To ground or not to ground? To spank or to deny privileges? Most parents would agree there is a very fine line between discipline and punishment, between giving your child the messages that will make him listen or turn him off, between being an effective parent who has the respect of their children and a screaming banshee who can cause permanent, lasting damage to the parent-child relationship.
Madelyn Swift, mother of two sons, recognized that both “Mommy the Good” and “Mommy the Bad” resided within her, and decided to do something about it. She began a personal journey of discovery into disciplining children, serving as school psychologist (certified in the state of Ohio), teacher and educational consultant. She also founded “Childright,” an organization that provides training to educators, parents and corporations around the world through books, seminars, and DVDs that approach questions about discipline with common sense, life principles, and easy-to-understand strategies.
She is the author of three books: Teach Your Children Well: A Parent’s Guide to Encouraging Character and Integrity, Getting it Right with Teens, and the influential work, Discipline for Life: Getting it Right with Children. Swift speaks at the Stuart Country Day School on Tuesday, February 28.
She says there is a fundamental difference between the idea of discipline and the idea of punishment. “Discipline is about teaching what is the right thing, allowing what is fair and in one’s best interest. It carries respect and authority. Punishment includes the really ugly disrespectful words we all say when we’re tired. It includes striking, spanking, and removing unrelated privileges.”
Swift was born and raised in Norwalk, Ohio, a small town outside Cleveland. Her father was a CPA and her mother was a stay-at-home mom who eventually went to work for her husband. Swift earned a BA from Louisiana State and a masters in education from Bowling Green State University. She and her husband, John, retired from a career in education, lived the first 12 years of their marriage in Canada. They have two grown children, Kris, 27, who has a masters degree in multimedia from the University of Texas in Austin, and Tim, who has a bachelors degree from the same school in economics and is a high-end security specialist.
While she was raising her children Swift had plenty of doubts, questions, and insecurities, as so many parent do. In one of her articles she writes: “When my oldest son first started drawing, he drew a picture of me as the perfect mom with blonde hair, red cheeks, a smile, a sun shining brightly, and a warm red heart — Mommy the Good. On the other side of that very same paper, he drew a second picture, a different version of me. This one had blue and white scraggly hair, a zigzag line for a mouth, no sun, and a very cold green heart. Perhaps most telling is the missing circle which would have delineated my head, which I feel represented so effectively my loss of integrity — Mommy the Bad. Never think for a moment that your children do not notice.”
She says that even as a trained and well-educated school psychologist, she knew she didn’t like what she was doing at times and constantly was looking for ways to do better. “Parenthood is on-the-job training. You do have to read, watch things, be in the know. We want to be comfortable being parents but so many times, you’re really not sure. But it’s important to have that long-term view. I wanted to make sure that I was creating good people. You don’t get a chance to do it over again.”
The core of Swift’s philosophy can be summed up in something she calls the “Law of the Harvest,” the idea that you reap what you sow. “It’s not just about who they are right now. What are your children going to be like at 16? 25? You want to raise terrific children who will grow up to become terrific adults.”
Another tenet of Swift’s beliefs is “how we discipline a child at age two, at age five, at age nine, plays a significant role in determining how he drives at 16, how he handles relationships, what kind of spouse and parent he becomes, in short, how he handles his life. The future does depend on what we do in the present.”
She illustrates the difference between discipline and punishment with this example: “If a three-year-old rides her tricycle out into the street, many parents will react by spanking the child or punishing her by taking her video away. The child cries, but doesn’t really make the connection that what she did was dangerous. What should happen is the parent should take her tricycle away and explain why. The message should be that if you handle a vehicle safely, you can continue operating it. Handle it badly, and it will be taken away.” Swift says most of us have to rethink how we handle situations like this. “The concept is simple, but the practice is tough. The unfortunate thing is that many parents still don’t have the concept.”
She says these issues become critical, sometimes literally a matter of life and death, when the child becomes a teenager. “There are two things teenagers want most. They want to be cool. And you can’t help them with that because as far as they’re concerned, you’re old. But they also want freedom, and that’s one you can help them with. But you don’t just give it to them. They have to learn that they earn it with trust and responsibility. And that means that if you have a 17-year- old who is less responsible than your 15-year-old, the younger one might have more freedom and the older one can’t cry ‘Not fair’ because it is fair.”
Swift says that teenagers need to know that you’ll always be there for them and that they can call you from anywhere at anytime. They need to know you’ll get them and won’t immediately jump all over them with questions. “Kids will get into bad situations and get into trouble. Hold your questions when they get in the car. If you can keep your mouth closed for 10 seconds, chances are they will tell you everything. They’ve called you because they’re scared.”
She sees disturbing trend where parents want to be their children’s friends and loathe to say no, to lay down structure and limits. “It starts with saying ‘No, you’re not having chicken nuggets. We’re having spaghetti.’ It’s always been there, parents wanting to make life easier for their kids. But giving into that all the time makes obnoxious little kids who are less able to cope, and they fall apart later in life when things just don’t go their way.”
One big factor is parent guilt. “We don’t play enough with our kids. We’re always running them from one structured event to another. They don’t de-stress or learn leadership skills because someone’s always running things for them.”
She has observed a tremendous loss of accountability in our society and she says part of it comes from overdoing it with praise and trying to cushion our kids too much from disappointment. “We need our kids to be upset about some things. They need to know that when you do something wrong, you have to feel bad and that’s how you build character. When you act right you feel right, and when you act wrong you feel wrong. Let them wallow in it because that’s what makes them decide not to do that anymore. If parents are doing their job well, their kids should be upset from time to time. They’re supposed to misbehave and learn from their mistakes.”
Discipline for Life: Getting It Right with Children, Tuesday, February 28, 7:30 p.m., Stuart Country Day School, 1200 Stuart Road. Author Madelyn Swift. Presented by CommonGround. Free. 609-921-2330.