Are parents facing a pandemic of undisciplined kids?
Discipline tips that are guaranteed to work better than nosy padoswali aunty’s
After turning 30, I’m seriously considering whether I want kids. That’s why I closely observe the little people in my life who proliferate with each passing year. Revelling in the role of ‘fun aunt’, I wonder if I would like one of these inscrutable, perpetually sticky beings living in my house.
Some of them are angelic, some are livewires who provide endless entertainment, faster than Dutee Chand and funnier than Sumukhi Suresh. Some develop a fascination with auto engineering or space, rattling off questions you have to speed-type into Google. But whenever I think I could do this parenting thing, I realise I’ve been lulled into a false sense of security.
The constant kicking in the seat behind you on the plane, the kid in the restaurant banging a spoon against a plate, the kindergartener who starts shrieking because you won’t allow her to trampoline off the terrace. Parents today seem to be fighting a losing battle in disciplining their kids. An overwhelming 93% of Tweak readers polled admitted they were struggling with this.
As Sreejith Jeevan, a Kochi-based fashion designer and dad to a six-year-old boy, points out, kids today don’t have an understanding of hierarchy. “I feel as children, we understood who’s the elder and who’s the child. You wouldn’t question authority,” says Jeevan. Now, if parents threaten a punishment, even young kids will push back — perhaps because the relationship is friendlier, more equal.
Alisha Pinto*, mom of three and a higher secondary teacher in Goa, is no stranger to misbehaviour. She notes that the attitude of parents has changed. “Many say, my child is not studying, she’s sitting with her mobile and not listening. We have to tell them, it’s your job to take away the mobile.” Eager to avoid conflicts and tantrums, some parents are afraid of their kids’ reactions.
It’s a stark contrast to how the parents in question have grown up. A mere look from my mother could silence me into submission when I was being rowdy in public, for fear of the disciplinary action that awaited me at home. Yet none of the parents I spoke with were comfortable even using the word “discipline”. They felt it was too strict, and didn’t fit into their ideal relationship. Only 18% of Tweak readers polled have used physical or corporal punishment as discipline — a far cry from a generation or two ago, when these approaches were considered par for the course in parenting.
Is it really possible to raise well-adjusted kids without resorting to disciplinary tactics? According to Dr Aarti Bakshi, a developmental psychologist and school counsellor based in Delhi, the answer is no. “We are creatures of habit. If we know our purpose, then we’re okay with failure or reward,” says Bakshi, also a mother of three. Lack of discipline can lead to a lack of direction.
“If my kid doesn’t sleep on time, they’ll be cranky, their marks will slip… Discipline is the woven clump of a human being.” She makes a fair point; how many hustle hacks and success secrets peddled by adults come down to building discipline?
Bakshi notes that previous generations had the joint family, where generational authority figures could provide discipline and lessons in respect and communication. In today’s nuclear setups, parents — who often are both working — bear the full brunt of getting it right. (Not that in-laws are ever out of the picture, as one writer found out.)
Especially when there are myriad ways you could get it wrong. As Jeevan says, “We’re juggling between getting them to take instruction, be competitive and achieve, without hurting their feelings or traumatising them.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by most parents, who don’t want their children to grow up with negative memories. When this approach is taken to an extreme, it can lead to what child psychologist Dr Carla Messenger refers to as missing boundaries in parenting.
“Discipline doesn’t have to be harsh to be effective. One of the most important things you can do is to teach them that the world is not only about meeting their needs,” she says. Your child needs to understand that you have commitments outside of your role as a caregiver.
To this end, Devika Jodhani, a Mumbai-based celebrity hair and makeup artist and mother of two girls under five, believes that discipline must be collaborative: “Discipline is a harsh word in my mind. It’s about setting boundaries, reasoning it out.”
While the prospect of a reasonable four-year-old might sound as miraculous as applying a flawless coat of lipstick on a moving train, it’s vital for kids to understand your expectations, and for you to respect their point of view without capitulating to their whims. Here’s how you can strike this fine balance.
Stop lecturing, start listening
Every parent knows the frustration of trying to get a point across, only to be met with blank stares and shrugs. It’s tempting to repeat yourself, but both parents and experts think stepping away is more effective. “Instead of nagging, try hugging them. Surprise them,” suggests Bakshi. It could lower their defences and make them more ready to communicate.
Jodhani returned to work almost immediately after having her babies. “Sometimes, I’m exhausted,” she confesses. Still, she tries to let her kids cry and vent instead of shutting down tantrums. “The tantrum is a sign of what’s happening internally.” When kids don’t have the language to express big feelings, just being there can make them feel heard and emotionally secure.
Pinto tries to talk to her kids about friends and studies while on the way to school. Rather than sitting your teen down for a conversation, make it part of the routine so it feels normal and relaxed. Bakshi suggests approaching them with humour and anecdotes from your youth that they can relate to.
Be patient until they find themselves on the same page as you
Jeevan recommends making yourself clear and then giving children time to process. “We used to stand there and wait for him to agree. Now we tell him our expectations, then go off and leave him to his meltdown.” Usually after a few minutes, kids will come and patch up on their own.
Bakshi points out that kids these days have the attention span of a ten-second reel. “If we start underlining a child as bad, we’ve lost our babies. If we focus on the behaviour as not okay, we have a solution,” she says.
When you want to push them to try something new, or convince them to give your way a shot, agree to certain terms — for example, attend this karate class for three months. After that, it’s up to them.
