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Unruly children: How did ‘discipline’ become a dirty word?

The term now implies an abuse of power. And punishment of children is frequently represented as a violation of human rights.

‘I am bailing out of teaching’ says Liz, a Kent primary school teacher who claims that she is fed up with having to play the role of a permanent police-lady.

Liz and her colleagues insist that behavioural problems kick in at a very early stage of children’s schooling. They believe that that they simply lack the resources to maintain class room discipline when confronted with a will-full ‘troublemaker’. When I respond and exclaim that you are talking about six or seven year-old kids, I am informed that ‘the real problem is the parent’.

It appears that many teachers regard parents as the enemy. They tell stories of aggressive mums and dads who automatically assume that while their kids are little innocent angels, their teachers are irresponsible and malevolent agents who are at always at fault. Some teachers confide that they dread having one to one talks with parents since such conversations always contain the potential for veering out of control. Even relatively confident and self prepossessed educators seem to think that parents often fail to bring up their children in a responsible manner. ‘Far too many family issues are imported into the class room’ says Roy an experienced geography teacher at a Kent comprehensive.

A recently published survey of 844 staff for the Association of Teachers and Lecturers claims that parental misbehaviour is not confined to a small group of incorrigible delinquent mums and dads. It claims that middle class parents are often reluctant to contain the anti-social behaviour of their offspring for fear of tantrums. The report states that the erosion of parental discipline is partly to blame for the rise of disruptive behaviour in the class room during the past five years.

The report provides a disturbing picture of a loss of control over the behaviour over relatively young pupils. One primary manager from a school in Kent reported that ‘this year we had the most challenging reception pupil I have encountered in 20 years of teaching’. He added that he did not comply with a single instruction that he received.

So what’s going on – why do mature adults find it difficult to manage the behaviour of six and seven years olds? Some teachers have no doubt that the problem lies with parents. Mary Bousted, general secretary of the ATL has argued that ‘parents are not confident enough at setting and maintaining boundaries’. No doubt  Bousted has a point. But the real question is why parents appear to lack the confidence to manage the behaviour of their children?

Almost imperceptibly the term discipline has acquired negative connotations in British parenting culture. Numerous experts insist that discipline is repressive and results in dysfunctional children. The term “discipline” now implies an abuse of power. And punishment of children is frequently represented as a violation of human rights. Campaigners who stigmatise punishment assume parental discipline constitutes a danger to a child. They continually warn mums and dads to negotiate with their children instead of punishing them. Parents who punish their children’s misbehaviour are made to feel the moral inferiors of those who rely on negotiation. The main outcome of their crusade is to undermine the capacity of parents to control their youngsters.

If, as Mary Bousted claims that parents lack the confidence to manage the behaviour of their children it is because the exercise of parental authority enjoys little cultural affirmation. Parents who take the issue of discipline seriously understand that their behaviour is likely to invite public scrutiny. In circumstances when punishment is regarded as a mild form of abuse and where yelling at your daughter can be characterised as a variant of emotional abuse many parents will feel reluctant about asserting their authority.

Regrettably, parents are by no means the only section of adult society who are reluctant to exercise authority over the younger generations. The entire world of adults has become estranged from the younger generations. Adults are frequently reluctant to engage with young people in case their behaviour is misinterpreted by a culture that regards inter-generational contact as a marker for a child-protection issue. Teachers too know that a commitment to maintain class room discipline goes against the current culture. They also know that if they insist on asserting their authority their behaviour may well become an object of complaints. In such circumstances teachers like parents are often tempted to follow the line of least resistance. It is this reluctance to assume responsibility by the entire of adult society that explains why these days grown up people find even the behaviour of six year-olds a major challenge.

So don’t blame unconfident parents. Point the finger at a culture of child-rearing that stigmatises discipline and morally disarms adults from actively engaging in the socialisation of young people.

Frank Furedi’s Moral Crusades in an Age of Mistrust: The Jimmy Savile Scandal has just been published by Palgrave Macmillan