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Disciplining without striking fear into the child

Sunday, 23 December 2012 - 8:30am IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: dna

After all, the whole Western concept of monsters under the bed came from the culture of threat, so the child doesn’t get off the bed and is terrorised into going straight to sleep.

Beta so ja, nahin toh Gabbar aa jayega.” Anyone who has grown up in this country is familiar with this iconic threat from the film Sholay that a harried mother whispered to her tiresome crying child who refused to sleep. And it isn’t just in India that parents use threats to put children to sleep or to make them eat or do just about anything the parent wants them to do.

After all, the whole Western concept of monsters under the bed came from the culture of threat, so the child doesn’t get off the bed and is terrorised into going straight to sleep. And it isn’t a surprise that every country from Spain and Brazil to Chile and China has the concept of an imaginary bag man (Bogeyman, Baba Yaga, Bubak, Croni Bella, El Coco) who frightens children into compliant behaviour.

I recently heard my highly-educated, otherwise sensible and kind friend say to her four-year-old daughter, “Eat your food or I’ll take you to the hospital and tell the doctor to give you an injection.” The child looked visibly terrified and started shovelling food into her mouth at top speed. I don’t think it occurred to the mother that she was not only shooting herself in the foot by creating fears about injections and doctors, (considering the number of vaccines we have to give our kids) but was also creating negative associations with food for the young girl.

Not to preach but honestly, what with bulimia and anorexia becoming a huge issue amongst adolescents, it’s important to reinforce positive attitudes towards food and self-image. Both of which, with that remark, were being demolished with one felled blow.   

I’ve heard other parents say even more priceless things like, ‘if you don’t eat your food fast, I’ll throw you out of the window/ tell the police to lock you up in jail/ tell the principal to cane you/ I’ll tell everyone not to talk to you.’ Is it possible that these parents can’t see that they are unnecessarily creating deep-rooted fears?  A life-long fear or hatred for authority figures often stems from a child being exposed to repeated threats like these. Not to mention, building a relationship based on fear is not going to be so smart when they grow into teenagers and hide things from you about sex, drugs and alcohol.

It’s natural to feel exhausted while parenting. Who doesn’t? It’s even more natural to get exasperated if you have to constantly discipline, chase and get things done. Punishment and the need to discipline, comes easily to all of us. But it’s a lot wiser to explain things to children and take away benefits and privileges than it is to plant unreasonable fears. For example; if you don’t eat fast, you will get very little time to play with your friend/ no watching that cartoon unless you tidy up your things/ no riding your cycle till you finish your homework/ If you are rude, I’m taking away your favourite toy. Also the loss of playtime or a favourite toy being confiscated, are tangible things to a child unlike a nameless faceless doctor who will inject her, or a policeman who will lock her up.

It’s also a sign of weakness in the parenting style if you need to rely on scary external authority figures. Your child should respect you enough to know not to cross the line. The key word here is respect not fear. It’s easy to generate fear. We’re all double their size, strength and have incredible power over them.

However, respect takes a long time to build. It means the foundation has to be trust and spending hands-on time handling a lot of their routine yourself rather than outsourcing it to the help. It also means that you have shown them a tremendous amount of unconditional love and given them high self-esteem.

How effectively you discipline has a lot to do with how much respect you have earned. Do you draw firm boundaries? Does no mean no, or does the no disappear when the anger melts away? Do you always stick to your word?

I know... I know... it’s hard. It takes time, patience, resilience. In fact, wouldn’t it be much easier if the police were actually in charge of disciplining our children? We could pack them off every time they threw a tantrum to be locked up in a state-sponsored programme that  transforms our children into model citizens?

Well, till the heads of state can dream up these lofty things, all we can do I guess is, to exercise restraint about implanting fears and take away that favourite toy.

From writing for Newsweek in New York to DNA in Mumbai, writer and editor Rukhmini Punoose’s current full-time employers are her 4-year-old son and baby daughter

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