Always keep co-parenting consistent
The good-cop-bad-cop dynamic is useful in police interrogations, not while disciplining kids.
“We’re 50/50,” says Jodhani. “It makes an impact in how the kids behave to see dad is around making dinner and spending time, and they’ve seen me working since the beginning.” Even if your household has a stay-at-home parent taking on most of the childcare, agreeing on boundaries for kids also prevents tension within your relationship.
No means no, no matter which parent is saying it. Who can blame kids for trying to wheedle their way out of consequences by appealing to the easygoing authority figure?
Don’t underestimate the impact of their environment
Bakshi illustrates how the pandemic has affected kids. “For a long time, they had no baths before school, no bus to catch or breakfast. They tumbled out of bed, sat at the laptop, and worked,” she says. During online class, it’s easy to go on mute or turn off the video and become distracted. Plus, kids have lost out on forming bonds with teachers and peers. Jeevan notices children of his son’s age have a diminished capacity to focus or take instructions. “It’s difficult for them to follow. They have access to so much information,” he says.
But this doesn’t translate into being better learners; in fact, Bakshi says that being able to retrieve answers so quickly impairs the process of working on a problem until it’s solved, which might affect retention. It also robs them of the chance to develop perseverance. (Here are some expert tips to improve focus, for you and you’re kiddo.)
Exercise caution with media and technology
Technology bleeds into the everyday reality of children, who don’t have the skills or life experience to distinguish between reality and what’s online. “Getting kicked out of a group online is okay. But in real life, it hurts,” says Bakshi. Jodhani restricts her kids from screen time, as she never felt content online was appropriate. “It gets my daughter to fully explore and fully get bored. I love when she is on her own and making up stories, independently playing,” she says. This self-sufficiency can keep kids from being perpetually distracted by technology – a difficult task even for adults.
For Pinto, whose three children range between 11 and 17, she had to get her 13-year-old a cell phone for his classes. “He was getting hooked onto Discord [a chatroom social media platform]. I could see there was a change in his behaviour.”
Pinto has since confiscated the device, offering her son the landline to keep in touch with friends. It may seem archaic in today’s world, but kids have only recently gained access to so much unsupervised technology. What matters more than keeping up with peers is the impact it has on their mental wellness.
Try not to overthink it, go with the flow
When it comes to kids, nothing is permanent. One day your toddler wants to eat nothing but carrots, and the next, they burst into tears at the very sight of a carrot and will only eat cheese parathas. What your child is unwilling to do today, they might be enthusiastic about in a few weeks’ time, so you can’t possibly plan for everything.
Bakshi says when parents are calm and take life as it comes, it works better for the children. And it’s okay to be flexible.
Give them choices, not bargains
When kids are empowered to make their own choices, it sets them up to be responsible decision-makers — a skill that Bakshi considers to be a pillar of good discipline.
Jodhani’s strategy is to limit choices, but allow her kids the final say. “If I ask them, what do you want to wear and open a closet, then one hour is gone,” she says. Instead, she offers a couple of outfits to pick from, so they understand their opinion matters without being overwhelmed by choice.
Having older children, Pinto’s definition of discipline is having them take responsibility for their choices and actions. She sets a time limit, and will follow up once the deadline has passed to ensure the job gets done. If they don’t want mom on their case, they have to be responsible.
Framing these choices for children helps them understand consequences. Desperate parents will often try and strike a bargain: do your homework and you can watch Paw Patrol, for example. Not only does this make doing homework seem like it’s a favour to the parents rather than a good choice for the kid to make, but it changes the power dynamic. Kids will then constantly expect a reward for meeting expectations. You can let them know you’ll consider their request to watch Paw Patrol, but homework is non-negotiable.
Remember that it takes a village
According to Pinto, she sees two types of kids in school: those who behave well at home and rebel outside, and other kids who are well-behaved, but at home the parents complain they’re a terror. If that sounds all too familiar, keep in mind that parents aren’t necessarily best equipped to play every role in their child’s life. Accept that people in different roles of authority are essential to well-rounded discipline.
For Jodhani, getting the support system on the same page was the first step. She and her husband asked their parents and household staff for help in raising their daughters the way they wanted, and were lucky to find it. But parents often have to deal with interfering relatives, or staff who give in to a child’s whim. “The child can boss around the support staff because children understand social hierarchies,” warns Bakshi. It’s on parents to lead from the front, and to stop obsessing over what they can’t control.
Be ready to practise what you preach
Bakshi believes that good discipline for kids starts with good discipline for you, the parent.
If you and your partner are glued to your phones instead of talking to each other, you can expect the same from your child. “Children learn they don’t need to be active listeners,” says Bakshi. When texting predominates and emojis are sufficient for communication, they’ll figure that a shrug or expression is answer enough even in person.
The important thing is not to let your emotions become bait for your ego. Bakshi suggests you take a walk, talk to a friend — find some way to manage your emotions in a healthy way, as your child is mirroring you.
“Be self-aware,” says Bakshi. “Relationship skills start with you as a person.” Skills like problem solving, conflict resolution, emotional management, and active listening all require practice and discipline as well as trust. Similarly, if you’ve made a commitment, treat it with importance; if you’re fighting with a friend, reach out for reconciliation. The bonus here is that modelling this kind of discipline only improves your own personal growth. In a sense, it’s like parenting yourself along with your child.