Raising Disciplined Adults Without Punishment

my 20-year-old son with one of his current devices
I was hauling on my son's laptop so hard I wrenched my shoulder. I heard myself blaming him for the injury over the grunting of his determined self, gripping and salvaging the one device he owned from my attempted theft. I have no idea what reprehensible act he'd committed. It may not have been related to the laptop, even. I just remember that I thought his behaviour was absolutely inexcusable, and the only power I had to change him was the threat of taking away something important to him. So when the threat didn't work, I felt obliged to act on it. And obviously he felt obliged to save his laptop. And that's how I ended up having a physical altercation with my beloved son. I didn't recognize the harm I'd done until I had the laptop, and looked back into his anguished face to realize that the important thing I'd taken from him wasn't the laptop--it was his faith in me. The look was betrayal. It took us a long time to repair our bond, and a lot of personal growth for me to forgive myself for that. And in that time I really cemented my belief that the only way to raise responsible adults with a sense of self-esteem and self-discipline is to do so without imposed discipline.

I feel like it's important to tease apart our culture's complex understanding of the word "discipline".

Merriam Webster says that discipline is:

1    a : control gained by enforcing obedience or order
      b : orderly or prescribed conduct or pattern of behavior
      c : self-control
2 : punishment
3 : training that corrects, molds, or perfects the mental faculties or moral character
4 : a field of study
Some of those are straightforward, but there's an impossible contradiction in there, too: The opposing natures of self-control vs. control gained by external enforcement. They're not just different; they're mutually destructive. We all want our kids to develop self-control, but our conviction that they can develop it by being forced, coerced, bribed, and threatened is simply wrong. And we're busy raising consecutive generations of people who have to tumble through adult life on a constant painful roller-coaster of building, breaking, fighting, and rebuilding self-control. 
Really? Am I out to lunch? No, I'm not. Study after study (after study after study) shows that punishment (call it "imposed negative consequences" if you like) leads not to better behaviour in the long term, and often to a lack of responsibility for one's actions. "We showed that acting under coercion deeply modifies the sense of being responsible for outcomes of one’s actions. It also attenuates the neural processing of outcomes. Both results can be interpreted as a cognitive operation of “distancing,” or reducing the linkage between one’s own decision-making, action, and outcome." (*Caspar, Christensen, Cleeremans, Haggard.)
To put that in tangible terms for us parents and educators of kids, teens, and young adults, the more we make the rules and enforce them, the more our kids learn to follow blindly, without taking real, thought-out responsibility for their choices and actions. Obviously, that's not what we want. But in the moment it's so hard to change the behaviour our whole culture has lived with for so long, that we were generally raised with ourselves, and that produces the behavioural results we want, instantly. If I really need my kid to get the chores done, I can just bribe him with extra TV time, and he does the job! If I really need him to get his homework done; to obey my rules, etc. etc. I can threaten to take away his devices or even just hint at the threat of my pending anger and he'll obey, right? 

Yeah. I've been down that road--as a kid and as a parent. And I did not like the place it led to, which in the short term was generally discord or all-out rebellion, and in the long term was apathy. 
I could write another few thousand words about the harm done to our psyches and our culture at large by imposed "discipline" getting in the way of self-discipline. But none of us has to look further than our own memories and parenting experiences (or just school, policing, or public space experiences) to find examples of times we or our kids surrendered agency to just follow blindly, and might have done better if we'd retained our agency. I want this article to be about solutions, so here goes. This is pretty much a list of things I keep in mind, regarding how my children will develop self-discipline. I'm not a psychologist; not any kind of "expert", but I'm a parent and educator who was once a child, and has put a great deal of thought, research, and practice into this topic. These are the things I think about, especially in my own family, and I encourage anyone to explore these ideas for themselves and their families.

