Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Discipline, Correction and Punishment

In my line of work, I often work with families who are experiencing some disruption in their household functioning.  I get called in to assess and help them develop their strengths and resources so they can self-correct.  When the issues revolve around the relationship between the parent(s) and the child(ren), we often have to discuss their parenting skills and philosophy.

Parenting philosophy?  Who ever sits down and thinks through what their philosophy of parenting is going to be?  We just kind of "do" parenting, right?  With few exceptions, people mostly learn how to be a parent because of their "starter kid" (kid #1).  We go to birthing classes to make sure we can survive the trauma of childbirth, but no parent comes through the process of child-rearing unchanged. 

So, most families I work with have never considered their parenting philosophy.  Particularly, the model used for discipline in a family is usually either 1) I know how I was raised and it seemed to work pretty well OR 2) I will never do (insert parenting action) to my child!  Either way, the main approach to parenting seems to be reactionary rather than proactive.

Now, I know that the dictionary definitions will list the following words as synonyms, but I believe that they have distinct connotations (that is, we have other thoughts and feelings that are attached to our usage of these words beyond what the dictionary says).  The words are: Discipline, Correction and Punishment.  I often hear people use the words interchangeably, as having the same, or similar meanings.  This is because their usage reflects their mentality about their parenting philosophy, ie it is reactionary.  It means, I primarily respond to how my children are feelings and behaving rather than being proactive and teaching them how to behave and feel. 

Here is the distinction I make between those concepts:
Discipline: Comes from the Latin root discere, which means to learn (we get the word discern from it) and from the Latin word disciplus, which means pupil. So, someone who disciplines (the parent) is someone who teaches.  This word, properly used, then should have a positive connotation.  Teaching and learning are associated with growth and development and strength.
Correction: This concept has to do with setting thing right (also from the Latin, corrigere, from which we also get the word corrigible: the ability of something to be changed, reformed or improved).  From a systems perspective, it can mean "to reverse a trend or pattern".  Again, this has a very positive connotation.  Making things right is empowering.
Punishment: This is the act of inflicting penalty on someone who has done something wrong; to treat roughly, to injure or hurt, to cause a loss of freedom or money or to provide physical pain for wrongdoing.  This clearly carries with it negative thoughts and feelings.  Inflict, withhold, deny, punish, penalize... all words that indicate that one would want to avoid what is connected with them.

So part of a healthy philosophy of parenting (in my experience) would be: Children deserve to be disciplined and corrected.  Children do not deserve to be punished.  If it is true that children are in the process of being formed and developed and growing, then naturally, they deserve to be taught how to feel and behave and corrected, or set on the right path, when they deviate. 

Discipline, then, is a long process that evolves to meet the changing needs of a developing child.  A parent who disciplines a child is a parent who teaches a child how to manage their emotions and control their behaviors.  When a child grows with that sort of teaching and guidance, the child should naturally develop a confidence in his/her own ability to self regulate those emotions and behaviors and very little correction should be necessary.

Why is it then, that the topic of discipline and correction of children such a challenge for parents?  Here are some possible answers:
1) Parents have inadequate coping skills for their own anxiety and thus are hindered in their ability to help their children cope with theirs.
2) Some children have experienced traumas which makes understanding rules and expectations challenging.
3) Many parents have inaccurate knowledge of how children grow and develop so they respond inappropriately to their children, based on their stage of development.
4) A common mindset for parents is that discipline = punishment and so they end up RESPONDING to inappropriate behavior, but never teaching and guiding to right behavior.
5) Humans learn by observation and some parents end up teaching their children, by their own behavior, how to cope with emotions and relationships in unhealthy ways, and then blame their children for not knowing better.

There are probably more reasons, based on specific circumstances, but that is sufficient to prove my point about how most parents don't ever stop to consider *how* they do their parenting.  We take it for granted that we will be in relationship with our kids because, well, they are our children.  So we tend to ignore the skill and maintenance that goes into regular relationships.  Skills like; spending quality time together, building trust, fostering communication, caring for the other...

I could go on and on, but the point I wanted to make with this post is this: "Children deserve to be disciplined (taught and guided in what is right) and corrected (set straight when they make poor choices).  Children do not deserve to be punished."


