Discipline. Few words rouse such immediate, intense and varied reactions: fear, pride, anger, oppression, righteousness, relief…. It is a topic about which most of us have strong opinions, especially when we are talking about the discipline of our children.
But what is it? Why does it matter to us at all? For me to begin to answer this question I have had to look at my own life, at what part discipline plays in my day to day experience of the world. Like a great many teachers and many, many other people, I have chosen to undertake several personal disciplines. Certainly teaching, like virtually all work, has many built-in disciplines needed to do the job, but for me to understand discipline it has been more helpful to examine the “unnecessary” or voluntary disciplines I undertake on a regular basis. Whether exercising for physical well-being, engaging in artistic disciplines, or meditating for clarity of mind, one common thread stands out: connection to life. Each of the disciplines I undertake brings me, in some way, into a greater intimacy with life.
This seems to be a universal experience. Frequently one hears runners and other athletes describing the vibrance they feel running a race, or the potter describing the calm of centering the clay. All told, discipline is more than a way to keep order, to make life manageable; at its core it is a pathway to experiencing life in all its magic.
Still, for many the word discipline connotes a way to keep things down or to hold them together. It is a word we often associate with being humiliated or insulted. However, we could view it instead as a celebration of our connection to life.
Even if we all agree on this, a flood of “buts” comes rolling in on the heels of our agreement. One of the biggest might be, “But the children haven’t chosen to undertake the discipline of family life or of being in a class.” We might wonder, “Do self discipline and imposed disciplines have the same outcome?” I would say no for adults and yes for children. Adults whose discipline is regulated by others have given up their freedom, their responsibility – of course they feel oppressed. But children have not yet developed the consciousness needed to be responsible for themselves – and they demonstrate this to us again and again. As recent brain research1 is showing, children are “open-loop” beings, dependent on us to activate their internal worlds.
If you think of a stream it is obvious why it must have strong banks; without them it becomes a flood or a swamp. It’s quite similar for the child. For the child we are those banks. Children have not yet grown into the consciousness that will one day serve as a strong, self-directed river bank. Strong banks do not oppress them, any more than they oppress a river. Rather they give them the necessary support to burst up and rush forward filled with the zest and strength of a spring stream. While children are growing, it is up to us to provide the certainty and direction they need to live in an intimate and appreciative relationship with their world.
So as individuals we can focus on our connection to life as the core of our disciplining. But what does that mean on a practical level? To answer this we need to ask some fundamental questions: what is the relationship of the group or family to the individual, for parent, teacher, and child? What is the relationship of form to freedom? What is fairness? What is reliability? And so on.
A few things stand out clearly. Of greatest importance is the understanding that developing internal discipline in children is a process that takes place mostly within the parents and the teachers. It is our own inner discipline, our connection to life as we experience it, that nurtures the child’s sense of self discipline. Our self discipline must be the model that sparks discipline in the children.
Joseph Chilton Pearce, a current child development theorist, believes that children are born with a full set of capacities for living, but that these must be activated by a living model. From this perspective we can see that if we set clear limits for children, then we model the ability to set their own limits. When we are willing to stand firmly in our own sense of proper discipline, instead of squashing their independence, we actually activate their capacity for setting their own boundaries.
As individual teachers and parents we all know that it is the certainty of our guidance, our belief in what we bring the children, that makes the discipline work. The way I work with this quality of certainty is to look back to a boundary whose undeniable quality I know. The image I hold vivid is the image of a stream. If you put your foot in a stream you get wet. Whether you are “good” or “bad,” whether you are “nice” or “mean” you will get wet. It is a very solid, simple sense of boundary. It is neither punitive nor degrading; it is not a judgment, nor is it personal. It is simply “True.” If we can bring the children a simple “NO”, or, “Throwing is an outside activity,” with the reality of the stream wetting our foot, they respond to it as truth. We can work to connect with that sense of wetness, that quality of limit without judgment and in so doing we offer the child the only real gift we have to give – the truth.
