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How Children Really React to Control

Thomas Gordon


When one person tries to control another, you can always expect some kind of reaction from the controllee. The use of power involves two people in a special kind of relationship - one wielding power, and the other reacting to it.

This seemingly obvious fact is not usually dealt with in the writings of the dare-to-discipline advocates. Invariably, they leave the child out of the formula, omitting any reference to how the youngster reacts to the control of his or her parents or teachers.

They insist, "Parents must set limits," but seldom say anything about how children respond to having their needs denied in this way. "Parents should not be afraid to exercise their authority," they counsel, but rarely mention how youngsters react to authority-based coercion. By omitting the child from the interaction, the discipline advocates leave the impression that the child submits willingly and consistently to adults' power and does precisely what is demanded.

These are actual quotes from the many power-to-the-parent books I've collected along the way:

  • "Be firm but fair."
  • "Insist that your children obey."
  • "Don't be afraid to express disapproval by spanking."
  • "There are times when you have to say 'no'."
  • "Discipline with love."
  • "Demonstrate your parental right to lead."
  • "The toddler should be taught to obey and yield to parental leadership."

What these books have in common is advocacy of the use of power-based discipline with no mention of how children react to it. In other words, the dare-to-discipline advocates never present power-based discipline in full, as a cause-and-effect phenomenon, an action-and-reaction event.

This omission is important, for it implies that all children passively submit to adult demands, perfectly content and secure in an obedient role, first in relationships with their parents and teachers and, eventually, with all adult power-wielders they might encounter.

However, I have found not a shred of evidence to support this view. In fact, as most of us remember only too well from our childhood, we did almost anything we could to defend against power-based control. We tried to avoid it, postpone it, weaken it, avert it, escape from it. We lied, we put the blame on someone else, we tattled, hid, pleaded, begged for mercy, or promised we would never do it again.

We also experienced punitive discipline as embarrassing, demeaning, humiliating, frightening, and painful. To be coerced into doing something against our will was a personal insult and an affront to our dignity, an act that devalued the importance of our needs.

Punitive discipline is by definition need-depriving as opposed to need-satisfying. Recall that punishment will be effective only if it is felt by the child as aversive, painful, unpleasant. When controllers employ punishment, they always intend for it to cause pain or deprivation. It seems so obvious, then, that children don't ever want punitive discipline, contrary to what its advocates would have us believe. No child "asks for it," "feels a need for it," or is "grateful for it." And it is probably true, too, that no child ever forgets or forgives a punitive parent or teacher. This is why I find it incredible that the authors of power-to-the-parent books try to justify power-based discipline with such statements as:

  • "Kids not only need punishment, they want it."
  • "Children basically want what is coming to them, good or bad, because justice is security."
  • "Punishment will prove to kids that their parents love them."
  • "The youngster who knows he deserves a spanking appears almost relieved when it finally comes."
  • "Rather than be insulted by the discipline, [the child] understands its purpose and appreciates the control it gives him over his own impulses."
  • "Corporal punishment in the hands of a loving parent is entirely different in purpose and practice [from child abuse]....One is an act of love; the other is an act of hostility."
  • "Some strong-willed children absolutely demand to be spanked, and their wishes should be granted."
  • "Punishment will make children feel more secure in their relationship."
  • "Discipline makes for happy families; healthy relationships."

Could these be rationalizations intended to relieve the guilt that controllers feel after coercing or committing acts of physical violence against their children? It seems possible in view of the repeated insistence that the punishing adult is really a loving adult, doing it only "for the child's own good," or as a dutiful act of "benevolent leadership." It appears that being firm with children has to be justified by saying, "Be firm but fair"; being tough is acceptable as long as it's "Tough Love"; being an autocrat is justifiable as long as you're a "benevolent autocrat"; coercing children is okay as long as you're not a "dictator"; and physically abusing children is not abuse as long as you "do it lovingly."

