why it is bad to get water on the floor is that someone could slip on the water and fall.

Since learning more about how children think and how discipline styles affect children, I have come to view myself as more of an educator of social skills than a disciplinarian. Children who face harsh discipline or punishment act in ways to avoid punishment, but do not typically understand why they are being asked to act a certain way. They are showing a response toward a stimulus, whether positive or negative. This stimulus triggers extrinsic motivation in the child because the stimulus is from a source other than the child himself. The downside to using this type of motivation is that the desired behavior usually only sticks around as long as the stimulus. If the threat of punishment disappears, so does the good behavior.

On the other hand, educating a child about the reasons why a certain behavior is desirable brings about intrinsic motivation – a deeply personal motivation. It also causes the child to look beyond themselves and look at the big picture. If we are teaching a child not to hit, we may focus their attention on the emotional toll the hitter has caused. When a child realizes that they have caused someone else to be sad or have negative emotions, they are usually quick to apologize. When you teach them an alternative to hitting they are much more likely to use the method that causes fewer negative feelings because they understand the “why” of the situation better.

As adults, it is sometimes hard for us to disengage ourselves from our mature frame of mind and realize that these children, who have only been alive for a few years, don’t have all of the answers that we do. It is important for us to realize that, just as we are educating children in their ABCs and 123s, we also need to be educating them about why we ask them to behave in certain ways. Giving them this kind of education ensures that they will be able to make more informed decisions about how they should act.

There are children out there who, despite being told the “why’s” of the rules over and over again, still continue to act in ways that are contrary to the rules. I hypothesize that there are two main causes for this: either the child desperately needs one-on-one attention or the child has not yet learned to disengage his viewpoint from himself enough to consider the emotions and reactions of those around him (I also realize that there may be medical or psychological issues involved, but I don’t have the knowledge needed to delve into those). In either case, talking calmly (when the child has not done something wrong) about why we have the rules we have can help. The child is receiving much needed attention as the talk unfolds, and the child will come a little bit closer to understanding the effects of their actions on others the more they are shown.

One of the most disturbing parts of Amy Chua’s article (for me) was the story of the piano lesson. Yes, the story had a happy ending, but how much energy and stress had they gone through to get to that point? Amy’s daughter received many threats during the ordeal, including the threat of losing her dollhouse. Rather than making her more willing to learn the piano piece, it caused her to become defensive and ask her mother why she was still there and not carting off her dollhouse. Amy’s daughter had no intrinsic motivation to learn the piece; she wasn’t even the one who chose the piece. And lest Amy or anyone else say that she probably would have picked a piece that was too easy for her, let me relay a story from my own experience.

I grew up playing piano; I started playing when I was five. It was hard to learn and I didn’t always like it, but I practiced and played. When I was seven or eight years old I entered a competition. It was a wonderful experience, and while I was there I heard someone play Mozart’s Rondo Alla Turca. I immediately fell in love with the song and wanted to learn to play it. One of the main reasons why I loved it was because it sounded challenging as well as pretty. My instructor didn’t think I was ready for such a challenging piece, but as soon as I could I got ahold of the sheet music. I practiced and practiced and practiced. Amy said that the hard part for parents was hours two and three, but not for mine. They couldn’t tear me away from the piano after that because I had the inner desire – the intrinsic motivation – to play the piece perfectly. I chose the piece out for myself and it was extremely challenging. Throughout my years playing piano, if I ever felt like I wanted to challenge myself a little, I would pull the piece back out and practice it again.

This typifies for me what is meant by children being inherently good and making choices that are good for them. Children want to learn and are naturally curious. They will challenge themselves if we let them. But we have to help them find the intrinsic motivation that they need to be successful, rather than trying to punish the success out of them.

The Tale of Two Discipline Styles

Anyone who is anyone in parenting or education has read the Wall Street Journal article entitled “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior“, and many of them have already responded to the article. I decided to respond to the article because it characterizes a philosophical debate that has been plaguing me for a while now: two differing and extremely prevalent discipline styles. The idea that there are two differing styles is not what has plagued me, but the fact that there aren’t many people who seen to understand that there are differing styles, or what the mentalities behind these roots are. For this reason, I applaud Amy Chua’s article for bringing this to light.

There are two different mindsets about children that are the root of these philosophical differences. The mindset showcased in the article is that children are inherently bad; if left to their own devices they will choose destructive, lazy, or hurtful activities. For this reason their activities and entire day must be micromanaged by adults, whether it be parents or teachers. This mindset is prevalent in our society as well as Amy Chua’s, although it doesn’t manifest itself in quite the same way. I will explain what I mean in a minute.

The other mindset is that children are inherently good; if left to their own devices they will choose activities that are meaningful to them and that they will learn something from. Because they are children and don’t have all of the answers when it comes to the world around them, the adult’s role becomes that of a guide who helps the child understand the world around them, including how to interact with the people around them in a positive way.

