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Discipline and Guidance

Angela Oswalt Morelli , MSW, edited by Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

noah is sadimage by ella (lic)In our extensive discussion of positive discipline for preschool aged children, we introduced a set of methods, techniques and concepts including clear communication, choice, natural and logical consequences, and time outs, that together form a sort of framework for understanding how to effectively discipline children. These methods and concepts remain important for understanding how to effectively discipline school-aged and older youth. It is worth reviewing that earlier document if you have not looked at it in a while.

Open Communication is the Foundation for Effective Discipline and Guidance

Calm, direct, and honest communication remains the basic foundation for positive discipline and guidance of children in middle childhood. This is so because of the powerful influence of parental modeling on children's coping. Children watch what their parents do and by-and-large, pattern their own communications with others based on what they see their parents doing. Children who observe their parents being honest, honorable, calm, and respectful towards others will generally be influenced to communicate and behave towards others in a similar fashion. An open communication style also helps to build a warm and nurturing relationship between parents and children. Children who feel unconditionally loved by their parents also feel safe and secure, even when they make mistakes or poor choices and receive criticism from their parents.

To foster healthy and open communication, parents need to ask questions of their children in an interested but essentially relaxed manner. Parents' display of genuine interest without too much pressure helps children feel valued and important, and additionally allows parents to learn what is most important to their children. Through this process, parents can become aware of, at the earliest possible moment, problematic changes in children's mood, behavior, or friendships that may benefit from intervention. Parents can reinforce the impact of their interested actions in supporting children's self-esteem by explicitly talking about the love, pride and concern that motivates their interest. For example, Dad may regularly say, "Devon, I'm so glad you came with me to run errands today. I really enjoy spending time with you," as well as, "I love you."

Guiding Children's Social Choices and Expectations

Children's social lives usually bloom as they enter middle childhood. With their developing social lives come difficult social choices. Parents can use open communication skills to help guide children to become able to evaluate and improve their social lives.

Parents can use the communication technique known as reflection to guide children's conversations about their friendships, pointing out for inspection the positive aspects of healthy friendships and the negative aspects that accompany unhealthy or hurtful friendships. Reflection involves learning to selectively repeat back aspects of what children have said so as to call children's attention to those things as signs or symptoms worth paying attention to. It also involves helping children to learn how to describe their feelings in words, by interpreting children's body language and expressions. For example, when a child describes a positive social interaction with a friend, a parent might highlight that action so as to make sure the child sees it as evidence of true friendship, e.g., "It sounds like Cara is very loyal since she went to get the teacher when you scraped your knee and sat inside with you at recess,". A parent can also use reflection to confront children with the reality of "friends" who actually are hurtful, ""It sounds like Joel has hurt your feelings a lot lately. He teased you last week about your hair cut and told your secret to Jimmy today". In this manner, parents help children to evaluate friendships without their needing to feel foolish or attacked or feeling like their friends are being attacked.

In addition to helping children to learn how to evaluate the quality of friendships, parents also have the opportunity to help children set up relationship standards or healthy relationship boundaries which, once internalized, will help guide how children evaluate the ways that other people treat them and thus their opinion of others. Parents can teach their children that they deserve to have kind, caring, respectful friends who will encourage their health and safety. Parents can also teach children that they have the right to be assertive if they need to be; standing up to "friends" and peers urging them towards unsafe behaviors or asking them to break rules or laws. Children's capacity to make good judgments can be further fostered by teaching them critical thinking skills which help them to identify and get a handle on what is bothering them about an interaction, generate multiple possible solutions for handling the problem and then choosing the best solution. Children who feel that they are loved and valuable, deserving of respect, and worthy of protecting and defending, and who have developed their independent judgment capabilities are more likely to stand up to people asking them to make poor choices.

Because the open communication style is less explicitly directive and controlling than other communication styles that parents may be familiar with (such as being the "boss" and giving out orders and directives), parents may be tempted to wait to exercise it for a time in the future when children are older and more mature. The thought process might be that while children are little, it is important to "think for them" and override their sometimes poor judgments with the parent's more and objective judgment. This is a mistake in that parents who command children to think and behave in certain limited ways end up making their children dependent by failing to teach those children how to arrive at a sensible independent judgment. The commanding parental communication style tends to produce dependency (or rebellion) rather than strong independent and thoughtful functioning. Though school-aged children may struggle to be aware and to make sensible choices, they nevertheless need to be allowed the opportunity to struggle so that with practice, their judgment will improve.