From “The Men They Will Become”
Eli H. Newberger, M.D.

Chapter 6 – Discipline and Punishment

Men can lead perfectly honorable lives based on observing norms of behavior they have learned from others and that are promoted by, others – by their families or communities, or by their professions or the religions or philosophies they adhere to. But there is always a question of how men will behave in a situation beyond the direct influence of those institutions. Some individuals revert to behavior that is unworthy of their usual standards when they believe they can get away with it. Others, however, have deeper resources that enable them to remain consistent with their publicly scrutinized behavior. They have internalized values; their self-disciplined behavior doesn’t depend on anyone’s reminding them what the rules are.

Perhaps there is no more confused subject in childcare than the issues that swirl around discipline and punishment. In relation to character development, the word “discipline” has acquired several different meanings. As used most broadly, it connotes training, which corrects, molds, strengthens, or perfects – in other words, character formation itself, particularly as it is guided from without by a parent or mentor. (“Discipline” and “disciple” have the same root.) The word is also a synonym for punishment or chastisement – he was disciplined by being denied permission to play outside. Still another usage points to the control gained by enforcing obedience, the control implied, for example, in the phrase, “military discipline.” Finally, the term can refer to rules or systems of rules that are meant to affect conduct. Except when used with the prefix “self,” all of these meanings point to something that is imposed on a boy from outside and that relies heavily on rules of conduct.

Beating the Devil Out of Them

Would I be willing, an assistant attorney general in South Carolina wanted to know, to testify on behalf of a state action to close down a day-care center where children were being subjected to severe spanking? His call set off my pager a few years ago. Of course I will come, I replied, if the facts are as you allege. The facts are not in dispute, he said. It’s the defense that has us perplexed. The day-care center is run by the minister of a fundamentalist church. He claims that spanking is endorsed by the Bible, and that it’s essential to controlling misbehavior.

The case began in a small South Carolina town when the mother of a nine-month-old boy returned to work, entrusting him to the church day–care center several hours a day. She brought him home one afternoon during his first week at the center and found bruises on his buttocks and back when she changed his diaper. She immediately rushed the infant to the family physician, a general practitioner.

The doctor was in a quandary. The injuries were, obvious, and the mother’s story was credible. The law was clear. If he suspected abuse or negligent care, he was required to inform the South Carolina child protection agency. But he knew the minister personally and many of his flock. If he offended the minister, the doctor might lose some patients. The day–care center rented space in a building he owned, so the doctor could lose rental income as well. His wife, who was also his nurse, prevailed on him to report the evidence, sparking an investigation.

The nine-month-old recovered quickly from his bruises, and his mother made other arrangements for childcare. State investigators were willing to allow the center to remain open if the minister and staff would agree in writing not to strike any of the children. “No deal,” the minister said. “The Bible gives me the authority.”

As an article in the Houston Law Review recently pointed out, a function of corporal punishment often stressed in evangelical Christianity is to break and conquer the will of the child. Our society as a whole, the article argued, overvalues pain as a stimulus of good character, and undervalues children.

Shortly thereafter, I flew to the state capital, conferred with child protection officials, and then rode with the attorney general for an hour and a half to the small town where the hearing was to take place. Several men in dark suits and equally dark expressions stood waiting our arrival, and followed us into the courthouse where I was sworn in by a rather young judge. The judge qualified me as an expert witness, noting that he had recently read an article a colleague and I wrote for the American Bar Association, critiquing a set of proposed standards for court practice in child abuse cases. (I understood he was both complimenting me and warning me not to assume, just because I came from a Harvard-affiliated hospital, that my opinion would automatically prevail.)

Did I have an opinion on whether the admitted spanking was abusive, the attorney general asked. It was, I replied. There was no mistaking the severity of the bruises described in the medical report. A nine-month-old infant, I testified, is not certain when his mother leaves the room whether she will ever return; he hasn’t achieved what pediatricians refer to as “object constancy.” When a person or object disappears, an infant doesn’t understand that it continues to exist and, in the case of his mother, will come back. When his mother leaves him in a strange place, he may be terrified until he comes to trust the strangers taking care of him, and also trust that his mother will return. He will almost certainly cry, maybe for extended periods of time. He was spanked because he wouldn’t stop crying. The spanking could only terrify him more, and prolong his crying. It was fortunate that he didn’t suffer fractures or internal organ damage.

