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Posted February 3, 2005

(In Parenting)
By: Michael R. Forgy, MA

[Michael R. Forgy, MA is the CEO of Intermountain Neuropsychiatric Center and the Boise Family Center in Boise, ID. He has 27 years psychiatric experience working with youth and families, and has worked in numerous environments from private non-profit to private for profit environments. You can contact him via e-mail,, fax to 208-376-2521, or call 208-376-2518.]

Structure and discipline, two words as adults we've heard a lot about. As parents we often struggle with how these two concepts play out within our parenting repertoire. In fact, when pressed to explain what these concepts mean, it is not uncommon for most of us to have difficulty doing so, other than how they are defined in the dictionary. However, application of these concepts is more often than not even more difficult.

Let's start at the beginning and see if we can't work through these ideals and make some sense of them. The first thing we need to understand is structure and discipline are not innate psychological elements. If left alone at birth to do as we will, none of us would have much of a likelihood of being structured or disciplined. But wait a minute. Discipline, I thought we were talking about something imposed on another as a result of some behavior or action. Yes, that is where it all begins. Through discipline and structure comes self-discipline. But we're getting ahead of the discussion here so hold that thought just a bit. OK. So if we are not born having some grasp of structure and discipline, where does it come from and how? The answer is easy but the concept is a little more difficult. It's imposed upon us from some external force. Our first exposure to structure and discipline comes from our parents. At this point, to hopefully make this discussion a bit less complicated, we'll take one fundamental at time. Let's start with structure.

We begin our experience with structure almost at birth, doing our best to create our own structure. Feed me when I'm hungry or I'll cry. Change me when I'm soiled or I'll cry. Don't give me those nasty carrots or I'll spit them out and cry! Slowly but surely we begin to learn the world does not in fact revolve around us. Someone is telling us when we need to sleep, when we need to eat, how we need to go potty, and that spitting out the carrots is not really a good thing. Structure is now being imposed upon us.

Being relatively bright individuals, it doesn't take too long to discover that following this structure seems to make things a little more pleasant. Much to our surprise, and perhaps displeasure, we soon begin to learn this is only the beginning. Next comes established play times, enforcement of sleep times, meal times and daily routines. We are told where we can and cannot go, what we can do inside or outside, and how to hold silverware. This is all just too much! Ah! The joy of structure. Where would we be without it? With each passing day and year, structure becomes more and more complicated and demanding. School brings about a complete new world of structure and what it means.

The more adaptable and amenable we are to structure, the better things seem to go. We soon learn the vast importance everyone around us places on structure. Just think about the amount of structure we experience in just one day at school! Without structure, chaos would ensue. Hopefully, the dramatic role of structure in healthy growth and development is becoming clear. The better job we do as parents to help our children cope and become accustomed to structure, and the sooner we do it, the more adaptable and successful they will be as they move through a life full of structure.

As we begin to understand this thing called structure, we become more comfortable in creating an environment of structure for our children. Structure does not need to be suffocating and overwhelming. There is always room for creativity and self-expression within the confines of structure. Structure is not in and of itself punitive, but rather, creates a safe and predictable environment in which to operate. The reality of the matter is that when environments are safe, predictable and structured, healthy growth, development, exploration, creativity and innovation abound. Creating this structured environment for our children is in fact a parental obligation that is a virtual gift to them. So don't be afraid of the word or concept of 'Structure.' See it as a pathway to healthy growth and development. An opportunity to help your children prepare for the world they will inevitably face. As children experience structure and accept it, they learn to operate within its bounds with full self-expression, confidence, creativity and a sense of accomplishment.

Now for the really difficult part, discipline. At just the mention of the word discipline, most of us have some immediate response, not necessarily positive. As we break this down however, we can begin to understand that discipline, like structure, plays a powerful role in healthy growth and development. Again, like structure, without discipline chaos will ensue. Utilized correctly and compassionately, discipline is another one of those wonderful gifts we parents can give to our children. On many levels, discipline occurs whether we like it or not. Touching a hot stove is less than pleasant. Do it once and you are not likely to do it again. Nature has its own way of supplying discipline so we know what things we can and cannot do to bring about or alleviate discomfort.

Appropriate, compassionate, logical discipline in conjunction with structure helps shape an individual in to an adaptable, resilient person. Discipline is not an aggressive, abusive, vindictive, or harmful punishment. Discipline is logical; there is always a direct and immediate correlation to a specific behavior, attitude and/ or emotion that you are attempting to correct, or perhaps more appropriately, shape. Discipline is compassionate; it occurs with an explanation and on a level the person being disciplined can understand. It is presented as a positive opportunity to adjust and fine tune something problematic. Discipline is realistic to what you as the parent are trying to shape. How many times whether in reality or jokingly have we heard someone say they grounded their child for a month? This is not realistic. After the first several days the point is lost in anger, resentment, feelings of helplessness, etc. Discipline is validating; when done correctly, discipline will include an explanation of not only what is desired, but also what is positive.

Whatever you are trying to shape cannot be all bad. Work to find something positive with what you are trying to correct. This builds regard, esteem and feels much less critical and overwhelming. It leaves the individual feeling there is a positive base on which to build. Discipline must always be rewarding; after the discipline occurs and there is improvement in what you are shaping, make sure to point out the improvements and acknowledge appreciation for the positive efforts to respond appropriately.

Through externally imposed structure and thoughtful discipline, children have the opportunity to experience, create, experiment and make mistakes in a healthy, safe environment. Mistakes become opportunities to grow and expand rather than creating anxiety provoking situations. As children grow and develop in this environment, they learn to create their own structure and discipline - they become self-disciplined healthy individuals. They learn to monitor themselves with less and less external intervention. They learn how far they can push the limits of structure and still be safe, healthy and productive. Children brought up in this type of environment develop some very basic tools for living a healthy lifestyle for the rest of their lives.

So structure and discipline, as cornerstones within the parental repertoire, are highly beneficial tools for children to begin to develop their own internalized coping skills as they learn to adapt to the world ahead of them. Equipped with an understanding and acceptance of structure and discipline, and in turn self-discipline, these children will move far ahead of those whose early environment was void of these concepts or those allowed to go unchecked throughout their development. Though not impossible, it is an extremely painful and difficult process to try to establish these concepts in early adolescent or even pubescent children. Start early and hold your ground. The long term benefits are well worth it.

Copyright © 2005, Woodbury Reports, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
(This article may not be reproduced without written approval of the publisher.)

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