The Discipline Debate

(This article is excerpted from Dr. Thomas Gordon’s book, Teaching Children Self-Discipline, 1989.)

One of my favorite college professors badgered his students with the dictum: “Define your terms if you want an intelligent discussion.” Yet I find that is exactly what people fail to do when they discuss discipline, resulting in a lot of misunderstandings.  By clearing up these common misunderstandings in the pages ahead, I hope we can clarify the cloudier elements of the discipline issue.

Discipline: the Noun and the Verb

It’s important at the outset to look at the critical difference between the noun discipline and the verb discipline.  As a noun, discipline is usually understood as behavior and order in accord with rules and regulations, or behavior maintained by training, as in “discipline in the classroom” or “the discipline of a good basketball team.”

You seldom hear any controversy about the noun discipline.  Everybody seems to be in favor of that kind.  The word conjures up order, organization, cooperation, knowing and following rules and procedures, and a consideration for the rights of others.

The verb to discipline in my Random House Dictionary is defined as “to bring to a state of order and obedience by training and control” and “to punish or penalize; correct, chastise.”

The teacher disciplined those children who talked by keeping them after school. If kids are not disciplined at home they will be troublemakers at school.

In discussions of discipline, it is quite often assumed that the only way to get discipline (the noun), both at home and in the classroom, is for parents and teacher rigorously to discipline (the verb) -that is, control, punish, penalize, correct, and chastise children.

I have found considerable evidence refuting this widely held belief.  In fact, I have discovered that disciplining children may be the least effective way to get discipline at home or in the classroom. Studies have shown that discipline in the classroom goes to pot whenever the teacher/disciplinarian leaves the room or faces the chalkboard.  Everyone has seen this happen at home, too.  Furthermore, because disciplining children involves using power, usually in the form of punishment or threats of punishment, children defend themselves against such punitive power by rebelling, resisting, retaliating, or lying-anything to avoid being coerced, restricted, or controlled.

Research studies have also shown that punishment produces aggression and violence in children-the more frequently punished children, compared to children who receive little or no punishment at home, show more aggression, hyperactivity, and violence toward other children.  One study found that nearly 100 percent of punished children had assaulted a brother or sister during the year of the study, while only 20 percent of children whose parents did not use physical punishment had done so.

Understanding the difference between the noun and the verb forms of discipline is of utmost importance, in my judgement, for another reason: it clarifies that the discipline controversy is really about how we should deal with kids (the means) and not about what we want them to do (the ends).  Most people would agree that we want kids to be orderly, cooperative, and considerate both at home and in school, but there are intense differences about whether disciplining (the verb) is the best means to bring about discipline (the noun), a generally agreed-upon end.

Teaching Versus Controlling

Even as a verb, discipline has two very different meanings.  The first we have just dealt with-disciplining for the purpose of controlling.  The second has to do with the act of instructing, teaching, educating.  The dictionary provides this meaning: “to train by instruction and exercise; to drill.” My Rodale Synonym Finder further provides all these alternative terms for the teaching/educating kind of discipline:

train, coach, drill, instruct, teach, tutor, give lessons, school, edify, inform, enlighten, inculcate, indoctrinate, ground, prepare, qualify, rear, bring up, guide, familiarize.

Here is another form of discipline that seldom causes arguments.  Rarely does anyone question the desirability of adults performing any or all of the above functions with children and youth.  In fact, most of us would say it is the duty of effective parents and competent teachers to provide this kind of training, coaching, and guidance.  Nobody wants to eliminate the teach-train-inform kind of discipline.

However, about the controlling type of disciplining, the controversy is hot and heavy.  First, look at the list of all the different synonyms for this form of discipline:

control, correct, direct, govern, supervise, oversee, preside over, manage, keep in line, regulate, regiment, restrain, check, curb, contain, arrest, harness, a bridle, rein in, leash, muzzle, restrict, constrain, confine, inhibit, correct, chastise, reprimand, reprove, rebuke, criticize, make an example of, punish, castigate, penalize.

Obviously this suggests something very different from the teach-train-inform type of discipline.  Blood pressures rise and voices get loud over words like control, regiment, restrain, harness, bridle, muzzle, castigate, penalize, and (as we’ll see) especially the word punish.

While I’m convinced it’s not the kind of disciplining that is healthy for my own kids or anybody else’s, most parents and teachers stubbornly support this control-restrict-punish kind of discipline.  In fact, most books for parents argue that kids not only need it but also want it; that they will feel insecure without it; that they will think you don’t love them if you don’t use it; that they will become unmanageable little monsters without it.  I question each of these commonly held beliefs in my P.E.T. book.

