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COMMENTARY—November 16, 2000

The True Meaning of Discipline

It is my unequivocal belief that young children who are breastfed on demand for as long as they need, at least two to three years, learn the true meaning of discipline by experiencing the discipline of breastfeeding.  When the subject of discipline arises, most people associate discipline with the punitive measures that purport to teach young children the concepts of self-control and good behavior.  For instance, parents may threaten to “discipline” their children if they behave poorly.

Recent surveys show that three-quarters of American parents believe in using physical force in order to discipline their children and teach them a lesson.  This means that three-quarters of American parents hit their children, usually on the buttocks, in order to get their children to behave as the parents would wish.  Other disciplinary measures many parents utilize today include yelling, verbal abuse, physical separation (whether by keeping a crying child at bay or forcibly isolating a child), time-outs, the removal of toys or other items a child loves, and so on.  All these measures are done in the name of enforcing discipline and to get a child to behave in a way that pleases parents.

Once a child behaves in a way that pleases parents, the child may be praised for his disciplined behavior.  Disciplined behavior implies self-control, the ability to contain one's emotions, and the ability to cooperate.  The virtues of disciplined behavior are self-evident although many adults are inconsistent about displaying disciplined behavior.  Even so, they expect their children to be like little automatons that obey and follow.  If they do not behave, then punishment awaits them.

Exasperated parents will use physical force against young children even when the adults are more than four times bigger than the willful child.  Is this right?  Would any sane adult tolerate physical abuse for behavior that another adult deems inappropriate?  No, because it is against the law.  No one, however, protects the young children who are regularly abused physically in the name of being disciplined.

Approximately eight years ago, a friend of mine was arrested at a supermarket.  My friend saw a woman slap her young child and leave a red imprint of her hand on the child’s cheek.  My friend was upset enough by this mother’s action to go up to the woman and slap her in the face.  My friend was in her fifties, and she wound up in jail while the mother was not even reprimanded for hitting her child.

This is the kind of society in which we live.  The freedom to punish young children in order to instill the concept of discipline is a parental right.  Yet what kind of discipline does a parent exhibit by losing her temper and physically abusing her child?  It is ludicrous to imagine that a loss of parental self-control demonstrates the meaning of discipline.

Parents often forget that a child learns discipline by following his parents’ example.  An old Japanese proverb says that children learn by watching their mothers’ backs.  In other words, children do as their parents do.  If parents physically abuse their children, even in the name of discipline, then the children will learn the violence of physical abuse.  The children will suffer as the victims of physical abuse, probably without understanding the lesson behind the abuse.  This is especially true when parents spank even young babies under the age of one year.  What on earth does a young child learn from physical punishment except violence?

Physical punishment of any sort is unacceptable because it is abuse.  A young child cannot protect himself against a parent who is larger, heavier, and intent on hurting him.  The fact that some child-rearing experts still condone the practice of corporal punishment is outrageous.  Anyone who advocates corporal punishment believes in the false myth that young children are willful creatures who do not possess self-control and discipline.

The reality is that young children are human beings who learn and absorb information from their environments.  If children learn the violence of human conflict (and what is a contentious situation between an angry parent and a toddler who has his own mind?), then they will learn the violence of human behavior.  Physical punishment is cruel and unnecessary in this day and age.  We know enough about human behavior to understand that there are profoundly powerful preventive measures that parents can utilize to instill long-lasting and effective discipline into the hearts and minds of their children.

The most powerful and effective preventive measure that parents have to teach discipline to their children is breastfeeding.  Breastfeeding is a physical activity that ensures the healthy communication that is so absent in today’s non-breastfed citizens.  Breastfeeding communicates love and concern between two human beings that nothing else can match.  Of course, parental love can be expressed without breastfeeding, but breastfeeding is an act of love itself.  If parents wish to teach young children the meaning of discipline, breastfeeding is the way to do it.

First of all, breastfeeding is an act of love and non-violence.  There is nothing punitive about breastfeeding, and it is all good.  Breastfeeding is profoundly altruistic, and most of us know that altruism does not simply benefit the recipient.  Altruism is the ultimate human expression of goodness, care, compassion, love, and willingness to share.  Also, altruism benefits the donor as much as, if not more than, the recipient.  Breastfeeding bestows upon young babies and children the love that every human being deserves.

Second, breastfeeding is a discipline.  Any mother who has breastfed her baby on demand for at least one year will understand that breastfeeding is a disciplined activity that makes life easier for all.  It is true that a mother needs to stay close to her child in order to breastfeed on demand, yet what is wrong with that?  It takes discipline for a mother to avail herself to a nursing child, to offer the breast at all times, and to share her breasts when she might not necessarily wish to do so.  This discipline is witnessed by the nursing child.  It is the observation of a mother's discipline that teaches the child the true meaning of discipline.

Naturally, there are other ways in which the meaning of discipline can be relayed to young children.  The power of breastfeeding's ability to provide consistency and fulfillment in young children's lives, however, should never be diminished.  Breastfeeding nourishes young babies and children with ideal breast milk while permitting them to experience the consistent satisfaction of emotional and physical needs.

Breastfeeding provides love, succor, comfort, warmth, and touch.  Moreover, when a baby is breastfed on demand, these needs will be met frequently.  The constant fulfillment of breastfeeding is one that a young child will cherish throughout life.  How that fulfillment is achieved, of course, is through the disciplined behavior of a breastfeeding mother.

Although most parents assume that breastfeeding should be restricted to the first year of life, this assumption is false.  Human beings have historically breastfed for a minimum of two-and-a-half years, according to anthropologist Kathryn Dettwyler.  Our human ancestry is very old and we forget how long human beings have been breastfeeding.  It only makes sense that babies should continue to breastfeed for as long as they wish. 