“Doctor Newberger,” the black-suited defense attorney asked loudly, drawling out each syllable to its breaking point as he approached me, book in hand, “have you ever seen this book?” I was so amused by his play to the spectators that I almost broke into a grin; he was marking me out as a carpetbagger, probably a liberal, unreligious Jew, coming down to Carolina to tell good Christian Southern folk how to raise their children.

“Yes, I have. It’s the Bible.” Handing his book to me after using one of its many colored ribbons to find a passage in the Book of Proverbs, he asked me to read aloud verse 24 from chapter 13: “He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes:’ This passage isn’t exactly the traditional adage of “spare the rod, spoil the child,” which was enunciated in the early sixteenth century (John Skelton: “There is nothynge that more dyspleaseth God, Than from theyr children to spare the rod.”) And further popularized by Samuel Butler in the mid-seventeenth century. But it’s close enough not to quibble.

“What does that passage mean to you, Doctor?” I replied that the words spoke for themselves, but ought not to be taken, so to speak, as gospel truth that justifies spanking babies. There was no way, I asserted, that this baby could be regarded as disobedient. He was miserable and frightened, ‘° and completely unable to understand an order to be quiet. The hearing was astonishingly polite for someone accustomed to the combativeness of many Northern courtrooms. The minister testified that the baby had disregarded a command to stop crying. He obligingly showed how he held the baby and brought his huge hand down on the baby’s bare back and buttocks. His demonstration made me wince. The defense presented only one argument: If a child misbehaves, the Bible gives specific warrant to spank.

The judge eventually ruled in favor of the state. He gave the day-care center the choice of following written guidelines that forbade any kind of corporal punishment, or of closing down. Faced with this choice, the minister accepted the guidelines.

The historian Philip Greven has written a book, Spare the Child, showing the powerful connection between apocalyptic religious thought (which emphasizes a stark contrast between the forces of good and the forces of evil in the world, and anticipates a dramatic conclusion to human history in which the good will be rewarded and the evil destroyed) and the practice of corporal punishment of children. In The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Tom’s aunt reflects on this long and deeply embedded view in Western culture of the value of spanking in character formation:

Hang the boy, can’t I never learn anything? Ain’t he played me tricks enough like that for me to be looking out for him by this time? But old fools is the biggest fools there is. Can’t learn any dog new tricks, as the saying is. But, my goodness, he never plays them alike two days, and how is a body to know what’s coming? He ‘pears to know just how long he can torment me before I get my dander up, and he knows if he can make out to put me off for a minute or make me laugh, it’s all down again, and I can’t hit him a lick. I ain’t doing my duty by that boy, and that’s the Lord’s truth, goodness knows. Spare the rod and spite the child, as the good book says. I’m a-laying up sin and suffering for us both, I know. He’s full of the old scratch, but laws-a-me! he’s my own dead sister’s boy, poor thing, and I ain’t got the heart to lash him, somehow.

One married couple I talked to have three sons, aged eleven, fifteen, and seventeen. When I asked the McCrays how they have dealt with discipline in their family, Terry spoke for herself and her husband, Tom. “We’ve never really agreed about it. My husband went to Catholic schools all his life. He saw lots of spanking and he believes in it. But he’s six-feet-four and weighs two hundred pounds and has a temper with the boys, and even though they know he loves them, he can be frightening. Sometimes the punishments he wants are way out of whack, so I have to step in and stand up to him. We’ve never tried to hide our disagreements from the boys. To a degree, I’ve had to encourage them to stand up to him as a way of keeping him under control. With the boys, I’ve tried to show them when punishment is justified. `If you feel that something’s unfair,’ I say to them, `you can stand up for yourself, but when you’re being justly punished, you need to recognize that.”‘ “Did you ever use corporal punishment with the boys?” I asked. No. Terry said. I wouldn’t allow it. My husband didn’t agree, still doesn’t agree, and we’ve argued about it, but I’ve said no.” Countless adults like Tom McCray appear to believe that punishment is an indispensable ingredient in building good character, particularly for boys. Many traditions and laws, beginning, as we just saw, with the Bible, endorse physical punishment. The twenty-three states that still authorize teachers in public schools to paddle or spank children who have misbehaved are mostly in the Southern tier, the Bible Belt. (A 1994 U.S. Department of Education survey estimated that more than 478,000 students, some as young as age five, were punished by being hit at school that year.) Unless physical punishment of children at home is done so aggressively as to seriously injure the child, it is not considered child abuse in most legal jurisdictions.