It is important, too, to recognize that the teach-train-inform kind of discipline represents an effort to influence children, while the control-restrict-punish kind of discipline is always an effort to control them.

The difference between controlling children and influencing them isn’t widely recognized, yet it is a crucial one. Obviously, most parents and teachers want nothing more strongly than the ability to influence young people and thus have a positive effect on their lives.  But in their zeal to influence, most adults unfortunately fall into a trap: rather than use only influence methods, they impose limits, give orders, send commands, punish, or threaten to punish.  These control-type methods don’t actually influence youngsters; they only coerce or compel them.  And when a child is compelled to do something, that child is not really influenced; even if he complies, he usually does it out of fear of punishment.

To have a profound and lasting influence on the lives of young people, adults must forgo using power methods to control children and instead employ certain new methods that will greatly enhance their ability to be a positive influence in the lives of youngsters.  These methods, which I’ll describe and illustrate in later [P.E.T.] chapters, serve to reduce the natural tendency of children to resist change, to motivate kids to assume responsibility for modifying their behavior, to influence kids to stick to agreements, and to foster children’s consideration of others.

Here is a little-known psychological truth-a paradox, too: you acquire more influence with young people when you give up using your power to control them!  The opposite is also true, of course: the more you use power to try to control people, the less real influence you’ll have on their lives.  Why?  Because power methods create resistance (not-doing what the adult wants), rebellion (doing the opposite), or lying (not doing it but saying you did).

Other Imposed Discipline Versus Self-discipline

Now let’s distinguish between two radically different kinds of control-type discipline.  One is externally administered or “other-imposed”; the other is internally administered or self -imposed.   Discipline by others versus discipline of oneself; control by others as opposed to self-control.

Everyone is familiar with the term self-discipline, but what does it actually mean?  Psychologists use the term locus of control, which I think is helpful here.  Their investigations show that some people tend to have the locus of control inside themselves.  With self-discipline the locus of control is inside the person, but with discipline enforced by others, the locus of control is outside the person-actually inside the controller.

We don’t encounter much controversy about whether self-control is desirable.  In fact, almost everyone places a high value on children capable, of self-control, self-regulation, self-discipline.  There is much controversy, however, over what the best way is to foster these desired traits in children and youth-the basic conflict over the means for achieving a particular end.

Most parents and teachers take the position that children eventually will develop inner control automatically, as a direct result of adults applying outer control (discipline).  This belief is rooted in a well-known Freudian theory that claims that as children get older they will gradually internalize the early coercive controls of parents and other adults, until eventually those outer controls are transformed into inner controls and self-discipline.

Considerable evidence now exists that refutes this Freudian theory.  Everyday observation also tells us that self-discipline isn’t formed that way.  Remember this adage, “When the cat is away, the mice will play”?  Well, when adult controllers turn their backs, kids usually show little self-control.  Sometimes they rebelliously do exactly what the adult authority has previously prohibited them from doing.  Remember too what they used to say about the “preacher’s kids”: obedient, submissive, good-goody when young, often they turn into rebels and troublemakers during adolescence.  Children who meekly submit to parental authority often turn into rebellious teenage delinquents later, reacting aggressively to all adult authority, incapable of any self-control or self-discipline.

Self-disciplined youngsters, however, are those who have always been given considerable personal freedom.  Why? Because they have been allowed the chance to make many of their own choices and decisions.  Children will learn to control or limit behavior that is disturbing to adults only if those adults have shown a similar consideration for them; children will use self-control to follow rules when they have been given the chance to join with adults in deciding what those rules should be.  Throughout this book I hope to convince you that disciplining kids does not produce disciplined kids, and I’ll present the evidence for it.  While it is true that obedient, fearful, submissive, and subservient kids are sometimes produced by adult-imposed discipline, truly self-disciplined youngsters are not.

The Multiple Meanings of “Authority”

Whenever discipline is discussed or debated, you can count on the term “authority” popping up. Unfortunately, the concept invariably adds to the confusion and muddled thinking already surrounding the issue of discipline. The dare-to-discipline advocates constantly urge parents and teachers to “exercise authority” in dealing with children and youth, and they make the claim that children need it, want it, and will be happier for getting it.  They also bemoan the “breakdown of authority” in both schools and homes and wish that today’s kids would respect authority as they think kids did in the past.

Strict-discipline proponents have grave apprehensions about what would happen in families and schools without adult authority.  James Dobson fears that without authority, “There is inevitable chaos and confusion and disorder in human relationships” (Dobson, 1978).

Those who counsel parents or teachers to use power-based authority characteristically caution that it must be “loving” authority or “benevolent” authority.  They frequently substitute the term leadership for authority, and then caution it must be benevolent.  Interestingly, you will never hear the authority champions advocate that parents and teachers be “authoritarians.” They never use that word, despite the fact that the first definition of the adjective authoritarian in my dictionary is “favoring authority,” and the first definition of the noun authoritarian is “disciplinarian.”

