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Discipline Without Anger June 3, 2006

Posted by TimTheFoolMan in anger, Discipline, Family, Management, Parenting/Children, Self-Worth.

A well-known basketball coach once said: “Discipline isn’t something you do to someone, it’s something you do for someone.”
If you’re a parent, when the time comes to discipline your son or daughter, do you do something to your child, or for them? Likewise, what of the manager who needs to discipline an employee?

Life’s Little Disciplines
Life is a great teacher. There’s an abstract statement if there ever was one! What do I mean by this? Consider the things that you’ve learned thoughout your life, without having it formally taught to you in a class or by a teacher.

For example, if you drive a car, you’ve probably learned to not let the car run out of gas, or to even let it get too close to the “Empty” mark on the guage before you stop to get more. How did you learn this? Did you run out of gas?

Or maybe you’ve learned to not hit your thumb with a hammer. It doesn’t take more than one bad swing to convince you that your thumb requires either distance or protection.

Appreciating the Gravity of the Situation
As it says on the t-shirt, “Gravity is not just a good idea, it’s the law.” What brings humor to that statement? The absurdity of the situation is that this law (outside of “The Matrix”) teaches its lessons at the earliest moments of life. If you choose not to respect the law of gravity, then you will almost certainly see results, and they may be painful.

In each of these situations, there are rules (generally defined by chemistry or physics), that specify what will happen if things happen in a given way. The science is clear, and the relationships are causal.

Rules, Rules, Rules
In human interaction, we define behavioral rules, generally for the benefit of an organization (family or business), but sometimes for the benefit of the individual. The people who live under these rules, whether they’re children or adults, are frequently good at seeing the benefit of them, provided they understand the broader scope of the organizations goals and objectives.

On the other hand, some rules are capricious and arbitrary. They seem to serve no useful purpose. When this happens in a corporate environment, it seems like the first reaction is “They’re treating us like children!”

Regardless of the veracity of a set of rules, the real question of discipline comes about at the point of enforcement. Over time, people will follow even capricious rules if the enforcement of punishment is consistent, and clearly defined.

Enforcement and Anger
When your car runs out of gas, does the car punish you for your poor planning? Yes, it stops. Is the car angry at you for running out of gas? No, it simply stops. When you hit your thumb with the hammer, you may be temporarily angry at the hammer or the nail, but after you come to your senses, you’ll most likely be angry at yourself. However, the hammer and nail aren’t angry at you; they simply follow the rules of physics, and give you the result.

When you run out of gas, does the car “give you a break” when the needle hits “E”? When the hammer starts to veer away from the head of the nail, does momentum and inertia suddenly not apply, simply because “you didn’t mean to” hit your thumb? In both cases, you get exactly (no more, and no less) than what you have earned.

What if they beg and plead for mercy? Are we really doing them a favor by not applying discipline consistently? Now consider how we treat an employee that has come in late for the Nth time or a child that has broken a rule around the house. Do we mete out punishment in a dispassionate manner?

Passion of the Cries
If you’re like me, you’ve probably found yourself going the opposite direction. I find myself looking for ways to express my anger in these situations. The late employee has broken the rules, and therefore is showing me a lack of respect… right? That deserves not just punishment, but angry punishment!

The child is likewise showing me a lack of respect. Who do they think they are? Who’s the parent here? I am… that’s who! I’ll show them who’s the parent, and who’s the child!

In those moments, I start to want not just punishment, or a teaching opportunity. In those moments, I want revenge, pure and simple.

Pulling the Punches
There is an inherent danger in enforcing discipline when you’re angry. Anger clouds your judgement, and causes you to respond in ways that are “over the top.”

The solution is to commit to not enforcing discipline, either toward employees or your children, when you’re mad, keeping in mind that you can’t wait so long to cool off that the opportunity for learning is lost. It’s important, both at home and at work, that we see immediate consequences for our actions. This requires balance of the timing of punishment.

Note: This is one of the reasons that corporal punishment is so difficult to get right. If you’re angry, that tends to express itself physically very easily. In that mode, a spanking can very quickly move into abusive hitting.

In the business world, this applies as well (though you are less likely to use corporal punishment). Enforcing discipline in anger does nothing constructive, and can be quite counter-productive. Enforcing it calmly, and in accordance with clearly documented and well-established rules, goes a long way toward creating a predictable environment for everyone involved, no matter which side of the discipline equation they stand on.


1. litlove - June 4, 2006

Great post. I know as a mother I can get a grip on myself quickest by recognising I can be an angry adult and, at the same time, a mother who needs to deal with a situation. If you can split the problem from the emotions it arouses, there is hope… Also it can be very enlightening to figure out exactly why some things in particular feel provocative. They pretty much always hark back to treatment we received ourselves as children, and as such indicate a momentary regression in our own characters rather than a sensible response.

2. Scott Pruett - June 5, 2006

Another problem is that if the discipline is done in an unmeasured way or with an ugly attitude, then you will only end up looking like the villian and the intended lesson will be lost. No matter how guilty someone might be, if they are ridiculed, nagged, or yelled at (with or without formal discipline) then they will come off feeling more like a persecuted victim than a target of justice.

3. Tim - June 5, 2006

Good points from both. Unfortunately, I’ve played the villian role all too often, both as a parent and as a manager. Even more unfortunate, I haven’t been able to zero in on the “provoke button” that seems to set me off. (I’ve tended to write it off to my youngest son have a personality too much like my own.) Even so, I hope I’ve broken those habits soundly enough to be raising sons and not victims, and that their parenting will be more like what mine is today, and not as much what it was in the past. Thanks for the input! – Tim

4. litlove - June 7, 2006

One other point – my sister-in-law says that it’s important her children should see her angry with them and annoyed. She says they must realise that even people close to you have feelings and will express them, and that types of behaviour have consequences. She says its more valuable for them to know that after a fight things go back to normal, and it’s all forgotten. It’s a good point, too. Show me a mother who hasn’t got a ‘nuclear’ button…..! Everyone loses it sometimes.

5. Tim - June 7, 2006

This generated a train of thoughts that overran the bounds of a comment. See “Conflicts (that are) of Interest” for my thoughts on this. – Tim

6. wildcatteacher - September 28, 2009

Good thoughts. I have more thoughts on this issue of discipline vs. punishment at http://growingupwell.org/category/discipline/

7. Positive Discipline Techniques | They Grow Up So Fast - July 6, 2011

[…] how do you discipline without harshness? And what techniques will bring about the best and most positive responses from your […]

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