Friday, September 16, 2011


Working as a chaplain at the hospital, I was regularly summoned to be present for traumatic events: removing someone from life support; delivering news to waiting family that a loved one did not survive a surgery; responding to a multiple-car wreck ambulance call... and the worst kind of all: fetal demise.

Just thinking about having to endure any part of those situations is emotionally difficult for many people.  Medical staff, emergency responders, and law officers are trained to deal with them, but most folks just crumble when they think about it.  Of course, those situations are devastating for the families and individuals who have endured them.  Many times, a family member would comment to me, as everyone was leaving to mourn in their own way, "Chaplain, I don't know how you do your job."  It is easy, in a way, to remain compartmentalized in my thinking, my feeling about grief and loss.  Today, however, there was no way I could keep from feeling the enormous sense of sadness and emptiness that accompanies the death of a child.

This morning, we learned that the daughter of one of Amelia's lifelong friends died in her sleep, likely of hypoglycemic shock, or low blood sugar, and complications with her Type 1 Diabetes.  I was stricken with grief on several levels.  First, my heart broke as a parent, for our friend and her family.  Second, anxiety and fear for my own children, two of whom have T1D, gripped me and wouldn't let me go.  I shifted into crisis mode to make it through the day.  I went to my wife, to offer comfort and to be with her in joint grief as partners/parents/friends and we wept together.  Amelia took the rest of the day off work to tend to her grief and her friend.  I went to see my mom, because that is what moms are for.  Where I felt I needed to be strong for my wife, I felt I could just be a scared boy with my mom, so I got some more of my anxiety out.  Then I went to work, where I tried to be productive.  While I was helping other families deal with their dysfunctions and crises, I was fine, but I couldn't focus to do any of my paperwork.

I spent the evening with my kids, going to a play practice and then a homecoming football game, but now, as we get ready to put kids to bed, I'm faced with doing battle with a wicked team: Diabetes and Anxiety.  Although we live daily in the shadow of the specter of Diabetes, we are protected by an illusion of normalcy that allows us to believe that we have things under control.  Tonight, the veil we rely on to help us function has been ripped away by the death of our friend's daughter.  Tonight, we can't ignore or pretend that this reality doesn't exist for us: Death is always at our doorstep.  No matter our vigilance, our precautions, our education, our habits... Diabetes stands ready to claim the lives of our son and our daughter.

Earlier today, I asked a dear friend and fellow T1 sufferer, Sarah Ray, for some advice.  She has lived with the same issue, the same disease for many years.  She helped me to be able to come to terms with today:

"...Sarah, just wanted to let you know that _________'s little girl, _____, died in her sleep last night. I am not sure if you know them or not, but ____ was Type 1 and she had difficulty with seizures and such from her lows. _______ and Amelia have been friends since they were little girls. We are all pretty sad right now. Haven't told the kids yet, as they are at school, but would appreciate prayers and maybe even some pointers on how to help MH and Ethan not have anxiety over going to sleep.
love you,

Sarah Ray
"... I am praying and very sad as well I had seen posts on Amelia's wall about her but had never gotten to meet her and I believe u guys have talked about her to me. Not sure how I did not connect with her. I am sorry its so close to home and I will try to think of some thing for MH and Ethan but I am just as scared some nights all I can have is faith that God is not done with me yet. I know having the Cgms will maybe help for MH and Ethan to feel safe sleeping. It scares me too,
Love Sarah..."

Sarah reminded me, helped me remember what my grief and fear caused me to lose sight of... God is in control.  He is in control not only of the life and death of my children, but of everyone's life, including my own.  I am not saying I believe that God caused the death of this precious child, rather, that God is ruler of life and death.  I agree with his servants the prophets who declared that his ways are higher than our ways and his thoughts, our thoughts.  I take comfort knowing that despite the tragedy we experience living in this broken world, God is a god of redemption.  He works to redeem not only people, but situations.  Tragic, awful, devastating situations.  Nothing is beyond God's ability to redeem for His glory.  So, while I mourn for my friend's loss, I rejoice knowing God is at work.  While I grieve for our sadness, I also sacrifice my anxiety on the altar of faith.  I think tonight, as I struggle to sleep, I hear God's voice whispering to me, "Dear child, things will never be the same, but trust me... it will be alright."  Come, Lord Jesus.  I'm ready for some tear wiping...