Disciplinarians' insistence that punishment is benign and constructive might be explained by their desire that children eventually become subservient to a Supreme Being or higher authority. This can only be achieved, they believe, if children first learn to obey their parents and other adults. James Dobson (1978) stresses this point time and time again:

  • "While yielding to the loving leadership of their parents, children are also learning to yield to the benevolent leadership of God Himself."
  • "With regard to the specific discipline of the strong-willed toddler, mild spankings can begin between 15 and 18 months of age....To repeat, the toddler should be taught to obey and yield to parental leadership, but that end will not be accomplished overnight."

It's the familiar story of believing that the ends justify the means. Obedience to parental authority first, and then later to some higher authority, is so strongly valued by some advocates of punitive discipline that the means they utilize to achieve that end are distorted to appear beneficial to children rather than harmful.

The hope that children eventually will submit to all authority is, I think, wishful thinking. Not all children submit when adults try to control them. In fact, children respond with a wide variety of reactions, an assortment of behaviors. Psychologists call these reactions "coping behaviors" or "coping mechanisms".

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The Coping Mechanisms Children Use

Over the years I have compiled a long list of the various coping mechanisms youngsters use when adults try to control them. This list comes primarily out of our Parent Effectiveness Training (P.E.T.) and Teacher Effectiveness Training (T.E.T.) classes, where we employ a simple but revealing classroom exercise. Participants are asked to recall the specific ways they themselves coped with power-based discipline when they were youngsters. The question yields nearly identical lists in every class, which confirms how universal children's coping mechanisms are. The complete list is reproduced below, in no particular order. Note how varied these recurring themes are. (Can you pick out the particular coping methods you employed as a youngster?)

  • Resisting, defying, being negative
  • Rebelling, disobeying, being insubordinate, sassing
  • Retaliating, striking back, counterattacking, vandalizing
  • Hitting, being belligerent, combative
  • Breaking rules and laws
  • Throwing temper tantrums, getting angry
  • Lying, deceiving, hiding the truth
  • Blaming others, tattling, telling on others
  • Bossing or bullying others
  • Banding together, forming alliances, organizing against the adult
  • Apple-polishing, buttering up, soft-soaping, bootlicking, currying favor with adults
  • Withdrawing, fantasizing, daydreaming
  • Competing, needing to win, hating to lose, needing to look good, making others look bad
  • Giving up, feeling defeated, loafing, goofing off
  • Leaving, escaping, staying away from home, running away, quitting school, cutting classes
  • Not talking, ignoring, using the silent treatment, writing the adult off, keeping one's distance
  • Crying, weeping; feeling depressed or hopeless
  • Becoming fearful, shy, timid, afraid to speak up, hesitant to try anything new
  • Needing reassurance, seeking constant approval, feeling insecure
  • Getting sick, developing psychosomatic ailments
  • Overeating, excessive dieting
  • Being submissive, conforming, complying; being dutiful, docile, apple-polishing, being a goody-goody, teacher's pet
  • Drinking heavily, using drugs
  • Cheating in school, plagiarizing

As you might expect, after parents and teachers in the class generate their list, and realize that it was created out of their own experience, they invariably make such comments as:

  • "Why would anyone want to use power, if these are the behaviors it produces?"
  • "All of these coping mechanisms are behaviors that I wouldn't want to see in my children [or my students]."
  • "I don't see in the list any good effects or positive behaviors."
  • "If we reacted to power in those ways when we were kids, our own children certainly will, too."

After this exercise, some parents and teachers undergo a 180-degree shift in their thinking. They see much more clearly that power creates the very behavior patterns they most dislike in children! They begin to understand that as parents and teachers they are paying a terrible price for using power: they are causing their children or students to develop habits, traits, and characteristics considered both unacceptable by most adults and unhealthy by mental health professionals.

from Discipline That Works: Promoting Self-discipline in Children, New York: Plume/Penguin, 1989, (pp. 78-81).