November 6, 2018
A major part of parenting is getting kids to do certain things. When they don’t naturally do those things, or they don’t want to do those things, we have to figure out how to get them to do those things.
Google provides this definition of discipline – “train (someone) to obey rules or a code of behavior, using punishment to correct disobedience.”
I think when most people think about discipline, they jump straight to the best way to get a child to behave a certain way. But there are two variables we can change when we’re talking about discipline. We can adjust behavior or we can adjust the code of behavior. I think we don’t spend nearly enough time thinking about what rules are good rules. Most people kind of just default to using most of the rules that their parents used, and this works mostly OK.
We’ve tried to think very carefully about all the rules we impose on our kids. The fact that we’re not just doing what our parents did doesn’t mean we’re throwing the baby out with the bath water. We both turned out pretty well, and we think our parents did a ton of things right, so we’ve taken those parts and incorporated them into our parenting.
We’ve also heard all of the conventional wisdom of multiple generations of parents and tried to decide which rules will help our kids turn into flourishing adults. Though most conventional wisdom seems… not super useful. I’m going to talk about discipline in general in this post, and then in another post, I’ll talk more specifically about some of our rules and how things are going for us so far.
So, we’re trying to find good rules. How do we decide on rules?
No “Because I said so.”
Obviously sometimes as a parent, you have to pull out all of the stops and enforce your will with an iron fist. If one of my children decides to throw a tantrum in the middle of a crosswalk, that child is getting dragged out of the crosswalk to a safe place to deal with the tantrum.
But, in general, “because I said so” is not a reason we want our kids to do anything. As an adult, when do you do things “because someone said so?” Maybe for your boss, but I wouldn’t spend very long working for someone that I didn’t trust to know the right things to do. In that case, I’m actually obeying them because I trust that they are a good decision maker. Police officers? But once again, you trust that if they’re telling you to do something, it’s because they’re acting in the interest of public safety or else you’re breaking the law. If your boss or a police officer is, in fact, telling you to do something that seems wrong and they don’t give you a better reason than “because I said so,” then you have a good case for not listening to them.
As we’ve been parents, we’ve encountered people who subscribe to the view that children should respect authority. Maybe I’m just a flower-child hippie type (jk, I’m not) but I think people should only respect authority that acts in a way that is deserving of respect. And “because I said so” is really saying “because I can physically hurt you if you don’t comply.” Someone actually saying that to someone’s face is a good way to start a fight, so why would we train our children to obey people who talk like that?
If you say “because I said so,” and you really have a better reason that isn’t “because I’m stronger than you,” then you should start with that reason and only use “because I said so” as a nuclear option.
Any rule that we have has to pass the No “Because I Said So” Test. If we can’t come up with a better reason than that, then we don’t have the rule.
Limit the Rules That Are Purely for Our Convenience
We tend to lapse back to “because I said so” when we don’t have a good reason for something and we just really want them to do it, or when we’re tired, or hungry, or just generally not in a good mood, but the kids don’t understand these reasons when they’re little, and it’s inconsistent to only enforce certain rules when we’re tired.
We don’t have a ton of rules, but we are very consistent with the rules that we do have. It’s important for the kids to feel like rules are stable, so that they don’t go through life constantly fearful that they’ll break a rule they didn’t know existed. Just like above, we don’t want our kids subject to arbitrary rules or enforcement.
Kids do wrong things often enough, we don’t feel like we need to add to this list by adding a bunch of rules that exist only to make us slightly happier. If we have a rule, it generally has some connection to helping the kids function better in the real world.
For example, we don’t care if the kids talk loudly. It may be annoying for us, but it doesn’t really matter. When one of us is on the phone or a video call, though, we expect them to be quiet, and they are generally very good at quieting down when we need them to.
This leads nicely to our next criteria for rule-making.
How Do Their Actions Affect Other People?
We don’t care if the kids are loud, but we live in an apartment building so there is absolutely no screaming. (At least that’s the rule…) And we explain to the kids that it’s not because screaming is inherently bad (unless they’re doing it in anger at someone), but because other people live in the building and the screaming bothers them.
Likewise, we don’t care if the kids jump on our couch. We learned the hard way not to buy West Elm furniture, but this is just something we don’t want to have conflict with the kids over. However, the kids know not to jump on couches when they’re not at home, because that would be disrespectful to other peoples’ stuff.
It turns out this has been a really great way to teach the kids about right and wrong. If the only person affected by an action is you, then it’s almost certainly fine to do. If other people are affected, then you should think very carefully about how it will affect them, and don’t do it if you think it will bother them. That’s like, the core of Western morality.
I have a hunch that a lot of kids grow up obeying a patchwork of rules, including a bunch of “because I said so” and “for the convenience of the parent” rules and by the time they’re teenagers, they don’t have a good framework for deciding right and wrong on their own.
It turns out, we don’t have a lot of rules. As I said above, though, we try to be very consistent in enforcement. We really don’t have to deal with disobedient children very often. Of course, we’re not close to teenagers yet, so I don’t think we know what real disobedience looks like.
Our main method of discipline is to remove kids from the situation. If they’re playing with each other, or playing computer/video games, and they’re not acting in an appropriate way, then we either remove them from the play or turn the game off. Warnings in this regard tend to do most of the work. If the kids actually need to turn off their games or go have some quiet time in their room, they usually dramatically improve in behavior fairly quickly, though they’re often still grumpy until they take a nap, but they don’t lash out again for a while.
Setting up the environment so it’s harder for them to break rules. We think it’s important to organize your life so that it’s not easy for the kids to break rules. If you don’t want your kids eating candy or soda, then don’t have candy or soda in the house. Really small children have poor impulse control, so if you offer them lots of opportunities to do things they’re not supposed to, you’re going to have lots of unnecessary conflict. As they get older and their impulse control improves, you can gradually make your environment more tempting.
That being said, we have generally done a lot less baby proofing than a lot of parents. Our kids learned very early on to not stick anything in outlets and they learned that knives are sharp and so on, so we don’t have to expend much effort keeping dangerous things away from them. But we also don’t keep candy in the house.
Not having a ton of rules seems to make the kids listen better to the rules we do have. The jury is still out on this one, but at least our oldest definitely listens when he recognizes that it’s important. We think it’s at least partially related to the fact that we don’t have a bunch of arbitrary rules. He’s already started to learn that when we have a rule, we have a good reason for it, and even if we don’t have time to explain the reason right this moment, he trusts that we’re not being capricious.
We're sharing what we've learned in the course of doing some unconventional things in the hope that we can help others do better and get more out of life.