How Violence Begins

Terry’s worry that Tom might fly out of control is well taken, as I know from experience. I see enough instances of parents’ losing control in my work on child abuse that I always take serious heed when a parent mentions it. When a mother uses the word “frightening,” she often is referring to more than the kids. When hitting by adults goes on in a family, it typically spreads in many directions. Parents hit children. Children hit one another. Fathers hit mothers. Mothers hit fathers. Children hit parents.

The first experience many children have with violence is when they have annoyed or enraged an adult caring for them. A mother came to Children’s Hospital in Boston in the middle of the night with her three-month-old son, Robert. She showed a nurse and doctor on duty in the emergency room a reddened patch on the baby’s left cheek, and told what she thought had happened. The baby had awakened an hour earlier, she said, and it was her husband’s turn to get up, go into the nursery adjacent to their bedroom, give the baby a bottle, and comfort him back to sleep. In her half-awake state, she thought she heard a slap, she said. She went into the nursery, saw the red mark on Robert’s cheek, bundled him into the car, and drove to the hospital.

The emergency room staff admitted Robert for two reasons: for observation, because had the force necessary to create this bruise also been applied to other parts of his body that don’t reveal bruising marks so quickly-the abdomen, for example-there could be serious underlying organ damage; and for protection, because it looked as though he might be in danger at home.

Early the next morning, my pager sounded. The pediatric resident from Robert‚s ward was on the line. Would I see an infant boy just admitted with a suspicious injury. An hour or so later, after reviewing the hospital records and examining Robert, I was on my way back from Robert’s room to my office when I was stopped by a distinguished member of the hospital’s senior pediatric staff who had just accepted Robert as a private patient.

“Eli,” he said, “I knew you would be coming to consult on this case, but I have to tell you I have a problem with it.” I asked him what the problem was. “Well, perhaps the problem is mostly mine, but I don’t want to call this a case of child abuse. I’d rather call it an accident:

“Can you tell me about the family?” I asked. My colleague said that the father of Robert was a physician in another of Boston’s teaching hospitals, a man known for his dedication to his patients, a hardworking man, a good man. The unstated but obvious implication was that public knowledge of the episode could adversely affect a colleague’s career.

“Shouldn’t we,” I asked, “consider the downside for the doctor’s career if he were to injure the baby again, with graver consequences for the baby’s health? Don’t we have an ethical obligation to him, as well as to his son, to protect them both against a subsequent injury? Doesn’t this include putting the cards on the table, and squaring with him about what appears to have happened?” Fortunately, my argument persuaded my colleague, and we made contact with the social worker assigned to the floor to initiate the necessary interviews. Both parents were interviewed separately during the next few days. It was evident that the doctor associated the birth of his son with a profound sense of his wife’s lessening her attentions to her husband. Exhausted and overworked, he was angry at the infant’s interrupting his sleep.

It all ended well. Robert did not have to be separated, for safety’s sake, from his father, and he was not injured again. Individual and family therapy dealt successfully with the father’s sense of pressure and loss of attention, and the family was helped to avoid a dangerous cycle of frustration and violence.

To Spank or Not to Spank

Many people still believe that under certain circumstances inflicting pain is necessary to teach a child to avoid dangerous objects or situations. I’ve heard this notion expressed in several ways over the years. A former director of the national child abuse center in the Department of Health and Human Services told of a couple who worried that their eighteen-month-old child approached the hot stove too frequently, ignoring their warnings. They chose to teach her not to do this by holding her fingers against the hot stove until she cried. She never went near the stove again. The story was told with pride. The toddler was the director’s own daughter! “Caleb’s Mom,” an elementary school teacher, posted the following message on an Internet bulletin board devoted to child care:



When my son was a toddler, he was very adventurous, and would often attempt to squeeze past the front door and onto our porch, where stone steps awaited his fall. Verbal reprimands and redirecting his attention elsewhere were fruitless, as he attempted time and again to get out that door when my back was turned. Rather than allow him to experience for himself the consequences of wandering too close to those steps, I swatted him smartly a couple of times on his diapered behind and placed him in his playpen for a time-out! It took two more swatting before he became convinced of the certain connection between trying to get out the front door and the painful consequences, but after that, he needed no more reminders!

