Discipline. Few words rouse such
immediate, intense and varied reactions: fear, pride, anger, oppression,
righteousness, relief.... It is a topic about which most of us have
strong opinions, especially when we are talking about the discipline
of our children.
But what is it? Why does it matter to us at all? For me to begin
to answer this question I have had to look at my own life, at what
part discipline plays in my day to day experience of the world.
Like a great many teachers and many, many other people, I have chosen
to undertake several personal disciplines. Certainly teaching, like
virtually all work, has many built-in disciplines needed to do the
job, but for me to understand discipline it has been more helpful
to examine the "unnecessary" or voluntary disciplines
I undertake on a regular basis. Whether exercising for physical
well-being, engaging in artistic disciplines, or meditating for
clarity of mind, one common thread stands out: connection to life.
Each of the disciplines I undertake brings me, in some way, into
a greater intimacy with life.
This seems to be a universal experience. Frequently one hears runners
and other athletes describing the vibrance they feel running a race,
or the potter describing the calm of centering the clay. All told,
discipline is more than a way to keep order, to make life manageable;
at its core it is a pathway to experiencing life in all its magic.
Still, for many the word discipline connotes a way to keep things
down or to hold them together. It is a word we often associate with
being humiliated or insulted. However, we could view it instead
as a celebration of our connection to life.
Even if we all agree on this, a flood of "buts" comes
rolling in on the heels of our agreement. One of the biggest might
be, "But the children haven't chosen to undertake the discipline
of family life or of being in a class." We might wonder, "Do
self discipline and imposed disciplines have the same outcome?"
I would say no for adults and yes for children. Adults
whose discipline is regulated by others have given up their freedom,
their responsibility - of course they feel oppressed. But children
have not yet developed the consciousness needed to be responsible
for themselves - and they demonstrate this to us again and again.
As recent brain research1 is
showing, children are "open-loop" beings, dependent
on us to activate their internal worlds.
If you think of a stream it is obvious why it must have strong banks;
without them it becomes a flood or a swamp. It's quite similar for
the child. For the child we are those banks. Children have not yet
grown into the consciousness that will one day serve as a strong,
self-directed river bank. Strong banks do not oppress them, any
more than they oppress a river. Rather they give them the necessary
support to burst up and rush forward filled with the zest and strength
of a spring stream. While children are growing, it is up to us to
provide the certainty and direction they need to live in an intimate
and appreciative relationship with their world.
So as individuals we can focus on our connection to life as the
core of our disciplining. But what does that mean on a practical
level? To answer this we need to ask some fundamental questions:
what is the relationship of the group or family to the individual,
for parent, teacher, and child? What is the relationship of form
to freedom? What is fairness? What is reliability? And so on.
A few things stand out clearly. Of greatest importance is the understanding
that developing internal discipline in children is a process that
takes place mostly within the parents and the teachers. It is our
own inner discipline, our connection to life as we experience it,
that nurtures the child's sense of self discipline. Our self discipline
must be the model that sparks discipline in the children.
Joseph Chilton Pearce, a current child development theorist, believes
that children are born with a full set of capacities for living,
but that these must be activated by a living model. From this perspective
we can see that if we set clear limits for children, then we model
the ability to set their own limits. When we are willing to stand
firmly in our own sense of proper discipline, instead of squashing
their independence, we actually activate their capacity for setting
their own boundaries.
As individual teachers and parents we all know that it is the certainty
of our guidance, our belief in what we bring the children, that
makes the discipline work. The way I work with this quality of certainty
is to look back to a boundary whose undeniable quality I know. The
image I hold vivid is the image of a stream. If you put your foot
in a stream you get wet. Whether you are "good" or "bad,"
whether you are "nice" or "mean" you will get
wet. It is a very solid, simple sense of boundary. It is neither
punitive nor degrading; it is not a judgment, nor is it personal.
It is simply "True." If we can bring the children a simple
"NO", or, "Throwing is an outside activity,"
with the reality of the stream wetting our foot, they respond to
it as truth. We can work to connect with that sense of wetness,
that quality of limit without judgment and in so doing we offer
the child the only real gift we have to give - the truth.
