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Lesson 1
What is Responsive Discipline?

Responsive Discipline: Effective Tools for Parents is an informal personal study course that provides tools for guiding and nurturing children from early childhood through adolescence. There is nothing to mail, no class to register for, no tests. You learn at home, at your own pace over the World Wide Web. You might consider creating a bookmark for this page so you can return later to continue your study. There are about 60 pages of information here so a leisurely approach to examining the material might be wise.

There are no charges for this material, nor are there any hidden costs. The course was created by Dr. Charles A. Smith as a gift to parents around the world and is brought to you through the support of the Kansas State University Cooperative Extension Service.

During this period of study you will be asked to consider authority and influence in your relationship with your children and how your own childhood might influence your discipline style. The course emphasizes discipline as making informed decisions rather than finding the one right way. At every step you will be encouraged to make your own choices about discipline.

[reflection]Lightbulbs are associated with links to a personal reflection you can read to apply course information on a more personal level. There will be a return link on that page to bring you back to where you left off.


Responsive discipline emphasizes teaching.

For many parents, the word discipline may invoke vivid memories--a stern father who ruled his family with an iron will and acid tongue, a chilling glance from a disapproving teacher, the smell of a leather belt or a freshly cut switch from a backyard tree, or the gentle touch of a loving parent. Such experiences have a significant effect on how parents view discipline and use influence and power to guide their children. Although discipline is often associated with punishment, training, and obedience, the term originated in the Latin words disciplina and discipulus meaning instruction and student. So to discipline means to educate, especially in matters of conduct.

Everything we do to help our children learn is discipline. This basic concept of the parent as a teacher is central to effective childrearing. The effectiveness of discipline has to be judged on how well a child has learned from us. Every time we use some form of discipline, we should ask ourselves, What will my child learn from my response?

[reflection]Memories of Discipline


Responsive discipline emphasizes decision making.

Responsive discipline is thoughtful. It is not impulsive or indulgent. This does not mean that the decision to act is time consuming. Sometimes action has to be swift for safety's sake. But impulsive decisions are most often ineffective. The first reaction is not always the best reaction.



Responsive discipline emphasizes alternatives.

Responsive discipline means making choices. The fewer choices we have, the less effective we are likely to be. The more choices or alternatives we have, then the more selective we can be to craft a response appropriate for the child and the circumstances. When our choices are limited, we may be left with no alternatives if our response is unsuccessful.

Limited choices, put into action regardless of the situation, can can become a crude and ineffective strategy. Like a carpenter building a chair, the more tools we have, the more effective we can be in building the character of our children. In contrast, if the only tool we have is a hammer, then we are likely to treat everything as though it were a nail. Responsive discipline builds a parental toolbox so they have more flexibility in their options.

[reflection]One Tool Parenting


Responsive discipline promotes self-esteem.

Parents who use responsive discipline consider their children's feelings and needs. Self-respect, hope, courage, and compassion are important goals for responsive discipline. (See I'm Positive: Growing Up With Self-esteem)

[reflection]The Relationship Bank


Responsive discipline nurtures responsibility in children.

By setting and enforcing reasonable limits, we help children learn self-control. Limits contribute to the child's understanding of right and wrong and the development of values that emphasize the feelings and needs of others. Responsive discipline emphasizes freedom within reasonable boundaries. The ultimate goal of discipline is an adult with a personal sense of responsibility.

Learning self-control and personal responsibility means acquiring what psychologists call an internal locus of control. This means that the source of control is internal—individual acts out of sense of personal value and commitment. In contrast, an external locus of control means that the individual depends on external rewards or punishments to behave as the authority wishes. In the absence of these external forces, the individual is free to act impulsively.

Very young children begin with an external locus of control. As they develop a conscience and a set of core values, then they cam learn to guide themselves through an internal locus of control. Certain types of childrearing practices contribute to an external locus (e.g., rewards) while others help to nurture an internal locus (e.g., reasoning). Reward and punishment are not necessarily wrong. Using consequences is an important part of guidance and discipline (more on that later in the course). The problem occurs when they are overused.

Children who are raised primarily through external rewards and punishments will avoid misbehavior out of a fear of being caught and punished. They will try to act consistently with what they have associated with rewards. These children behave if the parent is nearby, ever watchful of how the parent will react to what they do. When the parent is absent, however, these children may misbehave. In the absence of supervision, these children are unable to control their impulses. The rules belong to authority figures, not to themselves.

Children who gradually acquire an internal locus of control will avoid misbehavior because they believe it is wrong. They will try to act consistently with a set of standards of behavior they have learned from their parents and made their own.

[reflection]The Locus of Control


Responsive discipline means accepting responsibility.

Parents who use responsive discipline accept their responsibility to provide support and structure for their children. They do not abandon their children by being permissive. Neither do they use their power and authority to oppress and crush their children's dignity. They are guides, not tyrants. They balance strength with gentleness, control with freedom, disapproval with encouragement.

[reflection]The Tightrope


Responsive discipline views parents as capable and loving.

Any parent can make hasty mistakes in discipline when overwhelmed by the pressures of childrearing. Under stress we can become confused about our alternatives for responding to our children's misbehavior. The constant pressure can wear us down.

Love sometimes means overcoming this adversity to provide what our children need. They may not be pleased with our choices. Love is better expressed by acting out of conviction, never through indulgence.

[reflection]The Perfect Parent?
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Contact us/Help Revised: February 12 , 2003

Copyright © 1996-2003 Charles A. Smith. All rights reserved.