Several years ago, as Miranda was growing out of the baby stage and as Matt and I began preparing to embark on our journey to become adoptive parents, we started reading and researching more about parenting. Interestingly enough, it was the resources aimed specifically toward helping adoptive parents raise their children that we found most compelling. Those books rely heavily on the latest research about child development, neuroscience, and the ways in which children learn, particularly with regards to the skills necessary for the ability to develop successful relationships.
One of the tenets of the philosophy we have embraced is that the purpose of disciplining children is to teach them – not to punish them – and within that context, nurturing our relationships with our kiddos is of paramount importance. I just finished reading No Drama Discipline: The Whole-Brain Way to Calm the Chaos and Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind by Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, a book that subscribes to that same philosophy, and I found it to be an incredibly encouraging read with a number of examples that offered timely application for our family.
Siegel and Bryson describe how many of us default to punitive discipline strategies that our children experience as pain or rejection, and they discuss the ways in which our children’s brains respond to those disciplinary strategies – primarily by shutting down their higher brain functions (which are the areas that enable them to learn) and instead staying locked into more primitive, reactive areas of the brain. However, we as parents can instead choose strategies that focus on setting healthy boundaries while also respecting and nurturing our children.
Our children’s brains are still developing, so, as we give them practice using their higher brain functions, they’re learning the very process of how to use those functions and even structurally building their brain in a way that predisposes them to be able to calm themselves, exercise self-control, think rationally, and have empathy in the future. Hebb’s axiom tells us that “neurons that fire together wire together” – in essence, as neurons respond together to various experiences, the connections between those neurons grow, making it easier for them to respond together in the future (p 42-43). When our kids experience a problem, we can train them to calm down and be thoughtful about potential solutions, and then their brains will be wired in such a way to encourage them to default to those modes in the future.
If we focus on connecting with our children and making sure that they – and we – are in a good place to address any issues that arise, we’ll be cultivating our relationships with our children and we’ll be much more effective in teaching them. I remember it feeling like a revelation to me when, during one of the CCEF courses I took, the instructor discussed the ideal that the driving force behind our approaching anyone about an issue we see with their behavior should be their good – it shouldn’t be about getting something off your own chest or making you feel better, but about whether it’s actually in that person’s best interest for you to discuss the issue with them. It’s interesting to me that many of us who are Christians embrace that idea when it comes to our interactions with other adults but feel perfectly comfortable expressing immediate frustration or displeasure with our children. I want to be treating my children with at least as much care as I treat the adults in my world, though.
Of course, children are not adults and need to be treated appropriately. No Drama Discipline encourages us as parents to “chase the why.” Behavior doesn’t exist in a vacuum but is the outflow of what exists inside of a person, in their heart. Our children may not be able to express to us why they’re acting in a particular way, but we need to dig deeper and seek to understand the reason for the child’s behavior, because if we address only the behavior, we’re going to miss out on anything deeper going on with our children at the heart level.
And children need their parents to establish and maintain consistent structure. Our end goal, though, should not be to obtain mere obedience. We want to help our children gain insight into themselves, grow in their ability to be empathetic and thoughtful, and develop the capacity to participate in healthy relationships. In this book, Siegel and Bryson offer numerous strategies (and examples) to help parents do just that.
Matt and I are finding it both encouraging and transformative.
The other day, one of my girls was getting out a plethora of art supplies to work on a project, and she carelessly knocked my beloved water bottle onto the floor (twice), thereby breaking its straw. I ignored my immediate impulse, which was to yell at her and perhaps impose some arbitrary restriction on the art supplies, and instead I just asked her to pick it up. Later, when both of us were calmer, I asked her to come talk with me, and I showed her where it was broken. She offered to fix it for me and immediately attempted (unsuccessfully) to repair it. When I told her I was sad that she’d broken it and I couldn’t use it, she offered a genuine apology and went to her cabinet to get me a cup of hers that I could use until my straw could be fixed or replaced. Of course, it doesn’t always work out that smoothly – but I’m confident that I wouldn’t have gotten a heartfelt apology or creative attempts to repair the situation if I’d yelled at her and tried to force her to say she was sorry in the moment.
I’m hopeful that Matt and I will be able to live out, more and more, parenting strategies that build relationship with our kids and encourage thoughtfulness and growth in them. And I’d definitely recommend the book No Drama Discipline to any other parents out there!