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Discipline Shouldn’t Lead to Tears

Blame the Calvinists for awful ideas about child disciple and then build a relationship instead.

Image: Mark Forscher

Every parent makes their kid cry and the vast majority of parents make their kids cry intentionally, even maliciously, on multiple occasions. The harsh but undeniable truth is that when children do or say horrible, hurtful things—and children do and say horrible, hurtful things—parents want to know that they regret them and tears are a means to that end. Most parents know this is wrong. And many ultimately end up apologizing. But here’s the thing: Many parents routinely deploy forms of discipline that routinely lead to tears. Why? Force of habit mostly, but also because the shittiest parts of history have a way of clinging to the next generation’s boots.

“It’s a Calvinist and naive to have to see the suffering,” says Dr. Gene Beresin, Executive Director of The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds. “Parents want to know their child understands they did something wrong. What our culture has shown us is that signs of suffering are signs that they get it.”

The conflation of suffering and understanding is as old as the idea of redemptive suffering, an idea that held sway in American homes in a particularly radical form for the better part of the century after the Pilgrims had that first, dour Thanksgiving. Parents who believed themselves sinners in the hands of an angry God turned around and behaved like pissed off deities whenever their children trespassed. The fundamental idea was this: Humans are inherently evil and need to be pushed hard towards goodness and submission. Though modern parents largely don’t buy this worldview, they engage in behaviors derived from it.

dad scolding son

Tradition is a tough thing to break.

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“There are lots of things in society that we get wrong,” says Beresin. “This is one of them.”

Current research makes it clear that kids do not need to suffer in order for punishment to be considered a success. Which is not saying that punishment should be avoided at all. Or even that it shouldn’t be uncomfortable. In fact, Beresin points out, kids avoid anti-social behavior because they’ve had an authority figure willing to provide limits. “Kids need to know that there are consequences to their behavior,” explains Beresin. “And they do serve as deterrents.”

He points to fines as a perfect example of deterrents that adults face every day, which keep us from texting while driving, littering, speeding, parking in the wrong place or any number of easy transgressions. But notably, the consequences work without any real suffering. Is there discomfort in an inconvenient court date and several hundred bucks removed a bank account? Sure. But better yet there is guilt.

For Beresin, this is the perfect discipline model for children, with some obvious tweaks to reflect the importance of a relationship rather than civic duty. The guilt, though? That stays. Because guilt is very important.

nanny and crying child

“For the child it’s this conflict between feeling anger or destructive rage towards someone you love and you need,” says Beresin. “That is a state that we all go through.”

It’s also uncomfortable enough that a kid will be motivated to make it go away. The way they make it go away is by making reparations. That might be as minor as an apology, or as extensive as being grounded, but there are two rules: the punishment is in line with the misbehavior and it is followed up with a repair of the relationship by kissing and making up.

“The outcome of kissing and making up and of making reparations, teaches the child a number of things,” explains Beresin. “One, is that they can understand transgression can be resolved. Two, they take responsibility for their misbehavior. Three, they learn to develop a capacity for concern. That’s how they learn morality.”

Of course, none of this can happen when a parent is trying to make a child hurt. That’s retaliation, which accomplishes none of those things. Retaliation can feel righteous, but it isn’t right and it isn’t good and it isn’t educational. Hurting a child only teaches the child to avoid hurt, not to understand that other people hurt as well. It’s a way to teach a skulking sort of selfishness. If it’s not a sin, it’s sure as hell a bad idea.