I think one of the deepest, most foundational concepts that leads to self-regulation, self-discipline, independent thinking, and a sense of self-worth is respect. As parents, we often demand respect, but respect is mutual. It's built into the word: re:spect. Looking back at. It goes two ways. So how are we respecting our children? How are we seeing them looking at us, and looking back at them with open hearts and minds?
Respect is so basic that the exchange of it begins when our kids are infants. Instead of respecting their needs for sleep, food and connection, we often try to coerce their needs into our schedule. I mean, it's obviously better for our own physical and emotional health, and that of the rest of the family, but is it better for them? It means that in the first days of their lives, they have already lost determination of meeting their most basic needs. And it continues from there: We want to talk to them when we have time; we want them to learn the things that we think they should learn at the times we think they should learn them, and we often don't see the value of their play. In fact, we use the word "play" to devalue the work they are doing to grow.

How can we change this? Obviously, in a world that still expects children to conform and be unobtrusive, it's nearly impossible. But our homes are (hopefully) our domains, so that's where we can start. It begins with attachment parenting practices: listening and learning from our children, and reminding ourselves every single day that their needs are genuine, and should be respected. Even when we don't see the value in what our children are doing (or we don't understand why they're hungry again, or why they need more time than we have to give), this concept is paramount. 

When we respect our kids' needs, even if we don't understand them, we give our kids the idea that their needs matter, and that they are responsible for communicating them (and later, for meeting them). If my little one says he needs to pee, and I take him a dozen times but he never pees, it doesn't mean he didn't need to pee--it may just be that he's learning how to perceive his bodily needs; how to determine the proper time to go to the toilet, and how to regulate his body and needs. It may take him months of false-attempts to get it right, and the more we interfere, the longer he'll take to truly know his body and his need to use the toilet. Similarly, if we hold back dessert, or use it as a bribe to get our kids to eat vegetables, we've set up an artificial consequence that interferes with our kids' own bodily determination and regulation. Sometimes we fail to recognize that children are making choices because of experiences we aren't aware of. A University of Granada study suggests "that the bitter taste of calcium, present in vegetables such as spinach, collard greens, cabbage, onions, chard or broccoli, can be a factor negatively influencing children's consumption of vegetables." (**Dominguez, University of Grenada.) So all that time we called them "picky eaters", our kids were just tasting something we had learned to ignore.
Part of respect is consent. Of course we all want to normalize asking for and giving consent, but I personally have sometimes forgotten that this normalization begins with me. So I've created psychological reminders for myself to, for example, ask my kids' permission before posting anecdotes or photos of them. They don't always give it, and that's mine to deal with, not theirs. Another challenge for me is accepting their non-consent and not nagging or trying to convince them. I'm working on it. This article is published with my son's consent.
How is respect (or, as I've described, re:seeing our children's needs) related to discipline? Much of the disciplinary action taken against children is in an effort to force them to conform. Maybe, instead of expecting them to conform to our needs, we need to conform to theirs. Or, at least, recognize and provide for them.
How can our children safely state their needs to us if they risk punishment for doing so? Most of us probably lost our kids' trust a very long time before we even considered trusting them. And how are we earning their trust? Obviously, an absence of punitive actions in their lives would provide that safe place for them, as would a community of adults who are open and honest, engendering trust and trustworthy behaviour in the whole family. Like respect, trust is mutual.
"Our goals, aspirations and outcomes are dependent on the collaborative effort of those around us. In environments with higher trust levels people are more willing to take the risks necessary for truly significant advances."  ~Trust Unlimited
Kids know when we're dishonest; when we're uncomfortable sharing, and they learn to mediate their own behaviour both to avoid danger, and to mimic ours. They learn to stop asking questions when they can't trust the answers they're receiving. They learn to lie when honesty is met with disapproval or even anger. They learn not to trust themselves, when we don't trust them. I envision a future (and I know plenty of families who are living this reality already) where children are heard, respected, and trusted automatically, from the moment they're born. The children of these families are honest and take great responsibility for their own actions. Because when we gave them our trust, they understood that we trusted them to be responsible, and they rose to the challenge.
Agency and Empowerment
Humans of every age are really good at rising to challenges. It makes us feel fabulous to succeed, so we work for it with abandon, when given the opportunity. The unschooling movement has shown that children who are given agency with their own education become empowered, determined, and responsible young adults. Universities are welcoming them with open arms--even without highschool displomas--because self-motivated people like that are a benefit to them. What happens when we empower our kids emotionally, in the same way?