I have always saved physical discipline for situations similar to this-instances where his behavior is dangerous or could lead to serious injury or worse. At the age of six, Caleb was spanked soundly on the backside of his Levi’s for following two older boys who led him up to the strictly forbidden train tracks behind our home. Although he well knew the train tracks were off-limits, he apparently needed a physical reminder beyond just a verbal explanation – and I complied! He knows well that these spankings are done with great concern and love and I have never detected any resentment or fear because of them. In fact, he will tell you himself that he well deserved his spanking for breaking such a critical rule!

Caleb’s Mom’s main concern is enforcing the rules. She sees herself as a loving parent who rarely uses spankings to enforce sticking to the rules. She resorts to spankings only when there is something risky about her son’s behavior that she wants to deter him from repeating. Otherwise, she doesn’t strike or cuff her son merely because she has lost her patience with him. Her concerns that Caleb not fall down the stone front steps as a toddler, or play on or near the train tracks behind the house as a six-year-old, seem at first thought to be only reasonable.

Most parents, I believe, would think her safety concerns in these instances appropriate. The very reasonableness of her approach, however, makes it a good springboard for raising the question: Is spanking, even for the sake of loving deterrence, the only or best method of nurturing a boy’s character and capacity for making wise choices? Most parents of toddlers today spank or slap their boys at least occasionally when they misbehave. The amount of home spankings of school-age boys has diminished, but it certainly hasn’t disappeared.

Sociologist Murray Straus has done pioneering research on corporal punishment and summarized the research of others. As he noted recently, the subject has been plagued by a central question of causality. A correlation between suffering corporal punishment and later aggression by the boys spanked has been documented for some time. The more he has received corporal punishment, for example, the more likely it is that a boy will hit his spouse when he grows up and marries. But does this connection demonstrate that corporal punishment causes a boy to become more aggressive, or is it simply those boys who are temperamentally more aggressive and challenging as children drive their parents to use corporal punishment because nothing else works?

Most American parents, Straus has found, do believe that corporal punishment works, that it produces compliant behavior and a boy of stronger character. Recent studies, however, offer strong support for the view that corporal punishment is a factor linked causally to later antisocial behavior by boys. When corporal punishment was employed at home with boys in one study, five years later they engaged in more fighting at school than boys who hadn’t been spanked or slapped. Another study showed that 28 percent of 1,000 boys interviewed (average age fifteen) reported having been slapped by their parents during the preceding year, but 11 percent of these boys reported also hitting a parent during the same period. Slapping by parents, rather than decreasing the chances of being hit by an adolescent boy, increased the probability parents they would be assaulted by their own sons.

Other studies have shown that the more a child is hit as part of discipline, the more likely he will suffer depression in later years. Except in those unfortunately numerous cases where a boy is beaten so severely that he is injured physically, the consequences for millions of kids who are hit for punishment appears to be psychological damage and various forms of aggressive and antisocial behavior in later stages of their lives.

A study conducted by Straus himself offers an additional fascinating insight into corporal punishment. His study was prompted by the research of others showing that talking to children (including children who hadn’t begun to talk themselves yet) is associated with an increase in neural connections in the brain and in cognitive performance. Talking to them, in short, fires up their brains more.

Straus theorized that when parents avoid corporal punishment, they must use verbal methods of behavior control (including the inductive techniques I shall discuss later), and the increased verbal interaction should enhance the child’s cognitive ability. His research on almost 1000 children age one to four when he first tested them, followed by cognative ability tests four years later, showed that the children who were not hit increased in cognitive ability and the children who were hit fell behind the cognitive development of the others in proportion to how much corporal punishment they experienced. Straus writes, “I am convinced that if parents knew the benefits of not hitting their children and the risk they were exposing them to when they spank, millions would stop…. These benefits are not limited to enhanced mental ability. Studies in my book, Beating the Devil Out of Them, indicate that the benefits of ending corporal punishment are likely to also include less adult violence, less masochistic sex, a greater probability of completing higher education, higher income, and lower rates of depression and alcohol abuse.”

Parents who hit their children are often unaware of effective alternatives. They may have uncritically accepted the advice of others that hurting is a necessary part of discipline. Spanking may be their default position, the method they unthinkingly resort to when they are aggravated by a child’s behavior, and lose their self-control.

