Raising Civilised Children – Part One: Discipline (#Beingthebadguy#NannyMcPhee#Don’tgettothepointofneedingSupernanny)

Raising a family is a rocky road (and I am not speaking about ice cream. In fact if I were to describe my kin as a flavour of ice cream I’d say we are a Celtic sort of Spumoni – various colours and tastes, with lots of fruit and nuts). Discipline is tough, but essential.

Few self-help texts mention discipline when prattling on about raising happy kids and yet it is the basis of order in a home and in nurturing an internal order in youngsters so vital for maturity. Children need discipline to feel safe. If there are rules they know there is a structure to catch them when they fall. And I don’t mean ‘catch them out.’

The trick is in knowing when to expand the elastic boundaries, keeping your nestlings safe and being astute enough to see when to firm up. I used to refer to holidays as ‘parameter redefining’ opportunities because I have been privileged as a teacher to have this time to re-evaluate who needs more independence and who needs…um… let’s call it ‘guidance’ shall we? (They probably called it ‘Back to the Gulag.’)

  1. Discipline begins with routine.

Nebulous bedtimes, vague threats and blurry promises are the surest way to have insecure children. They may grumble about limits, but youngsters feel safe in the fact there are boundaries and that you are in charge.

When my bairns were little, bedtimes were formal (Well they were until they were old enough to set their own routines.) and followed a pattern of eat, bath, calm down time (!), family prayers and reading in bed. And let’s face it, if they are used to following a certain sequence of activities in the evening and you really need them in bed, you simply start with the first task and things follow along nicely. Devious, hey?

Traditions are also part of a family routine. No matter how poor we were, Fridays were (and still are) pizza nights in our home.  So is Christmas tree decorating (although I am finding the elves increasingly slothful of late). Family meal times are a must around the dinner table (more on that in another blog post) and for us, mass on a Sunday is an ongoing part of the ritual of our lives.

  1. Say ‘No’ and mean it.

The hardest thing to do when you have to return home at supper time, especially if it’s to housework, dinner preparations (and load shedding) is to say ‘No’ to a nipper who knows (and they do! They are psychic like that) when you are at your weakest. It is then he will whine for the chips while you are waiting in the supermarket checkout queue. (Damn all canny marketers who know that too and purposely display all those yummy snacks which are both bad for the cherubs and beyond our pockets!)

             Picture by tommyellis.wordpress.com

And yet stoic adherence to our decisions is what Junior needs from us: a mature adult who has weighed up the issue and made a call. Never mind that your nerves are shot because of having to prostrate yourself obsequiously in front of neurotic, misguided and deranged clients (and/or bosses) and you feel as if you have fallen in front of the taxi proclaiming ‘Game Over’ (There is one driving around in Parklands, I kid you not).

If you say ‘No,’ you must stick to it. ‘No’ must never mean ‘maybe’ either. Because they will pounce on that like the media on a fallen celeb at a press conference. If you oscillate, you are toast.

I used to count to three before ‘encouraging’ my beloved offspring to respond until I realised that the little squirts waited until just after  ‘two’ before skedaddling to make their beds or begin doggy patrol or whatever other heinously cruel chore their mother had ascribed to them. Even the smallest of mitess knows how to work the system.

While I am not a huge fan of James Dobson, he does call his theory ‘dare’ to discipline. So many of us single parents want to be seen as the nice one and, because we see so little of our kids because we are working, or are weekend parents, the temptation is to avoid conflict. But sometimes you have to go there. I remember one infamous encounter with a prepubescent imp who mouthed off at me over dishes, in the presence of his visiting father. His dad, obviously not comfortable with the conflict, put on his coat and took his leave. Not of course without feeling my fury at being left to be the bad guy! Hard though it was, I marched straight back into the scullery and informed he-who-shall-not-be-named that I would not stand for rudeness and that there would be consequences. And there were.

  1. Don’t Threaten what you can’t/won’t do

You are not allowed to kill them so don’t say you will. Tempting though the thought may be to pull out a tongue from an impertinent mouth and tie it around the neglected ears, that feat is probably not humanly possible. And the corollary of being realistic about creative forms of ‘punishment’ is that you must follow through on ensuring consequences happen. If I learnt anything about discipline in the classroom it was that.

