Strictness or Permissiveness. Order without freedom or Freedom without order. No choice, or unlimited choice.
It sounds like extremes for government, authoritarian or anarchy, but as many parents may recognise, this is the central dichotomy of Jane Nielsen’s classic parenting reference manual, Positive Discipline: The Classic Guide to Helping Children.
As in Buddhism or in well-functioning liberal democracies, Nielsen advocates a third ‘middle path’ for the family home. Somewhere between the controlling dictatorship of some strict parents, and the laissez-faire, ‘anything goes’ of other permissive parents. Nielsen guides the reader to a place where there is freedom within order, where children can choose - but within limits that show respect for all, where parents are able to be both firm and kind simultaneously. This ideal of family harmony may sound like a mythical land for many parents and children alike where pigs fly and angels dance, but the enduring success of this book, its spin-offs, and the human movement behind it all testify to the real possibility of this better vision of parenting.
Nielsen carves out the potential pitfalls of both excessive permissiveness and those of strictness or punishment. In permissiveness, a humiliating situation can result for the adult, where the child learns to manipulate the parent to achieve their aims, the parent and child form a co-dependent relationship, and the child ultimately can’t develop into being capable, responsible and independent. In her deep and wide experience, she’s found that parents are generally unwilling to leave punishment behind as it achieves results. However, those results are usually short-term wins, and stop the child from misbehaviour in that instance, but don’t prevent them from doing it again later down the line. It’s our perennial short-termism that keeps parents punishing their children. For the results of excess punishment, Nielsen has a schema of “the four R’s”: Resentment, Revenge, Rebellion, and Retreat. These are unconscious responses to punishment and strictness that are likely to accumulate over time, and hinder a child’s happy development and forming of healthy trusting relationships. She comes down to a central rhetorical question which says it all: Where did we ever get the crazy idea that in order to make children do better, first we have to make them feel worse?
It’s this cutting combination of carefully formed memory aids and logical structure partnered with such stinging moments of self-realisation that has given Positive Discipline the rolling gold medal for parenting books...
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