Columnist John Rosemond’s nostalgia for the ‘good ole days’ continues to both annoy and puzzle me.
He seems to long for the days of dunce caps and other forms of public humiliation to punish children. Once again, according to Rosemond and others who share his authoritarian point of view, our grandmothers had it right, and we poor, senseless, permissive 21st century mothers have it wrong (he often leaves fathers out of the picture).
His latest rant is against the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), an organization dedicated to providing quality infant, toddler, and preschool care for children across the country. His misrepresentation of their authoritarian discipline recommendations is typical of his unwillingness to consider a respectful approach to raising children.
It is time for Rosemond to join the new millenium. What his grandmother didn’t know, and what he refuses to acknowledge, is our renewed understanding of child development. The brain research of the last 20 years has proven that most brain development occurs in the first five years of life, especially language development. It is crucial that children are read to, talked to, and have the opportunity to talk, as often as possible. However, the frontal lobe, which monitors impulse control, is not fully formed until the late teens. Therefore, young children can do their best to control their own behavior, but do not have the full capacity to do so until they are in their early twenties. That means that is our responsibility as adults to help guide children’s behavior in productive, constructive ways, rather than expecting them to possess the ability to master their impulses at a young age.
Rosemond confuses “punishment” with “discipline,” when in reality they are two different things. To punish, according to Webster’s dictionary, means “1. to cause to undergo pain, loss, etc., as for a crime.” On the other hand, discipline means “1. training that develops self-control, efficiency, etc.” On second thought, he probably hasn’t confused them at all. Punishment is exactly what he means. Rosemond wants to control a child’s behavior. I want that child to learn to control her own behavior. Punishment may, or may not, achieve his goal. Discipline will achieve mine.
Here’s a scenario: Young Johnny, 4 years old, throws a block at another child, who then cries for help. The teacher approaches the boys, hears the victim’s story, and marches Johnny off to the time out chair. She often will say, “We do not throw blocks, so you need to sit in time-out.” Johnny sits there wondering exactly what has just happened. Crime: throwing blocks. Consequence: time out. The child is removed from the situation, for the whole class to see, but he hasn’t learned how to make another choice the next time. That is punishment.
Let’s try it again. When the teacher approaches, she says, “Johnny, do you remember our rule? We do not throw blocks. When you are angry, you need to use words. You cannot play in the blocks if you are throwing them. Please find another place to play. Tomorrow you can try again.” Johnny still pays a price for his actions, because he is no longer allowed to play in the blocks. However, the teacher has explained what he did wrong, reminded him of the rule, and given him the opportunity to try again. That is discipline.
Which approach will achieve our goal of helping Johnny learn to control his own behavior? A teacher who relies on punishment often employs some sort of public reward system (tokens, green light, etc.) to control behavior. In this environment, children look to the teacher to control their behavior. When they are “good” they get something for it. When they are “bad” they suffer public humiliation.
Teachers who employ a positive discipline approach often rely on subtle rewards (smiles, hugs, group rewards) to encourage behavior. Children in this environment internalize the rules and are supported in their attempts to make constructive choices. Discipline is between the teacher and the child, not the entire class. This is the approach endorsed by NAEYC. The goal is to help children learn the rules and make the right choices independently for their own sake, not out of fear of punishment.
As adults, we can still face disciplinary action. Our performance at work is evaluated on a regular basis. How is it handled where you work? Does you boss post a public list of who was late or who argued with a co-worker? Are you forced to sit in a corner of the room at a meeting if your sales numbers are down? Hopefully not. You would be insulted if you were treated with such little respect.For most of us, discipline is handled privately. The goal is not public humiliation, but improved performance.
And so it is with young children. Our goal is to help children develop the ability to make their own choices when controlling behavior. If we don’t, they will never be able to function independently. As an early childhood educator and a parent, that is my wish for every child.
Lynn D. Darling, Ph.D, is Coordinator of Training in the Early Childhood Institute at Mississippi State University. Contact her at P.O. Box 6013, Mississippi State, MS 39762, or LDarling@colled.msstate.edu.