There’s loads of books on how to discipline your children. Do a search in Amazon.com and you’ll be bombarded with 47,068 results. When I searched for a book specifically written about disciplining kids in foster care I got one result. And I’m not sure how good the book is since it only had a few stars rated.
Discipline typically is a bitter word in the mouth. Most people will hear that word and automatically have bad thoughts, ideas, memories. Foster Care are another two words that typically get a harsh immediate response. If you put Discipline and Foster Care together in the same sentence a war cry will be sounded even before reading the entire article. Chances are you saw the title of this blog post and got your undies in a little bunch as you clicked on the link to read more. I strongly believe discipline should be viewed in a good light. I like this definition from vocabulary.com: When you have discipline, you have self-control. When you discipline children, you are teaching them to be well-behaved, either by punishing or correcting them. A definition of discipline should never equal corporal punishment. Good disciplinekeeps a person from making destructive choices. If I have a bag of chocolates in front of me I have the choice to eat one or the entire bag now. Being disciplined will save me from regret. Athletes are excellent examples of how discipline is a good thing. Just watch the upcoming winter Olympians! And the Bible says, “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11 NIV). The book of Proverbs is chalk full of verses on how discipline is good for us and, further yet, how important it is for parents to discipline their children. “…but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them” (Proverbs 13:24). If you want to know what lack of discipline looks like, then become a foster parent and you will have a good look at the results.
Children of neglectful parents often struggle with understanding social cues, manners, respecting others (especially those in authority such as teachers and police), regulating self, self-awareness, knowing right and wrong, what is safe and unsafe, healthy eating and sleeping habits (these are just to name a few). This is all from a lack of parenting discipline. An in-tune, caring parent is constantly correcting and redirecting their children every single day; this is discipline whether you realize it or not. The caring parent does this because they love their children and want them to be safe, healthy, capable and kind human beings. Sometimes disciplining your children requires a consequence for the action done, in other words: a punishment. I feel it is crucial that the punishment meets the developmental level of the child and, obviously, not abusive.
But what do you do when you have a child who has not been taught good discipline? And they are not legally your child; you’re just a temporary guardian? And they have a history of neglect and trauma?
The best resource, in my opinion, for helping a troubled child is the late Dr. Karyn Purvis. She has done many broadcasts on her research and her insight has been invaluable to many families. Her book The Connected Child should be required reading for all new foster and adoptive parents. She affirms that we should never accept hurtful or wild behavior but calmly and firmly correct the behavior.
“We never accept hurtful or wild behavior from a child– but we also do not punish, reject, or bribe because those strategies do not build long-term success. Instead, we calmly and firmly interrupt the bad behavior, identify the need that drives this behavior, show the child how to achieve his or her goals appropriately, and then praise the child for doing so.” (pg. 8)
Dr. Purvis’ book give us a lot of insight in how to better understand what is behind the behaviors and how to address them appropriately. However, it does not answer my question of: what if the behavior is because the proper behavior simply has not ever been taught? For example, a child who has never had a voice of authority over them. They have ever been asked to pick up toys after they are done playing or to go to bed at a certain time. Up until this point the child has done what they could to survive and on their own terms. Now the child is in a structured environment. They have never sat at the table to eat other than at school for lunch. They have not been taught to say “please” and “thank you”. Maybe the only times they’ve witnessed authority from a parent are when they suffered abuse with it. How do we discipline that child? There is nothing malicious about their lack of picking up toys. They simply do not know. But how many times do I have to tell them before a consequence is needed for them to learn to listen to instructions? What should the consequence be?
I am by no means an expert at answering these questions, which is why I am bringing up the subject. Because I need to hear from the community of foster parents on what has worked or not worked for them. My husband and I mull this topic over quite a bit because every child and case is different and needs a different approach. And you cannot just parent them like you would your own children. I believe you have to build a relationship and trust with the child first and learn about the child’s past and current behaviors before you can start implementing discipline with consequences. Dr. Purvis suggests keeping a journal about their behaviors to help you shed a light on patterns or a bigger picture to the problem at hand.
It is exhausting to constantly correct and redirect a child who has had minimal parenting and lots of neglect. The task is harder if the child is older than toddler-hood because you have several years of poor habits to help correct and reverse. Simple things that you take for granted in your biological children often do not exist in children placed into foster homes. They may not know how to sit in their seat buckled for a car ride. They probably will not know how to sit and eat as family at the table. They may not know basic manners. They may not know to how to take turns talking, respect other’s things, understand personal space, stop when you say No. Things that you are teaching your children daily from birth, whether you know it or not, may not be found in a five-year-old and you now have the task of teaching them everything they’ve missed since birth. Sound daunting? It can be. I have to remind myself every day that this is going to take lots of time. Lots. of. Time. And Lots. of. Patience.
I admit the hardest thing for me is figuring out the consequence side of discipline. I can correct, redirect, retry, give examples, talk it out, use calming down strategies, etc; I’ve got these all down pat. But what is an appropriate consequence for a child in foster care? Obviously, any physical punishment is not an option and 100% not okay. Verbal berating and belittling is not okay. Time outs should be done cautiously; depending on the history isolation may be harmful. So many consequences that we would use for a child without trauma could be harmful/hurtful for that child whose suffered trauma. And yet, not administering a punishment to the wrong doing does not help the child either. Life is all about consequences to our actions– we learn from our actions by what occurred from them; good or bad. It the basis of the classic Pavlov’s dog experiment. I prefer natural consequences because I don’t have to administer them– I just have to teach through it. Natural consequences are just that: natural. Lil Mr jumps on the couch and Mom tells him to stop because he might get hurt. But Lil Mr doesn’t listen and jumps again, falls off the couch, and gets a bloody nose. Lesson learned. But what to do when Lil Mr doesn’t listen, doesn’t get hurt, and is a foster kid? Now I have to administer some kind of consequence to his choice to disobey. But what?? What if they are developmentally delayed and “talking it out” is not a valid option? Can you tell that I feel frustrated? There is no How-To book on this sort of stuff.
Think about this proverb: “Discipline your children, for in that there is hope; do not be a willing party to their death.” If the generational cycle of bad choices is going to be broken in our foster kids, then we have to discipline and, on some level, have consequences to their actions. It’s just a matter of figuring out what that looks like, trial and error, lots of patience and asking for forgiveness, and the grit to keep on keeping on.