by Jane Nelsen
An excerpt from the book Positive Discipline
If you are a teacher, have you been teaching long enough to remember when children sat in neat rows and obediently did what they were told? If you are a parent, do you remember when children wouldn’t dare talk back to their parents? If you don’t, perhaps your grandparents do.
Many parents and teachers today are feeling frustrated because children don’t behave the way they used to in the good old days. What happened? Why don’t today’s children develop the same kind of responsibility and motivation that seemed more prevalent in children many years ago?
We are given many possible explanations, such as broken homes, too much television, video games, and working mothers. These factors are so common in our society today that the situation would seem rather hopeless if they really explained our current challenges with children. (We all know of many single and working parents who are doing a great job raising their children be- cause they use effective parenting skills.) Rudolf Dreikurs had another theory.
There are many major changes that have taken place in society over the past few years that more directly explain the differences in children today. The outlook is very encouraging because, with awareness and desire, we can compensate for these changes and in doing so can also eliminate some of the problems that many think are caused by broken homes, too much screen time, and working mothers.
The first major change is that adults no longer give children an example or model of submissiveness and obedience. Adults forget that they no longer act the way they used to in the good old days. Remember when Mom obediently did whatever Dad said, or at least gave the impression she did, because it was the culturally acceptable thing to do? In the good old days few people questioned the idea that Dad’s decisions were final.
Because of the human rights movement, this is no longer true. Rudolf Dreikurs pointed out, "When Dad lost control of Mom, they both lost control of the children." All this means is that Mom quit giving the children a model of submissiveness. This is progress.Many things about the good old days were not so good. In those days there were many models of submission. Dad obeyed the boss (who was not interested in his opinions) so he wouldn’t lose his job. Minority groups accepted submissive roles at great loss to their personal dignity. Today all minority groups are actively claiming their rights to full equality and dignity. It is difficult to find anyone who is willing to accept an inferior, submissive role in life. Children are simply following the examples all around them. They also want to be treated with dignity and respect.
It is important to note that equality does not mean the same. Four quarters and a dollar bill are very different, but equal. Children obviously do not deserve all the privileges that come with
greater experience, skills, and maturity. Adult leadership and guidance is very important. How- ever, children deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. They also deserve the opportunity to develop the life skills they need in an atmosphere of kindness and firmness instead of an atmosphere of blame, shame, and pain.
Another major change is that in today’s society children have fewer opportunities to learn responsibility and motivation. We no longer need children as important contributors to economic survival. Instead children are given too much in the name of love without any effort or investment on their part and they develop an entitlement attitude. Too many mothers and fathers believe that good parents protect their children from all disappointment. They rescue or overprotect—thus robbing their children of the opportunity to develop a belief in their capability to handle the ups and downs of life. Skill training is often neglected because of busy life schedules or a lack of understanding of how important it is for children to contribute. We often rob children of opportunities to feel belonging and significance in meaningful ways through responsible contributions and then complain and criticize them for not developing responsibility.
Children do not develop responsibility when parents and teachers are too strict and controlling, nor do they develop responsibility when parents and teachers are permissive. Children learn responsibility when they have opportunities to learn valuable social and life skills for good character in an atmosphere of kindness, firmness, dignity and respect.
It is important to emphasize that eliminating punishment does not mean children should be allowed to do whatever they want. We need to provide opportunities for children to experience responsibility in direct relationship to the privileges they enjoy. Otherwise, they become dependent recipients who feel the only way to achieve belonging and significance is by manipulating other people into their service. Some children develop the belief that, "I’m not loved unless others take care of me." Others may develop the belief that they shouldn’t try because they can’t do very much that doesn’t invite blame, shame, and pain. It is saddest when they develop the belief, "I’m not good enough," because they don’t have opportunities to practice proficiencies that would help them feel capable. These children spend a great deal of energy in rebellion, trying to prove themselves, or just giving up.
When all their intelligence and energy is directed toward proving themselves,, rebellion, or giving up, children do not develop the perceptions and skills needed to become capable people. In the book Raising Self Reliant Children in a Self-indulgent World, H. Stephen Glenn and I identify the Significant Seven Perceptions and Skills necessary for developing capable people.
1. Strong perceptions of personal capabilities ("I am capable.")
2. Strong perceptions of significance in primary relationships ("I contribute in meaningful ways and I am genuinely needed.")
3. Strong perceptions of personal power or influence over life ("I can influence what hap- pens to me.")
4. Strong intra personal skills: the ability to understand personal emotions and to use that understanding to develop self-discipline and self-control.
5. Strong interpersonal skills: the ability to work with others and develop friendships through communicating, cooperating, negotiating, sharing, empathizing, and listening.
6. Strong systemic skills: the ability to respond to the limits and consequences of everyday life with responsibility, adaptability, flexibility, and integrity.
7. Strong judgmental skills: the ability to use wisdom and to evaluate situations according to appropriate values.
Children developed these perceptions and skills naturally when they were allowed to work side by side with their parents, receiving on the job training while making meaningful contributions to the family lifestyle. The irony is that in the good old days children had opportunities to develop strong life skills, but had few opportunities to use them. Now the world is full of opportunities for which too many children are not prepared. Today children do not have many natural opportunities to feel needed and significant, but parents and teachers can thoughtfully provide these opportunities. Most misbehavior can be traced to a lack of development in these Significant Seven Perceptions and skills. The good news is that most behavior problems can be eliminated when parents and teachers learn more effective ways to help their children and students develop healthy perceptions and skills. By more effective, I mean skills that don’t include lectures or punishment.
Understanding why children do not behave the way they used to is the first step for parents and teachers who are facing child discipline challenges. We need to understand why controlling methods, which worked so well many years ago, are not effective with children today. We need to understand our obligation to provide opportunities, which were once provided by circumstances, for children to develop responsibility and motivation. And most importantly, we need to under- stand that cooperation based on mutual respect and shared responsibility is more effective than authoritarian control. The following chart explains the differences between the three main approaches for adult child interaction.
The attitude of parents or teachers who choose between each of the three approaches is very different.
Authoritarian (excessive control)—"These are the rules by which you must abide, and this is the punishment you will receive for violation of the rules." Children are not involved in the decision making process.
Permissiveness—"There are no rules. I am sure we will love each other and be happy, and you will be able to choose your own rules later."
Authoritative (kind AND firm)– "Together we will decide on rules for our mutual benefit. We will also decide together on solutions that will be helpful to all concerned when we have problems. When I must use my judgment without your input, I will use firmness with kindness, dignity and respect."