There is a misconception in our society that children learn best by being punished and shamed. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth. If you want children to behave better, you have to make them feel better.
Why do most ‘parenting experts’ only tell you what to do, leaving out the ‘Why?’ Surely that’s a more important place to start? To enter the teaching profession, you need to study how children learn long before you can ever begin to teach them. Yet as parents, we are thrown in at the deep end, holding a newborn baby in our arms without a shred of training. Taking some time to understand how children learn makes disciplining them infinitely easier.
Society today takes the view that children who misbehave are being deliberately naughty – that they plot and scheme to get what they want and make a conscious decision to behave in ways we dislike. But what if they behave undesirably, not deliberately, but because they cannot do anything else? most common discipline methods focus on encouraging children to do and be better, so that they are motivated by rewards if they behave ‘well’ and punishments if they misbehave. This would seem sensible, but it makes one huge mistake. It presumes that the child is not motivated to be ‘good’ and that they have the capability to change their behaviour. But maybe they already have the motivation? Maybe they already want to do better? And perhaps their brains – their capabilities – are holding them back? Are they behaving in a certain way simply because they cannot behave in any other? Mainstream discipline methods can achieve absolutely nothing here, except make the child feel worse.
When a baby is born they have 200 billion neurons and their brain is around 30 per cent of the size of an adult’s. Each day it grows by around one and a half grams and by the age of two it will have reached 75 per cent of its full size. During the first three years of life, around seven hundred new neural connections, or synapses, are made in the brain every single second. These connections serve as the ‘wiring’ for the brain. By the time a child is three years old they have formed over one thousand trillion synapses. These connections – formed through a combination of genetics and life experience – are of great significance to the future brain architecture and have a significant impact in adulthood. As such, the environment a child lives in, including their relationships with their main carers, can have as much influence on their brain development as genetics.
Regulating our emotions is quite a mature skill. As adults, we may be able to press the pause buttons in our brains when we are tempted to shout, swear or act violently towards somebody. If we feel anxious or scared, we may be able to talk ourselves out of our emotional discomfort by rationalising and diffusing our feelings. Children, however, do not have these skills – at least not to the same level as adults. And this difference in emotion regulation ability is the cause of a lot of stress for parents who expect their children to have the same capabilities that they do. In fact, self-regulation takes years to develop, and getting to know why your child lashes out, when you yourself are able to stay calm, should be a foundation of discipline. Sometimes, children who always shout or cry just simply cannot help it.
A good analogy for an emotional meltdown – or tantrum, if we are talking about toddlers – is to imagine a pot of water on a stove. The gas is on full and the water soon begins to boil. Soon it is boiling over, spilling down the sides of the pot. The gas is still on full, so the water continues to boil until the pot runs dry. That’s a meltdown or tantrum. Left to their own devices, perhaps in time out or on a naughty step, a child’s ‘pot’ will continue to boil over until either the source is exhausted or the child is so drained that they are ‘empty’. Some may think time out and naughty steps – or any other ‘discipline’ method where the child’s feelings and behaviour are ignored (in the false belief that this will stop it happening again) are effective. Yet how can the child learn anything, which is the true goal of discipline, if they are left to ‘boil over’ and run dry? Time out or the naughty step (which are essentially one and the same, with or without the addition of a designated step, stool or chair) rely on punishing the child’s wrongdoings by excluding them from those they love. The idea is that while they are excluded they are to consider what they have done wrong, how they made the wronged party feel and how they can behave better next time. Once they have done this and are calm, they are allowed to leave the exclusion area. It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? But most children who are socially excluded are between the ages of two and ten and neuroscience shows that at any of these ages a child is not capable of the complex thought that the discipline method requires. In order for them to analyse their behaviour and hypothesise about how they may behave in future they have to have a firm grasp of concrete thinking – or, rather, they need a good level of critical, analytical and hypothetical thought. These thought processes are all the domain of the frontal lobe of the brain, which is not mature until just before a child enters their teenage years. It is only at this point that their thought processes become more adultlike in terms of their problem-solving abilities and capacity to think critically. Without an appropriate level of neural connectivity in the frontal, thinking part of the brain a child is incapable of the thought processes demanded by time out and the naughty step. They cannot (and do not) analyse their behaviour and consider future outcomes. At best, they will sit or stand quietly because they have learned that it is the only way they are allowed to rejoin their friends and loved ones.
Understanding how children’s brains develop is one of the cornerstones of gentle discipline. Unfortunately, many of today’s most common discipline methods are not mindful of this stage in a child’s life. Effective gentle discipline should always consider the child’s current level of cognitive ability, both when looking for the cause of their behaviour and when seeking an appropriate response.
This is a small excerpt from my new discipline book. It is released under the title ‘The Gentle Discipline Book‘ in the UK and under the title ‘Gentle Discipline‘ in the USA and Canada in the summer. The book covers common tricky behaviours from babyhood right the way through to the teen years and how to cope with them in a gentle and effective way