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To Swat or Not

Have you noticed that children are born wild? They come into this world needing to be housebroken and domesticated.  They are self-centered, demanding and unaware of their parent’s needs and desires.  They sleep when they want to sleep and impatiently demand to be fed when they are hungry. When their bottom is wet or dirty, they fuss and fret until someone tries to change their diaper. They then fight against the effort of the person trying to restore their comfort.

When they learn to toddle, the world is their playground and everything must be touched, tasted and, if possible, shoved into their mouths, noses or ears.  Food is simply another thing to touch, taste and throw.  They learn quickly that most things shoved or dropped from a highchair go “thump” and they cannot get enough of this amazing game.  When the object thrown from the highchair is their bottle or sippy cup, they demand that someone retrieve it promptly so they can throw it again.

Children must patiently be taught that food goes in their mouths rather than smeared over their faces and plastered to their hair.  To housebreak them, the parents must be patient and must anticipate the moment when the child is about to relieve himself in order to get the child onto the potty chair.  This interruption of the child’s moment of relief is initially met with indignant fussing and frustrated yells and cries.  Sitting on a cold seat instead of eliminating comfortably into their warm diaper makes no sense and they battle to get off of the chair and to be left alone while they finish the job.

All civilized behavior and manners must be learned.  Asking for a toy that another child has rather than simply yanking it away is inconvenient and usually results in rejection.  Some children cannot understand why biting and hitting are not accepted behaviors when they work so well.  These are not bad children with bad habits.  They did not learn these behaviors from other sources and then practice them into habitual actions.  These behaviors are inherited knowledge.  They go back through the millennia to the time when our species learned to survive against overwhelming odds.  During those critical years, our forebears had to react instantly to aggression on any level and fight for their lives, run for their lives, plead for their lives or play dead.  Whatever they needed had to be taken with cunning and brute force or they did without.  The rule for survival was to kill and eat or be killed and be eaten.

Our forebears survived and thrived.  Each new level of existence required that they fine-tune social behavior to make it safe to coordinate their actions in order to benefit mutually.  The instinct to take what was wanted or what was needed had to yield to learning to negotiate for mutual advancement.  Hitting and biting had to be eliminated in favor of resolving difference by non-violent means.  While our civilized order has advanced over this bumpy road of social development to the present era, the impulse to revert to these primitive behaviors is still powerful in all of us.  Yet, we must teach our children not to do what comes naturally, but rather to learn the social niceties which will enable them to live successfully in our ordered society.  The task of the parent is to teach the child to share, to cooperate, to help others, to ask permission, to clean up his mess, to potty in the toilet, to say “I’m sorry,” not to hit, not to bite, not to take other peoples things, not to throw things and not to scream and cry when he does not get his way.

If we are to teach such advanced behavioral patterns to our developing children, we must first master our own primitive urges and responses.  Which of these primitive urges and responses are still active in you?  Under what circumstances do you feel justified in hitting another person?  How often do you share, cooperate, help others, ask permission, clean up your mess or say you are sorry?  If any of these impulses are active in you it is not because you are bad, but rather because you have not mastered the social skills you need to achieve mutually satisfying relationships.  This is one of the core issues which limit some parents’ abilities to discipline their children in a non-violent manner.  It seems to be easier and to bring faster results if they hit and scold the child.  What they do not realize is that the inherited instinct to survive causes the child to see the parent as a frightening aggressor rather than a safe, loving protector.  Notice that when a child is hit and yelled at in anger the child will run for their life, fight for their life, plead for their life or fearfully submit to the frightening person hurting them.  This child does learn to obey to a certain extent but they also learn to conquer by intimidation and force rather than to negotiate in peace and cooperation.

The purpose of punishment is to cause pain.  The purpose of discipline is to teach and to mentor.  This takes time and patience.  In our rapid paced world, time and patience seem to be egregiously wanting but they are necessary if we are going to discipline rather than punish.

Copyright 2011 – Dr. Orville E. Easterly All Rights Reserved – Do not copy.

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