Teaching children how to act has been in the minds of parents and authorities since the written word. From puritanical submission to laissez-faire families, physical punishment to positive discipline, the best method of parenting has long been a debate.
Taking it from the Old Testament, severe corporal punishment has long been a popular form of discipline. Proverbs 29:15 offers parenting advice in the form of “the rod and reproof” which says “give wisdom” while a “child left to himself disgraces his mother.” Yes, strict discipline methods have been widely accepted for millennia, but there are histories of differences that are just as profound.
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Even in the medieval era, an era that put heretics on the rags and subjected adulterous women to breast-splitting (yes, that’s the technical title), physical harm to children was far more controversial than violence against adults. In a report from the University of Exeter, Nicholas Orme describes how, during biblical times, “corporal punishment was used throughout society and probably also in homes, although social commentators criticized parents for indulgence in children rather than harsh discipline.”
As Puritans rose up against the English church, the subjugation of children was formalized, which prevented them from challenging or rebelling the slightest authority. Puritan children were taught that by disobeying their parents, they were forcing God to condemn them to eternal death, and that strong discipline — that is, physical punishment — could bring salvation to children. “If they were disobedient, children were beaten in public and forced to make public confessions at meetings. Issues such as the rights of children have never been considered, ”reads research from the Journal of Child and Family Studies.
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Not everyone has fully shopped in the harsh corporal punishment of this time. John Locke, the English philosopher and physician commonly referred to as the “Father of Liberalism,” wrote parenting guidelines that were not popular at the time, but overshadowed many of the positive disciplinary methods we see today.
In 1690, Locke Essay on human understanding, and suggested the idea that children look like an empty tablet (tabula rasa) at birth, and they are not prone to sin. Locke encouraged 17th-century parents to teach children naturally about consequences, so that self-control and a desire to be responsible for their own actions are a by-product of guidance, not harsh discipline.
“… according to the usual discipline of children, [it] would not have restored that temper, nor would he have brought him in love with his book; to create a pleasure to learn, and to, as he does, desire to be taught more than the people around him think well of always teaching him. “We have reason to conclude that great care must be taken for the formation of children’s minds, and to give them in advance those spices, which will always affect their lives thereafter.”
The education system as a whole has been burying that message for centuries. By the early 1900s, some child educators were proposing new methods of “pushing children to good behavior.” One method was called the “scorecard”, which was placed in the child’s house and gold stars or black marks were placed where it said: “Get up on time,” “Clean room,” “Write to Grandma,” and others tasks and duties (sound familiar?). Penalties or rewards were then awarded accordingly.
The science of parenting has become popular at this time and new experts and published theories have created a more dynamic and confusing environment for parents who are caught between listening to a pastor or following new parenting philosophies – many of them delivering conflicting messages about how a lot of permissiveness should be allowed towards how much discipline should be used. Some methods offered strict regiments to form eating habits, social tendencies, and sleeping habits; others pointed to “softer” ways of discipline, giving children more freedom.
In 1946, dr. Spock released the now famous parenting book, Baby and Child Care, which open with the rule, “You know more than you think you do,” and reassured parents across the country that disciplining a child is not an issue following the status quo commands. He encouraged parents to be reasonable, consistent, open and friendly with their children – not regulated or authoritative. “Children are driven from within themselves to grow, explore, experience, learn and build relationships with other people,” the latest issue of Baby and Child Care read. “So while trusting yourself, remember to trust your child as well.”
But as first-generation Spock babies turned into rebellious teens in the 1960s and 1970s, Dr. Spock’s ideas took a beating from the stricter, more regulated experts. Conservative psychologists like James Dobson encouraged authoritarian parenting styles, and a clear separation was drawn between parents who hit children and parents who did not hit.
To this day, the US shows a divided attitude towards spanking and corporal punishment. While domestic corporal punishment is illegal in more than 50 countries around the world, it is not the case in America, where 17 states still allow corporal punishment in their public schools.
Discipline is not by definition a bad thing. Studies have shown that the most effective way to promote healthy relationships with children and to give them the ability to learn and exercise self-control is through positive discipline. According to the book No more perfect children: Love your children for who they are, positive discipline is based on reducing the child’s frustrations and thus reducing misconduct rather than giving punishments. The “Golden Rule” is the guiding light with positive discipline – to encourage children to feel empowered, in control and good about themselves while also building a positive parent-child relationship. “You can not change who your child is,” says Sharon Silver, founder of Proactive parenting. “But you can make adjustments so that they have the opportunity to learn about who they are and to be the best version of themselves within the boundaries you set.”
Read more of Fatherly’s stories about discipline, punishment, and behavior.