To underscore their argument, dare-to-discipline proponents usually claim that children will respect authority, look up to it, yield to it, rely on it.  It’s puzzling, then, why they worry so much about youngsters rebelling against the authority of their parents or teachers, and they rail against the “breakdown of authority” among today’s youth (evidence that adult authority doesn’t always bring respect and obedience).  None of the dozens of parent-power advocates I’ve read deal with this critical question: if kids respect, want, need, and yield to adult authority, why then do we see among kids such widespread rebellion and resistance to it-such hostility and lack of respect for the adults who use it?

More important, in none of the books, articles, or videos produced by the proponents of discipline have I seen any recognition of the fact that all authority is not the same.  Indeed, it’s very unfortunate that there are at least four, maybe more, different meanings of this one word in our English language, because it makes forming a consensus about the term very difficult.  Authority is not a unitary concept.  Without recognizing this we can never have an intelligent discussion about authority or a clear understanding of this complex term.  Let me explain these four definitions.

1. Authority based on expertise.  This kind of authority is derived from a person’s expertise-his or her knowledge, experience, training, skill, wisdom, education.  For example, we say, “He is an authority on corporate law”; “It was an authoritative book on the Civil War”; “Let’s rely on the authority of the dictionary”; or “She speaks with authority.” This often is referred to as earned authority.  We will call this Authority E, the E standing for expertise.

parenting parent training discipline childrenIn our family, Authority E is in operation frequently.  Both my daughter and my wife often influence me to change my shirt or pants (or both) by telling me they don’t match.  Usually I accept their expertise in such matters.  Often (but not always) I can influence my wife to follow my directions when she is driving the car and we are traveling through a strange city, because she usually accepts my expertise in keeping directionally oriented, an ability I learned as a pilot in the Army Air Corps.

On the other hand, because I judge her memory for dates and events to be infinitely better than mine, I usually accept her influence on such matters as what time we said we’d arrive at friends’ houses for dinner, or accept her urging me to write letters I promised or to go buy gifts for people’s birthdays or anniversaries.

2. Authority based on position or title.  A second kind of authority is that based upon a person’s position or title or a mutually understood or agreed-upon job description, which defines a person’s duties, functions, and responsibilities. An airline captain has been given this kind of authority over his crew and passengers.  A committee chairperson is given the authority to open and close its meetings; a police officer has the authority to issue a speeding ticket; a teacher has the authority to tell students to take out their spelling books; a boss has the authority to tell his or her assistant to come in and take a letter; a mail carrier has the authority to collect money for an unstamped letter he delivers; the driver of a car has the authority to tell passengers to fasten their seat belts.  We will call this Authority J-the J standing for job.  It’s sometimes called designated or legitimated authority.

Note the key concepts of a “mutually understood” and “agreed-upon” job description.  For this type of authority to work in human relationships, the people involved must genuinely accept-sanction, endorse, support, approve-the right of the person “in authority” to direct certain of their behaviors (but not all, of course).  My secretary, for example, seldom would comply with my saying “Get me a cup of coffee,” because that is not a job function listed in her job description.  Besides that, I know she opposes women at work being expected to get coffee.

In our family, we have many interactions in which Authority j plays a major part.  We have long-term agreements with regard to who does what jobs.  On any of my three nights to cook, either my wife or my one daughter still at home may ask me to get up and get them a second glass of milk or bring the mayonnaise to the table.  I always comply.  And because feeding and bathing our dog is an agreed-upon job of my daughter, it’s accepted that I have the right to say, “You haven’t fed Katie yet tonight,” or “Katie needs a bath.” And because we’ve had an agreement that weekly food shopping is one of my jobs, it’s legitimate and certainly acceptable to me for my daughter to write a note that says, “Please don’t buy the pulpy orange juice for me-I like regular Minute Maid.”

All of the duties and responsibilities in the above examples were made legitimate by virtue of their having been arrived at by the involvement of each of us in a group decision-making process that ends up with a decision acceptable to everyone.  It is from this mutual acceptance of the decision that Authority J derives its amazing potency to influence behavior.  Do you see why it is sometimes called “legitimated” authority?

3. Authority based on informal contracts.  The third kind of authority in human relationships is derived from the many understandings, agreements, and contracts that people make in their day-to-day interactions.  For example, I agree in the morning to drive my daughter to the auto repair shop at 4:00 P.m. that day so she can pick up her car.  That promise I made carries a lot of weight (authority, if you will) in influencing me to leave my office and meet my commitment to her.  We call this type of authority Authority C with the C standing for commitments or contracts.

