Discipline: Key to Emotional Development of Children

Discipline: Key to Emotional Development of Children

by Patricia Dupuis

Paddy is the proud mother of ten grown children. Paddy holds an honors degree in English Literature and is currently a freelance editor. She enjoys basketball, running, and being actively involved in the lives of her children. Paddy encourages other women to be great moms through mothers’ groups and conferences.

A friend of mine, who coaches competitive basketball, has a hard time with try-outs. They are a stressful time for players, parents and coaches alike. In the end, he tells me, all he wants is to observe the girls for ten minutes with their mothers…then the decision is easy. “If they are disrespectful to their mother, roll their eyes at her, ignore or dismiss her…then I am not interested … they are not coachable.” Coachability means doing what you are told, respecting the team dynamic and forgetting about personal glory.

This coach, after long and often frustrating experience, has seen that the key to managing in the world, coachability, has its roots in the relationship of the child to his/her parent. These patterns begin in early childhood and the implications are enormous:

If you want your child, at fifteen, suspended from school for assault, let him, at three, kick or bite his siblings to manifest sibling rivalry. If your want your 12-year-old daughter to be manipulative and conniving with her friends, let her manipulate you with her charm, her dimples and her precious little pout when she is two. If you want your school age child to be frustrated and unable to follow instruction in class, don’t encourage him, at three, to finish his puzzle or clean up after himself. If you want your 17 year old son banned from school sports for a year or more for losing it with a game official, let him have tantrums when he’s two so he can vent his hostilities and frustrations.

Dr. Robert Shaw in his book, The Epidemic, says:

The lives of adults are determined by the decisions they make about what worked and didn’t work when they were young. The way adults view the world and go about seeking contentment and fulfillment is largely determined by the conditioning patterns established early in life.

Dr. Shaw claims we have an epidemic problem of joyless, selfish children. We are breeding a generation of unattached predatory children who are cognitively smart but lack the capacity to appreciate the feelings and needs of others. Very bright children who are emotionally stunted… clever but mean. Parents may notice this sullen, joyless behavior as something to be explained but not to address. Tell tale signs that we, as parents, are creeping into The Epidemic could be things like: “She’ll grow out of it”, “I’m too tired to deal”, “He’s just high-spirited”, “It’s just hormones”.

In the book The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, one of the characters, a mother of several children, gives Mr. Craven advice on how to handle his new responsibility, Mary, an unhappy orphan. She tells him that there are two ways to ruin a child — the first to indulge her in everything, the second to deny her in everything. It is that balance between love and discipline that is the key to emotionally well-adjusted children. Parents, and in a special way, mothers, must be confidant, authoritative leaders of their children so they will grow to be “competent, compassionate adults who live by Christian principles”(Stenson). Discipline comes from the word “disciple” which means to follow. We must lead our children so they will follow. Emotional development covers relationships, balance and control, empathy, confidence and, of course, self-esteem.

Sadly, it often happens that self-esteem is confused with self-centeredness. Bill Gates, in an address to a graduating class, said: ”The world won’t care about your self-esteem. The world expects you to accomplish something BEFORE you feel good about yourself.” Self- esteem is the natural by-product of a healthy productive life lived by fully developed children and results from solid bonding, loving limits and the opportunity to be productive. It is definitely not lavishing excessive praise on everyday good behavior.

Current parenting trends involve child-centric theories that are totally opposed to the development of empathy, which is other-centeredness. Examples of child centric theories results in comments such as: “don’t let the baby cry”, “he’ll be toilet trained when he is ready”, “discipline is disrespect to a child”, “child’s feelings always come first”. The first step in the ethical development of a child is this capacity for intimacy and empathy, this ability to see beyond one’s self. It begins with attachment and bonding in the early months of life. The more love a child gets, the more he is capable of giving. Attachment breeds self-control, self-esteem, empathy and affection. Children are not spoiled by acts of love and generosity – relationships become distorted when gifts are bribes or placations. A spoiled child is one who is consistently allowed to exert her will when not appropriate. The child then goes through life with close relationships centered on control rather than loving empathy.

Young children don’t think in terms of abstract values – they are concerned with whether you smile or frown or stop them from doing something. Your child will internalize all these signals even if she goes through periods of resistance. This is passing on values. Empathy is compassion, which leads to loyalty and responsibility. Lack of empathy leads to a diminished sense of connection between oneself and the consequences of one’s actions. There is a cruelty that can come from people who are alienated from themselves and lacking in empathy. Dr. Shaw cites school shooters as a case in point. The path to severe dysfunction is subtle but so is the path towards well-adjusted compassionate children. “It’s your turn now”, “Good try”, “Don’t call my sister names”, “Are you okay?”…These are all indications of empathy in children. They do not grow up to be well-adjusted, empathetic children on their own; it requires training.

Our families must be secure and serene environments but if we are obsessed with creating a haven, children are unable to cope in the more demanding world outside their homes. If children are constantly placated, they grow into adults unable to cope in the rough and tumble world. Children need inner resources to deal with the stress of accountability and responsibility. Frustration builds character. By preventing the experience of guilt and disappointment, we create a narcissistic personality. It begins when our children are infants. Newborns need immediate attention and feeding but by 6-8 months they are able to fall asleep on their own, sleep through the night and amuse themselves with a toy. Often however parents don’t move through the stages with their children. They stay locked in the newborn total care mode. The result is a toddler demanding and insistent, waking up frequently, demanding complicated soothing rituals, resisting routines and toilet training, having tantrums and experiencing total collapse in the face of frustration. We need to grow through the stages of development with our children so they are encouraged to be more mature and independent every step of the way.


