Discipline: Fearful Obedience or Respectful Obedience?

One of the toughest parts of parenting, I believe, is in the area of discipline. We all acknowledge that it is difficult to raise children. We all commend the parents who do it and nod sympathetically as we lend our ears to a parent who is at wits end with a spirited child. Yet, when we see a child misbehaving in public, we give the evil eye to the parent in charge as if that misbehaviour is all the fault of the parent.

Yes, there are parents who are permissive, negligent, and at fault. But a misbehaving child is not necessarily the sign that the parent is all this and worse. If you have only ever had a well behaved child who is mild-mannered and easy-going, it is easily to get on a high horse and frown upon other parents with spirited children who appear less in control of their children. Often you don’t learn this until you get one of those spirited children that you struggle to tame.

For example, I was always very proud of the fact that Aristotle was a child who could sit down to a meal in a restaurant and be entertained with activity books, trains, paper and coloured pencils without needing to get up and run around. I used to think it was my excellent upbringing that resulted in him developing into such a child. And then I had Hercules and I discovered, much to my dismay, the gross error of my haughty beliefs.

When you stand from afar, it is easy to point the finger and blame the parents never realising at all what it is like to be that parent. It is easy to lay all the blame at the feet of the parents, never once considering the personality and temperament of the child. If we were raising robots, I would agree that if a child misbehaves, it is the parent’s fault. But we’re not raising robots, we’re raising little people – little people with emotions, different temperaments, unique personalities. They are unique individuals in their own right. They don’t develop their uniqueness after they grow up, they possess them right from the start.

The funny thing about children is that we seem to take away all their rights to be human simply because they are children. It’s okay to yell at them and smack them in the name of discipline just because they are children. Yet we would never think to do such things to another adult without feeling bad about it afterward or even thinking our behaviour was inappropriate. We assume that little children should give us respect yet we give them none in return because they are children. This is a hairy area particularly when it comes to Chinese tradition. As Chinese, we believe it is important to respect those older than us – and I agree! But I also feel it is important to respect our children because respect breeds respect. If we respect our children, they will respect us in return.

Okay, so there are times when we see our children behave in ways that make us want to cringe and pretend it they are not our children. People make mistakes, even more so children who are young and still learning the ways of the world. In between learning what is acceptable and what is not, they are also learning about boundaries and testing how far they are able to push them. Often these little experiments can result in improper or unacceptable behaviour. Shichida said it very nicely – “children are a work in progress, not a finished product” – so do not expect them to behave properly and perfectly at all times. Do not feel you have failed because your children misbehave.

The old ways of discipline were all about beating kids into submission. In some ways, those old ways aren’t too far gone because it seems like children are still expected to behave submissively. Those that aren’t are “disobedient”. And when they misbehave, we often feel a need to come down hard or be viewed as being “permissive” or “soft”. It is easy to fall into this trap and end up in the never ending spiral of authority and more authority. There is also the fear that any admission of wrong from the parent is an admission of weakness which undermines authority. Because we’re the adults, we’re not allowed to be wrong and we cannot admit to being wrong and therefore cannot say sorry because that would be an admission of being wrong. But being wrong and admitting to it teaches our children that it is okay to make mistakes.

The other problem with forceful discipline is that it can go in one of two ways – and I believe that neither outcome is good:

  • you could end up with a child who obeys you with submissive obedience. Do we really want to raise sheep who will be walked over later in life because they don’t t know when to use their voices? Sure it makes parenting a lot easier, but I don’t think this is in the best interest of our children’s well-being in later life.
  • you could end up with a child who appears to obey you but defies you the moment your back is turned.

Of course you could get lucky and end up with one of those children who escapes both of these outcomes, but why would you take that chance?

Recently, I read a blog post about the importance of connecting before correcting and I felt it was the perfect reminder on the importance of building the relationship first – the reason why we worked so hard to build a bond with our babies in the first place. At the end of the day, I want to raise a child who behaves because he respects me, not because he fears me. If he behaves because he fears me, there will be nothing to keep him in line if I am not around to keep him in check. However, if he behaves because he respects me, his respect for me will motivate him to keep behaving even when I am not around. At least that’s what I believe and hope for.

Update: What opportune timing that this article should be sent to my inbox at a time when I have been questioning my adequacy as a disciplinarian to my children:

5 Tricks for Dealing with a Strong-Willed Child

“As a toddler your child took his first steps towards independence. Now that he’s a preschooler he’s discovered that not only can he be independent, but that making his own choices is his decided preference. While that bid for independence is age-appropriate, it can be difficult for you to adjust to, especially if your child is strong-willed…

…They say you’ll know you have a strong-willed child when you find yourself struggling to teach him that he’s not in charge of everything.”

