The Discipline Dilemma

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Recent media stories about the behaviour of our children are clear signals to us that the social fabric of our nation needs immediate repair. We cannot go on like this! We have a discipline dilemma!

The stories in the media tell a gruesome story. One news item spoke to a group of students from Wolmer’s Boys’ School launching insults at an administrator of a sister institution. The report went on to say, “The administration of the Wolmer’s Boys’ School in Kingston has moved to take drastic action against several second form students who videotaped themselves hurling disrespectful sexual insults to the headmistress of the Wolmer’s Girls’ School last Friday.”

From another part of the country came news that a student had attacked a dean of discipline. The story revealed that, “The dean of discipline at Oracabessa High School in St Mary was today allegedly attacked by a male student. The dean was reportedly reprimanding the boy when he rained several blows on the educator and floored him.” The teachers then staged a protest.

Then came a report that: “A teacher at Dumfries Primary School in St James was reportedly attacked and injured by an irate parent last Thursday. The grade five teacher, who has been identified as Anesha McFarlane, had to be rushed to the Falmouth Hospital, where she was admitted and treated for bruises and cuts to her face; she was released on the weekend.”

In response to the tally of incidents Prime Minister Andrew Holness threatened to impose law to nab parents of misbehaving kids. The news report recorded our new-era prime minister as saying, “ ‘As the person who holds the [education] portfolio now once again…we will be reviewing the methodologies and practices within the school system that are used to manage behaviour and, where necessary, we may very well have to introduce new legislation to hold parents to account,’ warned Holness, which elicited applause.”

Many of us simply cannot fathom such incidents occurring during our time in school, two to five decades ago. Just a few years ago such actions would still be deemed improbable, even in our secondary schools, and impossible at a traditional high school like Wolmer’s.

Singer and songwriter Lou Rawls, some years ago, asked and answered in song, “What’s the matter with the world, has the world gone mad?” I am led to ask and answer: What’s the matter with our schools, have our students and parents gone mad?

Perhaps they have. The madness, I believe, began when our teachers were made essentially toothless and blunted in the area of discipline. Schools have been unable to dispense discipline outside of suspension after grievous offences by a student. When I was going to school teachers had an arsenal of disciplinary measures on which they could draw to ensure that my friends and I remained on the ‘straight and narrow’ path. Lines, detention, demerits, spanking (corporal punishment) were just a few of their methods. Now they are down to almost none.

The removal of many of the traditional disciplinary measures from our schools, especially our early childhood and primary schools, is a contributing factor to the current ‘madness’. Unfortunately, the current approach is based on the belief that the formative years of our youngsters should be more about facilitating academic brilliance than about the formation of character.

The teaching of values for the formation of character, reinforced by firm, fair and consistent discipline, is no longer a focused approach to teaching and learning. The school of thought is that discipline comes by the content of teaching (values and manners), by positive reinforcement in insisting on their practice, and by punishment to teach consequences for negative behaviour.

Controlled spanking used to be the most effective method of punishment in formative years. Research has undeniably determined that 75 per cent of character development is primarily formed during the early childhood years, up to age seven; this period should be the focus of developing character through discipline. The more effective it is the value lasts for a lifetime, and the absence produces tyrants in teens and adulthood.

So what do we do when breakdown has already occurred from the formative years so that our 10-year-olds to 16-year-olds now have no discipline? How is recovery possible? What steps should we take?

After age 16 it is difficult to recover. This is where the focus needs to be to find a solution on how to best instil discipline in this cohort. Is controlled corporal punishment needed? What alternatives can be applied to attain a similar effect? These questions must be answered for schools to be successful, and to assist homes. It cannot be ignored, as this is where our current problem lies.

The discipline for character formation is not happening in most homes. The school is the last place of hope before students are thrust into the world. What can and should be done?

Undoubtedly, we must find some short-term solutions to the current problem of undisciplined behaviour, and not continue to turn out more and more crime-producers from much too many of our schools and communities.

But don’t for one minute believe that the root problem is our schools; the root problem is a national one. Discipline and effective punishment ought to begin at home in an atmosphere of love created by the primary responsible agents — the parents.

For, whereas we do not want to return to spanking in our schools, it ought not to automatically mean there is no place for it in society. Let’s be clear, spanking is not abuse. There is a clear difference between discipline and abuse. Yet, admittedly, spanking can be abused and so can create abuse.

American clinical psychologist Dr Jared Pingleton of Focus on the Family underscored my point when he wrote: “Though some contend any form of physical correction equates to child abuse, there is a giant chasm between a mild spanking, properly administered out of love, and an out-of-control adult venting their emotions by physically abusing a child… [We] advise parents that corporal discipline should only be applied in cases of wilful disobedience or defiance of authority — never for mere childish irresponsibility. And it should never be administered harshly, impulsively, or with the potential to cause physical harm… There is never an excuse or an occasion to abuse a child.”

I had in my family six children (four boys and two girls). We got spanked at times, especially the boys, but none of us were abused. The answer to fear of abuse is not to eliminate the principle of punishment, but to deal with the abuser by education and law. Let us offer training to all who need it on how to discipline and administer punishment rightly in its various expressions.

Like everything in life, there will be those who lack self-control and who must be brought under control. Fear of abuse should not cause us throw out the baby with the bathwater. What must be outlawed is abusive behaviour. Clear guidelines on acceptable levels of spanking should be taught to assist the irresponsible. Surely it is not beyond us to set guidelines and observe them and even enforce observance where necessary.

No child can grow without discipline and order. There must be consequences for bad behaviour. There are circumstances within which a spanking may therefore be necessary. Dr Pingleton again helps to clarify: Properly understood and administered, he wrote, spanking is most effective as a deterrent to undesirable behaviour for younger preschoolers (but never for infants). That’s because reasoning and taking away privileges often simply don’t work with kids in that age range. As children age, spanking should become even less frequent as other types of consequences are utilised. Spanking should, however, be phased out completely before adolescence.

I concur with Dr Pingleton on this point as I believe it to be a very balanced perspective.

 

The counsel of scripture is important and we must reject those who employ spurious arguments to explain Proverbs 13:24: Those who spare the rod of discipline hate their children. Those who love their children care enough to discipline them. The rod is for loving discipline, teaching self-control, and for reminding children that there are consequences for inappropriate behaviour while living in family and community. The rod is part of the unconditional love that should be shown to our children. When the consequences for behaviour are established in the minds of children and adults alike, if done early, societal problems decrease and our schools will also show a decrease in the problems of indiscipline, disrespect, crime, and violence.

As a nation, we must work together to shape our own moral standards, discipline, and punishment based on what we have proven to work. Our leaders must be bold and confident enough to tell the imposters of failed methods from socially confused and moribund nations that we are not going there with them. That is prudent leadership.

As our primary centres of learning and love, our homes and schools must be given all the support needed to lay a solid foundation for societal development. This is not arrived at by chance, but through wisdom.

Copyright © 2020 by Rev Dr. Al Miller.

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