My son is twenty, now, and I asked him to talk a bit about self-discipline--for this article, but also because I'm curious how my attempts at parenting towards agency and empowerment have worked out for him, in this regard. His response was, "In some ways I have good self-discipline, and I think I'm getting better at figuring out what methods work. I often struggle with keeping good habits and getting rid of bad ones, and over time I've found that willpower alone doesn't usually work, and leaves me feeling defeated when nothing changes. Instead I now prefer to find ways to make the goals I want to achieve easier." (Taliesin)
Life is never easy. Self-discipline, empowerment, lifestyle, personal values, and questions of identity are always going to be a complex journey for each of us, but I'm happy my son is able to feel in charge of his journey, as well as able to articulate and share it.

The reason my son is willing to share his thoughts here is that our relationship is built on attachment. Yes, it goes without saying that there's also his hard-won confidence, our mutual trust and respect, and his maturity. But it's our attachment that laid the foundation for all of this, and my admittedly frequent efforts to salvage our attachment when my parenting choices and personal mistakes broke it. 
I broke our attachment often. In times of weakness I criticized, yelled at, and generally set a terrible example for my kids. I even purposely tried to Ferberize him as a baby, when I hadn't yet understood his nightly agony for what it was and just wanted to get some sleep (I sobbed at his bedroom door until I gave up, thankfully before he did). I bribed him to learn to use the toilet as a toddler, and when he was older I took away his computer. None of it served my purposes, and every single time I had to rebuild our attachment. Any punitive measure breaks the trust and attachment between adult and child, and further impedes the child's ability to grow and self-regulate. Here's a description of how that happens, specifically with time-outs:
"In most cases, the primary experience a time-out offers a child is isolation. Even when presented in a patient and loving manner, time-outs teach them that when they make a mistake, or when they are having a hard time, they will be forced to be by themselves—a lesson that is often experienced, particularly by young children, as rejection. Further, it communicates to kids, “I’m only interested in being with you and being there for you when you’ve got it all together.” The problem is, children have a profound need for connection. Decades of research in attachment demonstrate that particularly in times of distress, we need to be near and be soothed by the people who care for us." 
"When children concentrate on their horrible luck to have such a mean, unfair mom or dad, they miss out on an opportunity to build insight, empathy, and problem-solving skills. Putting them in time-out deprives them of an opportunity to build skills that other types of discipline could focus on."  (***Siegel and Payne Bryson)
We know it's essential for our kids to experience attachment, compassion, and opportunities for growth. It's essential that we don't isolate or otherwise punish them. So how can we lead? How can we ensure they don't make harmful choices? It's terrifying to just let go of the reins and have faith in a child who is only just beginning life's journey! It's terrifying to imagine that just my undying love will be enough. But it has to be. And some consideration of the following...