Naturally they don’t really know that you are unlikely to twerk in front of their friends, but if you pick those things they have an abhorrent fear of, you might get away with it. But be prepared for that one (there is always one) who will call you on your vow to embarrass them. I practised at home the other day. The Labrador hid her face in horror. Mind you she still didn’t move off my Persian carpet! But I can say no one has put that threat to the test.

The thing is if you have a history of keeping your word, they will remember that. Michael took some convincing on this one and bears the emotional scars of having Mom march in not once, but twice to insist on a more acceptable haircut after visiting the hair salon on his own for a revoltingly trendy cut. He changed barbers after the second occasion, but when I say, Do not shave part of your head,’ he knows what will happen if he does. Caitlin remembers having a playdate cancelled for falsely accusing a sibling of stealing from her. So now I have a reputation of following through. They are not quite sure I wouldn’t twerk. But if I say their cell phone will sojourn in my possession, they are sure it shall.

One should be careful of what one says in frustration however. And let’s face it, we do emit some gems in the heat of the moment. A while back my dramatic daughter mimicked her childhood memory of me saying ‘I. Am. Going. To. Crack!’ (Something I know I threatened often.) Shannon recalls how she pictured me oozing yolk in Humpty Dumptyish self-destruction. What a thing for a small child to be imagining. Mind you, the cynic in me, was mildly surprised that she had been paying attention at all to my rantings.

Apologise if you over-react.

But saying ‘No’ is hard, because we want our children to like us. However sometimes, we have to settle for sullen respect and wait for them to grow up and recognise our wisdom and the strength it took not to choose to be the ‘cool, laissez-faire’ parent who curried favour with them instead of parenting them.

  1. Know when to keep a straight face and when to laugh

As a rule of thumb, it is always a good idea to develop an inscrutable, serious face. I have one child who always giggled nervously when I lined them up ‘tallest to shortest’ (which we don’t do anymore in deference to the older two who have been outstripped in the height stakes). It was so cute to see this tiny redhead, who was seldom the cause of the mayhem, trying hard not to laugh for fear of Mom’s further wrath, and I wanted to chuckle at her discomfort, but I had to glare at her too – because her more devious younger sister and brother would have walked all over me then.  And they tried the charm and cute smiles all the time.

Don’t film your child being cheeky. There is nothing cute about a child backchatting an adult. I hated that youtube clip that did the rounds a while back of a son attempting to reason with his mother, Linda.  Sorry I may be accused of being old fashioned here, but I do believe that she was making a rod for her own back.

Sometimes you have to laugh to show you are human though, but don’t forget Rule #5 then.

  1. Consequences

The problem with youngsters, even teenagers,   is that they don’t have the capacity to anticipate consequences. They can barely see beyond the next text or past the weekend’s party at Giddy Gertie’s house. So teaching them the scientific principle of action-reaction must become part of your teaching at home. I bet you Newton actually learnt this from having to sweep up the mess he made testing whether an egg or a packet of paper would fall faster. Well, he would have if Mother Newton was keen to teach him about consequences.

But chess is a good way to educate our young’uns about what can happen next. The again, it can of course teach them to outthink us so should probably be avoided at all costs.

  1. Be Fair 

One’s offspring are most sensitive to what is fair (nothing really, but don’t tell them that) and are most adept at spotting inconsistencies of treatment among siblings. Chores should be equally distributed and consequences demonstrably consistent.

Quite frankly, Solomon had it easy: he only had to decide who owned a baby. He did not have to draw up a roster for dishwashing or defend the claim that no one is the favourite child.

  1. Forgive and Move on

Always allow them to make amends/ be sorry. NEVER hold a grudge. If you really want to re-hash how angry you were when she borrowed your car sans permission, save it for her 21st – you’ll have an audience then, but more importantly you will have realised that it wasn’t as big a deal as you thought at the time.

Children must be shown that there is NOTHING they can do that will stop you loving them. You must say it. Often. Especially when they have crossed a line. And you must show it. That is arguably one of the most important rules of parenting.

Demonstrate your own penitence when you are wrong. You can do this with dignity and model how you want them to learn to express regret.

  1. Break the Rules Once in a while 

There is a place for unqualified mercy when you let them eat in front of the TV or jump on a bed with them. It becomes a treat and a special memory of fun with mum.


Now before I am bombarded by all the nouveau pc views on how negative it is to start a series of articles on parenting for happy families with ‘discipline,’ let me be very clear that discipline is the framework only for family life. Our progeny need and deserve much more than that.

But that, my dears, is a story for another day.