The Ugly Face of Discipline

Using punishment as a method to discipline your child can do more harm than good. This article discusses that ugly side of discipline.

By Malini Gopalakrishnan

The Ugly Face of Discipline

You reach home after a long stressful day at work, rush to the kitchen and ready a glass of hot malted beverage for your seven-year-old child. As you head to your next chore, you hear the sound of the milk mug hitting the floor and the splash of the milk making its way across most of your furniture and walls. The exhaustion, frustration and fury shoots right to the tip of your fingers and you belt out a tight slap, on the little arm or maybe even the cheek of your child. Of course, you feel terrible later as you realise it is never the desired course for any parent.

When force becomes the only way a parent can establish order with his child, he should be aware that such temper can later snowball into severe psychological problems. The little one could become a giant rebel at some stage. Are we then saying it is not good to discipline your child? Not at all. Discipline is a significant part of the upbringing process, the way it is handled even more significant.

‘Toxic vicious cycle’

Dr Yashaswini Ramaraju, Director of The Reach Clinic, Bangalore, states that there are several reasons why parents resort to the use of force at home. “Almost all the psychological issues in children can be traced back to issues at home. Often, these violent outbursts come from good, sound parents. For working parents, there is a lot of pressure from that direction. For stay-at-home mothers, there is no dearth of stress either. Modern lifestyle brings with it an abnormal amount of stress and frustration. What happens as a result is that these parents become emotionally reactive and start lashing out at their children. So what you get is a toxic vicious cycle,” she says adding that highly reactive parents will raise highly reactive children. “The environment at home reinforces such behaviour as children and parents are caught in a wrestle of will against will,” she insists.

Differing parenting styles impacts discipline

Another trigger to use radical measures to reinforce discipline in children is the difference in parenting styles of the two parents. Dr Ramaraju adds, “There can be a lack of consistency in the rules that are laid down at home. Such a contradiction confuses the child and leads to lack of clarity in understanding what the parent is actually trying to teach the child.”

Spanking is a strict No-No

She further adds that spanking very often disturbs the delicate equilibrium of the child’s psyche. “When we counsel children with psychological issues, we always take time to study and engage with parents. Often, the issues stem from there. Parents might then need counselling to try and correct the situation.”

According to the law!

The need for discipline means that parents sometimes have to play the bad cop, but how far is too far? Prof Madabhushi Sridhar, Central Information Commissioner and Former Professor of Law, and Coordinator at NALSAR University, says, “Causing injury and harm is against the law except according to procedure established by law, as per Article 21. Parents and teachers are no exception. Causing hurt or grievous hurt are offences for which imprisonment is prescribed under Indian Penal Code, a 150-year-old law of India. There is a general defence to all offences, where a teacher or parent is protected if he proves that he did it in good faith, which is defined as an act done with due care and caution. One cannot claim that punishing a child corporally is for his development and thus with good intent. Causing injury is in itself a mala fide (in bad faith). When intention is mala fide, motive being good offers no defence.”

Sridhar further states, “Juvenile Justice Act has also prescribed a new crime for cruelty towards a child. The recent law giving Right to Education also opposed physical or emotional injuries inflicted on a child. Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act defines 'violence' to include physical, emotional and economical injury on children and women.”

Legally speaking, there are no allowed forms of punishment (discipline). Reasonable admonition perhaps is permitted. Anything more than that could assume a form of civil or criminal wrong or both, depending on intensity.

An open approach to discipline…

The need to reason and communicate effectively with children is reinforced by Prof Sridhar, who believes that inflicting physical punishment is not a guaranteed means of disciplining. “Insulting, demoralising, using abusive language or certifying that they would never learn anything in life, etc. are all forms of emotional abuse, which is sometimes more harmful than physical injury,” he says. “Sometimes, we emotionally feel that beating alone corrects a person, whether a thief or a child. Parents should have the patience to correct children in a consistent, yet nurturing manner,” he reiterates.

Teaching discipline has to be a long-term process, according to Dr Ramaraju. “It has to be a repetitive reinforcement of an action or idea. Using effective praise when a child behaves well, focussing on the action as opposed to the result can work wonders. However, this doesn’t mean that you cannot be firm. If a child behaves badly, the punishment should be in a related context. To explain, if a child plays with food at the table, simply take away the plate. Be resolute but avoid venting out frustration verbally or physically. Open communication is always better. Speak in clear terms instead of using winded language,” he says.

Parents too are humans, and are prone to making mistakes and losing their cool. However, a conscientious approach to making discipline more of a process than a result goes a long way in protecting children from a scar that remains for a lifetime.

Tips for Maintaining Discipline

Whichever discipline techniques you choose to use, they can be more effective if you keep these ideas in mind:

  • Guide your discipline techniques to fit well with your child's temperament.
  • Communicate your discipline plan
  • Be respectful of your child
  • Don’t extend punishments
  • Display model behaviour
  • Look for the "why" behind behaviours


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