Saturday, July 07, 2012

I'll Be The Boss Of Me; You Be The Boss Of You

There are a lot of reasons to drive less, but perhaps the most important for me is that when I get behind the wheel of a car I often become a person I don't like very much, especially when I'm in a hurry. I like to think that I'm a man of peace, a thoughtful guy with a capacity to remain calm in stressful situations, a fellow who can disagree without being disagreeable, a live-and-let-live type. That is not always who I am when I drive, however.  Then, I often feel right on the edge of being emotionally out of control, especially when the other drivers do things like cut me off, fail to use their turn indicators, drive too slowly, drive too quickly, talk on their phones, block intersections, or do anything else that is contrary to what I want them to be doing. 

I sometimes yell at the misbehaving drivers, from behind my closed windows and doors, cursing them, and occasionally I even honk at them punitively, thinking, I guess, that I can shame or startle them into "right driving." If traffic conditions allow me to pull up beside the offensive driver, I've been known to glower at them.  It seems that in these moments of temporary insanity, that I have the idea that I can somehow cause them enough shame and fear that they will in the future correct their misbehavior.

And for all I know, it works, right? People see me shaking my fist at them and think, for instance, Whoa! I'd better work on staying in my own lane. Then I put my feet back on the solid ground and realize how incredibly stupid that is. At best, all I've done is to make other people feel intimidated or angry, which does nothing to change their behavior, and in all likelihood makes road conditions worse as they are now driving while frightened or mad.

A few days ago Dr. Laura of Aha! Parenting fame shared an excellent post from Mum In Search on her Facebook page, along with these words:

When I first began my work with parents, my focus was on connection, and regulating our own emotions. Parents kept asking me, "But what do I do about discipline? . . . What's the right consequence for bad behavior?"  Since I had never disciplined my children, and had never seen a need for it, I was confused about how to answer . . . 

That used to confuse me too, when parents asked me about discipline, and for years I simply answered, "I'm not a parenting expert," and referred them to our school's parent educators. In fact, it still throws me when people ask about discipline. I've only twice in 15 years attempted to "discipline" my child, and in both cases I quickly reversed course when I saw that the results were comparable to glowering at the other drivers. I'd managed to re-direct my child's focus away from the troubling behavior into being angry at, or intimidated by, me, which might have caused her to temporarily stop doing whatever she was doing, but did nothing to resolve the matter at hand, while increasing the likelihood of defiance and secretiveness in the future, calling for yet more discipline: the famous cycle in which parents and children too often find themselves.

Yes, I understand that the word "discipline" comes from the Latin word disciplina which means teaching or learning, but that is not how the word is most commonly used.  The number one definition provided by The Oxford English Dictionary is: "To subject to discipline; in earlier use, to instruct, educate, train; in later use, more especially, to train to habits of order and subordination; to bring under control." The number one definition give by Merriam-Webster online is "Punishment." 

And that's what most people mean when they use the word discipline, to punish someone in order to bring them under control, with our without anger.  I have no interest in reclaiming that word for common use: teaching or guiding are a good enough words for me.

The good doctor continues (the emphasis is mine):

. . . Until I realized that the reason we didn't need discipline was precisely because I focused on connection, and on regulating my own emotions. That was many years ago, and I've seen so many families transform when they shift their focus.

It's never my job to bring others under my control or to train them in the habits of order and subordination, even if they're children in my care.  My job is to be in a relationship with them, what Dr. Laura refers to as "connection," just as it should be with all the other people in my life.  Not long ago, I pulled up beside a "misbehaving" driver and was possibly on the verge of showing her my middle finger, when I realized that I knew her, a parent from our school, someone I've known for a couple years, a recognition that turned my glower into a smile and my rude gesture into a friendly wave. I didn't have to struggle to get myself under control either: the moment I recognized her, the moment a genuine relationship was present, my urge to control and subordinate her went away. A few days later, I told her, jovially, that she had cut me off in traffic.  She was, of course, mortified, apologetic, then we chuckled about it as I admitted that I'd almost flipped her off.

I'm as sure as I'll ever be about the future behavior of another person that she'll be a more conscious driver going forward, at least along that particular stretch of road. There had been no need for me to discipline her, to subordinate her: I'd just continued to be in a relationship with her and this exchange, I believe, made it stronger.

I sometimes say to children, "Hey, I'll be the boss of me, you be the boss of you," an attitude that serves me well in all my relationships. This doesn't mean that I don't try to persuade the people in my life when I think they're wrong or in danger, it doesn't mean that I don't tell the people in my life when they've hurt or frightened me, but it would never cross my mind to bring them under my control or attempt to subordinate them by way of regulating their behavior. When we approach our child as a fully-formed human being, we see that it is not our job to "correct" her behavior; that's her job. When we are in relationship with our child we see that we are not there to compel or trick him into doing our bidding, but rather to help him figure out a better way. When we focus on discipline we teach the subordinating skill of obedience; when we focus on connection, we teach our child self-regulating skills that they will use for the rest of their lives.

In both instances when I started down the road of discipline with my daughter, I wound up trading out punishments for conversations (not lectures) that involved her doing most of the talking, that wound up with her in tears as she processed the natural consequences of what had happened, and what she had done to bring them upon herself. In both cases, the behavior never happened again, the lessons were learned, and my role was not to bring her under control, but to instead love and comfort her as she experienced a hard truth about being the boss of herself.

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Jeanne Zuech said...

Tom - Thanks for your wordsmith talents on this subject. I agree whole heartedly with your approach to relationship, not discipline. Bravo!

Melanie said...

I am always amazed at the timing of things. I have four young children and have come to that place of needing to revisit the parent I want to be. This comes in cycles and I haven't swayed much from knowing who, what, how I want to be. But the details in this can get all jumbled when all four are in different emotional spaces, teaching me several good lessons, and all the while I still try to be empathetic, to myself, knowing that each day is new &, in essence, my first go at it. Your blogpost came to me at a perfect time....another reminder that the only person in the world I can control is me. It's that easy. Knowing this leaves me feeling relieved, and terrified. But hey, parenting is all about those 'opposite ends of the spectrum' emotions. I love your blog. Keep up your good work!

Anonymous said...

Wonderful information...While getting my degree i took a class that used a book called "positive behavior guidance", which talks about the need to have a relationship first before you can even hope to guide behavior or learning, much like what is discussed here.

Aunt Annie said...

Yes, yes, yes.

Tom, when parents ask you about discipline you could maybe suggest that instead of reacting to the behaviour, they narrate it. As I read your posts I notice that this is exactly what you do when someone is 'doing the wrong thing' according to your kids' agreed rules. Having tried it myself, I find it extremely effective. Most parents wouldn't think of this in a pink fit, but it's a first step away from punishment and towards allowing a child to self-regulate.

Matt said...

Tom, I just love this post. :) Building relationships with students (and parents for that matter) allows us to understand, guide, and help when kids need it. Punishment does nothing but say, "I'M IN CHARGE!" This is a wonderful post and I'm sharing it with my readers. :D