Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Gentle Discipline

"..If punishment offers a lesson in morals, it teaches a morality of racial, social, economic, and gender hierarchies."- Angela Harris

I have said it before and I will say it again, I am not teaching my son to be a moral person. Rather, I am teaching him to be an ethical one. Semantics, you say? I am not engaging in word play here- I believe the two words have distinct meanings, although (unfortunately) many use them interchangeably.

Morals come from an outside source. They are supplied to us- think legal codes, the Ten Commandments, that sort of thing. Someone else has decided what is right and wrong for us, and we are to follow the "moral code" proscribed by our culture, society, or religion.

Ethics, on the other hand, come from an internal process. An ethical person has a much harder row to hoe, because they must look at all the variables of a situation- everyone's story and feelings, the law, religious ideas, who could be hurt in any given situation, etc. Then the ethical person must make the best choice in any given situation, regardless of what the law or any particular religion says about right or wrong.

Let me elaborate: Back when I was a budding educator, I studied child development and learned about Piaget's scale of "moral development". He outlined several stages that children go through (hopefully) to develop as fully thinking human being. The first stage is "premoral" and states that kids up to about five years don't understand that there are rules at all. (And Rowan and I are so right there right now. Toddlers and rules- hah!)

An example of Evangelical Christian
moralism, aimed at kids.
According to Piaget, ages five to nine get into another stage called "moral realism", in which kids see the rules as external and immutable. (This is also the stage that a lot of things, like gender differences, become exaggerated and insisted upon. We hope to lessen the black and white stage by exposing him to so much diversity of thought and presentation at this age.)

The last stage is "moral relativity". It can start around age seven, so it can overlap with that second stage for some. "Children who have reached this stage recognise that rules are not fixed, but can be changed by mutual consent, and they start to develop their own internal morality which is no longer the same as external rules. A major development is that actions are now evaluated more in terms of their intentions, which most people would see as a more sophisticated view of morality. Piaget also thought it was during this stage that children develop a firm concept of the necessity that punishment specifically fits the crime."

Now, I don't think Piaget is the be-all and end-all by any means, but I do think that he had a great idea here. However, I see so many people that never make it into that last "shades of gray" discernment stage. They get stuck in the avoidance of punishment/seeking of rewards mode of thinking that comes with "moral realism" for their whole lives. In my opinion they never become ethical adults, merely moral ones. I do not wish this for Rowan.

So one of the ways that I am making this happen from a parenting standpoint is what attachment parents call "gentle (or positive) discipline". I instill discipline in Rowan, not inflict it upon him. (The root of discipline is the same root for "disciple"- I believe that we misuse this world by making it a synonym for punishment in our culture.) Gentle discipline means no violence, for one thing. No spanking, no threats. I wish to teach him that violence is not the correct way to get a desired outcome- so why would I use it to get what I want from him as a parent?

Do you use gentle discipline in your home? Why or why not? What are your reasons?


  1. I've decided I loathe the phrase gentle discipline and usually avoid any blog post about it (except for you, since I know you!). Usually I'm left wondering how the parent actually disciplines - and will their kid grow up without consequences.

    We do timeouts, which are heartbreaking because our son hates to be apart from people. But they're effective. We also spank as an absolute last resort. I wavered on this one: it's violent. But then I realized a couple of things. First, we play much harder than we spank. We are 'more violent' in our play, so that wasn't a concern anymore. And I reflected on my own upbringing. I got spanked, often with a wooden spoon. I harbor no fear, shame or issue with how my mother did it. It was not arbitrary, it was a clear outcome, and even as a young child I knew I had passed the boundaries. However, my father, who spanked with his hand, was terrifying. He didn't hit me any harder, but he was angry, arbitrary and ... just thinking about those moments triggers a visceral response in me. So I see that spanking can be a good last resort - with love, with clarity, with composure. Anything done in anger and out of the blue is scary for a child.

    Your mileage may vary. As far as raising ethical, not moral - I am with you on that. I also think that kids model what they see - so if I want my kid to do or act a certain way, then I've got to be that way myself. Heck, I give myself time outs too!

