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6 JULY 1999
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Discipline as supportive control

Ray Curtis, when Director of Social Services, Forest Heights Lodge, Colorado

Theories of discipline are many – and often apparently conflicting. As one mother so aptly put it, “I used to think I knew how to discipline my kid. Since I started reading, I don't know whether to spare the rod or spare the kid."

At the Lodge, there is no rod – but an approach we call 'supportive control'.

Supportive control basically means:

1. We will take care of you;
2. Our concern is what is best for you;
3. We can control and protect you when you are not acting to your own benefit.

Crucial to the success of such an approach is the relationship between the child and those who care for him. If controls are seen as a game in which one must win and one must lose, the result is a conflict that never ends. Tomorrow becomes another chance to even the score!

When we place limits on a child, we say, “That's not good for you", or “I want you to feel good about yourself," or “School is more fun if ..." The child then sees controls as supportive and protective, arising from a concern about what is best for him. (That does not mean at that moment he will like the limits placed.) A most critical factor is determining the real issue we are dealing with and responding appropriately.

There are basically three areas where control appears to be an issue.

"I hate doing the dishes," “All I ever do is homework", or “I'm sick of cleaning this crummy room." These are not “I-won't" statements; they are statements about how one feels. Children have a right not to like something, just as we adults don't always like what we have to do. When feelings are the issue we must respect them and help the child to express his feelings appropriately. This does not mean that just because the job is disliked, he will not be expected to do it. The issue is doing what he is asked, not “whistle while you work." In time the child will learn the joy of a job well done, the satisfaction of a task completed. Amazingly, a child more often than not will complete the task he is given, once he has expressed his displeasure.

A sloppy room, poor and disorganised schoolwork or chores forgotten may mean “I haven't learned how". If so, the task is to explain what we want, break it down into steps he can understand, show him how – and respond positively when he does it. The emphasis must be on improvement, not perfection. True learning is moving in the right direction, not just getting there.

Challenges to authority
Statements like “I'm not going to clean my room", “if you want the dishes done, do them yourself!" or frequently forgotten responsibilities may mean “Make me if you can." In such cases the temptation is to allow yourself to feel you must prove how strong you are, feeling that your adequacy is being questioned. However, the true issue is whether to maintain your support of the child in doing what is best for him. The conflict is seen as within the child, not between us and him. He is given choices. “You can sit in this chair until you are ready to ... “ Such a choice leaves the decision to the child as to how long he wants to be uncomfortable. This keeps the conflict focused on the child, rather than on us.

Whatever the conflict, the resolution of it must mean, “it is over, done with," and good feelings should follow. For the Lodge, in fact for anyone who looks after youngsters, the philosophy should be a zest for living (doing well feels good), a sense of humour, and honestly growing together with our children.

This feature: From Colorado Care Child Work, reprinted in Child Care Work in Focus. Copyright – Academy of Child and Youth Care Practice. Reproduced with permission.

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