Harnessing the Benefits of Inductive Discipline

As you might have surmised from my writings, I am absolutely fascinated by all aspects of Peaceful Parenting. I want to know the whys as much as I want to know the hows of it. So, when new information crosses my radar, I’m all over it. That’s what happened when I came across the term inductive discipline.

The Background

Back in 1967, two researchers, M.L. Hoffman and H.D. Saltzstein, published a paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. They had conducted a study in which they assessed 7th graders on their moral development and correlated that data with measures of parental discipline. Leading into the study, they noted an interest in capturing information about the impact of parental practices on the internalization of moral values and the capacity for guilt. Prior research had studied two styles of discipline in particular:

  • Power Assertive Discipline which is a “moral orientation based on the fear of external detection and punishment… associated with the relatively frequent use of discipline techniques involving physical punishment and material deprivation” (Hoffman and Saltzstein 45)
  • Love-Oriented Discipline which is a “moral orientation characterized by independence of external sanctions and high guilt… associated with relative frequent use of nonpower assertive discipline” (Hoffman and Saltzstein 45)

In the simplest terms, Power Assertive Discipline generally relies on force to control children, whereas Love-Oriented Discipline generally relies on neglect. In the 1967 study, however, the researchers introduced another wrinkle. They juxtaposed Power Assertive Discipline and Nonpower Assertive Discipline in order to investigate some discrepancies they had picked up in the research. To do that, they split Nonpower Assertive Discipline in two: love withdrawal and induction. Induction refers to “techniques in which the parent points out the painful consequences of the child’s act for the parent or for others” (Hoffman and Saltzstein 46). And, this is where it gets interesting. Check out what they discovered.

  1. Power assertion was associated with weak moral development.
  2. Love withdrawal was associated with negative moral development.
  3. Induction was associated with advanced moral development.

The fundamental difference among these approaches is that:

…as much animal and human learning research has now shown, what is learned will depend on the stimuli to which the organism is compelled to attend. