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Discipline, reframed

January 9, 2019

Host:  Dr. Jennifer Hunter, Assistant Director for Family and Consumer Sciences Extension, University of Kentucky

Guest: Dr. David Weisenhorn, Extension Specialist for Parenting and Child Development

Welcome to Talking FACS; what you need to know about family, food, finance and fitness. Hosted by the University of Kentucky Family and Consumer Sciences Extension Program, our educators share research knowledge with individuals, families and communities to improve quality of life.

Dr. Jennifer Hunter: Welcome to Talking Back. This is your host, Dr. Jennifer Hunter, Assistant Director for Family Consumer Sciences Extension at the University of Kentucky. Today, I'm pleased to have join me, Dr. David Weissenhorn, our Parenting and Child Development specialist.

Today, David is going to discuss a topic that I think is on a lot of parent’s minds and it is on discipline; which can I think often be a very hard topic for parents and often just don't really know how to address discipline in their household. So, David, thank you for joining us today.

Dr. David Weisenhorn: Thank you so much for having me.

Dr. Jennifer Hunter: So let's just get started and talk about discipline in general. What is it? How do you think about it? How do you approach it? Just all these questions.

Dr. David Weisenhorn: Good. Yeah. What’s interesting, Jennifer, is there's been a large request for people that want to hear a little bit about discipline and so it is a topic that I think most parents have a question or two about.

And what I have found and what I think a lot of the research shows is that the term discipline incites a variety of notions that are often thought to be synonymous with punishment. So, when people think about discipline they automatically think about punishing a child.

And if you actually looked at the word and I did so I looked it up. The word discipline actually originates from a Latin word disciplinia, which means instruction and they derived that from a root of decir, which means to learn.

So, if you took that word as its root meaning it's to instruct or to learn. Decir also had another meaning which is also a disciple. So, you have this idea of a follower; somebody whom you're trying to impart this instruction and wisdom to.

So, discipline in and of itself is just educating; just instructing a child. And so, I want to give that to parents to hopefully start to change the way that you think about that term and that when this idea of it is my responsibility to discipline my child, what your responsibility really ism, is to educate and to teach them as a follower of you.

Dr. Jennifer Hunter: I think that's a great way of reframing that topic and the idea.

Dr. David Weisenhorn: Yeah and I think it has helped me as a as a parent of young children just to really kind of figure this thing out. And really, parenting is such a process that we're all doing that. And so, I think to be able to try and take times and break it down I think can really help put things in perspective. And so, hopefully that that'll help you all put this in perspective.

Dr. Jennifer Hunter: Yeah definitely. And like I said, just thinking about discipline is a way to teach and to help my child learn. I think often when I think of the word discipline, and just the negative connotations come into my mind and maybe my response to a specific behavior of my child and was it a good response or bad response. But I really need to be thinking about it as this is my opportunity to help teach my child and help a child learn.

Dr. David Weisenhorn: Yeah, absolutely. Because I said, that's our job as a parent. We're trying to help our child become successful members of society. We want socially desirable children. We want other people to like our kids and so it's important that we give them that.

And the way that we do that is through instruction. We don't want to rule over our children. We want to see them blossom into who they are. And so, I think the way that we educate them and then we think about that as not hitting them, but educating them can help them in this world of discipline.

Dr. Jennifer Hunter: Do you have tips and strategies that you can share with parents about mindfully discipline or positively discipline?

Dr. David Weisenhorn: Yeah. So, this B.F. Skinner is a behavioral psychologist; probably the most well-known behavioral psychologist. He was known for this method of learning that was called operant conditioning and this was the idea of rewards and punishments.

And I think most parents understand to some degree that I can discipline my child, meaning that I can get them to do what I want them to do if I reward them or if I punish them.

And I would say that both positive and negative. And that's the one thing that B.F. Skinner was looking at was both positive and negative rewards.

And so, what he understood is that both positive and negative emotions shape our behavior and I think it's important that our children understand that. And so, the way in which I would suggest going about discipline is being as most merciful as you can be in every situation.

And so, what I mean by that is to take the least amount of force necessary all the time. So, this idea of spanking oftentimes comes out.

Dr. Jennifer Hunter: Right. Well, that is going to be. You know, I often ask you the tough question and I was going to ask you to weigh in on to spank or not to spank.

Dr. David Weisenhorn: I tend to go and this is the hard part of that question is that there's always a caveat. Somebody will always throw you a scenario that you didn't think or you didn't know.

What I try to do is stay away from this dichotomous yes or no when it comes to that. I don't like spanking. I can say that honestly. Is there ever a time and place for that? I try not to invoke that environment in my house that that opportunity doesn't arise, but I want to speak openly to all situations.

And what I do know is the science shows that there are adverse community effects. And so, this idea of communities in which there's a high crime or violence, maybe gang violence or drug related environments and hostility, that may be more dire means are necessary. And so, I try to avoid the absolute yes or no, but what I would encourage strongly is the least amount of force possible.

The most important when we're talking about disciplining is that what the child is learning and this is this was taken from a woman by the name of Barbara Chlorosa.

She was a nun and one of the things that she really focused on and behavior was making sure that when we when we call a child down that we we're making sure they know what they've done wrong. They know that they take ownership of the problem and that they then are given ways to solve the problem.

So, we show them what they've done wrong. We give them ownership of the problem and then we give them ways to solve the problem while leaving their dignity intact. And I think that's a really good approach to disciplining a child.

Dr. Jennifer Hunter: As you were explaining that, I've often heard, especially with little ones, that a parent picks the kiddo up at daycare and maybe they have a negative report, maybe they've bitten a child that day or they threw a toy or they did something, that the retroactive discipline five-six-seven hours after the event has occurred for a small child, that they often can't remember what it is that they did and they might not know why they're being punished.

So, that there's ways to maybe go back and have this conversation and to discuss it but again not shame the child or spanking the child or taking away a reward from the child. At that point, they often cannot associate why that negative behavior is occurring with the action that they committed earlier in the day.

Dr. David Weisenhorn: Absolutely, children have a really difficult time, unless you catch them in the act, to be able to tie why they're being punished to the behavior that caused the punishment. And so, I think that's a really good point that you bring up, Jennifer.

Because when you working them through this telling them what they did wrong, showing them what they've done wrong, giving them ownership of the problem and then give them ways to solve the problem, what you really do or you’re helping the child, you're giving them opportunities to make their own decisions and consequently their own mistakes, and then you're guiding them through that. So that when they grow up, they're not scared to make a mistake and that when they make mistakes, they know how to solve the problem or at least they feel confident enough to do that.

And so, I want to give you a for instance. So, say a child is and this as part of a research study that I conducted. So, maybe you tell the child three times, “Don't take the milk into the living room”. The child takes a glass of milk into the living room. They spill some milk on the carpet.

One parent might say, “What in the world are you doing? I told you not to go in there. I can't believe you did that. What were you thinking? Get out of here” you know, really upset with the child.

Dr. Jennifer Hunter: Right.

Dr. David Weisenhorn: What happens is that child then begins to believe they’re bad. So, when they make a mistake, they begin this process of hiding that mistake from you.

Dr. Jennifer: And feeling shame.

Dr. David Weisenhorn: Absolutely. So, I'm going to hide this mistake from you which later in life becomes detrimental, because they're not sharing maybe when they're in trouble, and then they possibly lose confidence in themselves, which then later in life that looks like, “When I have a problem, I am a problem”.

And so, they pretend that it doesn't happen or they make a mistake and they pretend it never happened and they begin to kind of suck that inside. And that begins to really kind of create this lack of confidence.

Or you have a parent who says, “Oh baby, you spilled that milk. I'm so sorry, I gave you a slippery glass. Here let me clean that up for you. And while I do that, here you take a glass of chocolate milk. Here's another glass”.

So, what happens with that child is that you're telling the child, “It's not your fault. Mistakes are due to other shortcomings”.

And so, that child begins to grow up and they say… This is classic and you may have had this in your own class, Jennifer, is a student come up and say, “Why did you fail me?”

Dr. Jennifer Hunter: Right.

Dr. David Weisenhorn: Right, this idea that “It is the teacher's fault, because they didn't explain the information all the way” or “I didn't do well on that test because I didn't have enough time to take that test” or “That student behind me was popping his pen and so it really bothered me”. So, this idea that there's no responsibility, it's not my fault at all.

So, the way that I would suggest that a child would or a parent would address that situation of a spilled milk is that you say, “Wow, looks like you've got a problem. Look at the mess you've made. Why don’t you do me a favor? You go get a rag and come on back and we'll clean this up”.

And the child comes back and then once you clean the mess up, you're helping that child pick a mess and then you present them with an option. You'll say, “Okay, out of these two glasses or cups with lids on them, which one would you like?” and they to select.

The importance of giving them that opportunity to select gives them a solution. They’re solving a problem. Not only have you said, “Wow, you've got a problem there. You made a mistake. Okay, so you're in a problem right now; you're in a situation. Let's clean it up. You go do this. I’ll help you. We’ll get this cleaned up together and now you've got to a choice how you're not going to do that again. So, what's your choice going to be?”

Young kids, they might not be able to make that choice, but as they get older, now your son has missed dinnertime two nights in a row because he's been at his buddies, and you say, “Okay, listen, Bud, tomorrow I want you to stay home. You can have your friends over, but I don't want you going to your friend's house because you've been late and dinnertime is really important to us. So, now dinnertime is really important to us. I want you to be back in a certain time and in order to do that, I want you to think about it for the next two days of how you think you cannot be late the next time”.

So, you're not really putting over punishing them.

Dr. Jennifer Hunter: Right.

Dr. David Weisenhorn: And it kind of follows these rules. And again, Barbara gives us a reasonable, simple, valuable, impractical. So, it's within reason, “I'm not going to ground you for six weeks because I don't want to be home for six weeks to watch you”. It's rather simple. It doesn't have to be complex. It's a very simple thing to do. You've stated why it's important.

And this is where I think a lot of parents go wrong is this idea that, “This is important for me. It's important that you do this. It's important that you listen to not taking the cup in the living room because when that milk sours on the carpet, it smells terrible and nobody wants to deal with that or bugs” or whatever.

Or in the case of the dinnertime, it's like, “Hey, this is the one time a night that we get to sit down as a family I cherish that. So it's valuable”.

And then practical; like “I didn’t ground you for six weeks, but what's a new way to do it? Do we need to set a timer? I'm not going to call you”. Because that's the thing I would also say to avoid; for parents to say, “I'll step in and I'll call you. I don't want my son to be late or my daughter to be late for school or for practice or for coming home, so I'll call you before” that does not give that child responsibility.

Dr. Jennifer Hunter: Right.

Dr. David Weisenhorn: Do not do that. Instead give that child an opportunity to make mistakes. And if they make a mistake, allow them the opportunity to solve that problem, give them the confidence that you say, “You know what? I know you can do this. I know you can come up with a way to where you're not going to be late. I believe in you”.

Dr. Jennifer Hunter: Some of the things that I really appreciate about what you've just said is the idea of, going back to the spilled milk example, of working with the child. They have to take the ownership and cleaning up, but working with the child to help them clean up, so that they know that maybe a problem existed, but they're not alone in fixing it. That you're there for them, you're going to support them, you’re going to help them. That you want them to take the leadership in it.

And I also think as you mentioned, when you're talking about students as they are kids, as they age and maybe get into high school and college that anything that we can do as parents to help them grow their problem solving skills is very important. Because we definitely see students that lack the ability to problem solve on their own, that mom and dad have often stepped in way too much.

And it's hard as parents because we want to fix our children's problems and we don't want to see them hurt. We don't want to see them struggle. So, if we can see a way to easily step in and fix that, sometimes we do. But the more we can do of taking that step back and helping them identify, “What are my options here and how can I go about solving this problem on my own?” I think it's a great takeaway for parents.

Just real quick as we wrap up. I think it's important to mention because sometimes, I go into mommy guilt that as parents, our goal is to do our best in disciplining, but there could be a time that maybe we do not discipline properly and we need to understand as parents. Is that okay?

Dr. David Weisenhorn: Oh, absolutely. There's this is one thing I would tell a parent. Move your trash can. Go home, get in your kitchen and move your trash can from one side of the room to the other. And in one day's time, see how much trash hits the floor.

It is very difficult to change a behavior that we have become accustomed to and parenting is no different. So, there is a lot of grace that needs to happen in our day to day process of parenting is that yeah, we're going to mess up, we're going to make a mistake, we're going to go back on our haunches, we're going to go back to what we're used to, we're going to go back to that muscle memory of tossing that banana peel in the corner and there's not going to be a trash can there and it's just going to happen.

And so, what we need to do is give ourselves grace in that changing behaviors take time. So, falling down and making mistakes is just part of that.

Dr. Jennifer Hunter: I absolutely love that example and I love the statement of about giving ourselves grace. I think that's important for parents to remember and not only discipline, but in lots of different parenting skills and parenting activities. Thanks so much for being with us today, David.

Dr. David Weisenhorn: Thank you so much for having me.

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