I haven't been a great model for my kids in many ways, but it has not escaped me how important this is. My first boyfriend's mother once told me, as she butted out her cigarette at the dining room table, "I always tell my kids to do what I say, not what I do". I was sixteen at the time, and remember thinking that was a great thing to say, for a mother who couldn't stop smoking herself, but hoped her kids wouldn't follow suit. 
A few decades later I still hold a special place in my heart for that woman who welcomed me into her home and heart and life so generously. And it occurs to me that I, at least, did learn quite a bit from her modelling. I have never smoked, but she was one of the adults who spoke to me with respect and honesty, and I not only admired that, but have emulated it without even thinking. In that moment of saying something that utterly goes against conventional wisdom (there are plenty of studies showing that kids are in fact very likely to carry the same traits, habits, and viewpoints as their parents, regardless of attempted countermeasures). My boyfriend's mother was just being herself: open, honest, caring, hopeful, and determined. And I followed. It isn't always the things we think we're modelling that we pass on. Thank you, Sherrie.
But sometimes we do see ourselves passing on undesired habits to our children. Then, I think, it's time for patience and compassion with ourselves; acceptance that we can't climb every mountain at once. Neither can our kids. Sometimes we make change so easily; sometimes it takes us generations, and sometimes we take many steps backwards along the way. We really don't get further by beating ourselves up over our failures, so what's the point? Just like imposed punishment (call it external discipline), guilt over our failures is more likely to be a stumbling point than an inspiration to grow. We can be gentle with ourselves, remind ourselves that this is where we are in our journey, and empower ourselves to carry on forward.

Similarly, we can empower our children, not only by having patience with them and accepting that their journey may not be what we expected, but by modelling patience with ourselves. I'm really terrible at this. I learned in school that failure is not acceptable, and I learned from many adults' modelling to feel sorry. But as a parent I discovered how harmful my guilt and shame is to my children, and the last thing I want is for them to live under the burden of shame that I bear. So this is something I'm adamantly trying to change. It's probably the hardest change I've made in all my life. Sometimes it looks like me creeping out of my room after running away, and forcing my mouth to say "I shouldn't have run away". Sometimes it's simply a matter of gently stating my needs, before denying them becomes a problem. This is how I'm trying to develop self-acceptance, but it's deeply rooted in the kind of honesty that is essential for my kids' empowerment.

Lastly, in my quest to raise empowered kids (they're really adults, now), I try to remind myself to check in on our communication. I've done a lot of thinking on this subject, since it comes up a lot as a stumbling point in our family. (I suspect we're not unusual in this regard!) And recently I've had a real enlightenment from getting to know our dog. Yep! 
So our daughter adopted Clara a couple of years ago, and soon began telling us about dog communication buttons. Soon enough, she had some buttons, and was training the dog to use them to speak to us. After about six months, Clara can now tell us about her bodily needs (pee, poo, outside, etc.), can ask specific people for cuddles, toys, or outside time, and has even put together a few complex communications. After panicking when thunder struck and she was in the yard, Clara ran in, and looked around frantically, before pressing "Blackberry" (our cat's name) and "Something Outside" (her button for an unknown worrisome thing outside). Sure enough, Blackberry was sitting outside the door, and after I let her in to safety from the storm, Clara settled. Her compassionate need to protect her friend had been met, thanks to her ability to tell me about it.
This experience with Clara has of course led me to thinking about all the previous pets in my life, and how much I probably misunderstood them; how often their needs likely went unmet, and ultimately to the power-imbalance that exists between owners and pets. And children. I remember thinking something like this as our kids learned baby sign language, and I wondered how many kids can't communicate their needs at that early age. Indeed, how many humans in general live our whole lives without clear and open, honest communication? And how many times are our basic needs unmet because we aren't communicating? 
Our kids need to be heard. They need to know they're heard, by having their communications reflected back to them (respected). And they need freedom to develop, learn, and change on their own terms, so that they can be empowered to keep on growing. In fact, those of us raised without this empowerment can learn and gain so much by just letting them lead.


*Caspar EA, Christensen JF, Cleeremans A, Haggard P.  "Coercion Changes the Sense of Agency in the Human Brain." Curr Biol. 2016 Mar 7;26(5):585-92. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2015.12.067. Epub 2016 Feb 18. PMID: 26898470; PMCID: PMC4791480. 
**Dominguez PR. University of Granada. "Children eat more vegetables when allowed to choose, Spanish study finds." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 2 June 2011.
***Siegel DJ, Payne Bryson T.  "No-Drama Discipline: The Whole-Brain Way to Calm the Chaos and Nurture Your Child's Developing Mind."  Courtesy Random House  2014, September 23

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