Do you ever find yourself correcting your children for the same thing over and over again? Sometimes I think, “I put you in a timeout for that yesterday, and the day before, how many times do we have to do this?” At times I get frustrated, why are they not learning this lesson? Do they not understand what is being taught? When will they learn?
Unfortunately the answers to those questions are: no they do not understand right now and it will be a long time before they do. I have learned that many times we parents misunderstand how discipline works. We seem to think that our children are like piggy banks. They come to us empty of knowledge and it is our job to fill them up with the lessons of life so they know how to act. Each time we discipline is viewed as dropping a coin in the bank. Once that “coin” has been deposited the lesson is learned. One deposit equals one lesson right?
It has been helpful for me to think of children as wheat fields, rather than piggy banks. A wheat field is spread out as far as the eyes can see with stalks about waist high. If you were to walk across the field and then look behind you, it would be possible to see a slightly worn path where you had been. If you walk that path one time it will eventually go back to its original state. If you walked over that path hundreds or thousands of times however, it would be well worn and very clearly visible.
Think of these paths as experiences in your child’s life. Each time they have a similar experience, it is as though they had walked down the same path. Imagine the “throwing a ball” path. The more they throw a ball the more worn that path becomes and the better they get at throwing the ball. Athletic trainers call this muscle memory neuroscientists call it a neuropathway. The more they experience a certain behavior the more likely they are to repeat it.
Applying this analogy to how children learn from discipline can be helpful in understanding why we find ourselves correcting the same behavior over and over again. Sometimes those behaviors have become well-worn paths and in order to change the behavior we need to create different paths using different experiences.
I recall speaking with a mom whose son had a habit of taking things that did not belong to him. She had decided that instead of the normal punishment she would begin to practice picking things up and putting them back down. Her plan was to create a new neuropathway. She wanted to create the experience of seeing something that is not his, wanting it, looking at it, and leaving it be. I was blown away by her wisdom she was not sitting back and waiting for her son to steal so that she could react with a consequence. She was proactively creating new experiences, and neuropathways.
I believe that viewing our children as wheat fields rather than piggy banks can be extremely helpful for parents and children. For parents it can help to reduce anger. When I am trying to fill a piggy bank and it seems that the lessons are never learned eventually anger is the result. When parents are angry they are less able to parent effectively. When we view discipline as creating healthier pathways and experiences I am more able to remain calm and view an incident as yet another opportunity to wear a desirable path.
In our house we love redo’s when our oldest hits his brother, we say “Oh, let’s try that again.” And we repeat the situation in a more appropriate manner. When our youngest throws a fit, “let’s try that again.” Prescribing the words to use telling us how angry and upset he is about what happened. As we repeat over and over again these experiences of positive behavior the paths become worn and behaviors more common.
We don’t do this perfectly, but we are working to create new pathways for ourselves, of patience, compassion, and joy. I am hopeful that you will as well.
Please start a conversation and leave your thoughts and comments below.