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Old School Discipline is Irrelevant: What We Do Instead

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I was trying to fold some laundry, but my kids were up to all of their typical annoying anti-laundry folding assault techniques. You know, sitting on the folded towels and pulling the middle shirt out of the pile, which in turn knocked the whole pile over, etc. My first thought was, “OMG! Really, just let me fold the f*cking laundry!

Instead of saying that, I had something better up my sleeve. In a fake annoyed voice, I said, “Oh noooo,,, don’t ruin my folded laundry!!!” Then, we spent the next couple minutes throwing laundry at  each other, playing peek-a-boo under the towels and putting socks on our hands. We were all giggling and having fun and ALL of the laundry became unfolded. They wanted my attention, they were looking for a connection, so I gave it to them. It was only piles of folded laundry, and we didn’t have anywhere to go.

After our laundry fight, I told them that we weren’t playing anymore and that if we wanted to go outside and play, we needed to fold the laundry first. Then, without me even asking, Margo, (4) started helping me fold and even told me off when I tried to fold the towels, “I want to do those!!! You fold the washclothes!” The little one, happy with our play session, wandered off and did something else.

This is how ‘discipline’ works in our house.

Will they always WANT to throw the laundry around and goof off? Maybe… but will they always be ALLOWED to throw the laundry around? No! If time permits it and I’m in the mood we can play (and sometimes even when I’m not in the mood, I get in the mood as soon as we start playing). Because I play these types of games frequently with my kids, they know when to play and when it’s time to listen up.

Ok, to be honest, I never really did old school discipline to begin with, but when I ditched the idea that I had to ‘teach‘ my kids to behave, that’s when I started having fun. Old school discipline might seem to work in some cases, but it often requires a whole lot of effort. Also, it can squash a child’s enthusiasm and can make them loose their intrinsic joy to do anything without the promise of a reward or the threat of a punishment. Trust me, I’ve been a high school teacher and by the time most kids get to high school, they won’t do or learn anything unless it’s going to be on a test or for fear that they might fail.

You won’t find sticker charts here. We don’t do allowances. We don’t have chores. We don’t do time out or time in. We don’t do smacking. We don’t bribe or offer rewards. We hardly ever have to raise a voice. We don’t shame and embarrass. Yet, for the most part, my kids listen and listen very well. They don’t trash our house (although it can get pretty messy). They know what’s expected of them. I never sound like a parrot telling them to stop doing something over and over again. My kids don’t hit or bite other children, in fact, they’re pretty sociable and friendly little beings. And… they SHARE (gasp). My kids aren’t perfect, by any means, we still have our challenging moments. But, overall, I would say that lack of old school style discipline in our household has made our lives much easier and more enjoyable.

The roots of authoritarian style obedience
go way back to when parents used to have to get their children to obey immediately because of constant fear or threats to their lives. We’re talking about people living in poverty, people living as slaves and people living under crazy dictatorships or in war torn countries. In fact, not all that long ago, people were actually instructed to not get too attached to their children and to basically treat their children like dogs because there was a very real threat of childhood mortality due to disease. But, um, hello… WE DON’T LIVE IN THAT WORLD ANYMORE! YET WE HANG ONTO OLD SCHOOL IDEOLOGY!? (ok, there are some pockets of the world that are unfortunately still living in those conditions)

Often, when people have kids, they suddenly become very stiff and rigid and forget how to smile and have fun! Parents sometimes don’t smile for days, weeks, even months! But, kids live in a world where they WANT to smile and laugh! They WANT to have fun and they want YOU to have fun! It’s a false idea that kids are trying to manipulate their parents by misbehaving. When a child ‘misbehaves‘, it’s because they were seeking some sort of connection with someone for either a physical or emotional need.

Some fun ideas for getting your kids to cooperate without using old school discipline

Being silly to get them to do something they HATE: Teeth brushing and hair combing are perfect examples: Pretend you don’t know where to brush their teeth. Say, “Should I brush your belly button, your toes, etc“.  Or, pretend that you don’t know the words to a song, etc. Even with homework, to get a kid feeling less anxious or resentful about it, you can purposely ‘mess up‘ homework (on a spare piece of paper) to laugh about it. Even if the game is not relevant to something you want them to do, that time you spend being silly with them will give them a feeling of connection, so that later on, they will want to cooperate.

Make things a race and let them beat you: getting kids to use the toilet, getting them to walk up a big hill, getting them to clean up their toys. A friend of mine, from Bento Bits, who was always struggling to get her kids to clean up their toys, told me about how she put on some crazy music while her and her kids raced around the room cleaning up the toys as fast as they could! It’s not always a race as in, push them to go faster. Sometimes it can be a race where you pretend that you can’t get there as fast as them. No need to worry that they will think they can always win. When you are acting silly with your kids, don’t be afraid to ditch the rules. When the times comes for them to have to play by the rules, they will be able to differentiate between real rules and play rules because they will have gotten that quality connection time.

Power Reversal Games: These are my favorite and quite possibly the most awesome. Power reversal games basically mean that during your play time, you give your child the ‘power‘. Usually kids feel powerless in most situations and that is part of their frustration that causes them to ‘misbehave’ in the first place. For example, tonight, my four year old was in such a mood after a big day out and she kept pushing her 20 month old sister. So, I made up a game where I let them both push me! I would turn around and let them push me from behind and then dramatically exclaimed, “Oh, who pushed me!” This game translated beautifully when my four year old started letting her little sister push her around as part of the game! Full circle! The pushing ended, we all giggled, everyone got the attention they needed and we went on our way.  Here is an excellent list of power reversal games you can play.