When we feel punitive or righteous we have lost the judgment-free
description of reality and the children will feel shamed. When we
couch it in apology or concept, we have lost our connection to the
truth of the limit and the children feel unsafe. In either case,
they will tend to respond with negativity, aggression, or fear.
In the Enki approach, it is the "isness", or
reality, we seek to bring the children, and not the "shouldness".
When I find myself struggling with unclear, ineffective
limits I think of the stream. I know what it feels like to connect
that sense of wetness, that quality of limit without judgment or
apology. I know where to return.
This outlook does not define the limits the teacher will
set. We must each make our own connection to our inner truths and
to what we perceive in the world at large. When we make this connection,
we connect to the energy of life; then setting limits is an expression
of respect for the world, for the parent or teacher, and for the
child. It may seem too personal, too dependent on each person, but
what is the alternative? Somehow we must bring together our individual
connections with everyone's need for dependability.
Still it seems there must certainly be a few clear unchanging rules.
In fact it is hard to think of any that don't have exceptions
some situation. Certainly the home or classroom must have basic
behavior expectations that the children know and are held to on
the whole. But most of the situations we deal with routinely have
many exceptions depending on the circumstances. For example, on
a hot, sunny day, jumping in puddles during outdoor play may be
fine. On a cold, early spring day, heading out to a field trip,
jumping in a puddle is not okay. Then, a simple "no" or
"not today" is the reality. The children depend on the
parent's and teacher's connection to the reality/truth of what
says for their sense of consistency, Certainly much will be routine
reality; still it must be an expression of connecting to the truth
of the situation.
The children do not and cannot depend on the answer always being
the same - that is not the nature of life. When we make a connection
to the reality of the specific situation, we connect to the energy
of life. Whether we are saying, "No puddles today," to
a little one or, "We'll make up the homework Friday after school,"
to a fifth grader or, "Feet off the desk, gum in the trash,"
to an adolescent, the reality or certainty principle must be the
same. This way setting limits is an expression of respect for and
connection to the world, to the parent, to the teacher, and to the
For these reasons, in the Enki approach when we set a limit we do
so with little or no explanations, and certainly no warnings. Explanations
and warnings, for the most part, are just an expression of uncertainty
or apology: "I have the 'right' to set this limit because...."
You, as the parent or teacher, not only have the right, but also
the responsibility to set the limit, to bring the child a reality/truth
that serves his well-being. If you feel a child really doesn't understand
that what they are doing is unacceptable, then tell them, "That
is not allowed or not safe ...," whatever is true. But as soon
as you say, "If you do that again..." or "Next time..."
it has stopped being a description of reality and become part of
a challenge or power play. It is far more affective and respectful
for parents and teachers simply to state the reality once (unless
it is so obvious that it needs no stating,) and then act on setting
the limit. As the children get older a description of the
situation may help make it a reality, but be sure it is a description,
not a question or explanation. For example, maybe they would benefit
by hearing that they have to bring parkas on their camping trip
because it is 45 degrees at night. That is a simple fact. But it
must be held within the reality that it is your call, not theirs.
Children are remarkably responsive to this kind of boundary. Whether
you are three feet tall or watching your body change daily, it is
reassuring to know that someone else is clear! Even at 16, when
the world has just grown exponentially, it is a great help to know
someone can see clearly.
We all want to be fair and respectful to everyone, and to support
the sense of worth in all, especially our children. It is very easy
to think this happens by giving choices and decision making power
whenever possible. But for the young child especially, this is not
the case. When we mix the developmental issues of early childhood
with choice and explanations, it is like mixing baking soda in a
vinegar concoction - the whole thing erupts and bubbles over - we
get what my sons used to call "Pirate Knock-out"! To make
a choice, by definition, requires a stepping back, weighing and
analyzing. This is antithetical to the state of union or wholeness
in which the young child's health resides. As she grows up she will
be able to go back and forth between being inside/in-union with
all she meets, and stepping back and understanding it. But in these
early years the stepping back in and of itself pokes a hole
in her safety. The young child is threatened and must either withdraw
or fight. How many nightmare scenes have parents and teachers endured
when the child had a fit after being asked to choose, or after hearing
a careful explanation of why it is time for boots or bed?
