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On Positive Discipline

As summer approaches, many of us anticipate a bit of vacation time during which we’ll have the pleasure of spending more time with family and friends. But because vacations come with less predictable routines—and because kids tend to act out when they don’t know what to expect from their days—I thought I might use this space to reflect on theories and approaches to instilling self-discipline in children.

I have distinct memories of being in the second grade and having my teacher give me a “ticket”—the way police officers issue tickets to traffic violators—for standing up in the classroom before she called my name. She had told three children to stand up to get their backpacks from their lockers, and I’d mistakenly thought she’d pointed to me. As it happens, she hadn’t motioned anything to me, and when I stood up, she yelled “You’re getting a ticket! Don’t stand before it’s your turn!” which meant that I’d not get to join the other kids for the weekly “party,” which happened every Friday before the school day ended. This incident is one I remember as if it were yesterday, and I recall it with more vividness than any other moment in my second-grade year. It strikes me as unfortunate that memory sometimes works this way—that I don’t remember moments on the playground that year or that teacher’s smile (which I imagine she must have had); I don’t remember learning my multiplication tables with her guidance (though I am aware that I did indeed learn them from her). What memory has kept is the sense of disengagement that I felt from that moment onward in that classroom. I could not wait to graduate into third grade so that I’d leave my tyrannical teacher behind.

I bring up this anecdote because it illustrates what I believe most of us want to avoid when we aim to correct our children’s “misbehaviors”: we want to avoid shaming them, which simply leads to disengagement from one’s environment, low self-esteem, anger, and possibly rebellion. Dr. Maria Montessori’s approach to discipline was remarkably radical for its time, for she seemed to recognize the importance of constructive, positive methods of helping children to be focused and engaged. While other nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century pedagogical approaches promoted corporal punishment and the ostracism of children, Maria Montessori wrote, “In our system, we obviously have a different concept of discipline. The discipline we are looking for is active. We do not believe that one is disciplined only when he is artificially made as silent as a mute and as motionless as a paralytic. Such a one is not disciplined but annihilated” (The Discovery of the Child, 50). What does Maria Montessori mean when she says this? If a child is throwing wooden blocks rather than building structures with them, for instance, an appropriate consequence would be to engage the child in an activity by guiding him or her to pick up the scattered blocks and delivering the message that “Blocks are for building, not throwing. A ball can be thrown when you are outside.” This approach involves activity; it involves engaging the child and attaching the child to the environment and to the task at hand, rather than, say, placing that child in a time-out chair, where that child will simply feel more separate from the space and will not be channeling his/her (abundant) energy into a purposeful activity.

Of course, many questions come up when one imagines situations in which problems are not solved in this manner. Some children seek negative attention because they are not getting enough attention or affection from their parents. Some children are simply unready for a certain type of activity, and they act out because they are frustrated, for they do not understand the aim or purpose of what they do. Sometimes, children are simply tired or hungry. To discover the best approach to a child’s moment of fitfulness, it’s important to play the role of a detective and understand the underlying problem. For further information or resources, great websites to consult are the following:

We hope that you have a wonderful, fun-filled summer, and that you find patience through the challenging times that come when a child is simply reacting to all of the changes in routine that summer brings.

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