THE SEVENTH IDEAL OF ATTACHMENT PARENTING:
Positive Discipline / Behaviour
This article was published, citation information below.
Ang, M. (2006). The Seventh Ideal of Attachment Parenting: Positive Discipline / Behaviour. In Infanity magazine, October 2006 issue.
The Seventh Ideal of Attachment Parenting as listed on the Attachment Parenting International website is “Positive Discipline”. Positive discipline is to do with your child’s behaviour and begins with an understanding that your long-range goal is to teach your child how to make good decisions as an older child and as an adult. Children learn from following good examples and role models. The onus is on parents to become the kind of persons you want your child to be. Boundaries and limit-setting are necessary as children grow, but the AP approach advocates only positive, non-violent methods of discipline and loving guidance that promote the development of self-control and empathy towards others.
A starting point – typical approaches to the issue of Discipline
It is commonly stated that there are three main parenting approaches when it comes to discipline – the authoritarian approach, the authoritative approach and the permissive approach. I would like to point out that this is just one particular parenting paradigm, but since it is the most common one, we shall study what each of these approaches implies.
The so-called authoritarian approach to parenting is one very well known among Malaysian families. In essence, parents expect to be obeyed, no questions asked. Strict measures are often taken to enforce the rules, with disobedient children being typically spanked or scolded, or otherwise having privileges taken away. If children question parental authority, the stereotypical Asian reply is “I’ve eaten more salt than you have rice…” The main goal of the authoritarian parent appears to be to raise a well-behaved child.
In this part of the world, the so-called permissive approach is typically adopted by a subset of modern, highly educated, urban parents. In essence this approach emphasizes self-regulation by the child with minimal or no intervention by parents. Conflict is avoided as the parent makes every effort to remain the child’s best friend. The main goal of the permissive parent appears to be to raise a child that feels loved with good self-confidence and self-esteem.
The so-called authoritative parenting approach tries to strike a balance between these two extremes. The parent sets the rules and enforces them, but does not unreasonably limit the child’s actions. A measure of flexibility exists in that the child is able to discuss certain rules with the parent, but if parent and child disagree at any point, it is the parent’s rules that prevail as an adult. The goal of the authoritative parent is to raise a self-confident and secure child that is yet self-controlled.
Most parental strategies for handling behaviour can be considered as part of a spectrum of responses that range from severe punitive punishments for bad behaviour to concrete rewards for good behaviour. This spectrum of responses can also be termed as “conditional parenting”, where parental response is conditional based on the child’s behaviour. The diagram below illustrates my point in a graphical manner.
The authoritarian parent typically uses the leftmost strategies in the diagram above, while the authoritative parent typically skews towards the middle and right side of the spectrum of responses. While seldom interfering with the child’s behavioural decisions, sometimes when compliance is absolutely necessary the permissive parent may use the strategies on the rightmost side of the diagram above.
So which of all these approaches and strategies is consistent with AP? To answer that, we need to look again at the goal of discipline within the AP framework.
The AP goal with regards Discipline
The long-range goal of discipline in the AP context is to teach your child how to make good decisions, both as an older child and as an adult. At the same time the overall goal of AP is secure attachment where the child develops trust that his/her emotional needs will be met by a responsive, loving parent. Putting the two together, it is clear that the AP goal with regards discipline is to nurture a secure, empathetic and self-controlled child.
Discipline the AP way
Keeping this goal in mind, let us now try to formulate an AP approach to discipline. We will consider the three aspects of our goal in turn: our child needs to be 1. Secure, 2. Empathetic, and 3. Self-controlled.
Secure. Obviously, any strategy that jeopardizes the child’s trust in the parent’s responsiveness to his/her emotional needs is not consistent with AP. This is further expanded on the AP International website in this way, “the AP approach advocates only positive, non-violent methods of discipline”. Spanking is not a non-violent method of discipline since it utilizes physical punishment – it is therefore inconsistent with the AP approach. Scolding is not a positive method of discipline since scolding focuses on the negative behaviour of the child in a negative tone of voice and manner on the part of the parent – it, too, is inconsistent with the AP approach to discipline. It becomes obvious therefore that authoritarian parenting is not consistent with attachment parenting. What is less obvious is that permissive parenting is also not consistent with AP. The permissive approach avoids setting any sort of limits on the child and gives the child complete freedom to decide on how he/she should behave. However, a very young child actually needs his/her parent to set certain limits and boundaries and many so-called “naughty” or “deliberately disobedient” behaviours, such as the child reaching out to touch an object that the parent has already said was not to be touched, are actually developmentally appropriate responses as the child learns what really are his/her limits and boundaries and whether or not the parent’s yes means yes and no means no. The child’s emotional need at this stage is for a consistency of response from his/her parent – failure to provide this sort of consistency means a lack of responsiveness to the child’s emotional needs, jeopardizing the child’s trust in the parent. The parent should not therefore ignore the child’s repeated tests of his/her boundaries by first saying “no” and later allowing the same behaviour. Neither should the parent resort to scolding or spanking to enforce the rules. An approach consistent with AP is to gently but firmly repeat the “no”, perhaps giving the reason for it (e.g. “it’s dangerous, etc.), and if the disobedience continues to gently move the child and the forbidden object out of each other’s reach.
Empathetic. Empathy has to do with putting oneself in another’s shoes. An empathetic person understands how others feel and can see things from another’s perspective. If everyone in the world were truly empathetic, there would be no wars, no stealing, no cruelty, no mocking, no racism… the list goes on. The fact of the matter is, empathetic people are in the minority – yet this is one of the goals of AP, to promote empathy towards others. How can this be done?
If we consider again the spectrum of responses, which I have termed “conditional parenting”, it is obvious that the various discipline strategies appeal to the child’s sense of self-preservation or self-interest. In order to avoid the consequences of misbehaviour (i.e. to avoid getting a spanking, scolding, time-out or denial of privileges), the child behaves himself. This is self-preservation. Good behaviour is motivated by the desire to obtain praise or even a material reward from the parent. This is self-interest. Taken to its extreme, the child will only behave himself if rewarded materially (i.e. bribery). Obviously, none of these motivations for good behaviour stems from empathy, but instead trains (even if on a subconscious level) the child towards self-centredness.
An alternative approach to motivating good behaviour comes from a shift in perspective. If we consider the root meaning of the word “discipline”, it is to “make disciples” – in other words, discipline has more to do with teaching than with punishments or rewards. Training towards empathy therefore starts with teaching the child the impact of his/her actions on others. This approach may not see quick fixes to bad behaviour, especially when the child is very young, but if applied consistently and lovingly, it will see the development of long term, lasting empathy. A prerequisite for this approach to work though is that the parents will necessarily need to be role models for their children – this approach can never be “do as I say but don’t do as I do” – it must always be “do both as I say and do”.
Self-controlled. The final goal of discipline the AP way is for the child to develop self-control – in other words, for the child’s motivation for good behaviour to be internally regulated and not externally imposed. This internal regulation is related with the child’s ability to be truly empathetic towards others. A child who is concerned about harming creatures that live in the wild will not litter or damage the environment. A child who is considerate enough to realize his classmate may need to use the bathroom after he does will take care to leave it in as clean a condition as he can. A child who is aware that her baby brother would enjoy a taste of her special snack will save some for him. All these are examples of self-controlled good behaviour, not motivated by thought of reward or by fear of punishment.
In conclusion, the seventh ideal of attachment parenting advocates parental modelling of desired behaviour coupled with gentle, yet firm guidance and teaching as the child learns true self-control and empathy towards others. Any strategy that contributes towards these goals is consistent with the AP approach to discipline.