The Hester Prynne Approach to ParentingGuest Blogger Carissa Knoles
Through my years of formal education and experience working with Children and Families, I have encountered many parental philosophies on best discipline practices. As an Early Childhood Educator, I have been asked many times what my thoughts on discipline are as well, having to pull terms out of my back pocket and reassuring families that there is no one right answer for every child. In light of this new trend of posting signage on children as a way of scolding them for wrongdoings, I am now sharing some fool proof guidelines for families to use when the need for discipline arises. There is a sincere sadness in my heart that the ideas of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s in The Scarlett Letter (a typical high school read for Honors English) is being implemented into parenting practices in 2012. Character Hester Prynne was forced to ear a scarlet letter “A” at all times, identifying her to the public as an adulterer. Is this Hester Prynne complex a new parenting technique where parents wish to shame their child publicly? Are such parents looking for a public pat on the back because they “did something?” Doing “something” doesn’t count when it’s the wrong thing. With the vast research, workshops, blogs, etc… available to families, I am enraged that practices such as these are taking place. Two concepts come to mind when sharing guidelines for families when handling discipline: 1) natural consequences and 2) intrinsic motivation.
The first, the idea of natural consequences is one I learned in a Child Psychology class that is probably the only thing I remember from that evening class in 2008. It was just to obviously and simply true in even it’s simplest form. It’s a matter of cause and effect. For example, if a child sticks their finger in an electrical outlet, they may get hurt and will not repeat the action- ideally. The same idea applies if a child is hitting peers in the classroom. Children will resent him and exclude him from play, but once the child stops the undesirable act children will accept him in the group and learning has occurred. Teachable moments come when caregivers discuss such instances with children, addressing first how the act makes them feel and secondly how it makes others feel. Children learn through repetition, all of our brains have an innate sense of rhythm which picks up patterns making things “stick” in our memory vault. The same principle applies here.
Consistency is key in exploring natural consequences. I am not advocating parents just let everything happen, such as letting children stick fingers in outlets to see what happens. When a child runs in the street, safety is first and foremost, but the short, meaningful conversation of possible natural consequences afterwards should always happen. If one runs into the street, such person may be hit by a car, which is a natural consequence that cannot be experienced first hand for obvious reasons. Yet, when a child spills their milk at the dinner table, them cleaning it up independently will naturally remind them to be more careful. Yes, Mom’s, you may properly clean it up once your child is not present, but really it’s ok to let them do it on their own, or in fact I challenge you to ask your child if they’d like you to help clean it up with them. What a great boding experience to show your child that you are truly a partner in their journey of life. Go team parent!
A second concept involves intrinsic motivation. Does your child frequently ask “Do you like this picture?” or “Are you mad?” Turn the tables back to them. Ask them, “Do you like that picture?” and “How did that action make you feel? Are you mad?” Caregivers should always identify their emotions in any and all instances to model such terminology and appropriate responses for children, but that’s somewhat different. The goal is that children develop an intrinsic urge to do their best, to work hard, and to make good choices not only because they will make Dad happy, but because they want to succeed.
Early Childhood Theorist Erik Erikson identifies the second stage of Psychosocial development as a struggle between Autonomy (“I do it myself!”) and Shame and Doubt. When children try to pour their own cereal in the morning and the kitchen floor is smothered in the crunchy grains of hundreds of cheerios, there is a perfect opportunity to choose “Will I scold my child for their shameful act and make them doubt their own capabilities?” or “Will I support their autonomy by giving them the broom and holding the dust pan?” Don’t get me wrong, it may be 8:45am and you need to be at work 30 minutes ago, but you’re already late so take the extra 10 minutes to set your child up for future success! In short, work with your child, not for them or against them. Help them realize what they can do for themselves and they will be confident, resilient and self-empowered individuals now and always thanks to you.
Nowhere in my experience have I learned better guidelines for discipline. There are tips and tricks like redirection, ignoring the unwanted behavior, and even sometimes using rewards, but I have to admit at the root of even those are the ideas of natural consequence and intrinsic motivation. Now, consider the parent who posts a sign on their child stating their wrongdoing. This child feels shameful, doubts their ability to make good choices, and now has a self-image that says “ I’m bad.” Once a child thinks they are bad, it is almost irreversible and the consequence is that the thought, “I’m bad so I do bad things” becomes their inner mantra. People are not bad. We make bad choices along our journey for goodness.
Before you get the t-shirt that says, “I peed my pants” for your child to wear to their next soccer match, think about the long term damage you’re doing to their self esteem and the future bad choices you as a parent are setting yourself up to deal with. I understand, the best practices of natural consequences and developing intrinsic motivation take more time. Childhood happens once, set your little ones up for success and know that your extra time will make high school, college and beyond a whole lot easier.
Carissa Knoles holds a BGS in Children and Families from the University of Michigan. She also has over 6 years experience working in NAEYC Accredited Early Childhood programs and is pursuing further education in Early Childhood and Music Therapy. Carissa is the secretary of the Metro Detroit Association of the Education of Young children in addition to providing music enrichment programs in the Metro Detroit area. Working as an advocate for Early Childhood Education through both music and leadership is a dream come true for Carissa. You can find out more about Music with Ms. Carissa by visiting www.mscarissarocks.com!