Note: This post is part of a series I’m writing on Child Discipline.
Part Five – Rules Involve Trust
Here is our basic underlying agreement about behavior inside our home: You can trust me to comply with the rules, both in letter and in spirit, and I can trust you to do the same. It’s not enough that we all live according the household rules; we must be able to plan our lives under the assumption that everyone else is going to do so as well. Thus, not only can we all presume that nobody is going to jump up and down on the couch today, we can also treat each other as though they are not always about to go jump on the couch when our backs are turned.
This principle is far more important for children than it is for adults. Consequently, adults have a tendency to be very lax on this one, but they shouldn’t be.
Children never learn to be independent if they’re never trusted with responsibilities. Your child will never, for example, learn to clean her room if you never tell her to go clean her room, and then leave her alone to do it. You can practically guarantee that she won’t clean it properly the first time you ask, but the process of being entrusted to clean her room, make decisions about where and how to tidy things up, and submit her work for evaluation creates the necessary conditions for future success. It’s either that, or you clean her room by yourself, demanding that she watch, and hope that she learns about cleaning her room by watching you do it each time. She won’t, of course; she’ll just decide that “cleaning her room” means watching you do it.
My daughter learned to brush her teeth this way. Initially, tooth-brushing was a bit of a fight. She didn’t want to stop playing and she didn’t want to have someone jolt her face back and forth with vigorous parental tooth-brushing, and who could blame her? When she was old enough, I started letting her do it herself. I had already shown her how to brush, so she knew how to try. I watched her do it, made a few corrections when necessary, and that was that. She was so proud to be able to do it herself! It became a joy. Eventually, I transitioned more and more of the responsibility to her. Now I don’t stand next to her, ensuring that she brushes her teeth. Instead, I brush my own teeth in the adjacent sink. That way, she knows that brushing our teeth is something we all do at about the same time, it’s a responsibility we all have, and that I’m trusting her with that same responsibility. I’m still around to make corrections if necessary, but I don’t really have to. More recently, I simply tell her it’s time to brush her teeth, and she goes in and does it by herself. I’m outside in the next room, nonchalantly looking in to ensure that she’s doing it properly. She is. Eventually, I won’t need to watch at all.
It isn’t helpful to stand over her while she cleans her room or brushes her teeth, making micro-corrections when she deviates from perfection. For one thing, that isn’t pleasant for anyone. More importantly, though, what incentive does she have to try her hardest, if someone is waiting in the wings to pounce at the first sign of failure? In the end, it doesn’t really matter how she cleans her room, it only matters that she learns to do it on a regular basis. That involves trusting her to do as she’s asked.
Only after she falls short, deciding to play rather than to clean, should any disciplinary action be taken. Before we can even get to disciplinary action, however, we have to get to action.