Many a parent believes in the power of constant discipline, providing further proof that “when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” However, in my mind, strong discipline is overkill – and subject to the law of diminishing returns. In other words, when it comes to discipline, more is less. Like any system, overuse may breed ineffectiveness and even resentment. And the last thing a parent wants to do is compromise his relationship with his child.
Discipline in general simply means: to teach, to educate. In order to educate our children, we need to find a way to do it at a time when our child is receptive to learning. This would include the right time – when we can sit and explain – and the right place, where it is comfortable and private. When the child is open to learning, then we can teach. We call such events “teachable moments,” and finding them is the key to effective learning, or what we refer to as ”discipline.”
Let’s examine this a bit more closely.
If we constantly discipline, we lose our effectiveness and our children tune us out. Once we have lost their attention, we have little hope of teaching them. So a parent must calibrate – know when to notice and when to ignore. This is commonly referred to as ”picking our battles,” and, like all good soldiers, we must ignore some battles if we want to win the war. So before you rush to discipline, consider the reality. Then, rather than take attendance on the cookies, let your child steal one from the cabinet – and focus instead on how he treats his pesky younger brother.
In addition to teachable moments, there are some times that are simplynot teachable moments and you want to save your breath. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you are letting things go but rather, that you choose to exercise your better judgment in this particular situation.
Let’s look at some of the situations when it’s probably best not to discipline:
When your child is ill. We’re not at our best when we don’t feel well and neither are our kids. We
also tend to be crankier and behave rather badly. Being sick is a definite pass.
Shira has a virulent flu and is very irritable and snappy. She is also super demanding – asking for drinks, another blanket, and her robe – ASAP! Though Mom is sorely tempted to read Shira the riot act, she decides to ignore the behavior and simply do what she can to make Shira more comfortable.
In times of family crises or during big changes, such as a move, a new baby – any kind of
upheaval. Cut your child some slack when times are difficult or things are up in the air.
It’s an exciting time for the Klein family. There’s a Bar Mitzvah and an aufruf in one week – with all the out-of-town company to prove it. Sleeping arrangements are casual at best and meals are ad hoc, largely offerings from the many gift baskets sent by well-wishers. The little ones, despite being excited by the new clothes, fun schedule, and added stimulation, have occasional meltdowns. Rather than lecture or punish, Mom quickly feeds them some healthy fare and resolves to make sure they get bed early that night.
Your child is genuinely shocked or upset at her own behavior and sincerely sorry for what she has done. Rather than disciplining her, talk to her about what she did and what ensued. Problem-solve about what to do should there be a next time.
You are out for the night and Rivi, your teenage daughter, is charged with babysitting two-year-old Sholom. While Rivi is on the phone with her friend, Sholom decides to get a toy from the highest shelf of the toy closet, falls, and gets a gash that requires a trip to the ER and two stitches. Rivi is beside herself. She cannot stop blaming herself and cries for hours. She promises herself and her parents to be more vigilant in the future. Mom realizes that Rivi has more than learned her lesson and after a brief review of safety precautions, lets it go.
He’s already been disciplined once for whatever he did.
Yoel has cheated on an exam. He was caught, disciplined by the teacher, and sent to the principal for good measure. Once is enough. There is no need for the parent to do any more; you don’t go to jail twice for the same offense.
You’re not quite sure what happened and/or who did it. Disciplining a child for things he hasn’t done leads to resentment and encourages him to lie.
You come home to find broken glass all around the coffee table; a picture frame had smashed. Sender, the only one home, claimed that the frame just slid off the freshly polished table. You suspect that Sender has been playing ball in the house, a real no-no. When Sender denies it and there is no corroborating evidence, Mom decides to relinquish her role as FBI agent and give it a rest.
Knowing when not to speak up or act is a valuable skill. And knowing when not to discipline is an example of true wisdom. By waiting for that teachable moment, parents can effectively give their children an opportunity to learn – and become disciplined members of our society.
Dr. Sara Teichman is in private practice in Beverly Hills where she sees individuals, couples, and families. She specializes in parenting concerns and writes a bi-weekly column for parents in Binah magazine. Dr. Teichman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.