Posted by on Jul 3, 2010 in Practical Parenting | 1 comment

 “For only as we ourselves, as adults, actually move and have our being in the state of love, can we be appropriate models and guides for our children. What we are teaches the child far more than what we say, so we must be what we want our children to become.”
Joseph Chilton Pearce

Discipline is a family affair

Last week we saw how important the middle Pre-Frontal Cortex is to health and well-being. This region is responsible for integrating many areas of the brain into a coherent and functional whole and plays a key role in supporting maturation. It is the area of the brain that makes us most human with its capacities for self-insight, empathy, and moral decision making. If we are to optimally support our children in their life long journey towards full maturity we will need to find ways to support their brain’s natural drive towards integration. To understand Essential Parenting’s approach, let’s look at a common word in parenting circles: discipline.

If we look at the latin origin of the word we find disciplinare meaning to teach or bring order to.

If we look around at how parents try to discipline their kids, we see two general approaches. The first is an attempt to “cut out” a particular behavior through the use of punishment. The idea is that if we give the child a negative experience right after a behavior that we don’t like that they will learn to do everything they can to stop that behavior and thereby avoid the punishment. Studies of this approach show that it works, at least in the short-term. But studies are also clear that over the long-term there are many negative consequences — to both the relationship between parent and child, as well as to the child’s long-term development. The net effect over time of a “cut-it-out” approach* is a diminishment of maturation on the whole.

The second general approach to discipline is to help the brain and mind of the child reach full maturity — not through punishments and rewards used as manipulation — but rather through a process of helping the child understand the rules and roles of the culture while simultaneously helping them to remain regulated and interested in choosing “the right thing” through the power of relationship. This is not a “cut-it-out” approach, but rather an approach where we add elements to the child’s more immature impulses and desires and help them towards their natural capacities of self-control and empathy.

The use of control and aggression with our children does not work for several reasons.
First, punishment often involves the display of power over the child while simultaneously withholding love, understanding, and empathy.

“You did not share your truck with Sean and therefore you will not be able to use your truck for one week. That’s final. I don’t want to hear another word about it.” 

This mode of discipline may evoke shame in many children and get them to think twice about sharing their truck the next time around, but it will also likely evoke counterwill (especially over time). Counterwill* is the natural reaction in each of us to not take orders from people to whom we are not attached. In any given moment, if someone does not appear to be on our side we may find ourselves resisting their direction.

Think about this: If you are at work one day and a new person comes into the office and says, “Print out a report on the Devlin account and bring it over to my desk ASAP,” what is your reaction likely to be? Most likely something like, “Who the hell is that? And who are they to tell me what to do?” This is the natural reaction of counterwill and it doesn’t occur only with people we don’t know. When we feel like we are being treated disrespectfully, even by a friend or a lover, some part of us digs in our heels and pushes against their commands. And so it is with children of parents who routinely employ “power-over” tactics, rather than “working with.”

In short, power-over techniques squash the child’s desire to do the right thing.


A second reason that discipline methods grounded in punishments and/or “power-over” don’t work in the long-term is that they cause the children to feel insecure — about the prospect of getting in trouble, but far more importantly they feel insecure about the relationship with the parent. Many parents will think, “Good. I want my son to feel fear around this issue. Then he will think twice before he does that again.” This view, while understandable, is incredibly short-sighted. The disruption of a secure attachment to the parent over the long term causes much more problems in gaining compliance in the years when it is precisely most valuable to have a modicum of discipline: the teen years. So from a simple functional vantage point control methods do not work, never mind if you are a parent who wants your child to truly respect you and look to your for guidance during difficult times.

The final and most important reason that control and aggression do not work in helping our children come to “right action” on their own is that it does not follow the blue-print that nature follows to maturity. The way that nature matures a human being is not by cutting out impulses and instincts, but rather by adding new capacities into the mix. Instead of getting rid of limbic impulses on the road to maturity, nature instead adds the middle Pre-Frontal Cortex (mPFC) to help mediate between various conflicting desires and needs, and like a CEO of a company, make a responsible decision in the face of conflicting forces. We can not make “lower,” more instinctual impulses go away.

Our motivational and emotional systems are here for good reasons; they have an intelligence all their own. It behooves us to help our children become aware of these impulses and instincts and work with them consciously rather than trying to lock them in a dark dungeon deep in the psyche. There simply is no effective way to cut out motivations and desires that are wired into our neurobiology. Were that possible, centuries of flogging would have achieved that by now. But simply look around you: are the most righteous and pious people any more free from their internal desires and feelings than the rest of us? Is their behavior as a group any more saintly? No. We must instead help our children be able to navigate a mixture of conflictual motivations and feelings. 

The mPFC, which takes many years to wire up and does so optimally in the setting of a secure attachment relationship, helps us in several ways. It helps us regulate our bodies and our emotions so that we can think clearly and not “boil-over” with passion. It optimizes response flexibility, which is the ability to control impulses and instead choose the most appropriate response for the current situation (instead of a dogmatic “one size fits all” approach). Being involved in attuned communication and empathy for others, as well as self-insight, the mPFC is the primary part of the brain responsible for sound moral decision making where there is a heartfelt attempt to do what is best for the greatest number of people. If you look at this list of functions you will see that a well-integrated and properly functioning mPFC is crucial to the development of the kind of discipline we are aimed at in Essential Parenting: To bring about order and self-control in a way that preserves a coherent mind (rather than a fractured and conflicted mind produced by methods of control and fear).

I propose doing this in the following ways:

1. Through eye contact, body language, and tone of voice, let your child know that you love them unconditionally. This means making this unwavering love especially clear to them when they “screw up.”

2. When the initial incident is over and everyone is calm, collected, and connected, pave the way for the next practice-round by precipitating the natural kindness in their heart. “Do you think next time you could try and give your sister a chance?”

3. Be patient. The development of self-control, empathy, and morality are long-term projects. Current evidence shows that the mPFC is not finished wiring up until at least 25 years of age (and studies show that it can continue to thicken across the life-span through the on-going and consistent discipline of mindfulness meditation).

“Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

Take Home: Open beyond your fear and the impulse to control. If we look at discipline as a life-long process of self-mastery that thrives in an environment of unconditional love and healthy limits, we are likely to be of a more forgiving mind and heart when impulses get the better of us or our children. The more we engage in practices of self-reflection and self-regulation the more we become a model of discipline for our children, inviting them into the deepest parts of our shared humanity.

Read more at Discipline: 4 “Must-Ask Questions”

* Phrases learned from the work of Gordon Neufeld
See Hold On to Your Kids by Gordon Neufeld for a much more detailed and nuanced discussion of these issues.
Also The Power to Parent is incredibly useful set of DVD’s (24 hours in all) that lays out Gordon’s understanding of how development occurs in the context of attachment.

One Comment

  1. I’m encouraged by the fact that the mPFC doesn’t finish wiring until 25. My three sons are 8,14 & 17. Do you think that the 101 course would meet my needs for learning? If you don’t think so, could you recommend another resource? Thanks, Tricia


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