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.

Related Topics

‘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

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin

£13676.46 - £16411.61 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment Cons...

Ashdown Group: Marketing or Business Graduate Opportunity - Norwich - £22,000

£18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Business and Marketing Gr...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

Ashdown Group: Database Analyst - Birmingham - £22,000 plus benefits

£20000 - £22000 per annum + excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Labour leader Ed Miliband unveils Labour's pledges carved into a stone plinth in Hastings  

Election 2015: Smash the two-party system! Smash the voting system!

Armando Iannucci
Tactical voting is a necessary evil of the current first-past-the-post system, where voters vote against what they do not want rather than in favour of what they do  

Election 2015: Voting tactically has become more fraught in new political order

Michael Ashcroft
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power