The Tale of Two Discipline Styles Part II

Piano Sonata No. 11 (Mozart) Rondo Alla turca

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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.