Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Ponderings: Training Versus Discipline

I’m usually a bit surprised when I see parents punish their children for doing things “incorrectly” when the parents never bothered to teach their children how to do those things in the first place. Let’s put ourselves in our children’s place for a moment. Imagine this: you are ordered to fly a plane. No one has ever taught you to fly a plane, yet you are ordered to fly it. You are unable to get the plane in the air. Or, perhaps you get it in the air only to deliver a bruisingly bumpy ride to the passengers and slam it into the ground upon landing. After your attempt (or lack of since you were missing some crucial information) you hear a hushed angry tone speaking directly into your ear, “I told you to fly the plane.” You are promptly pulled out of the cockpit, fined heavily, and sent to prison for a time.

I think that most of us would agree that, 1- it would be absurd to expect such a thing from someone without first training them, and 2- it would be unreasonable to punish an untrained person for falling short of what was demanded in a situation like this. However, many of us parents seem to overlook these two points when dealing with our children.

When parents share their child wrangling struggles with me such as, “we can’t take our family out to a restaurant because our kids just run away from us,” I always respond with, “well, have you trained them?” My response is usually met with a puzzled look and then a comment about the parent’s methods for punishing their children. But training is not punishment. Let’s think about our plane analogy again. After being yelled at, fined, and put in prison for a while, you are put back in the cockpit and, once again, told to fly the plane. Did your punishment equip you with the necessary skills to fly the plane? Of course not. Likewise, if we are asking our children to exhibit behavior that we have not yet taught them, all the punishment in the world will not make a difference. Punishment without training is almost never effective.

So if “training” is not “punishment,” then what is it? Training is equipping a child with skills before those skills are actually needed. For example, if I were ready to train my child to sit at a restaurant table, I would start at home during mealtime, and tell the child that we are practicing to eat at a restaurant. I would explain what is expected of the child during the meal as well as what the child is to do after she finishes eating (perhaps color, look at a book, stand near mom with a toy etc). I’d give lots of praise for all the ways the child is following my instructions. I’d practice at home until I was certain the child understood, and that the child is able to accomplish what I expect of her. Then I’d do a restaurant “practice run.” I’d eat before I go because the point of this outing is not to eat, but to train. I’d just get a drink or maybe a small appetizer for myself, and a full meal for my child. This way I am able to focus my attention on my child rather than on my food. I’d have plenty of time to praise the child for doing well, or time for re-teaching if necessary. If the practice run was successful, I’d give the child a reward. If it was not successful, I would note the areas that need more work, and train more at home.

(All children need training. However, not all parents will necessarily need to do the same level of training on the same skills. How much training is needed in what areas depends on the child. All children are different.)

Back to our plane analogy. Let’s suppose you have been thoroughly trained as a pilot, fulfilled your flight hours, and received your certification, and have been flying professionally for a little while. Let’s say you decided to neglect your knowledge of piloting out of rebellion toward your boss, or because you’re angry at your friend, or you’re just curious and want to know what a plane sounds like if you try to land it on the freeway. Discipline is definitely in order. Likewise, negative consequences are absolutely appropriate for the child that is fully aware of what is expected and is able to comply but chooses not to.

I like the way Michael and Debi Pearl* explain the difference between training and discipline in their book To Train Up a Child:
“Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it” (Prov. 22:6). Train up – not beat up. Train up – not discipline up. Train up – not educate up. Train up – not “positive affirmation” up. Training is the most often missed element in child rearing. A child needs more than “obedience training,” but without first training him, discipline is insufficient.

Parents should not wait until their child’s behavior becomes unacceptable before they commence training – which would then actually be discipline. Training is not discipline. Discipline is the “damage control” part of training but is insufficient in itself to effect the proper behavior. Training is the conditioning of the child’s mind before the crisis arises. It is preparation for future, instant, unquestioning obedience. An athlete trains before he competes. Animals, including wild ones, are conditioned to respond to the trainer’s voice command.

The frustration parents experience results from their failure to train. Their problem is not “bad” children, just bad training. The “strong-willed,” the hyperactive, the highly intelligent, and the easily bored all need training, and training is effective on all of them.

I like Michael and Debi’s statement about conditioning the child’s mind “before the crisis arises.” It is beneficial to me and the child to teach the child to not run out into the street even before she ever has the opportunity to do so, than to see her barely miss getting hit by a car and try to “fix” the problem with punishment that will probably not be effective because the training has not been provided.

Let us love our children by training them. It takes time. But time we put into our children is never lost.


* The book I quoted, To Train Up a Child by Michael and Debi Pearl, is a short book on training principles and methods. Although there are portions of the book that I do not support, and one chapter that is theologically inaccurate, it is a book that I have personally benefited from and highly recommend. The back cover of the book reads, “To neglect deliberate training is to shove your child into a sea of choices and passions without a boat or compass.”

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