Straus mentions the 1979 law in Sweden that sets a national goal of eliminating corporal punishment. It says in part: “Children are entitled to care, security and a good upbringing. Children are to be treated with respect for their person and individuality, and may not be subjected to corporal punishment or any other humiliating treatment.” The Swedes didn’t stop there. They mounted a large public education campaign, emphasizing the objectives of discipline, including family harmony and a more civil society. Twenty years later, there is wide public acceptance of the policy, although at the outset there was controversy about the extent to which the government should involve itself in family life. A significant part of the law is that it is no punitive in its approach; no one is to be criminalized for corporal punishment that does not seriously injure a child. Instead, the methods to be used after known violations of the law are educational and therapeutic. To date, eight other countries have followed Sweden’s lead. I think the United States should join them. Straus’s passing reference to sexual masochism merits brief elaboration, for many other professionals, including myself, have been aware that spanking a boy’s buttocks can lead to a confusion between sexual pleasure and corporal punishment pain. There are, as we know, men whose most intense sexual pleasure as adults is evoked by being spanked. But in a more diffuse way, many men’s capacity for sexual tenderness is compromised to a degree by their mental association of sexual stimulation with the pain and shame they felt when they were spanked.

There are several alternatives to spanking as ways of punishing boys who have misbehaved. Some, which have their drawbacks, are verbal expressions of disappointment or condemnation; loss of privileges, including “grounding”; and “time-outs” when a boy is made to spend time by himself after misbehavior. For the most part, these are better methods than spanking, but they also have their limitations.

Timing, first of all, is important. Although parents will say that they have to punish whenever they learn about certain situations-for example, that a son ran impulsively onto a busy street several hours earlier–the most effective time to deal with acts that are dangerous or misconceived is immediately prior to their occurrence or just as they begin. Punishment often has no useful lingering effect when there is a substantial time break between behavior and response.

Verbal punishment usually consists of an attempt to shame a boy. It is a method that is hard to control-to make a certain point, without causing more than the desired effect. The adult who is doing it is often too overwrought to be able to choose words carefully. Shaming done with very general language-“You’re no good:’ “I wish you hadn’t been born.”-can be accepted and internalized by a boy so that it makes him feel bad about himself rather than about the misbehavior that provoked the shaming. Many times, a boy will feel that the shaming is excessive. It makes him feel mad, not sorry, especially when he reviews the experience in his mind later. Excessive shaming is associated with a propensity to violence, according to my psychiatric colleague James Gilligan, who theorizes that most violent behavior is a compensation for feelings of shame.

Time-outs-removing boys from the setting by sending them to their rooms, or to designated time-out places in the household-may be helpful when a young boy has lost self-control, and no other discipline is available. In many cases, the parent has lost patience, too. The time-out allows everyone to calm down. But when used indiscriminately, the frequency and length of the time-outs can easily become excessive. Also, time-outs may get linked to the threat of spanking: “If you don’t stay in your room quietly, you’re going to get a spanking!” Extended isolation of the boy may cut off opportunities to have a calm and helpful discussion with him of how the misbehavior happened and how he might avert it another time. By the time the time-out is over, life is moving on, and everyone may be hesitant to revisit the experience.

Loss of privileges, such as television, dessert, or games suffers from the same drawback as time-outs; the connection is gradually lost between the misbehavior and the punishment. I suspect that in many cases the loss of privileges isn’t fully carried out; everyone decides to ignore it after a while. The method of withdrawing privileges is essentially negative: I can’t communicate with you, and so I’ll hurt you if you don’t mind me. The positive counterpoint is: We all make mistakes, and you can trust me to help you do better in the future.

The Cycle of Hostility

Punishments achieve intended results better when they are not harsher than necessary to achieve compliance. Boys are punished more severely than are girls all through childhood. If punishments are much more severe than a boy believes is reasonable, compliance may be accompanied by fear and resentment that, in turn, might prevent a boy from adopting, for its own sake, the rule that is involved.

Children of highly punitive parents have been found to be particularly defiant and aggressive outside their homes. Harsh punishment’s adverse effects include giving children adult models of aggression instead of adult models of restraint and kindness. Boys will tend to avoid, and of course to mistrust, adults who punish them severely, reducing the opportunities for friendly interaction with those adults. Harshness may work in the short term, and relieve an adult’s feelings, but it often begets long-term failure.

