It has been my observation now and then that many parents feel unsure about discipline. There is fear that they will be too strict or their child will be damaged in some way if disciplined. I would like to offer some thoughts on why discipline is good and necessary in spite of what our culture is telling us these days. Learning the balance of how to discipline consistently and in love can be difficult but worth taking the effort to learn. The following are thoughts that can helps us see the importance of finding the balance. (For more info, check out this book.)
A newborn thinks that he and his mother are the same person. As he grows the first year he begins to know some separateness, but during the next few years, he will need to internalize that he and mother are not the same. His first steps towards learning this begin around the age of 12 months when mother begins to upset the baby in order for him to learn return to joy from the Big Six negative emotions–sad, mad, disgust, shame (not the kind that says “I’m bad), fear, and hopeless. Up to this point his interactions with mother should have been almost 100% positive and joy-filled. Most likely he will begin to walk about this time also.
Another change takes place anywhere from around the age of 20 months to about 2 3/4 years, depending on the child, when the need for more detailed discipline will arise. Parents have to settle how they are going to discipline and learn to be firm and consistent while loving. Much of the training that will affect the rest of the child’s life will take place during these years between 2-5. If done consistently and lovingly, the child will be secure and fairly well behaved. I find that most of the work is done in the third year.
During these early years, the baby must also learn that he and mother are not the same person, but two separate people. Discipline and frustration/upset are part of what helps the baby learn this.
He also must learn that mother is both “good and bad,” pleasurable and frustrating, loving and disciplining. If a mother is afraid to frustrate, discipline, or “look bad” then the child will not be able to resolve this issue and become his own person.
The child must learn that he is also both good and bad. (This does not necessarily have to do with the spiritual aspects of good and bad.)
As the process goes along, the child will “internalize” that mother is one person and he is one person even though they can act both “good and bad.” The same mother who scolds is the same mother who hugs. The same child who breaks a lamp is the same child who feeds himself. Life is both rewarding and frustrating.
This lesson is vital for a healthy self to emerge. If the mother clings to the child he will not be able to separate (individuate).
As the child grows and begins to explore (crawling and then walking), he will go back and forth between touching base with mother and going out to explore. This should increase with age.
The child must healthily settle that mother is neither going to abandon her or smother her. So mother has to support the child’s struggle to develop as a separate person.
The parents gradually build up the child’s confidence that the world is neither totally threatening nor totally pleasurable.
Around 18 months the child begins to do for herself things that mother did for her, like feed herself .
The child learns much of the above by learning he can’t have his way all the time, which is where the conflict arises and brings the need for loving discipline. He will fall and scrape his knee, he will get frustrated and be told “No.” Over time he will learn how real life works—the negatives balanced with comfort, acceptance and support.
The child must learn to cope with the world in his mother’s absence, small bits at a time. This is one reason I think going to church at an early age is good practice. It is also the reason for teaching the child to bond with an object like a blanket or stuffed animal that they can have when away from mother, even in bed. Pacifiers should not be the only item, as they will be taken away.
The blanket or animal should not be taken away! I’ve seen many “lovies” be taken to college.
Daddy is a great asset for this individuating in the toddler years. He is adventurous and “not Mother” and helps the child practice going out into the world, away from Mother, safely. He must also discipline properly.
Parents help the child handle increasingly difficult levels of frustration so the child learns that he or she does not get their way all the time, which internalizes that this is a normal but disagreeable fact of life. If parents don’t do this, children will not learn how the world really works. Proper, loving discipline teaches self-control.
If mother can’t handle seeing the child frustrated or showing negative emotions and only rewards when the emotions are the way she wants, the child will learn to stuff his feelings and want his own way.
If the toddler does not individuate and still feels he’s connected to mother, he will misuse negative emotions and blame other “parent” (authority) figures later in life.
Mother and infant bond securely in the beginning. Then the child begins to move out and explore, thinking she can do anything. We want to allow exploring, giving realistic boundaries without spoiling.
If the mother never separated from her mother, she will long for closeness, be needy and dependent and cling to the child.
About 18 months to 3 years, the child begins to learn “I can’t do everything.” He learns about reality.
The child needs to learn to hear a “no” while staying connected relationally, and also to give a “no” appropriately. Parents do not withdraw love based on behavior. “I will love you no matter what, but I will discipline you when needed,” is the message we want to communicate. Parents find a balance between over-control and lack of limits. Children learn to suffer consequences.
There is a difference between hurt and harm. The dentist hurts me in order to help me. That is not harm. Discipline is like this when done properly.
Parents can believe the lie that says, “To love means to always say ‘Yes.'”
SUMMARY: Discipline is a vital part of child rearing. We must learn that we can both enjoy our child and discipline him or her. We discipline SO we can enjoy. We must settle in our heart that discipline is not bad or mean and have the confidence to be consistent and firm when needed. Hopefully these nuggets above will help us with that debate. Proper, loving, firm discipline is God designed and best done in these toddler years. In the school years, our task will be character development and that will come much easier when the child has learned to obey and have some self control.