Back in the days when my peers and I were having our children, I remember hearing that one friend didn’t plan to say “no” to her new baby daughter. She didn’t mean that she would indulge her endlessly, only that she was going to try to redirect her behavior rather than chastise it. I was incredulous — deep in the throes of parenting a four or five year old, I couldn’t imagine restricting my vocabulary that way. “No” was a necessity of life — and has continued to be.
I’m not sure how long the experiment lasted, but I know it did end fairly quickly. Most of us, after all, find it hard to restrain the instinctive “NO” when children run toward danger, or away from bedtime, or otherwise thwart our will for them. But I thought of my friend recently when I read this article in the New York Times recently, which makes the case that the most effective discipline is praise rather than punishment.
Of course, I should have known that already from teaching. In the brief pedagogy course I had in graduate school, back in the dim mists of time, I remember that we were counseled to find something in every paper to praise, not to mark every error, and to focus on what the student was doing right so s/he could figure out for him or herself where s/he’d gone wrong by contrast. Predictably, this led us to imagine the comments that we’d like to have written on some papers — “Dear Jennifer — your handwriting is very nice. Next time try to use words.” But it was also good advice. The less I marked up the grammar and spelling errors on papers, the more students were able to respond to the more substantive comments on their thought that I wrote in the margins.
Teaching is not, of course, parenting—but discipline, as the article reminds us, is a kind of teaching. And effective discipline looks pretty similar in the classroom and the dining room — praise for work well done, or for an unfamiliar food tasted, will elicit more of the same, while a harangue about a failure to read the assigned text — or eat the rejected food — simply reminds the recipients of why they didn’t want to try. We’re mostly past the battles over food in our house these days, but I still want the chores done at home just as much as I want my students to do their reading. Praise works — it’s a helpful reminder.