There is one thing I learned when studying about the development of children that caused me to make some drastic changes in the way I parent my children.
It is this: Fear Blocks Learning
As parents we tend to think the opposite – that fear will teach our children. We threaten them with a spank, a time-out, revoke privileges, or raise our voices. We think in this way our children will learn to stop whatever the undesired behavior is.
In reality, the message we think we are sending and what the child actually receives is drastically different.
Here’s why. Developmentally, a child may be gaining in cognitive skills of cause and effect thinking, logical reasoning, empathy and more. A child may be capable of these things – but these skills are still developing and are fragile. When placed in a stressful situation, a child will revert back to the egocentric thinking that characterizes young childhood.
At the moment of being spanked, punished or yelled at, the child feels fear and stress and is not able to process the “lesson” the parent is teaching. Because of the stress, he can no longer access the cognitive strategies he needs to logically process the situation. Instead he becomes dominated by egocentric thinking and feels unfairly treated, angry, filled with shame and misunderstood. He will spend his time in “time-out” thinking about how much he hates his mom or dad, how to get revenge or simply not get caught the next time. The fear the child experiences causes him or her to not want to experience that again at any cost – whether that involves lying or being sneaky, the goal is to avoid that punishment.
So, if your goal is surface-level obedience, fear tactics may work in the short term. But there will be costs in long term development. Physical punishment impedes rather than promotes internalization of moral values. Research has linked harsh, authoritarian discipline and physical punishment with poor internalization of controls and values.
“A child whose life is full of the threat and fear of punishment is locked into babyhood. There is no way for him to grow up, to learn to take responsibility for his life and acts. Most important of all, we should not assume that having to yield to the threat of our superior force is good for the child’s character. It is never good for anyone’s character.” – John Holt
If you want your child to internalize your values, fear won’t work. Children learn to integrate their parents’ morals into their lives through a loving relationship. As parents show patience, kindness, empathy and self control in the relationship with their child, the child begins to internalize those values. The parent-child relationship becomes a model for other relationships in the child’s life. Through a secure attachment with parents, children understand that the behavior expected by their parents is in their own self-interest.
Gentle approaches to discipline keep the child’s arousal at a manageable level, and the child is more likely to take in and remember what the parent is saying. The best approach is to wait until your child has calmed down, then listen and talk together about what happened. In a calm state the child will be able to utilize all his cognitive strategies and have a better chance of actually learning something. If you want your child to remember, retain and apply what you’re trying to teach, he has to be in a calm, loving state.
“For it is love, not tricks and techniques of thought, that lies at the heart of all true learning. Can we bring ourselves to let children learn and grow through that love?” – John Holt
An interesting example of what I’m talking about is in chapter four of the book, NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children, entitled, “Why Kids Lie.” This chapter details one expert’s research into children’s lying behavior. You can actually read the entire chapter here, but the part I think is most interesting is that he found that punishing children for lying does not teach them not to lie. In fact, it does just the opposite.
“Increasing the threat of punishment for lying only makes children hyperaware of the potential personal cost. It distracts the child from learning how his lies impact others. In studies, scholars find that kids who live in threat of consistent punishment don’t lie less. Instead, they become better liars, at an earlier age – learning to get caught less often.”
The researchers did an experiment with a group of children in western Africa who attend a traditional colonial school where they are punished frequently and for everything. In the experiment these children were placed in a situation where they were tempted to lie. 80% of all children over four who participated in this experiment lie, and the children from Africa were no exception. The only difference was that these children lied and continued to lie. Because of the severe consequences of getting caught they lied expertly and even three year olds were able to control verbal leakage.
When facing a problem behavior, I’ve heard parents say that they need to be more strict about it. But, according to research it looks like it’s time to consider that maybe being more strict is not what children need.
And finally, I’m going to conclude with a sobering thought. Alice Miller, author of For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence points out, “Among all the leading figures of the Third Reich (members of the Nazi Party), I have not been able to find a single one who did not have a strict and rigid upbringing. Shouldn’t that give us a great deal of food for thought?”