Have you ever considered how many choices you make in a given day? Sometimes I think about how many things young children are required to process and choose, and it boggles my mind. Of course, as adults, we understand that every choice has a consequence that comes with it. It's a simple matter of cause and effect--if you do A, then B will follow. Well, most adults get it, anyway.
One of the most effective ways that we learn life lessons is through consequences. Most consequences we experience as adults are natural consequences. For example, if you do as I did this morning and take the dog for a walk in a short-sleeved shirt on a brisk fall morning, you freeze your butt off. Hopefully, you remember to take your jacket with you next time. However, we also learn from logical consequences as well. If you don't pay your electric bill, the electric company cuts you off and you freeze your butt off again. The second is a logical consequence because it's imposed by somebody else. Natural consequences occur without imposition of anyone or anything other than the natural environment.
Logical and natural consequences are, in my opinion, critical teachers for all of us, regardless of age. For young children, logical consequences help draw connections between cause and effect and to make sense of the world around them. If your child consistently leaves his toys out around his room, a natural consequence might be that somebody steps on one and breaks it by accident. A logical consequence would be Mom or Dad removing the toys for a period of time.
Consequences, whether they be good or bad, are particularly helpful when they are consistent and children can start to predict what will happen after their actions. I do believe that the conversations we have with kids about consequences are particularly important as well. Helping children understand that good things happen when we make good choices and unpleasant things happen when we make bad choices encourages kids to think about what they're doing and take more responsibility for themselves.
One of the biggest problems that I perceive when it comes to discipline is then inability of parents and teachers to find a middle ground in discipline. Discipline isn't supposed to be happy all the time, nor does it need to be punitive. It should be full of teachable moments that encourage the child to think and reason and develop a moral code. That doesn't happen through cruelty, nor does it happen when we rubber stamp "great!" on everything a kid does.
Adults need to help kids focus on fixing problems. All of us, regardless of age, make mistakes from time to time and when we're adults, we try to fix them. Take the example about the electric company from above--if I don't pay my bill, I fix my mistake by paying it as soon as possible. With my own kids, this skill has become increasingly important as they've gotten older. At eleven and thirteen, they are now able--most of the time--to think about how they want to fix problems they created and even ones they just encounter. The ability to problem-solve, to me, is critical to self-discipline. People who can't solve problems for themselves are more likely to continually encounter more and more problems, and more and more negative consequences. The same is true for people who have difficulty predicting the consequences of their actions, or are too impulsive to consider the consequences before they act. The inability to do these things makes life a lot harder as an adult, when consequences are much more serious than losing your bike for a day or having to clean up your dirty dishes.
The crux of discipline--teaching children how to handle life in a socially appropriate manner--is going to vary family to family, culture to culture, society to society. How we get there will differ as well. The important things are in reminding ourselves that discipline is one area in which middle-of-the-road really is the best way, and often the most responsive and respectful way, to teach children to become the citizens we hope they will be.
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