  2. Wow how awful that the "Lord will punish you" visual is. We use gentle discipline in our home I guess in that we never spank or inflict things upon our kids. Sometimes we take something minor away or usually I just explain things a little more in depth and why it makes us upset, etc. to our 6 year old. Our neighbors are evangelical Christians and they go home straight away as soon as they are called and do chores etc. I told my husband under my breath "that's because their parents hit them." Which is true that they get at least spanked at home for misbehaving at all. I don't know the details but it's sad.

  3. I completely agree with your thoughts here on gentle discipline and ethics vs morals...

    However I feel the need to say that most mainstream Christians I know would find the comic you posted to represent their views abhorrent. (I learned about attachment parenting and gentle discipline for Christian parents in my birthing class.) That comic specifically is a publication of a fundamentalist cult (Children of God), not any mainstream Christian group. It is a very extreme example.

  4. And erf, I completely neglected to mention, we practice gentle discipline. I feel that physical discipline teaches that it is okay to hit when you are angry or disagree with someone. In adult life, you would never hit your boss or employee for disagreeing with you (at least not without risking a lawsuit) so why would I ever want to teach my children to act that way?

  5. I hear you, myownashram. Many people flock to "gentle discipline" because they are uncomfortable with discipline in general and punishment in particular, This makes for sloppy child rearing, IMHO. I am serious about instilling discipline as well as ethics- so that is not where I am coming from.

    But I feel the word discipline is worth reclaiming and embracing, because so few of us have it (and we so desperately need it!). And so is the word gentle. It does not mean weak.

    I am really against spanking and hitting. I hear you on the roughhousing- we do that all the time.

    But hitting to impose a power dynamic is different, and something that I am against. I was also hit as a child- and that made me appreciate the gentle discipline point of view.

    My grandmother would make me pick out the switch from the pussy willow tree with which she would make welts on my legs. My mother and father hit and more. And they believed that fearing them was the same thing as respecting them.

    And to this day, we have issues of disrespect on both sides. Most of the disrespect that I have for my parents comes from their insistence that I do things exactly as they wished, regardless of my ideas, preferences, or needs. My childhood was all about THEIR expectations. And I don't want to repeat that with Rowan.

    And I hear you on everyone needing a time out from time to time. I needed one just today!

  6. Discipline is such a fascinating (and hot topic) for parents.

    I used to be a master 'disciplinarian'. Using time-outs very consistently when my children were younger. Removed privileges, and very rarely gave them a 'smack'.

    My children were very polite and well-behaved as a consequence. Yet, over time I noticed that they weren't really developing into the caring, responsible, confident young people I hoped for.

    I had to take a good honest look at my 'discipline' and ask was it truly functional (and ethical)? I decided it wasn't.

    I don't really discipline my kids any more (now 7 and 11 years old), I simply relate to them honestly. If their behaviour is hurtful, I feel the hurt fully and share my experience with them.

    I own their dysfunctional behaviour as my own and look for the needs beneath their pain and my own and share this search with them.

    It's often difficult and confronting... yet the harmony and joy, care, self respect/confidence and inner-discipline my kids are now beginning to show me as a result, makes the journey well worth the effort.

    Thanks everyone for sharing their insightful view on this topic.

  7. I stop by your blog because I was curious. I'm a devout conservative christian. I promise you my children are not taught that God punishes you. I not sure where you got your example but it's not something I would use. Sickness came into the world when Adam and Eve sinned because they destroyed the perfect world God made. I teach my kids that good and bad can come from our choices. I use grounding , time out, and we talk about the behaviors.I know you don't believe as I do but that's my two cents. Not trying to be rude or anything like that.
    Tracy's corner

  8. Hi there, Anonymous and welcome! I am in seminary personally and believe all religions contain truth. I have followers on this blog in many different religions and in school, I sit and learn along side Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists, Unitarian Universalists, and pagans. I believe that it is only when people and their egos get in the way that religions stray (like in the above example, which I found in simple google image search).

  9. I am not a parent, but I wanted to say great post. When I have children I will teach them/hope they will be guided in the same way. They have so much more potential than we give them credit for.


Comments are welcome but moderated. Please be respectful when leaving a comment.