A frequently occurring example of Authority C at work in our own home is the understanding that whenever we say we’ll return home (or leave a note to that effect) and later find out we can’t make it, we phone home.  The purpose of this agreement, obviously, is to avoid causing worry or anxiety.

We also have an unwritten understanding, in existence in our home for years now, that we knock before entering another’s bedroom.  That understanding has always had a potent influence on each of us, and whenever one of us forgets, the other reinforces the rule by confronting the “intruder” with a strong, “Hey, how about knocking before walking into my room!”

Over the years my wife and I have had an understanding that whoever wakes up and gets out of bed first goes downstairs and makes the coffee, goes out and gets the newspaper, and brings both upstairs to the one still in bed. The one last up makes the bed.

Other understandings and agreements that are in operation in our family:

  • My wife takes care of the plants.
  • I usually cook the Sunday breakfast.
  • My wife uses the couch when we watch TV, I use the big chair.
  • My daughter has sole responsibility for her homework-to do it or not, and to decide when to do it or where to do it.

Authority C derives its potent influence from the personal commitments it represents.

4. Authority based on power.  The fourth kind of authority is derived from one person having power over another.  I shall call this Authority P, the P standing for power-power to control, dominate, coerce, bend to one’s will, make others do what they don’t want to do.  This is the type of authority people almost always have in mind when they talk about parents and teachers needing or exercising authority, or when they wish that children would “respect” adult authority, or when they talk about a “breakdown in authority” in families or schools, or when they want children to be “obedient to authority,” or when they complain that kids today are “rebelling against authority.” Authority P is also the kind of authority we generally mean when we speak of a “hierarchy of authority” in organizations.

I want to clear up some of the confused thinking caused by the existence of these four different kinds of authority with regard to children.

I’ll start with Authority E. Authority based upon expertise is highly valued and quite harmless in human relationships. Most people, including children, respect those who have expertise-they learn from them, seek out their counsel, often follow their advice.  When parents and teachers (and authors of dare-to-discipline child-rearing books, too) complain about today’s children not respecting authority, they are thinking of Authority P. They really are complaining that children don’t obey adults that is, don’t do exactly whatever adults tell them to do, just because adults tell them to do it.

My experience with Authority E is that children do have a lot of respect for people who have some sort of expertise.  In fact, they often overestimate the Authority E that adults have.  This is especially true of younger children.  They think their parents know everything there is to know.  And they often are awed by the knowledge and skills possessed by doctors, dentists, teachers, coaches, carpenters, and others.

What about children respecting Authority J? I believe that they usually do respect the kind of authority that derives from the generally understood duties, roles, and functions of the jobs that adults hold.  When teachers call a classroom to order, most kids honor that request; when teachers give homework assignments children usually consider this function legitimate.  When adults are driving a car and tell kids to fasten their seat belts, most youngsters accept this as the driver’s legitimate prerogative, a situation not unlike passengers’ accepting an airline captain telling them to refasten their seat belts while going through some unexpected turbulence.  Kids typically stand when commanded by an adult saying, “Let’s stand and sing the National Anthem.” As the chief cook in our family, my mother had a lot of Authority J, which we kids (and Dad, too) usually respected.  Seldom did we fail to comply with her demands: “Time to come in, dinner’s ready”; “Bring the plates in”; “Eat it while it’s hot”; “Save some of the meat for your sandwiches tomorrow”; “Clear the dishes off the table”; and so on.

Do children respect Authority P? I don’t think they ever do. I can’t recall ever respecting a teacher who was bossy and used power to coerce me into doing what I didn’t want to do.  I’ve never known a youngster who held in high esteem an adult who consistently used power-based punishment or threats of punishment.  Kids, like adults, don’t respect power wielders, although they do usually fear them.  Otherwise, why do they retaliate against them, resist them, avoid them, lie to them, and grow to dislike them?  I think most adults know this from their own experience as youngsters.

I can tell parents are unclear about the word authority when they have said to me during the question period after a speech on this subject, “You urge parents and teachers not to use authority.  But don’t they have a duty to teach children their values and beliefs and share with them their superior judgment and wisdom?” This question illustrates a confusion between two meanings of authority: Authority P and Authority E. My response is to point out that while I am urging parents and teachers not to use Authority P, I certainly advocate that they should share their Authority E whenever it seems appropriate to do so.  In fact, as I’ve mentioned, children often seek out the advice, judgment, and opinions of their elders, and they are often curious about what both parents and teachers believe or value.

Stated in a slightly different way: It seldom hurts an adult-child relationship for the adult to be authoritative-Authority E-or to be an authority on a subject; but it does harm the relationship to be authoritarian-Authority P.

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