Observations of boys who are aggressive at home have helped to identify how cycles of punishment and resistance to it grow. As a parent criticizes a boy for misbehavior and threatens punishment, the boy whines and refuses to comply. The boy’s resistance is all the more predictable if his parents are unpredictable and inconsistent: Sometimes they follow through on their threats to punish, sometimes they don’t. This reinforces in the boy’s mind the possibility that if he keeps up his resistance long enough, his parents will give in and stop the threatening-and stop the punishing. A confrontation between them may end in a draw. Parent and child withdraw, feeling relief that the confrontation is over, but resentful that nothing has been resolved. Eventually a new misbehavior triggers a response of greater threats and greater resistance. Other members of the family may get drawn in, as everyone feels forced to take sides.

Boys who experience frequent confrontations with their parents over discipline may favor friendships with peers who are similarly resentful of their treatment at home-and so the circle of hostility moves beyond the home to the surrounding community. From these cycles, boys develop outlooks toward the world as being mean and hostile. They may begin to see hostile intentions even where they do not exist-for example, something truly accidental occurs, or friends are trying to be helpful and their attempts are misread. These unhappy boys may fall into a pattern of provoking and attacking others, stimulating further retribution. Boys as young as four years of age have exhibited bleak outlooks; when these boys enter kindergarten, they display much higher levels of aggression than their peers.

Dangers of Shaking

To stop babies from crying, parents or other caregivers sometimes shake them, holding their torsos and making their heads whip uncontrollably back and forth. It happens more frequently than most people think. The baby’s neck musculature is relatively undeveloped, and his head is disproportionately large and heavy compared to the rest of his body, so the baby has little capacity to arrest the to-and-fro motions of his head.

The effects of shaking or striking the head are both immediate and long term. But unfortunately too many adults are unaware of the risks. The baby’s brain is softer, and thus more susceptible to injury. Shaking actually causes the infant brain to bounce around inside the skull. Blood leaks out of its vessels and pools around the brain tissue. The brain cells swell, also increasing the pressure inside the skull. In extreme cases, blindness and neurological damage can result. All parents should be aware of the grave dangers of shaking a baby.

What Is Discipline For?

Enforcing acceptable behavior in boys is not enough, although I think most of us would settle for that once in a while. If our objective is to foster self-discipline and character in boys and the men they will become, then it would be well to consider how best to help boys-and men, too, for that matter–to internalize a sense of responsibility and obligation to treat others considerately; to get them to be mindful of how their interests, desires, and impulses affect others; to guide them into being men who care and who want to do right by others. It is no small challenge, this task of promoting moral understanding.

How does the capacity for moral understanding develop in a boy? One study has shown that when parents of one- to three-year-olds applied a discipline that communicated with kindness how the parents wanted their sons to behave, and the parents bestowed abundant praise when the boys succeeded, they reinforced the boys’ desire to please and faced fewer behavioral problems when the boys were five.

In another study, children close to their third birthdays were shown a picture of a child stealing a playmate’s apple (a moral violation) and a picture of a child eating ice cream with his fingers (a violation of social rule); the children were able to signal that stealing the apple was wrong in any circumstances. By forty-two months, children indicated that stealing the apple would be wrong even if the act weren’t witnessed by an adult and the child hadn’t been warned that stealing it could be wrong.

Studies by Turiel and others suggest that children don’t depend entirely on parental instruction to derive a sense of what is right and what wrong. They have emotional reactions when they observe actions such as stealing. They somehow feel it is wrong before they have been instructed it is wrong. Parents and other care-giving adults can build on this intuitive sense.

Notions of “distributive justice”-how to divide things fairly-develop in the preschool years, with four-year-olds understanding the importance of sharing in curious, and in some respects contradictory, and self-serving, ways. Asked why he shared toys with a playmate, a four-year-old boy may reply, “I shared because if I didn’t, he wouldn’t play with me:” Fairness, at first, means the same amount for everyone. By age six or seven, fairness is seen by many boys as connected to deserving-for example, that some should get more because they’ve worked harder. Already, boys’ conceptions of what is fair are being influenced significantly by the views of their peers.

Beginning at age four, boys’ instrumental aggression (trying to get something, grabbing the toys of others, for example) begins to decline, but hostile aggression (trying to injure another person or hurt his feelings) is on the upswing. When boys fight each other, they are less likely to be labeled as aggressive by their parents than girls are when they fight each other. School-aged boys expect less parental disapproval for aggression than girls, and they feel less guilty about being aggressive than girls do. Even at age two, girls’ aggressiveness is beginning to decline while boys’ aggressiveness is staying constant, and parents are beginning to apply harsher punishment to boys than to girls.