What if my child doesn’t want to stop playing or always wants to play?
Kids love playing games and being silly and often won’t want to stop. But, you will need to stop eventually to get something done, or to save your sanity. When I’m finished playing, I either say, “Ok, we’ll do it one more time and that’s it” or I just say, “No, we’re not playing now.” Usually that will suffice. You don’t have to make a game out of everything. Sometimes when a child wants to keep playing and you say “enough“, then they might start to cry. This is very normal and just part of an emotional release that probably needed to come out anyway. Just like laughter releases stress and tension, so does crying. If your child starts to cry when you’re finished playing (of if they get hurt a little while playing), this can be a good chance for them to lovingly be allowed to release extra pent up feelings of stress in the form of tears. You don’t need to stop the crying, just hold them, or be near them to let the emotions release.

Have Fun!
The old school stuff is deeply engrained in our society and it’s often what we resort to because it’s all that we know. But, it’s never too late to change. Never too late to wake up and see that we can ditch the old school stuff and start having more fun with our kids. When your kids are having more fun, you are having more fun and parenting becomes less of a struggle!

I highly recommend reading ‘Attachment Play’ by Aletha Solter for a broader understanding of how play can increase cooperation and improve behavior in children.

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11 Responses »

  1. Im not sure you know what old school discipline actually is or what its purpose was… old school discipline wasnt smacking your kids for being “silly”. In fact it had always been quite like youve mentioned you do. With a sunny disposition, you relate to your children, have fun with them, re-direct undesirsble behavior, allow them to be children. The only time smacking was involved was when direct disobedience was happening. No discipline needed for the breaking of a vase, or the messing of folded washing, or the spilling of a drink, or to much fun…. only when a child blatantly outright disobeyed a direct order from the parent was it cause for discipline. And this was for various reasons. one youve stated, the whole, their lives depended on it thing, but also because parents realised that although children should have freedom to be, to grow, to figure out the art of petition and compromise etc, discipline when it came to obedience in the big things was important or they would loose them as teens. And we see it in 90% of our undisciplined youth today. They dont give a stuff, they dont respect their parents or any other authority either. And it isnt from too much old school discipline… its from having none. Old school parents did not spank there children with an angry out of control demeanor. They did it with love and training in mind knowing full well the consequences of a disrespecful, disobedient kid. They didnt throw smacks around willy nilly either. I think “old school” discipline has been confused with …”bad school” discipline. You know, the parents who smack their kids for everything, even mistakes, and yell and nag as well and do it all with their fleeting emotions of anger. These parents have no self control, are emotionally (and physically) abusive, and call themselves “traditional” parenters. But dont have the same method, motive, mindset or heart about things. The only similarity between them is that a form.of discipline is present. Proper old school discipline is still for today. It still works. The proof is in the kid pudding. But whats not for today (or ever), are stick in the mud, abusive parents (which may be what your referring to as old school parents) AND the other side if the coin where parents dont discipline in any way shape or form, thinking kids can always self regulate unacceptable behavior and then wonder why their lovely little 5 year olds turn into rebellious disrespectful 15 year olds.

    I like your story about the washing. I do the same thing. I like some of this post. But had to point out that there is a difference between real old school parenting and abusive emotion led parenting.

    • I understand what you’re saying too… I wasn’t even just talking about smacking… I’m also talking about cooperation, connection and understanding. Almost all parents feel the need to control their children and train them to be obedient… but what I’m saying is that there is a much more fun and loving way to do it than using rewards or punishments. There is also something much deeper to the games and the silliness and that is to culture a feeling of trust and connection that will last well into the teenage years and beyond.

      • I agree wholeheartedly with Joanne. This was my experience as a child and also with our own children. We have an abundance of silliness in our home, however, even now that our kids have reached the teen years, there is a visible relief in their eyes when we occasionally need to reel them in after they have crossed the line in attitude or decision making. Teens are at once over-confident and insecure. Having boundaries, and at appropriate times consequences, lets them know that they are loved and secure, just as they were as young children.

      • I certainly adhere to boundaries… although, I believe that it is never ok to hit a child and no need to do time out, etc. or to squash their enthusiasm.. which is what I think most ‘discipline’ practices are based on.

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  4. I for one totally agree with this post. What Joanne and the anonymous commenter are referring to is not necessarily old school discipline either. I think it is pretty clear that Kate is talking about a different kind of discipline. The kind that some of my friends talk about. The type where “you wouldn’t dare talk back to my parents. They instilled respect”. And then in the next breath they tell you all the extremely disrespectful things they got up to the minute their parents weren’t looking.

    I have been thinking about this quite a bit lately and I think it all boils down to this: empathy. We are trying to teach our children to share, to help, to curb their rages, to respect other people and their property, to be a good friend and all those other things. But in the end all this comes down to empathy. If you have the capability to put yourself in other people’s shoes and do so regularly, you will naturally be kind to them. Ordering a child to share their toys teaches them nothing. Encouraging them to imagine how the other child feels teaches them not only how to share but also to find joy in making others happy.
    Punishing a child for undesirable behaviour might only teach them not to do these things around you again. But explaining to them how their behaviour made someone else feel (sad, scared, etc) might make them consider their actions next time.

    Punishment might seem to work better or more quickly. But I believe that encouraging empathy has a broader and more permanent result.

    Oh, and by the way, the “clean-up-race” we do is not a race where we compete against each other. We race against the clock (end of the song) and it’s us as a team against the mess, if that makes sense. I can’t believe how well it worked. My kids have been “ASKING” to clean!!!

    • Well said, Alex! That’s exactly it! Just because a child is ‘obeying’ their parents, doesn’t mean everything is happy under the surface!

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  7. Oh my gosh this article is SO uplifting! Thank you!


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