When we feel punitive or righteous we have lost the judgment-free description of reality and the children will feel shamed. When we couch it in apology or concept, we have lost our connection to the truth of the limit and the children feel unsafe. In either case, they will tend to respond with negativity, aggression, or fear. In the Enki approach, it is the “isness”, or reality, we seek to bring the children, and not the “shouldness”.
When I find myself struggling with unclear, ineffective limits I think of the stream. I know what it feels like to connect with that sense of wetness, that quality of limit without judgment or apology. I know where to return.
This outlook does not define the limits the teacher will set. We must each make our own connection to our inner truths and to what we perceive in the world at large. When we make this connection, we connect to the energy of life; then setting limits is an expression of respect for the world, for the parent or teacher, and for the child. It may seem too personal, too dependent on each person, but what is the alternative? Somehow we must bring together our individual connections with everyone’s need for dependability.
Still it seems there must certainly be a few clear unchanging rules. In fact it is hard to think of any that don’t have exceptions in some situation. Certainly the home or classroom must have basic behavior expectations that the children know and are held to on the whole. But most of the situations we deal with routinely have many exceptions depending on the circumstances. For example, on a hot, sunny day, jumping in puddles during outdoor play may be fine. On a cold, early spring day, heading out to a field trip, jumping in a puddle is not okay. Then, a simple “no” or “not today” is the reality. The children depend on the parent’s and teacher’s connection to the reality/truth of what she says for their sense of consistency, Certainly much will be routine reality; still it must be an expression of connecting to the truth of the situation.
The children do not and cannot depend on the answer always being the same – that is not the nature of life. When we make a connection to the reality of the specific situation, we connect to the energy of life. Whether we are saying, “No puddles today,” to a little one or, “We’ll make up the homework Friday after school,” to a fifth grader or, “Feet off the desk, gum in the trash,” to an adolescent, the reality or certainty principle must be the same. This way setting limits is an expression of respect for and connection to the world, to the parent, to the teacher, and to the child.
For these reasons, in the Enki approach when we set a limit we do so with little or no explanations, and certainly no warnings. Explanations and warnings, for the most part, are just an expression of uncertainty or apology: “I have the ‘right’ to set this limit because….” You, as the parent or teacher, not only have the right, but also the responsibility to set the limit, to bring the child a reality/truth that serves his well-being. If you feel a child really doesn’t understand that what they are doing is unacceptable, then tell them, “That is not allowed or not safe …,” whatever is true. But as soon as you say, “If you do that again…” or “Next time…” it has stopped being a description of reality and become part of a challenge or power play. It is far more affective and respectful for parents and teachers simply to state the reality once (unless it is so obvious that it needs no stating,) and then act on setting the limit. As the children get older a description of the situation may help make it a reality, but be sure it is a description, not a question or explanation. For example, maybe they would benefit by hearing that they have to bring parkas on their camping trip because it is 45 degrees at night. That is a simple fact. But it must be held within the reality that it is your call, not theirs. Children are remarkably responsive to this kind of boundary. Whether you are three feet tall or watching your body change daily, it is reassuring to know that someone else is clear! Even at 16, when the world has just grown exponentially, it is a great help to know someone can see clearly.
We all want to be fair and respectful to everyone, and to support the sense of worth in all, especially our children. It is very easy to think this happens by giving choices and decision making power whenever possible. But for the young child especially, this is not the case. When we mix the developmental issues of early childhood with choice and explanations, it is like mixing baking soda in a vinegar concoction – the whole thing erupts and bubbles over – we get what my sons used to call “Pirate Knock-out”! To make a choice, by definition, requires a stepping back, weighing and analyzing. This is antithetical to the state of union or wholeness in which the young child’s health resides. As she grows up she will be able to go back and forth between being inside/in-union with all she meets, and stepping back and understanding it. But in these early years the stepping back in and of itself pokes a hole in her safety. The young child is threatened and must either withdraw or fight. How many nightmare scenes have parents and teachers endured when the child had a fit after being asked to choose, or after hearing a careful explanation of why it is time for boots or bed?
