Wednesday, March 18, 2020

I Don't Like the Word "Discipline"

I don't like the word "discipline." Perhaps I should, given that it derives from the Latin disciplina, which means instruction given, teaching, learning, and knowledge, but in common usage it typically is meant as training people to obey through punishment.

For starters, I'm not a big fan of obedience, especially for children. Obedient children tend to either grow into rebellious teens who are a danger to themselves as they try to "make up for" all the time spent living under a regimen of artificially repressed urges, or even worse, obedient adults who are a danger to the rest of us. Obedient people are not thinking people. Indeed, obedience means we are letting other people do our thinking for us.

This is sometimes a challenging concept for new parents who have, like the rest of us, grown up in a world in which obedient children are widely seen as the goal of parenting. And as the connotative meaning of the word suggests, obedience is most often enforced through a system of punishment, another concept that I reject, in part because it simply doesn't work. Or rather, it doesn't work the way people think it does. The research on punishment shows that it tends to work to control behavior only so long as the punisher remains present or if the punishment is debilitating, and I certainly hope that no one reading here would inflict debilitating punishment on a child in their care.

But even more to the point, punishment is an external motivator. What punishment teaches is that might makes right, that those with power get to tell you what to do. It teaches children to follow leaders not because what they are doing is great, but because they can hurt you if you don't. What children learn through punishment is that someone else is responsible for their behavior and decisions, that the powerful know best, and that knowing your place is your highest calling.

And rewards are just the flip side of the same coin, but instead they teach children to kiss up to those in power, an equally unsavory way to go through life.

We all know that the things that we learn in childhood are the things we know as adults. And in adulthood, obedience is a dangerous thing. Every atrocity ever committed on the face of this planet was done by people who were simply following orders.

I often ask the people who have come to hear me speak if they know any obedient adults. The answer is usually "no." But I think that's because in adulthood we call it "duty" or "loyalty," fine sounding attributes that hide the potential for doing awful things. Most often we think of soldiers or even police officers, but there are plenty of businesspeople out there committing heinous acts out of loyalty to their stockholders, or lawyers who cause greater injustice in the name of doing their duty to their client. And naturally, we all know adults to insist upon obedience in others, those authoritarian "daddy" types who, I'm certain, were expected to obey when they were young and are now turning the tables because that's the only world they know: someone must be obeyed and now it's their turn.

I want the children I teach to be intrinsically or internally motivated. To do the right thing, not because they've been cowed or cajoled into it, but because they have chosen to do it. This is why the children I teach make their own rules. This is why we adhere to the law of natural consequences. This is why we strive to avoid bossing the children around with directives like, "Sit here," or "Put the blocks away." This is why I actively teach children to question authority and why we celebrate when they engage in righteous civil disobedience.

The cultural habit of relying upon rewards and punishments, carrots and sticks, runs deep. Many of us cannot conceive of a world without those tools, fearing that without obedience, children will run amok, giving in to their worst instincts. But if we are to raise children who are intrinsically motivated, who have the skills to participate in self-governance, we must allow them the opportunity to actually practice making their own decisions, even if that means sometimes making the wrong one and then dealing with the natural consequences. That's the only way anyone has ever learned to think for themself.

Those of us inside this bubble of play-based education understand this, of course. We know that the purpose of education is not to create good workers, but rather good citizens, people with the ability, skills, and habits of mind to productively engage in this grand project of self-governance. A good citizen is someone who thinks for themself, who is a critical thinker. A good citizen knows it is not just their right, but their responsibility, to question authority when "leaders" are doing or saying things that don't match what we already know about the world. A good citizen stands up for their beliefs, even when those around them disagree. And on the flip side, a good citizen knows that it's their responsibility to listen to their fellow citizens, even when they disagree. A good citizen contributes to society in ways far beyond the merely economic: politically, artistically, socially, as members of churches, or clubs, or simply as neighbors.

These traits simply can't be taught through obedience enforced through discipline.

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