Here in the South, like in many other places of the world, we are steeped in tradition. There are traditions about holidays, about clothes, about food, about schools, and, you guessed it, about raising children. Parenting styles and techniques are a much-studied topic and everyone has their own take on how things “should be handled.” To borrow the phrase, everybody and their mama will let you know how and what you need to be doing to raise your kids—what they should eat and watch and play with and listen to; and the reason they tell you is because it worked for them.
Traditional discipline styles are traditional because they have a history of bringing about the desired effects. But as any teacher will tell you, there are always exceptions to the rule and not every technique works with every child. One of the things that we are learning is that traditional styles of discipline and structure rarely work well with children from traumatic or chaotic backgrounds.
We understand that children thrive in structured settings and so the obvious answer to working with children from chaotic backgrounds would be to provide structure. But what we have to be extremely careful about is providing structure in nurturing environments. Because what we tend to forget is that, while those children were not being given the structure and discipline they needed, they were also missing out on the support and the emotional security that other children receive.
These children require patience beyond what anyone would imagine possible. They require constant reassurance that they are wanted and that someone cares for them. And, unfortunately, traditional parenting wisdom can do more harm than good. Corporal punishment can trigger flashbacks of domestic violence or abuse. Grounding, or taking things away, may not be effective because they are used to having nothing. They may be willing to engage in a battle of wills because, in their minds, there is nothing that can be done to them that is worse than what they’ve already been through.
But to know that they are loved, to know that there is at least one person who is willing to go the distance with them, and that they are more than their mistakes—that is when change begins to happen. In their book No-Drama Discipline, Daniel Siegel and Tina Bryson note that word discipline has become synonymous with consequences or punishment but what it is supposed to be is the process of teaching and guidance. That process is not easy, especially when there is a history of trauma. It is frustrating and confusing and exhausting, and it takes a special kind of person to begin that journey with a child, but it is a journey of hope and promise for that child.
It is our fervent hope that we are able to teach each and every child that we encounter that they are unique and wonderful, that they are cherished, and that they have value. We try and teach them these things by holding them accountable for their behavior but not holding it over or against them. We try to give them the second chances they believe they will never have.
We work to give them a tradition of offering compassion and grace to others by first offering it to them.