The blind assumptions we make about our children's maturity are mind-boggling.  I have witnessed endless scenarios, including the following:  little infants strapped in their car seats or strollers, and bottles of infant formula are always nearby; two-year-olds crying with anguish as their embarrassed parents look on helplessly; a father chiding his two-year-old for being scared of frightening Halloween decorations; and a distraught mother shrieking at her three-year-old son for accidentally stepping on her eyeglasses.

Regrettably, I was the mother whose young son accidentally broke her glasses.  We parents are sometimes irrational and unreasonable, and we expect our children to be what they are not.  We should look at ourselves first to see what we should do for our children before we expect them to be far more mature than they really are.

Young toddlers should be breastfeeding just as their infant counterparts should be breastfeeding.  We parents should make every effort to respect our children's immaturity and not place them in a life situation for which they are not prepared.  I believe that nearly all the frustration that parents and young children experience, particularly those that are related to discipline, is directly related to the absence of breastfeeding in early childhood.

The frustration that young children experience from not gaining access to the breast is significant. Although we hear many parents say that their babies weaned themselves off the breast at a few months of age or even less, the fundamental fact is that very few babies in the U.S. are really given the opportunity to breastfeed on demand.  The question that must be asked is the following:  why would we deny our immature young children something as fulfilling as breastfeeding?

The answer, most probably, lies in our failure as a culture to recognize the enormity of breastfeeding's benefits.  We keep saying that breastfeeding is just a choice of infant feeding.  The general feeling is that breastfeeding is passé and unwarranted in this era of sophistication and technology.

I can honestly say that I have seen only one breastfeeding mother as compared to dozens of bottle feeding mothers over the past few months.  In recent months, I have seen many new mothers with extremely young babies at various restaurants, all of whom were bottle fed.  I just had to wonder what these obviously well-educated and good-looking young mothers think of their babies.

Are these babies just decorative items to be kept at arm’s length?  I once saw a mother wait to attend to her crying small less than two-month-old infant in her car seat.  The mother was too busy talking to her friends.  When she finally did address her distressed baby, she did not pick her up.  She merely placed a bottle of infant formula to the baby’s mouth and continued to chat with her friends.

Knowing how simple it is to breastfeed, one wonders how it is possible that parents make life so difficult and miserable for themselves and our children.  How could that little baby possibly be happy?

My personal belief is that the ignorance of breastfeeding's benefits is surpassed only by the ignorance of assuming that young children can be forced to behave by using punitive measures.  Most parents anticipate the horrors of “the terrible twos,” for instance, and they await their toddlers’ manifestation of willful, selfish, and uncooperative behavior.  Some child-rearing experts even advise parents on exactly how to spank their children, and I am left to shake my head in wonder and dismay.  How could a child-rearing expert advocate violence against children?

It appears that parents do not even conceive of the possibly that there is a cultural expectation that young children will misbehave and that parents will duly punish their unwieldy children.  As a result of cultural influences, parents are led to expect “the terrible twos,” and they are expected to use force to subdue their children.  For some reason, despite the barbarity of imposing physical punishment upon young and defenseless children, parents spank and hit their children.

It is not clear to me why parents do not heed the inner revulsion that their consciences should be expressing?  Is it because our culture has become so accustomed to the norm of misunderstanding children and their behavior that parents’ consciences may no longer be stricken with pangs of doubt when they use corporal punishment?  Are parents so undisciplined that they can no longer see how wrong it is to hit another person, especially one who happens to be smaller and weaker?  Ultimately, it is ironic that undisciplined parents expect young children to become disciplined.

There are parents who will object to the idea that they are undisciplined, but self-control and restraint are integral aspects of discipline.  How does a parent who spanks or hits his or her child express either self-control or restraint?  Some child-rearing experts advise parent to cool off before spanking their young children.  I find this suggestion to be ludicrous since spanking achieves only one objective:  it advocates violence against children.

In other words, some experts suggest beating a child after the parent has calmed down so that the child knows that the beating is for his good and not just the result of a parent’s anger.  Who actually believes that violence at any time is beneficial?  It is illogical and unconscionable that any sane parent would advocate corporal punishment at all.

The key to understanding discipline is to comprehend the importance of satisfying a child’s needs.  Fulfillment of fundamental needs is a mandate in early childhood.  These needs are primarily the need to love and to be loved; the physical need for nourishment, comfort, warmth, and touch; the need to play and to work; the need to be close to one's mother; and the need for assurance.  All these needs and more are fulfilled by breastfeeding on demand.

These needs can and should be fulfilled not only for the well-being of young children but also for their parents.  When young children are satisfied, the need for punitive measures to teach or enforce discipline is unnecessary.  Satisfied children will be disciplined, and that is the bottom line.

Breastfeeding on demand is what has enabled human beings to survive, yet today's parents know very little about breastfeeding on demand.  This is a cultural deficiency that needs to be addressed post haste.  Breastfeeding is a non-punitive, pleasurable, and deeply life-fulfilling activity.  Every child and his parents deserve to experience the good that breastfeeding creates.

The simplicity of breastfeeding on demand will ease many parents’ and children’s lives because the need for discipline becomes non-existent.  Discipline, as embodied so perfectly by the art of breastfeeding, is learned at the breast in a non-violent way through positive human interaction.  Life is meant to be enjoyable.  This is possible if more parents would offer their children the gift of prolonged breastfeeding on demand.


Revised April 12, 2006




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