It is normal for a child at this age to challenge authority. It’s part of his learning experience in dealing with the world around him. So if you are beating yourself up like I was for a child who is demonstrating qualities that appear to be far from the angel child, stop. Accept the fact that you happen to have a spirited child and look for your own ways to deal with it. Don’t suffer the criticisms from others and do not listen to misplaced advice that makes you feel like you have to force your child into a cookie-cutter mould. You are your child’s mother and you know your child best. Evenf if you feel you don’t know what you’re doing, you are the best person to figure it out. Trust in that.

Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of Figur8.net (a website on parenting, education, child development) and RightBrainChild.com (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

9 thoughts on “Discipline: Fearful Obedience or Respectful Obedience?

  1. Being a parent has made me do a lot of thinking and one of it is in the area of discipline! Yes, discipline should be from the heart as in you must change his heart and not just beat him into submission. Beating him into submission may cause rebellion in the teenage years. Your bonding and communication with the child is important as when you correct him, he more likely want to be corrected by you as he seeks your approval.At the same time, when we correct, we must also teach him the reason why.


    1. Irene – is has been said that the most effective method of discipline is inductive discipline which is exactly what you described. Not only do we correct our children’s behaviour, we must tell them “why”. That is the most important part. Without understanding the why, the behavioural correction may not be long lasting. Punishment or rewards alone will not hold.


  2. Parenting is hard to say.  I say so because it depends on how parents endure with any complaints they face, some parents’ tolerance level  are pretty high but some have zero tolerance.

    Questions we must ask ourselves are : ” Can we endure our children who are constant liars, or who are delinquent, or who have bad temperament under any circumstances, or who are persistently stubborn for orders, or who simply throw tantrums when intimidated/challenged/provoked in school or at home…….

    Again, I think I am diplomatic in certain disciplinary issues with due consideration to “Child’s Age”. I might swallow the above mentioned issues but definitely NOT when AGE has outgrown  the child’s mental ability to understand consequences of the same for a simple fact that I  cannot forever give ways or trying to reason out for the child when the child doesn’t seem to reason out his/her own misbehave.

    That said, I think being rational parents nowadays we hardly beat them into submission, most of times we would negotiate, or engage with long discussions with the child many times. But have we also thought of situations what if respectful obedience just doesn’t work on certain child ? What if when all our resorts to resolve such disciplinary issues fail to rectify ?

    Shichida, whom I consider a distinguished and diplomatic educator, to my surprise, ever mentioned in his book that parents must inflict necessary guiding force to young children when learning was concerned instead of following blindly the children’s wishes, he  further mentioned because the children had yet to mature into distinguish which was important or unimportant in life. ( He though it was wrong to teach the child the western ways to follow the child’s wishes). ( I extrapolated learning in that context into disciplinary issues here, because learning in any sorts, such as to comply with orders is also parcel of learning too).

    So if beating into submission  works ” effectively” for my child, and is done within LIMIT, then I would do so.  Especially when it’s foreseeable if the issue might spiral into serious complication if we don’t quick press the problems before blooming.


  3. Even though I have yet to lay hands on my child and wish I would never have to, that said, I would certainly look at this perspective of fearful obedience when respectful obedience fails consistently to rectify the issues.


    1. FZ – I agree in that only parent of the child knows what works best for the child. I confess part of me writing this is in complaint about criticisms towards my parenting style which does not fit “expectations”. It is a criticism that I have not been firm enough resulting in “disobedience”, but I realise that the so-called “disobedience” is partly personality and partly a developmental stage my son is going through. That it should be insinuated that I have lost control over my spirited child of 4 years old because he displays typical behaviours of 4 year old seemed over the top. In fact, I feel that if there is any failure in effective discipline, I feel it is the result of “too many cooks spoil the broth”. Too much interference and perhaps my unwillingness to stand firm in the face of said criticism and stick to my guns (as it were). As a result, I confess I have sent mixed messages to my children.

      To say that only forceful discipline will work is also an error because it seems that any discipline that is less than forceful seems to be frowned upon as being permissive and lax. Yet, when I ask myself what is the purpose of discipline – which is to teach correct behaviour – what correction can be achieved if forceful discipline only serves to create resentment and or what appears to be apparent obedience that dissolves the moment the parent is no longer around to enforce it?

      I have always known that forceful discipline has never sat well with my son. I still remember too well what it is to be a child and be humiliated by adults and the resentment that it created rather than any willingness to comply and behave. Yet, when spoken to softly with a rational voice, I have felt myself more willing to obey and my heart more open to correction and guidance. So, too, I wish to instil the same feelings in my children.


