Manners and Morals

Manners and Morals

Discipline, Power, and Democracy

Sunday, May 15, 2011

By Pendar

“As the husband lost his power over his wife, both parents lost their power over their children.” So writes Rudolf Dreikurs whose 1964 book Children: The Challenge is still one of the most practical and decidedly untrendy books on raising children.

I imagine a lot of us strong women cringe when reading that line. We like to talk about freedom, equality, and all kinds of lofty ideals but get a little queasy looking the question of power in the eye. But Dreikurs is right. The question of power is at the heart of all social relationships and it plays a very important part in both the upbringing and the development of children.

What Dreikurs repeatedly points out is that it is good that old power structures have crumbled. He welcomes equal rights not just for women but for children as well. He recognizes that there is no going back to “obsolete traditions” and that is certainly cause for celebration. “Children are particularly sensitive to a social climate,” he writes. “They have been quick to catch on to the idea that they share in the equal rights of everyone.” Children no longer tolerate “an autocratic dominant-submissive relationship.”

This is certainly well and good except that it has a negative side. “Our children have reached the point where they defy restrictions because they assume their right to do as they please,” Dreikurs writes. “If each member of the family insists on doing as he pleases, we have a houseful of tyrants.”

And this is where discipline comes in. We need to learn to curb our “do as we please” impulses to be able to live peaceably with others and to grant others the same freedom we want for ourselves. Dreikurs begins his work with the observation that while parents recognize that the old-fashioned and autocratic ways of beating discipline into children are neither desirable nor effective any more, new methods have not quite replaced the old.

How do we replace top-down, heavy-handed discipline with “new methods based on democratic principles”?

Dreikurs’ work and the work of Jane Nelsen (both based on Alfred Adler’s theoretical framework) provide some very useful tools on how to create democratic environments in which children participate in decision making. Dreikurs’ “Family Councils” and Nelsen’s “Family/Classroom Meetings” are very practical and effective tools in avoiding “autocratic” power dynamics. I really recommend their books. I’ve tried their methods and gotten good results.

The “discipline” I’m interested in, however, is not just the one required for social harmony and respectful behavior. I’m wondering how the democratic principles that Dreikurs talks about can be applied to teaching the kind of discipline that is required for a child to concentrate on a project, stick with it, and bring it to completion. I’m interested in the discipline that a child needs to make something of him/herself.

“Democracy is not just a political ideal, but a way of life” writes Dreikurs. I wonder how this “way of life” can create motivated children and accomplished young adults. I realize I am not posing an easy question! How do you modify “democratic principles” to apply to children’s emotional and intellectual development?

One place to look for an answer is in what Dreikurs calls “The Fallacy of Punishment and Reward.” “Punishment and reward belong properly in the autocratic social system,” he writes. “Here, the authority, enjoying a dominant position, had the privilege of meting out rewards or punishment according to merits.” It is easy to see how the reward and punishment method is widely used in our school system: good grades, bad grades, etc. “Evaluation” of children, whether it’s academic or psychological, is very much based on this reward and punishment, good kid/bad kid, model. “Dominance – force, power – must be replaced with egalitarian techniques of influence,” Dreikurs writes.

I think the lack of motivation that we see in a lot of kids (especially in boys, as observed by Leonard Sax for instance) is very much related to their perception of the “dominance, force, and power” that Dreikurs talks about. We know how sensitive boys are about questions of dominance and power. How can we fail to see that pulling power rank over boys can kill their motivation to exert themselves?

And where there is no motivation, there is no learning, no hard work, no success – what appears to outside observers as no discipline. The inner discipline that we would like to see in our kids is very much connected to how they perceive authority. If kids see the adults in their lives – parents, teachers, etc. – as engaging in this reward and punishment method of imposing their power, it is no wonder that they rebel against it. And unfortunately, by rebelling against that illegitimate authority they also misguidedly rebel against their own best interest. They miss out on tapping into their own motivation to exert themselves and developing the discipline that will translate into the pleasure of getting good at things.

Again, I think Dreikurs offers a useful idea. He says dominance must be replaced with “egalitarian techniques of influence.”

But what exactly is “egalitarian” influence? I can imagine a lot of people objecting that it is a contraction: influence by definition involves imposing a will. But does it necessarily? Can we imagine a situation in which a child, or an adult for that matter, is influenced without somebody imposing their will on them? Isn’t it in fact quite common to be influenced by people who in no way engage in power struggles with us?

So I wonder: Could it be that lack of discipline in children is a direct reflection of the undemocratic environments in which they live? Could it be that a little more democracy – and real freedom – can create more motivated and disciplined children?


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