|When one person tries to control another, you can always expect some
kind of reaction from the controlee. The use of power involves two people in a special
kind of relationship - one wielding power, and the other reacting to it.
This seemingly obvious fact is not usually dealt with in the writings of the
dare-to-discipline advocates. Invariably, they leave the child out of the formula,
omitting any reference to how the youngster reacts to the control of his or her
parents or teachers.
They insist, "Parents must set limits," but seldom say anything about how
children respond to having their needs denied in this way. "Parents should not be
afraid to exercise their authority," they counsel, but rarely mention how
youngsters react to authority-based coercion. By omitting the child from the
interaction, the discipline advocates leave the impression that the child submits
willingly and consistently to adults' power and does precisely what is demanded.
These are actual quotes from the many power-to-the-parent books I've collected
along the way:
- "Be firm but fair."
- "Insist that your children obey."
- "Don't be afraid to express disapproval by spanking."
- "There are times when you have to say 'no'."
- "Discipline with love."
- "Demonstrate your parental right to lead."
- "The toddler should be taught to obey and yield to parental
What these books have in common is advocacy of the use of power-based discipline
with no mention of how children react to it. In other words, the dare-to-discipline
advocates never present power-based discipline in full, as a cause-and-effect
phenomenon, an action-and-reaction event.
This omission is important, for it implies that all children passively submit to
adult demands, perfectly content and secure in an obedient role, first in
relationships with their parents and teachers and, eventually, with all adult
power-wielders they might encounter.
However, I have found not a shred of evidence to support this view. In fact, as
most of us remember only too well from our childhood, we did almost anything we could
to defend against power-based control. We tried to avoid it, postpone it, weaken it,
avert it, escape from it. We lied, we put the blame on someone else, we tattled, hid,
pleaded, begged for mercy, or promised we would never do it again.
We also experienced punitive discipline as embarrassing, demeaning, humiliating,
frightening, and painful. To be coerced into doing something against our will was a
personal insult and an affront to our dignity, an act that devalued the importance of
Punitive discipline is by definition need-depriving as opposed to need-satisfying.
Recall that punishment will be effective only if it is felt by the child as aversive,
painful, unpleasant. When controllers employ punishment, they always intend for it to
cause pain or deprivation. It seems so obvious, then, that children don't ever want
punitive discipline, contrary to what its advocates would have us believe. No child
"asks for it," "feels a need for it," or is "grateful for
it." And it is probably true, too, that no child ever forgets or forgives a
punitive parent or teacher. This is why I find it incredible that the authors of
power-to-the-parent books try to justify power-based discipline with such statements
- "Kids not only need punishment, they want it."
- "Children basically want what is coming to them, good or bad, because
justice is security."
- "Punishment will prove to kids that their parents love them."
- "The youngster who knows he deserves a spanking appears almost relieved
when it finally comes."
- "Rather than be insulted by the discipline, [the child] understands its
purpose and appreciates the control it gives him over his own impulses."
- "Corporal punishment in the hands of a loving parent is entirely different
in purpose and practice [from child abuse]....One is an act of love; the other is
an act of hostility."
- "Some strong-willed children absolutely demand to be spanked, and their
wishes should be granted."
- "Punishment will make children feel more secure in their
- "Discipline makes for happy families; healthy relationships."
Could these be rationalizations intended to relieve the guilt that controllers feel
after coercing or committing acts of physical violence against their children? It
seems possible in view of the repeated insistence that the punishing adult is really a
loving adult, doing it only "for the child's own good," or as a dutiful act
of "benevolent leadership." It appears that being firm with children has to
be justified by saying, "Be firm but fair"; being tough is acceptable as
long as it's "Tough Love"; being an autocrat is justifiable as long as
you're a "benevolent autocrat"; coercing children is okay as long as you're
not a "dictator"; and physically abusing children is not abuse as long as
you "do it lovingly."
Disciplinarians' insistence that punishment is benign and constructive might be
explained by their desire that children eventually become subservient to a Supreme
Being or higher authority. This can only be achieved, they believe, if children first
learn to obey their parents and other adults. James Dobson (1978) stresses this point
time and time again:
- "While yielding to the loving leadership of their parents, children are
also learning to yield to the benevolent leadership of God Himself."
- "With regard to the specific discipline of the strong-willed toddler, mild
spankings can begin between 15 and 18 months of age....To repeat, the toddler
should be taught to obey and yield to parental leadership, but that end will not
be accomplished overnight."
It's the familiar story of believing that the ends justify the means. Obedience to
parental authority first, and then later to some higher authority, is so strongly
valued by some advocates of punitive discipline that the means they utilize to achieve
that end are distorted to appear beneficial to children rather than harmful.
The hope that children eventually will submit to all authority is, I think, wishful
thinking. Not all children submit when adults try to control them. In fact, children
respond with a wide variety of reactions, an assortment of behaviors. Psychologists
call these reactions "coping behaviors" or "coping mechanisms".
The Coping Mechanisms Children Use
Over the years I have compiled a long list of the various coping mechanisms
youngsters use when adults try to control them. This list comes primarily out of our
Parent Effectiveness Training (P.E.T.) and Teacher Effectiveness Training (T.E.T.)
classes, where we employ a simple but revealing classroom exercise. Participants are
asked to recall the specific ways they themselves coped with power-based discipline
when they were youngsters. The question yields nearly identical lists in every class,
which confirms how universal children's coping mechanisms are. The complete list is
reproduced below, in no particular order. Note how varied these recurring themes are.
(Can you pick out the particular coping methods you employed as a youngster?)
- Resisting, defying, being negative
- Rebelling, disobeying, being insubordinate, sassing
- Retaliating, striking back, counterattacking, vandalizing
- Hitting, being belligerent, combative
- Breaking rules and laws
- Throwing temper tantrums, getting angry
- Lying, deceiving, hiding the truth
- Blaming others, tattling, telling on others
- Bossing or bullying others
- Banding together, forming alliances, organizing against the adult
- Apple-polishing, buttering up, soft-soaping, bootlicking, currying favor with
- Withdrawing, fantasizing, daydreaming
- Competing, needing to win, hating to lose, needing to look good, making others
- Giving up, feeling defeated, loafing, goofing off
- Leaving, escaping, staying away from home, running away, quitting school,
- Not talking, ignoring, using the silent treatment, writing the adult off,
keeping one's distance
- Crying, weeping; feeling depressed or hopeless
- Becoming fearful, shy, timid, afraid to speak up, hesitant to try anything new
- Needing reassurance, seeking constant approval, feeling insecure
- Getting sick, developing psychosomatic ailments
- Overeating, excessive dieting
- Being submissive, conforming, complying; being dutiful, docile, apple-polishing,
being a goody-goody, teacher's pet
- Drinking heavily, using drugs
- Cheating in school, plagiarizing
As you might expect, after parents and teachers in the class generate their list,
and realize that it was created out of their own experience, they invariably make such
- "Why would anyone want to use power, if these are the behaviors it
- "All of these coping mechanisms are behaviors that I wouldn't want to see
in my children [or my students]."
- "I don't see in the list any good effects or positive behaviors."
- "If we reacted to power in those ways when we were kids, our own children
certainly will, too."
After this exercise, some parents and teachers undergo a 180-degree shift in their
thinking. They see much more clearly that power creates the very behavior patterns
they most dislike in children! They begin to understand that as parents and teachers
they are paying a terrible price for using power: they are causing their children or
students to develop habits, traits, and characteristics considered both unacceptable
by most adults and unhealthy by mental health professionals.