  4. This is my experience when the child is lack of discipline.

    I used to bring my daughter to a music group class when she was 4, there were 5 children, 3 boys , 2 girls. Since I was stranded in the class for 2 hours during that music course for entire YEAR, so perhaps I am in a better position to comment why discipline should be every parent’s  concern.

    There was this boy who was very uncooperative, he would hid behind the curtain, he would sleep on the floor, he would fight in the class with no reasons sometimes, he would scream, he would yell, he would not leave his helper out the class,  he would cry the moment the helper was out for while, he would listen as little possible to instructions by the teacher, he would bang the piano keys to make noise, he would move the table in the class, he would make all sort of funny things to enrage your nerve………….i.e. he was very DISRUPTIVE.

    With that mischievous character,  the whole class was often out of control as other kids might just watch and stood idle……so it was stressful for the  music teacher and I trust if other parents were to be in the class might wish to beg the boy’s mom to withdraw the child herself or to refuse to attend the class the year after.

    Then came one day his mother accompanied him to the class and watched him over……it surprised me as he was sooooooooooo complying and cooperative and the more surprises was he had dual personalities,   he looked completely lovely in front of his mother and not when he was with the helper,  it stunned me further when his mom had no idea whatsoever when he was out her sight . Be a responsible human, I should in fact tell her the truth of what had happened in the class each time but I stopped when I saw how she arrogantly  brushed off what other children’s complainits to her of her son’s misbehave in that class on that spot.  I recalled she replied rudely to one child’s complaint that said ” Yes, OK,  don’t need to tell me further, I hear that many times already, I know, stop that.”

    To me, it is completely understandable that  young child might run wild once a while, but not to the expense of others to have to endure that misbehavior each time we met  in the class. More so that that child often isolated himself or  by other kids in the class.

    So I think it is always our duty to discipline our kid so that he/she would be more considerate to the existence of others. It is unwise to leave the child completely to the helper who had no control over her young master, and it is even worse to the parents who are insensitive and ignorant of what their child was capable of.

    My point here is discipline doesn’t mean we parents have to be fearful to make them complied to others, or we need to beat them into submission,  but if decent language doesnt make sense to make them comply to social norms then I would think it is also completely bizarre for us to leave them the way it is  to becoming a nuisance to others happen to be around too.

    So parenting to me is always to follow the maxim of : “Be reasonable, be considerate”.


  5. FZ – I couldn’t agree more. Discipline has always been one of my priorities as a parent and true discipline for me is to ensure my child behaves not only in my presence but also out of my presence. There is no point to discipline that falls apart the moment I am out of sight because I cannot forever be around to make sure my children behave.

    What I am frustrated by is the expectation of the older generation that discipline involves creating fear to make them behave and to force submission. That is what I protest because I do not agree with it. And because I do not agree with it, I am believed to be “soft” and permissive. Yet, when I ask myself, does my son comply when I discipline him? He does. So how is it that I have failed to discipline him?

    Yes, he is a child and he makes mistakes. When he does, I correct him and I teach him what is right. But it seems to me that his mistakes are a sign that I have not disciplined him properly. What person does not make mistakes? Even we as adults, who “know better” make mistakes. So why must it be that a child who slips up on occasion is deemed unruly and “out of control”?

    If I allowed him to continue behaving poorly without making any attempt at all to correct his behaviour, then yes, I would agree that I have been permissive and “soft”. But I do not allow such behaviours to continue. I put a stop to them when I see them and I teach him what is acceptable and what is not. Just because I do not use methods that are “expected” does not mean I do not discipline. Just because they do not see or hear me discipline does not mean I do not discipline.

    I have my methods and they are different. I believe that for my child these methods work better than the methods that I have been told to use. And hence that is the reason why I wrote this blog post. I am not saying don’t discipline. I am saying there is more than one way to discipline.


  6. One time I said that I would not beat my children to discipline them and someone cursed me saying that my children are going to grow up poorly behaved and undisciplined. I cannot understand why it must be assumed that if I choose not to use corporal punishment as a form of discipline that I am choosing not to discipline my children? Why is it that some people see corporal punishment as the only form of discipline available?

    At the end of the day, we want to teach our children correct behaviour that they will continue to uphold with or without our presence. Isn’t that the ultimate aim of discipline?


  7. I don’t think I agree with corporal punishment lightly, why hitting the child to submission ? this is kind of unacceptable…………..there are many ways to discipline the child….like you just said, we adults requires strict discipline too for certain matters,…that said, if I were to use corporal then it must be something real serious that rouse my madness with guidelines such as purportedly running across the street, purportedly playing with fires, and corporal punishment only arrives after couples of stern warning and handfuls illustration to the child the likely outcome to that.


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