There is a world of difference in these two mindsets, and the differences have been made startlingly clear to me in a couple of different ways in the past month. I have been striving to act more as a guide to the children in my classroom, especially in the area of social skills. Rather than reprimanding a child when they do something hurtful to a classmate, I have started using these as “teachable moments“, explaining to the child why an action was not acceptable and informing them of a different way they could have dealt with the situation that would have been more positive. Now, note that I said that the child did something hurtful to a classmate. This does not mean that the child went out of their way to be hurtful to someone. If we only look at a child that hits and not at the reason for the behavior, we will never teach ourselves or the child anything. Through my observations of children with “discipline problems” I have found that every problem has a specific reason behind it. Granted, I have been observing for about six months, which isn’t a long time. I can’t say that I have all of the answers for every child. I can only speak about what I have personally dealt with. But every child that I have dealt with does have a reason for their actions. One child hits their friends and throws toys at them for apparently no reason. Upon observation I noted that this child did these things because something didn’t go their way and that was their way of dealing with it. The way I handled the behavior was to teach the child anger management techniques and talk to the child about alternatives to that behavior. It has helped tremendously where time-outs and even “say you’re sorry” have not.

The setting for the first moment I went through in recognizing the stark difference in these two mindsets, as well as how prevalent the “children are inherently bad” mindset is, was at a training session about discipline. New state guidelines about discipline had been put into place and we were being trained on these new guidelines. When reading from the script, the presenter talked about the proper way to talk to the child and using using positive guidance. But when it came to discussion about the topic  (and there is always discussion when it comes to discipline) the presenter seemed to get off track. There was discussion about how to handle a child who seemed out of control: attempting to stab with scissors and throwing around furniture. Rather than discussing the methods of the teachers, the presenter and those involved focused on the behavior of the child, and revealed that the child had been dismissed from the center (the presenter was the director of the center) due to the behavior. What hurt my heart was that those involved in the discussion did not talk about trying to find out what the underlying causes of the behavior were; it was assumed that this was how this particular child was – this child could do nothing but exhibit destructive behavior. I was completely taken aback by this mindset; it is very hard for me, as a teacher, to imagine another teacher not trying to find out if there may be something else going on with this child and if they are dealing with that the only way they know how. It is hard for me to see a child labeled “bad” when every child has potential and every child that I know wants to use that potential; some of them just don’t know how and need the guidance of an adult.

The second eye-opener came at my own center, where I had implemented a discipline system in my classroom which was based on teaching correct behaviors rather than punishing bad behaviors. If a child did something hurtful to another child, I would pull both children aside and address the victim first. I would teach them to let the offender know that they did not like being treated in the way that they were treated. I would then explain to the offender that they had hurt the other child (most children really do not understand that feelings and actions hurt), teach them how to correct the hurt, and also teach them a more appropriate way to handle the situation that they were reacting to when they hurt the other child. This method had been wildly successful in my classroom for a couple of months, with children taking responsibility for their own hurts and actions without my involvement – and these were three-year-old children! Another strategy that I was employing in my classroom was child-directed activities, which made the children in my care much happier and cut down on discipline problems as well. This strategy had been in place for about a month when I was called into the office and told that my children were undisciplined and my classroom lacked structure. I was thoroughly taken aback and when I tried to explain the systems that I had put in place and how they were helping the classroom I was told that my philosophies weren’t in line with the company’s philosophy (the company’s philosophy is based on Reggio Emilia, so you can only imagine what impact those words had on me, who was trying to make my classroom more child-centered while staying in the company’s Reggio inspired curriculum).

Because of these moments I have felt the clash of the two discipline styles personally and I have seen the effects of both on children. I have even spent the last month implementing a more micro-management-type style into my classroom, only to be thoroughly disgusted with the results, which have been an increase of discipline problems and a lack of general enthusiasm for being in the classroom on the parts of both the children and myself. My belief is that children are inherently good, and they hold a special wonder for the world around them. They will do whatever they can to figure out the world around them, and that may manifest itself in ways that may seem destructive. The key to figuring out what is behind a child’s actions is objective, unbiased observation, and the key to correcting behaviors is positive, educational guidance. That is my belief.

When I first heard the term “child advocate” I was in agreement with the terms of the phrase,  but I never thought that I would feel like I needed to be a child advocate when it came to teachers. Apparently there is a huge need for advocates for children in the realm of the teaching profession, because I am seeing time and again that children are “bad until proven good”. It is time to turn this belief around and help teachers realize that children are only trying to figure out the world around them, and our job is to help them in their discovery rather than label their attempts as “behavior problems”. I am starting to think that, if there really is such thing as a calling, this is mine.