As adults of today, we have been raised to think that giving choices
and explanations is "good." It means we have been fair.
It frees us from responsibility: "After all, we gave them the
choice, explained the consequence." We're "good, fair
and reasonable." But young children are literally not yet reasonable
- they do not work from reason and reason fractures their integration
and therefore their sense of well-being. They learn through merging,
imprinting. This is the seat of their health and a tremendously
important capacity throughout life. To support this, we can bring
them reality in living pictures and descriptions rather than explanations.
"It's raining out. Let's get the umbrella." Even an umbrella
song. Or no conversation at all. However, a discussion like, "You
need to put on your boots because it is raining and the rain will
get you wet and you'll get sick and miss Johnny's birthday party
and we'll be up all night with you sick and......" is only
going to throw the young child into her thinking and out of integration/harmony.
Most of the time our explanations are apologies, and the logic and
choices are for us, not the children.
Certainly there are occasions for choices. But these are special
moments when the choice is real (which it is not in the case of
boots in the snow), or when it is more a description of something
you can make happen ("you can sit at the table or you can cry
in your room").
Looking at this simple, non-interactive approach to setting
limits one might easily wonder if we are not dampening the child's
sense of individuality. From our perspective true individuality
blooms only in an integrated state, a state we can only foster with
our certainty and sense of truth. It is here, in the "quiet"
of well-being, in the "rest" of feeling a part of the
life cycle, that we can actually glimpse that which is our true
We have all seen adolescents and adults, and even some young children,
trying to find and even announce their own uniqueness through a
display of external forms, opinions and the like. It usually leaves
the viewer distrustful and empty. On the other hand, from time to
time someone comes along who simply is "herself." We notice
and we feel a fullness and curiosity. What makes the difference?
In the Enki outlook we start from the belief that we all are unique
individuals, each with our gifts and our challenges and our own
path. This is our birthright. It isn't something we have to create
or develop, but rather is a natural blooming from healthy soil.
In this case, that soil is the integration of body, heart, and mind.
We see this process function much as an ecosystem of nature does.
When rain falls in the forest each plant is nurtured. The very same
rain nourishes the fern shoot to become a fern and the acorn to
become an oak. Likewise, we can trust the natural processes of life
to unfold into individual expressions of our shared humanity. So
while the child is in the time of wholeness, where her integration
and well-being depend on connectedness, on letting the world imprint
upon her, that is what we support. The older she gets the more external
choices she can make without fracturing the inner wholeness, but
until she is able to set inner boundaries, the certainty of our
boundaries are critical to her well being. It is our belief that
anything we do that works against that overall well-being, by definition,
also works against the discovery of a true and deep individuality.
Certainly there are times, particularly as the children get older
and the developmental issues shift, when you want them to explore
and discover the boundaries. If you choose these opportunities carefully,
this can be very instructive. Let the children describe the overall
situation, explore the details and discover the boundaries - just
be very sure that you can allow their decision to stand, don't give
them a false opportunity or you breed distrust and manipulation.
For example, as they get into adolescence they will need to discover,
through experience, that they do not eat if they haven't chopped
wood and built a fire on their camping trip. That is an age appropriate
boundary the world can present. If you warn them, or plead with
them, explain to them or admonish them in any way, you prevent them
from meeting the very real boundary presented by the world. You
might have a meeting before the trip to verbally plan out the necessities
of camping but, once you are there, your only job is to bring some
snack food for yourself and let them discover/go hungry if they
do not do their chores. On the other hand, when they are chopping
wood, discovering proper technique for using an axe without instruction
and clear, firm boundaries is a potential life threatening disaster.
Here we need the clear, immovable boundaries. If someone doesn't
respond, they don't chop - end of issue.
The content changes with age. The amount of discussion changes.
But at all ages the actual boundary needs to be as clear, unquestionable,
and judgment free as the wetness of water. In this way discipline
can guide the child and give him the wisdom and safety to find his
individuality and his natural connection to life.
1 A General Theory
by Drs. Lewis, Amini, and Lannon, publ. Random House, 2000.