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On Discipline

Some experts, in writing about discipline, try to equate and lump together what I have called the Discipline of Nature and the Discipline of Superior Force. They say that when we tell a child to do something, and punish him if he does not, we are teaching him to understand the natural consequences of his acts.

In a widely praised book, one expert gave this typical advice. If your child comes home late to dinner, tell him that he can't have any dinner, and he will soon learn the "natural consequences" of being late and come home on time. The example is confused, foolish, and wrong. Being denied any dinner can be called a "natural" consequence of coming home late only in the sense that anything and everything that happens is a part of reality and hence can be called "natural." One might as easily say that being flogged was also a "natural" consequence of being late. In fact, getting no dinner is not a natural consequence of being late at all, but a purely arbitrary one imposed by the parents. The natural consequence of coming home late to dinner might be that your dinner would be cold, or that you would have to eat much or all of it alone, or that you would have to clear your place when you had finished and wash your dishes yourself.

Not getting any dinner might be a natural consequence of coming home unexpectedly, so that nothing was prepared for you. But it is not a natural consequence of being late. It is punishment pure and simple. Punishers always tell the punished that their punishments are the "natural" consequences of their acts. Not so. They are the result of a choice which the punishers, or the authority they represent, have forced on the punished.

Some people say, "I agree with all you have said so far. I don't want to make my child servile and docile, I want him to have an interesting and exciting life. But to do anything interesting and worthwhile he is going to have to do a lot of plain, old disagreeable hard work. If he's never been made to do anything he didn't like, how is he going to be able to do the hard work, stick to it until it is done?" Now I don't deny for a second that much of the work done in the world is disagreeable and hard. But that is not what these people are saying. They say that to do anything takes Disagreeable Hard Work, that all work is Disagreeable Hard Work.

In those three words is a whole way of life and of looking at life, very widespread, very deeply rooted, and very wrong. First, the old Puritan split and opposition between work and play. Work is what you don't like, but you do it because you have to, or someone makes you, and so it is good for you. Play is what you do like, but it is bad for you, because you like it. Beneath that there is a still deeper and more destructive splitting, a splitting up, in the name of logic or reason or analysis, of our whole lives and indeed the whole of human experience into tiny and disconnected fragments. Alan Watts, in The Book, said that Western thinkers like to divide into parts an experience that is all one whole, and then get into endless tangles and arguments trying to decide which parts are cause and which effect. Whether other cultures do this or not, I don't know. We certainly do, and it does a great deal to kill the joy and meaning in our lives.

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Excerpted from Freedom and Beyond by John Holt, Boynton/Cook, 1995. Reprinted with permission by Heinemann Publishing.