As adults of today, we have been raised to think that giving choices and explanations is “good.” It means we have been fair. It frees us from responsibility: “After all, we gave them the choice, explained the consequence.” We’re “good, fair and reasonable.” But young children are literally not yet reasonable – they do not work from reason and reason fractures their integration and therefore their sense of well-being. They learn through merging, imprinting. This is the seat of their health and a tremendously important capacity throughout life. To support this, we can bring them reality in living pictures and descriptions rather than explanations. “It’s raining out. Let’s get the umbrella.” Even an umbrella song. Or no conversation at all. However, a discussion like, “You need to put on your boots because it is raining and the rain will get you wet and you’ll get sick and miss Johnny’s birthday party and we’ll be up all night with you sick and……” is only going to throw the young child into her thinking and out of integration/harmony. Most of the time our explanations are apologies, and the logic and choices are for us, not the children.
Certainly there are occasions for choices. But these are special moments when the choice is real (which it is not in the case of boots in the snow), or when it is more a description of something you can make happen (“you can sit at the table or you can cry in your room”).
Looking at this simple, non-interactive approach to setting limits one might easily wonder if we are not dampening the child’s sense of individuality. From our perspective true individuality blooms only in an integrated state, a state we can only foster with our certainty and sense of truth. It is here, in the “quiet” of well-being, in the “rest” of feeling a part of the life cycle, that we can actually glimpse that which is our true individuality.
We have all seen adolescents and adults, and even some young children, trying to find and even announce their own uniqueness through a display of external forms, opinions and the like. It usually leaves the viewer distrustful and empty. On the other hand, from time to time someone comes along who simply is “herself.” We notice and we feel a fullness and curiosity. What makes the difference? In the Enki outlook we start from the belief that we all are unique individuals, each with our gifts and our challenges and our own path. This is our birthright. It isn’t something we have to create or develop, but rather is a natural blooming from healthy soil. In this case, that soil is the integration of body, heart, and mind.
We see this process function much as an ecosystem of nature does. When rain falls in the forest each plant is nurtured. The very same rain nourishes the fern shoot to become a fern and the acorn to become an oak. Likewise, we can trust the natural processes of life to unfold into individual expressions of our shared humanity. So while the child is in the time of wholeness, where her integration and well-being depend on connectedness, on letting the world imprint upon her, that is what we support. The older she gets the more external choices she can make without fracturing the inner wholeness, but until she is able to set inner boundaries, the certainty of our boundaries are critical to her well being. It is our belief that anything we do that works against that overall well-being, by definition, also works against the discovery of a true and deep individuality.
Certainly there are times, particularly as the children get older and the developmental issues shift, when you want them to explore and discover the boundaries. If you choose these opportunities carefully, this can be very instructive. Let the children describe the overall situation, explore the details and discover the boundaries – just be very sure that you can allow their decision to stand, don’t give them a false opportunity or you breed distrust and manipulation. For example, as they get into adolescence they will need to discover, through experience, that they do not eat if they haven’t chopped wood and built a fire on their camping trip. That is an age appropriate boundary the world can present. If you warn them, or plead with them, explain to them or admonish them in any way, you prevent them from meeting the very real boundary presented by the world. You might have a meeting before the trip to verbally plan out the necessities of camping but, once you are there, your only job is to bring some snack food for yourself and let them discover/go hungry if they do not do their chores. On the other hand, when they are chopping wood, discovering proper technique for using an axe without instruction and clear, firm boundaries is a potential life threatening disaster. Here we need the clear, immovable boundaries. If someone doesn’t respond, they don’t chop – end of issue.
The content changes with age. The amount of discussion changes. But at all ages the actual boundary needs to be as clear, unquestionable, and judgment free as the wetness of water. In this way discipline can guide the child and give him the wisdom and safety to find his individuality and his natural connection to life.
1A General Theory of Love, by Drs. Lewis, Amini, and Lannon, publ. Random House, 2000.