Now that we have a better understanding of the why’s of parental discipline, we need to get a handle on the wherefore’s. How can we be loving, firm and correct, without dampening the spirit …what are effective disciplining techniques? Always, first and foremost, according to Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, begin with the end in mind. This means we think long term. How do I want my child to be as an adult, in 10 years from now, 5 years, 2 years, 2 months from now when Grandma visits? Once we have that goal, we work backwards. All parental discipline must aim toward self-discipline. Accepting your denials now means your child can practice self-denial later. We encourage children to internalize by developing a loving relationship with them and by being a firm leader. Children love and respect us less when we try to be their friend rather then firm and clear so we must develop the techniques of enforcing boundaries without becoming angry. The best atmosphere for effective discipline is one of love so that the method of administering specific punishments is less important than the motive and atmosphere. Rules and limits do not dilute the climate of love and acceptance. It is a loving act to stop a child from doing wrong and teaching him to behave in the world. Children must be helped to experience the pain and frustration of not getting their own way and still stay connected emotionally with those they love. So our aim is to be affectionately assertive while establishing rules, giving good example, providing encouragement and praise, exerting loving denial and just punishments.

Our lives are filled with critical moments on issues large and small which may seem insignificant at the time because we just want to get through dinner, finish the shopping or end the play date. How each situation is handled sends a vitally important message to your children about the nature of your relationship with them. “From the sleep-deprived decision in the middle of the night that it is easier to pull a toddler into bed with you, to the evening when you are too tired or lazy or afraid to stand up to a rebellious teen – by not acting you are acting, potentially in a harmful way.”(Shaw)

So, think long term, determine how to get there (rules and strategies and limits), work out a method of implementation and proceed with consistency and resolve in an atmosphere of love. Security, vital to the development of children, is ensured when those in authority take charge. There must be zero pay off for the kind of behavior that suggests your child thinks he is in charge. Bad behavior will be extinguished when there is zero pay-off, no results and negative consequences. Be firm and clear without any anxiety about how to get back into their good graces, otherwise they begin to manipulate you, sensing your unease. In particular, always react immediately and dramatically to defiance of your authority which is the foundation of your relationship with your child.

All of the authority, routines and limits begin with schedules and patterns for sleeping and eating when your child is very small. By four to six months, a schedule for naps, feeding and sleeping through the night should emerge as a sign of secure attachment. When you have an 8-10 month old who is as demanding as a newborn, this is not a problem child, but rather an indication of parents who need help to adjust. Children with chronic sleep patterns have never been taught to soothe themselves, which is the first gift you give your child. It is also the first statement of authority in your relationship with your child – to take control and not feel guilty. “I love you and know what’s best for you.” What a parent is trying to do by all this is to create a harmonious family environment where each child fits into the family and also into the world at large.

Tone and approach are also critically important when making it clear to child what you are asking of them. Crouch to be at eye level, make eye contact, touch them firmly and speak in clear but quiet voice that your child must strain to hear. Say things in a tone of conviction, without saccharin or affected undertones which suggest an artificial peer like situation that puts the child in charge. There is almost no situation in which a parent should be asking a child’s permission…most decisions are yours alone. Our behaviors and tone could be distorting our children’s views of who they are, who their parents are and the nature of that relationship between them. Once we commit a speech act, we have to deliver, follow through, otherwise children get the impression that life is one long negotiation and lack of follow through permits defiance.

When correcting, we must never lose sight of the good and loving side of our children. Seek first to understand, as Stephen Covey would say, and always keep in mind the tenderness that each and every child needs.

Our character is left in the hands of our freedom but we, as parents, must give our children a solid base. The chief value of popular culture as perpetuated by the media is that the most important thing is that “I am happy regardless of how others feel”. The irony is that no one can be happy without making others happy. Self-fulfillment is through giving.

Abandonment is cruelty. Letting our kids run wild is abandonment and so is the frustrated response to a trying teen –“do whatever you want.” It leaves children in desolation. The whole parenting thing must be seen as an adventure, full of thrills and chills, excitement and disappointment but our striving helps to form our children. Each child is our masterpiece, our life’s work, but they are also each a work in progress. They gradually internalize our attitudes which become part of their way of being, the way they see the world.

These attitudes and values determine how they conduct themselves, their understanding of the good and the just, their ability to see the difference between the profound and the tasteless, truth and falsehood. It all begins with that critical relationship between child and parent, which is the key to their solid emotional development, and we must be confident in our task and authority to carry it out.


  1. Remember that discipline is a natural outpouring of your love for your child.
  2. Be a confident leader in your home, willing and able to use your authority to guide your children.
  3. Establish rules and limits that must be articulated regularly and primarily in the areas of sleeping and eating routines.
  4. React consistently and firmly each and every time your child behaves inappropriately.
  5. Be a pro-active leader of your children, not one who simply “reacts” at a given moment.
  6. Responding to parental discipline will lead a child naturally to self-discipline.
  7. Lead your child to cooperate with family rules by ensuring that an affectionate, comfortable relationship is already in place.
  8. Never behave in a way that gives your child the distorted view that he/she is in charge.
  9. Never lose sight of the loving, good side of our child when you must exercise authority or implement discipline.
  10. Be public in your praise but private in correction.


Robert Shaw, The Epidemic

James Stenson, Preparing for Peer Pressure

Stephen Covey, Seven Habits of Highly Effective Families

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