How Children Really React to Control
by Thomas Gordon, Ph.D.
When one person tries to control another, you can always expect some kind of reaction from the controllee. The use of power involves two people in a special kind of relationship - one wielding power, and the other reacting to it.
This seemingly obvious fact is not usually dealt with in the writings of the dare-to-discipline advocates. Invariably, they leave the child out of the formula, omitting any reference to how the youngster reacts to the control of his or her parents or teachers.
They insist, "Parents must set limits," but seldom say anything about how children respond to having their needs denied in this way. "Parents should not be afraid to exercise their authority," they counsel, but rarely mention how youngsters react to authority-based coercion. By omitting the child from the interaction, the discipline advocates leave the impression that the child submits willingly and consistently to adults' power and does precisely what is demanded.
These are actual quotes from the many power-to-the-parent books I've collected along the way:
- "Be firm but fair."
- "Insist that your children obey."
- "Don't be afraid to express disapproval by spanking."
- "There are times when you have to say 'no'."
- "Discipline with love."
- "Demonstrate your parental right to lead."
- "The toddler should be taught to obey and yield to parental leadership."
What these books have in common is advocacy of the use of power-based discipline with no mention of how children react to it. In other words, the dare-to-discipline advocates never present power-based discipline in full, as a cause-and-effect phenomenon, an action-and-reaction event.
This omission is important, for it implies that all children passively submit to adult demands, perfectly content and secure in an obedient role, first in relationships with their parents and teachers and, eventually, with all adult power-wielders they might encounter.
However, I have found not a shred of evidence to support this view. In fact, as most of us remember only too well from our childhood, we did almost anything we could to defend against power-based control. We tried to avoid it, postpone it, weaken it, avert it, escape from it. We lied, we put the blame on someone else, we tattled, hid, pleaded, begged for mercy, or promised we would never do it again.
We also experienced punitive discipline as embarrassing, demeaning, humiliating, frightening, and painful. To be coerced into doing something against our will was a personal insult and an affront to our dignity, an act that devalued the importance of our needs.
Punitive discipline is by definition need-depriving as opposed to need-satisfying. Recall that punishment will be effective only if it is felt by the child as aversive, painful, unpleasant. When controllers employ punishment, they always intend for it to cause pain or deprivation. It seems so obvious, then, that children don't ever want punitive discipline, contrary to what its advocates would have us believe. No child "asks for it," "feels a need for it," or is "grateful for it." And it is probably true, too, that no child ever forgets or forgives a punitive parent or teacher. This is why I find it incredible that the authors of power-to-the-parent books try to justify power-based discipline with such statements as:
- "Kids not only need punishment, they want it."
- "Children basically want what is coming to them, good or bad, because justice is security."
- "Punishment will prove to kids that their parents love them."
- "The youngster who knows he deserves a spanking appears almost relieved when it finally comes."
- "Rather than be insulted by the discipline, [the child] understands its purpose and appreciates the control it gives him over his own impulses."
- "Corporal punishment in the hands of a loving parent is entirely different in purpose and practice [from child abuse]....One is an act of love; the other is an act of hostility."
- "Some strong-willed children absolutely demand to be spanked, and their wishes should be granted."
- "Punishment will make children feel more secure in their relationship."
- "Discipline makes for happy families; healthy relationships."*
*Writings from Dr. Thomas Gordon