Some 15 years ago I went to a neighborhood bookshop with my children then ages 8 and 5 to buy some books. On getting home, I got busy washing some clothes when my son came haltingly into the kitchen holding a pencil in his hand. He was looking rather subdued and after asking him what he wanted, he said his sister had told him to come and report himself. I was further intrigued and asked for the details only for him to reply that he had taken the pencil in his hand from the bookshop.
My heart immediately jumped into my mouth and the first thought that came to my mind was Tara, you are an executive member of “The school of parenting” ( a department in my local church which held monthly meetings on parenting issues) and your son is stealing? The second thought was -what would I do to ensure that this boy will never take anything that doesn’t belong to him again.
I managed to gather myself together and immediately corrected him by stating that he didn’t “take” the pencil but “stole” it ( there is a big difference). Thereafter, I put him and the offending pencil into the car and drove back to the store. When we got there, I made him go with the pencil to the salesgirl and tell her what had happened. In a trembling voice, he told her he stole the pencil. I signalled at the salesgirl and asked her to let him know what the consequences of his stealing the pencil were. She cooperated, told my son her boss would have asked for a count of all the pencils and if she couldn’t account for the one he took, she would have had to pay for it from her pocket and that her Boss might even have called the police to arrest her for stealing. At the mention of the word Police my son burst into tears and she calmed him down by saying that the police would not be called since the pencil had been returned. Finally, she warned him never to take anything that didn’t belong to him again.
We left the store and that was the end of it. I didn’t beat him nor did I refer to it again until recently, when I sought his permission to share the details with my readers but the lesson struck home because the very next time we visited the shop, as we were leaving, he shouted, “I didn’t take anything ooo” and when I sought his permission he told me it was a day he would never forget in his life.
That incident completely changed the way I disciplined my children. Hitherto, I was the typical Nigerian mother always ready with a backhand slap, sharp twist of the ears, accompanied with shouting but thereafter I began to question my methods and motives in disciplining my children. I started to ask myself what outcomes I wanted to achieve and to find creative ways to ensure the lessons I wanted them to learn were well communicated. I still beat them, but only for telling lies. That was the ultimate sin and it was non- negotiable. I made it clear that I may or may not beat them if they did wrong but when it came to lies I would beat them.
My generation grew up being beaten and punished for every wrong committed( some were even beaten in advance for crimes not yet committed but which their parents especially mothers assumed they would eventually commit.) A lot of times the beatings were not commensurate with the wrong nor were they consistently administered and it left a lot of us very resentful of our parents and fostered the kind of relationship many of us have with them today. The truth be told a lot of the things done to us was Child Abuse and though we didn’t like it then, we have been able to live past it because we knew the intentions were pure and for our good.
When we began to have children, we swore never to treat them the way we were treated. Fortunately or unfortunately, it was the era of the globalization of the world and we became aware of different kinds of schools of thought when it came to child rearing. We became adherents of people like Dr Benjamin Spock the American pediatrician whose best selling book “ Baby and child care” strongly advocated showing love and attention to a child rather than constant strict discipline.
We tried to balance both sides but our upbringing was strong and though we didn’t punish our children as often or as severely as we were punished, we still managed to discipline them. However, it was a losing battle as it was the era when schools declared themselves as No beating zones and teachers were expelled if caught beating a child.
Fast forward to today’s parents. It’s a different level all together, not only do they not beat their children, they do not correct them nor do they allow anyone to discipline or correct them so as not to destroy their “self esteem.” In turn we are seeing a lot of children that are foul mouthed, badly behaved, ill mannered, unruly, undisciplined and uncouth with parents who are quick to tell us they have ADHD etc. Please note that I am in no way downplaying a serious condition and that I am aware that a lot of children have been so diagnosed but I also know that it can be controlled and is not necessarily an excuse for bad upbringing.
We must find a balance between the old and the new in our responsibilities in ensuring that we bring up responsible children. In my opinion, discipline need not involve beating, there are other ways of training your child and the most effective is the way that helps the child recognize bad behavior, the consequences of such behavior and the benefits or downside of such behavior.
So as toddlers, I allowed my children put their hands in the candle flame to pass the message that fire was hot and should not be played with, I bit them back when they started biting so they realized that biting was painful, I made them sit down when they would rather jump about the place so they learnt self control, I hid toys that they strew about and refused to keep in the allotted spaces so they learnt how to take better care of their possessions. I threw away sweets that I bought for them if they took them without asking for permission. I withdrew things I handed to them if they didn’t say a thank you after they took it.
Correction and discipline is vital and it is true especially with the environment and children we have today that the old methods wouldn’t work. The earlier we understand this and change, the better for us all. We should ask ourselves, if the punishment we mete out is because we are ashamed, embarrassed or angered by our children’s actions and if it is done to satisfy our emotions, punish the child or if we want to ensure that our children learn the lessons from their actions and make the right choices in future.
The choice is ours.