Inductive Discipline: The Alternative to Punishment The attractive alternative to discipline by punishment is the employment of strategies that, as one authority on moral development put it, “lead children to focus on the actual standards that their parents are trying to communicate rather than on the disciplinary means by which the parents enforce these standards.” In an influential 1994 article, Joan Grusec and Jacqueline Goodnow identified two steps in a child’s processing of parental messages about the child’s conduct. The first step is „understanding”. If parents explain their reasons as they evaluate a child‚s behavior, the child will eventually comprehend the principles underpinning the messages. Such an approach is “inductive” because it begins with concrete events and moves from the concrete to the general. Events are discussed with a child as an exploration of what was wrong from the parents’ point of view. The wrongness is explained in terms of the effect the misbehavior has had on others and/or on the child rather than only in terms of whether an established rule has been broken. Rules are discussed, but they aren’t invoked as the beginning and the end of the discussions.

The opposite, or deductive, method is to establish a rule and then punish a child when he breaks it. In this method, it doesn’t matter as much whether the child understands the reasons for the rule, while in the inductive method it is crucial. For the inductive method to work, there has to be consistent and informative communication between parent and child.

The second component of the inductive method is that the child has to accept the parents’ views; how and whether he can accept them is affected by whether he believes that his parents’ appraisal of his behavior is commensurate with his own. If a parent treats a boy’s messy bedroom and a fight between siblings as being of equal gravity, a boy’s agreement with that parent’s judgment might justifiably be impaired.

Inductive discipline has to be centered in the basic relationship between the parent or other caregiver and the child. It doesn’t begin with a problem. It begins with your love for your child, and his attachment to you and respect for you. Above all, you don’t want to react to behavioral problems in a way that threatens that relationship. You want to protect the relationship steadfastly, even fiercely. You want your son to see that you are above all protective of him, and happy with him. From that central conviction, you praise his every achievement and reward his good behavior with approbation.

Even when the parent-child relationship is deeply rooted and loving, there will be episodes-perhaps even repetitive types of episodes-when your son’s behavior is a problem. He may become oppositional as he tests his own wish for autonomy. He may play too aggressively with other children. He may disregard your suggestions in a way that embarrasses you publicly. The problems may be very trying (to him as well as you) at times.

Practicing the inductive method involves distinguishing feelings from behavior, beginning very early in a boy’s life. Children’s feelings are always recognized and responded to empathically in this method. “I know it’s hard to share Mommy’s attention with your baby brother.” “I know you are angry when Ben refuses to share his toys.” The behavior, the acting out of feelings, is what is subject to the setting of me, too.” “But you can’t take away his truck just because you want to play with it. Would you like to build a tower of blocks with me?”

Sensitive adults will remove their children from situations where other children have lost control, when that seems the best way to calm the situation. A mother of four-year-old twin boys who share their toys with each other so equably that they have a sense of fierce possessiveness only toward their special blankets and teddy bears, took them for a play date where the host child went into meltdown, crawled into his bed, and sucked his thumb for solace when the visiting children casually commandeered some of his favorite toys. She calmly put the twins’ jackets on them and took them out for an ice cream treat and then home.

Employing the inductive method doesn’t mean that you have to be passive or spineless. It is inevitable that you will have to set reasonable limits and to make a certain number of rules. But you will take care to acknowledge and deal respectfully with feelings when abiding by the rules is frustrating. One of the fathers I’ve talked to in the past year recalled his own boyhood in South Africa. “I was out with a bunch of kids during a holiday night,” Nicholas Kriek said, “and we were running around the neighborhood doing crazy things. I must have been around twelve years old. We were throwing stones onto roofs, and when they bounced down we would run away.

“One of the other boys misjudged a throw, and his stone went through the front window of a house. Naturally, that wasn’t funny. The family called the police. We boys all scattered in different directions. I managed to get home, but my father was there and had heard by telephone that the police were trying to find out who was in the group. He sat me down and said to me, `I’m going to make something very clear to you. If you ever do something you shouldn’t, and get in trouble, I’m not going to rescue you. You have to pay the price for your own behavior.’

