I have not seen any comparative studies of how children learn discipline in different cultures. Here are some of my own observations.
When I was a kid in Iran we had many American friends. I was always amazed by how disciplined these kids were. They went to bed at certain (early) hours. They kept to the designated children’s areas when the grownups had parties. They did not play on the streets or with neighbors. And they really listened to their mothers.
I remember one episode that for some reason really left an impression on me. We were sitting in the living room with the American mother of some friends and one of the American kids said that he was going to get something from the fridge. The mother said No. The boy kept walking to the kitchen. I expected the mother to follow the kid and stop him or turn him back. But she just sat there. The kid cried from the kitchen: “I’m opening the fridge.” The mother again just said No – and I remember her voice being loud without her screaming at all. And there came no sound of the door of the refrigerator opening or closing. They kid came back smiling a little sheepishly. Young as I was I thought to myself, Wow, what authority.
In our household in a similar situation my mother would have had to scream at us, or at my brother really. (I was a good girl.) She would have had to walk over to the kitchen and have a shouting match with my brother. All manner of unpleasantness would have followed. Tsk tsk… very uncivilized. My mother did not have the same authority as the American mother. Or, actually, I should say she did not have the same kind of authority. Her authority was demonstrated under different circumstances. I’ll come back to this.
In comparison to American kids our lives were quite free. We did not have very strict bedtime rules so we often fell asleep on the living room floor or in the car coming back from somewhere. In fact, one reason we often fell asleep away from our beds was because we participated in our parents’ lives. If there was a party the kids were there too. If our parents went to the movies they took us too. Our lives were totally mixed together. We felt sorry for the American kids who lived under such strict curfews.
But in the end we did learn discipline. Our schools were a lot stricter and more formal than American schools and we adjusted to the demands just fine. We sat down and did our homework on our own—usually not in our own separate rooms but at the kitchen table while grandma cooked dinner and mom and dad argued. Perhaps we learned to manage distractions this way.
But what I think really taught us impulse control and discipline was the formality that was required of us. If we went to a party at someone other than our closest friends and relatives, we sat very politely and quietly. In presence of older people, our grandparents’ generation for instance, we particularly held our tongues and made no more than eye contact with our cousins who were equally antsy to get away underneath their calm and polite exterior. And no matter what manner of goodies were spread on the table in front of us, we did not touch—or look, for that matter. And that’s when the authority of Mom showed itself in full splendor. Just one look from her and we were on such exemplary behavior that nobody would have the faintest idea that outside that stiff and formal living room we would all be running wild, with our mothers on our tail screaming at the top of their lungs.
Another example of unshakable Mom authority was when we had guests ourselves. God forbid if some younger spoiled brat took a liking to our favorite possession. One look from Mom and we offered up our best toy like a sacrificial maiden. In observance of extreme politeness there was no room for argument. Early on we learned that not only was it extremely bad form not to immediately heed the dictates of Mom but it was thoroughly useless to try. Good form über alles.
What’s interesting is that thinking back I don’t ever remember any kid being punished for impolite behavior or bad manners. Not even my brother, for instance, who was as unruly as any boy I’ve ever seen, was ever guilty of bad manners. There was no need for punishment because bad form was simply not an option.
In fact, one of things that struck us about American kids is that they were subjected to all kinds of exotic punishments. No desert. (What desert?! For us food was food, not compartmentalized in different orders: what’s good for you, what you must eat, what you like to eat, etc.). Go to your room. (What room?! We had our bedrooms but space was not compartmentalized either: good space, bad space.) Confiscated allowance. (What allowance?! Even if we had official allowances it was useless to threaten to take it away when grandma or uncle or older cousin was always at hand to spoil us in case we were suffering too much.)
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to say our parents were always nicey nice. Slapped hands, faces, and fannies were not at all uncommon. And they were certainly done in the heat of the moment: “QUIET!” Mom would yell – and then, Slap… There were threats galore: “One more time and I’ll slap you till you can’t breathe…” Or the worst threat of all: “I’ll tell Dad when he comes home.” Tsk tsk again… very uncivilized. Hysterical. Bad bad bad.
It looked like we Iranian kids grew up under a kind of arbitrary chaos while the American kids grew up under rules and order. It seemed so different, even contradictory. But you know what? The end result wasn’t that different. We all ended up getting similar education, having similar work, and living similar lives. I think we just ultimately learned the same things: impulse control and discipline. Only the teaching method was different.