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What is Discipline?

Updated: Jul 14, 2021

First off, I have to say I despise the word “discipline.” By its definition it means “the practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behavior, using punishment to correct disobedience.” And here are some synonyms that come up when I search: train, punish, drill, control, and castigate. Ugh. Is that what we are doing to our children?? No wonder we are having problems! I have searched and searched for a better word to use and there just isn’t a good one- rearing (ugh, terrible), raising (too broad), caretaking (closer, but not great either). We need a new word… one that encompasses what raising and caring for children REALLY means. So let’s dive in to a “new” way to think about “discipline.”


The best ideas come from Alfred Adler and Rudolf Dreikurs. Adler was a psychologist who studied with Freud before venturing out on his own and founding Individual Psychology. Adler believed all humans have a basic need to belong and be accepted by a social group. If this basic need isn’t met, humans will find an unhealthy way to acquire that acceptance. He ended up partnering with Rudolf Dreikurs later in life and creating theories for children’s psychology based on the idea that “misbehavior” is actually a signal from the child that they are not getting their needs met. Well, how does this idea line up to what we know about humans meeting needs? This leads us to Abraham Maslow and his hierarchy.



Let’s start at the bottom- if you look at Physiological needs- these are things that we need literally to survive- food, water, shelter. If we look at Safety needs, these are of similar importance- security, money, health. If either of these layers of needs are missing in any human, they are in survival mode. If they are lacking for too long, these will cause trauma. So these needs are of utmost importance, but aren’t where the idea of “discipline” comes into play.


Once those basic needs are met, then we are reaching for Love and Belonging and Esteem needs. This is where "discipline," or the methods we use to parent and teach, come in. After parents have given them those very basic needs, they must start giving them a sense of connection and a feeling that they can go out in the world and be successful on their own. Teachers are also working on these two levels- school is the first real dip into society that children get. Before kindergarten they only had to integrate and connect with the personalities in their family. But in the classroom? Whew, that’s a whole other ballgame. Now we have a slew of diversity the child needs to learn how to get along with while learning skills to help them succeed in the world.


So then what is our job as parents and teachers? Not simply to “discipline” I can tell you that. I think we would all agree it’s our job to raise humans who can find the top of that tier and reach Self Actualization. If a person is self actualized, they have reached a place where all their needs have been met. We might say that this is the state of success. If we want our children reach this tier, then we should be focused on how to meet their needs effectively. But the biggest error we make when raising children at home and managing children in the classroom? We assume that their misbehavior is a sign they are “bad” or maladjusted in some way. In fact, what misbehavior ALWAYS is, is a sign that the adult who is caregiving at the time is not meeting their needs appropriately. Yep, that’s right, I’m blaming you, ha! Yes, it took me a bit to accept this idea as well, but then as soon as I did I realized that also meant that the power to change the behavior I was seeing was with ME. THAT gave me some strong motivation for sure.


In my workshops I teach the art of Loving and Letting Go for parents and Connection and Structure for teachers. The Love and Connection meet those belonging needs and the Letting Go and Structure help meet the esteem needs. Learning to balance these two key ideas will meet our children’s needs effectively so they can reach for the top- Isn’t that our true goal?


So I will wrap up this post today with some questions to ask yourself… what behaviors am I most seeing in my children or students? How are their actions signaling to me that they need something more than I am giving them? Do they need more Love and Connection (belonging needs)? Or do they need me to Let Go and give them more Structure (esteem needs)?


If you would like support deciding how to identify your child’s missing needs and the best way to meet them, please contact me! I can help steer you in the right direction.


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