“I don’t remember exactly what my response was,” Nick continued, “but I think I was taken aback. Usually, boys think that their parents are going to rescue them no matter what. In some respects I’ve tried to be that kind of parent with my own boys. I show them that I love them unconditionally, and I try to provide every opportunity for them that I can, but I also tell them: If you misbehave and get in trouble with others, you have to deal with the consequences yourself.”

I’ll tell more later in the book about how this father’s philosophy worked out with his boys, but here I just want to emphasize that the father’s love for his son didn’t prevent him from refusing to cover up any of his son’s public misbehavior; their relationship of mutual love and respect was not damaged by this stand. Nick grasped the reasons for his father’s position, and internalized them as his own: He, and eventually sons, must accept responsibility and the consequences for public misbehavior.

When actions, not just words, provide inspiration, one might call this inductive by example. One father put it this way: “When I was growing up, my mother stressed to me the importance of learning how to cook, wash, iron, sew. I became very self-sufficient. Now I do most of the cooking. I look after the children. I take care of my family, and I’m teaching Andrew all these things. He sees it. It might be annoying for him at times, but it’s important that he make his bed every day and learn how to do the laundry. If I model it for him, eventually it will become natural for him. Later on, he will appreciate it.” Andrew’s dad reminds us here that discipline doesn’t have to be limited to a set of mostly negative rules. Discipline is just as much a positive way of life.

The mother of eleven-year-old Brad Jefferson voiced to me another important aspect of inductive parenting. In deductive methods of parenting, there is enormous emphasis on keeping to the rules, whatever they are. The parent is supposed to win all the time. But in inductive parenting, where the preservation of love and respect is at the heart of the parent–child relationship, it doesn’t seem so important for the parent to win every disagreement over behavior. “Brad is involved in student government, and one of their issues this fall was that the principal said no one could wear a hat in school. You know, no baseball caps worn backward, that sort of thing. The kids talked it over among themselves, and decided they would make a pitch for a change in the rule. Brad asked me my opinion. I said, `you already know what I think. I wouldn’t vote for it. In the end the student council won one day when anyone could wear a hat. So I said to Brad, `You’d better be careful that this doesn’t go too much further, or I might have to go down to the school and ask why the standards have loosened up, ‘Really, this is just an example of where he clearly knows our opinion, and he thinks something different. We’ve all talked about it a lot, and we’ve agreed to disagree. For me, that’s been a nice experience.”


One of the readers of this book in its early stages was a school principal who said she was troubled by the very first story I told. You may recall that I recounted how my cousin, Sam, decided to sabotage the new housing development that was destroying a lovely forest next to his parents’ theretofore pleasantly secluded home. Who paid for the damage, the principal wanted to know. Did I really want to begin my book with a story in which there was no restitution? Well, I did. One of the things I wanted to convey at the outset is that character isn’t about perfection. We all do things we later regret, and that we believe were not typical of the choices we usually make. Sam was the acknowledged star of our extended family in my generation, the envy of everyone. And he went on to a distinguished career in public service that could only have been achieved by a person who had adopted very sound moral principles during his childhood and adolescence.

But the principal has a point. At the time, Sam and his family were preoccupied with the event as something that might lead to punishment and a damaged reputation. Where punishment orientations prevail, restitution is sometimes required, but as part of the punishment. When people switch from a punishment philosophy of discipline to inductive discipline, restitution becomes a much more prominent aspect of the situation. Now the emphasis is: whom and what have I harmed, and how may I make amends? This outward capacity to make amends requires an inner development of self-discipline-the capacity to ask: What are my responsibilities to others?

The goal of inductive discipline is to bring everyone involved back to a good relationship, having learned something about responsibility; that will be all the harder if the person who has caused harm isn’t interested in restitution. Restitution of damage to property is important, but the restoration of relationships-often left in tatters when punishment has been administered-is even more critical.

I wish I had a better term for inductive discipline. The phrase sounds too cold or abstract for the humane purpose the phrase is meant to convey. But I hope I’ve shown what I mean by it. It involves both parent and child. The parent establishes a foundation for communication and trust. He, she, or they love, guide, teach, remind, set limits for behavior-and make mistakes; every parent-child relationship is strengthened when a parent acknowledges mistakes to his child, and makes amends. The boy learns the parents’ values, takes them in, makes them his own, makes mistakes, begins to make amends for his mistakes, and begins to take responsibility for his own behavior. Eventually the boy’s discipline will come as much from within as without.