Marshall and Wilkinson say American parents generally focus too much on what they call “blind obedience.” Most parenting books and advice columns, they say, rely too heavily on the use of rewards and punishment, or external controls, treating children as wild beasts who must be tamed.
Marshall, an associate professor of education at the University of South Florida-Lakeland, said it’s a mistake to simply characterize as “misbehavior” any actions that don’t conform to adult expectations.
“Children, including adolescents, behave to get their needs met,” Marshall said. “We call some of the things they do ‘misbehavior,’ but from the child’s point of view they’re just behaving to get their needs met, and if we understand what need they’re trying to meet then we can parent them more effectively, and much of what they do no longer looks like misbehavior that needs to be punished.”
That outlook pervades the 223 pages of Wilkinson and Marshall’s book. They encourage parents to take the time to understand their children’s motivations rather than simply giving in to reflexive, “mindless punishment,” which Wilkinson compares to fast food — quick and easy, but not healthful.
The authors say the word “discipline” has been corrupted over the centuries. The original Greek word “paedeia,” the source of our word “discipline,” meant “to educate.” That original meaning continues in the use of “discipline” to describe a field of academic study.
The authors’ approach can be distilled to a three-word phrase that appears as a pull-out quote on page 7: “Don’t punish … teach.”
“A lot of advice parents get is on how to discipline their children,” Marshall said. “You wait for your kids to make a mistake and punish them so they don’t do it again. Our approach is that you teach children by example and by putting them into circumstances where they can learn what they’re supposed to do.”
Though they don’t mention any names, the authors’ approach seems intended as a corrective to such parenting experts as the popular syndicated columnist John Rosemond, who recently wrote that parents should regard toddlers as “psychotic.”
Automatic punishments don’t teach children anything, said Wilkinson, who is part of a group practice in Winter Haven. By seeking to understand the source of children’s motivations, he said, parents have a better chance of avoiding an endless cycle of misbehavior and punishment.
“As adults, we don’t behave appropriately for fear of punishment,” Wilkinson said. “We behave appropriately because it’s the right thing to do and because we are morally competent individuals. Why shouldn’t we be teaching our kids that? Why should we teach our kids that the only reason you behave is to avoid punishment or get a reward?”
The authors realize that some will interpret their approach as giving children license to do whatever they want. They say that’s not what they are advocating.
Marshall and Wilkinson acknowledge that actions must have consequences, and they say it’s important for children, especially from birth through age 5, to learn boundaries and respect for authority.
But the authors say a “proactive” approach to parenting, as opposed to a reactive approach of rewards and punishments, helps children to become self-regulating people with internal controls. That is, the child cleans up her room because she understands why it’s important to do so and not simply because she fears being punished for not doing it.
Marshall said adolescents whose parents wield punishment as an exclusive means to address behavior issues often simply learn to “go underground” and hide the forbidden behavior from their parents.
That’s not to suggest parents should be buddies to their children, the authors say. It means cultivating a relationship in which children are open with their parents.
Marshall, who has a specialty in adolescent neuro- psychology, said the brain isn’t fully formed until the mid-20s. That fact means children’s actions don’t necessarily conform to adult logic.
“We sort of assume this intent,” Wilkinson said. “We assume every behavior they engage in is an intentional violation of our rule, and that’s what leads to punishment.”
Marshall said the United States has a culture of punishment. The authors cited several highly publicized examples of parents going to extremes to punish their children for misbehavior, including an Orlando father who forced his daughter to stand along a busy road holding a sign that read, “I lied to my dad.”
The authors expressed amazement that so many parents applauded that and other acts of public humiliation.
Wilkinson said he once had a professor who insisted it doesn’t matter why a child behaves a certain way. Parents should address the behavior, the professor said, not the reason behind it.
Wilkinson said he wholeheartedly disagrees.
“When you can get to the answer of why behaviors happen, that’s when the rubber meets the road and you actually can do something about it,” he said.
The book includes several exercises that give parents a chance to implement the authors’ suggestions.
The authors said a publisher asked them to write “Handbook.” When a deal with that publisher crumbled, they decided to self-publish with their own company, aptly named Paedeia.
The authors said they have another four or five books in the works.
[ Gary White can be reached at 802-7518 or firstname.lastname@example.org. ]