“Spare the rod and spoil the child.” “Children should be seen and not heard.” You’re probably familiar with those archaic bits of wisdom, and shudder to imagine a time when you’d have been called on to discipline your darling munchkin according to such harsh rules. Back in the day, kids were considered to be little adults, and expected to snap to or else. Now, discipline has evolved to a point where parents try to teach their children why their behavior’s not right.
Discipline as Punishment
You think it’s harsh when you sentence your kid to timeout for five minutes? Puritan parents routinely took their young children to witness hangings so they could graphically instill the lesson about sin, wrongdoing, and the consequences of both, writes Steven Mintz, a professor of history at Columbia University, in the “Parenting” entry of the Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society. In the 17th century, when children misbehaved, their parents responded by swatting, slapping or hitting with a switch or their bare hands. The children, not wanting a repeat of that discipline, made efforts not to repeat the acts that got them punished. Moms and dads of the time were passing down the punishments they received as youngsters; in their minds, it worked, and these parents viewed themselves as good people. The common belief was that inflicting physical punishment on children would help them become productive adults. They wouldn’t think much of our counting to three or positive reinforcement.
Virtue and Obedience
We delight in our children’s innocence and love watching them develop from small helpless beings into their own delightful selves. Colonial parents, not so much. Babies were seen as deficient until they began walking, talking and performing simple chores. Survival was key, and there wasn’t much use for kiddos until they could pull their weight in the field, the barn, and the house. Remind your preschooler of that next time she whines about having to clean her room or pick up her coat off the floor. Mintz reports that discipline for her 18th-century counterpart would have centered on instilling virtue and self-government, with no appreciation for natural instincts. Parents and religious leaders alike insisted that little ones submit to authority, and weren’t too delicate about demanding it.
In the 1800s, advice manuals began to stress child nurturing over punishment. That sounds like a good thing, but moms were expected to help their children develop self control via threats of withholding love and appeals to conscience, according to Mintz. As cities became more industrialized, fathers left home every day to go to work, leaving mothers at home to handle the lion’s share of responsibility for child-rearing and discipline. Mothering took on even more importance, with mothers learning that every response they made to their childrens’ behaviors framed their characters. And so, mommy guilt was born.
In the beginning of the 20th century and through the post-WWII years, parents shifted their practices from withholding physical affection to enjoying children and expressing their love, Mintz writes. The pendulum swung from physical discipline and the verbal put-downs of earlier centuries to more positive forms of discipline that aim to guide children, help them develop a healthy self-regard, and protect their dignity. In the 1960s, permissive child-rearing was criticized as a symptom that American parenting had gone seriously wrong and the pendulum had swung too far. But discipline continued its evolution from punishment and preaching to teaching and tolerance.
Discipline as Teaching
Though there are still those who believe that the rod ought not to have been spared, physical punishment — including all that spanking, slapping, and paddling so popular in earlier times — has come to be regarded as excessively painful and humiliating as well as ineffective. An article on “Discipline for Young Children” from the Virginia Cooperative Extension advises that even mild physical punishment like spanking does nothing to help a child learn right from wrong and merely teaches that violence is acceptable. Also out of favor is the kind of verbal punishment that tears down a child’s self-esteem: “I don’t love you because you hit your little brother. Why were you even born? You’re such a loser.”
Discipline has evolved into teaching children that consequences exist for everything they do, good and bad. Parents set easy-to-understand rules, give their children choices to help with the development of self-control, and focus on the behaviors they want from their children rather than the ones they don’t. Consequences might include a loss of allowance or the withholding of a favorite activity. We’ve also come to realize that no one adage can sum up all child-discipline wisdom. As an article on “Positive Discipline and Child Guidance” from the University of Missouri Extension points out, “Children are unique and so are the families in which they live.”