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Discipline and Guidance

Lisa Hassan Scott
Great Britain
From New Beginnings, Vol. 25 No. 5, 2008, pp. 13-14

Recently a friend with similar-aged children asked me, "So what do you think of praise?" We were having a cup of tea, the girls were playing happily, and our conversation moved toward discipline. Being a bookworm, I have read more than my fair share of parenting books, and it seems that "parenting experts" disagree about the utility of praising our children -- some feel that praise is a good thing and will help to build our children's self-esteem. On the other hand, some writers believe that "empty praise" that fails to be specific and descriptive can leave a child feeling patronized or confused. Still others contend that any sort of praise at all is detrimental to a child, placing the child in an overly dependent relationship with her parent, i.e., always seeking to perform for external approval rather than internal reward.

Like many mothers, I spend a good deal of time considering and questioning my own ideas and decisions, as they pertain to guiding my children and helping them to make good choices. The question of praise is one of many parenting quandaries that I had been considering for some time, mainly because it came as a total surprise to me that praise could be anything but a good thing. Some other discipline questions I can think of are: Is it okay to smack? What about time-outs? Are rewards okay? Is it all right to punish? How do I deal with sibling squabbles? The list seems never ending, and parents come up against these questions every day.

For me, whatever book I am currently reading seems to guide my parenting for a time, and then I find myself slipping back into behaviors that differ from what the "expert" said to do. After reading two or three books on the same topic, talking to a handful of friends, and searching the Internet for information, my head is spinning and I feel no further on in my struggle to keep Eilidh from running into a busy road every morning without losing my temper.

The Founders of La Leche League gave timeless advice when they said, "From infancy on, children need loving guidance which reflects acceptance of their capabilities and sensitivity to their feelings." There's nothing prescriptive here -- the founders of LLL haven't taken a stance on praise or time-outs, or any of the other questions that circle in my head every day. Instead, they simply say, as ever, "Look to the child." Knowing your child, her capabilities, being sensitive to her feelings -- all of these things will help us lovingly guide our children.

Let's take a situation that arises every day for me: Eilidh running out into the road. It happened this morning. My reaction today was to feel cross and speak calmly but seriously with her about the dangers of running into the road while walking her back to the house and pointing out those dangers.

If I look at this situation with regard to the advice of the LLL Founders, it is useful to look at what Eilidh's capabilities are and also to examine what her feelings might be. It's a beautiful sunny morning. Eilidh is excited to get out the door and walk to school. She wants to assert herself and experience her independence. She knows the way to school and she wants to show me that she knows. All of these might be her feelings. She is capable of running quite fast (often faster than me, encumbered as I am by lunch bag, spelling book, Iona's eschewed coat, skipping rope). She is incapable as yet of judging traffic. She is capable of listening to me, but perhaps she is incapable of reigning in her enthusiasm to get outside and experience independence.

Going through this process informs my actions and enables me to choose how to react to her behavior. I can find a way to react to her sympathetically, which also keeps her safe. For example, tomorrow I can make different choices about what time I open the door, I can talk it through with her before we go out, I can hold her hand as soon as we walk out the door, or perhaps I can review my own ideas about how far I am willing for her to go without me.

From my thought process above, it is clear that I did not need to go to a book to figure out how Eilidh might be feeling and what I might do about it. I did not need to talk it through with friends or discuss it with a parenting expert. I had the answers within me. Books or experts might come up with more ideas, but only I know what is best for my children and because I am in tune with them, I can engage with them in a way that feels good. It is a fairly simple equation for me: yelling feels bad, loving guidance feels good.

I wish I were able to lovingly guide my children all of the time. I fail several times a day, every day, and I spend a good deal of time every night wishing I had done this or that differently. Even the idea of writing about loving guidance feels laughable at times -- who, me?! But I know I am not alone -- my children are with me every day, expressing themselves, demonstrating their newfound capabilities, and walking with me on this incredible journey of being a family.

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