Discipline for Children of Different Ethnic Groups


Please send me info on how to discipline children in Hispanic, African
American and other ethnic groups what is usual practice and uniqueness to a specific culture.
Kokab A. Saeed, M.D.


Dear Dr. Saeed,

I am a family physician and have been teaching parenting and training parent educators in the Puget Sound area (Washington State) for about 7 years. I am not sure at all how familiar you are with Positive Discipline or the theory behind it (or how effective it is!) The simple answer to your question is that Positive Discipline works for parents of any religious or ethnic group and in any language. What parents of any size shape or color want is discipline that is effective long term, and discipline where they are able to maintain a sense of dignity and respect. Positive Discipline fits the bill. Having said that, it is important to recognize a few things that are quite "different" about PD, and how parents adapt.

Positive Discipline is based on the work of Alfred Adler a Viennese psychiatrist, contemporary of Freud. He actually worked very closely with Freud for many years but eventually their theories diverged in very significant ways. Freud believed that basically (and this is a big simplification) your behavior is determined by things that happened in your past (how aggressive and sexual impulses are integrated). This means that behavior in the present is directed by your past, but can be modified by positive or negative stimuli. One common application to child discipline is a form of behavior modification (B. F. Skinner). If you want your kid to do something, make sure they have a reward, if you don't want a behavior, make sure there is a punishment or some kind of negative incentive.

The Adlerian view is quite different. Adler believed that although people are influenced by their past, that their behavior is determined in the moment and driven by their need to "belong" (be part of the group) and to have meaning. So you will get the most cooperation when children feel loved - belonging - and when they perceive that they have meaning or significance. When children don't feel belonging and significance, they will work to get it, and behavior that results usually looks like "misbehavior," – because children usually have a "mistaken idea" about how to get belonging and significance. What the behavior looks like exactly depends on each individual's beliefs about what it takes to belong and have meaning. One example I use in parenting classes is asking parents to think about a two year old when the new baby comes home. The two year old sees his or her younger sibling getting a lot of attention, sees that Mom picks up the baby whenever the baby cries, sees the neighbors bringing the baby presents, hears everyone talking about the baby. So what does the two year old do? Well it depends on the child. One child may decide that "Mommy loves the baby more than me...and to get more love (belonging) around here I need to act like a baby". (Adler did not believe that these decisions were conscious, but had very simple techniques for assuring he was on track). Another child in the same situation might decide "It won't be any good having two babies in this house, I can be special and be important (get more belonging) by being a helpful big sister (brother)" The actual behavior depends on the belief/decision of the child.

The other extremely important difference about the Adlerian approach is that he believed that we can work together most effectively when we treat each other with dignity and respect, when we have democratic relationships where no person is "better" than the other. Some parents get confused by this, thinking that if everyone in a family is "equal" then there will be chaos and parents will not be able to do their job of teaching and guiding their children. This model calls for parents to be leaders and teachers, not dictators. This is a challenging concept for everyone in parenting class regardless of their ethnic background. When they grew up, when Dad said "jump" to Mom, Mom jumped. The kids watched that, so when Mom said "jump" to the kids, the kids jumped. But now (at least in the predominant culture) when Dad says "jump", Mom says "huh?"...and when Mom says "jump" to the kids they don't jump either (and the parents recognize this). The challenge is that they didn't learn any of the tools for parenting democratically in an effective way...and it is not surprising that they are struggling.

The extra challenge that some very religious families and families of different backgrounds have is that the husband- wife relationship is still very hierachical but the kids still don't respond in kind (with obedience). It helps families to understand that the reason kids don't respond in kind is that they are in a democratic culture, one that has an underlying premise that people are equal. Equal people don't boss each other around. They know this from their peers...and parents cannot "undo" this peer knowledge. They can spend a lot of energy trying, but it will not result in the children respecting them.

In my experience what is really helpful for parents is to help them sort out what they mean by RESPECT. Many families lump "obedience" and "respect" into one big thing they call "respect." But they are very different. It is not hard to help families sort this out (as long as it is done very kindly, gently AND respectfully). Of the two values, respect is clearly the most important. Parents want their children to hold them in high regard. When I teach the parents new tools that work well, and they can see that even though their child is not "obeying" (because they stopped giving orders), but is cooperating (because they learned how to invite cooperation) AND the child holds them in higher regard than they did before parents are VERY happy. It feels like a win/win for them.

Parents also know at a very deep level that mere obedience to someone who is bigger or more powerful than you can be a dangerous trait for young people. It is much healthier for kids to have a real sense of themselves so that they can feel good about making decisions when the need arises. For example, if a popular big kid came and offered another student drugs in a way that it was very hard to say "no," obedience is not the skill that would be helpful in the moment. Practicing standing up for themselves and their beliefs is very important for all young people these days.

There are a couple of other things that make Positive Discipline effective for parents. It is taught experientially. Instead of just talking about the concepts, the parents get a chance to experience and practice some of the techniques. This allows them to notice and feel success in a safe environment. In Positive Discipline classes there is always a lot of sharing and parents really feel the support and caring of the other parents. This is really encouraging. Lastly, the parenting instructors never tell a parent that there is a "right" or a "wrong" way to parent. There is deep respect for the needs of each family to handle things in their own way. Some times the methods families choose might be more effective short term than long term, but as a group of parent instructors, we have deep faith and respect for parents to come back for more help if they need it or to try things out on their own.

If you have not done so already I encourage you to read the book Positive Discipline by Jane Nelsen. I hope you find it as encouraging as the many different kinds of parents I teach have found it. The Spanish translation of the book currently available in the US is not a very good one, but there is another translation that may become available here in the future that seems to be better.

If it would be helpful for you to contact people who are teaching parents in Spanish please let me know. You can email me at Jody@encouragingsolutions.net
I hope this is helpful for you.

Jody McVittie, M.D.

PS. I also teach Positive Discipline to teachers to use with their students. Not surprisingly, students of all ethnic groups respond well in school too. In fact the processes we use in school, which help increase a sense of belonging, can have dramatic positive results with students who have felt left out because of ethnic differences or language challenges. It can be so exciting to see kids "come out of their shell" when they (finally) feel safely included.

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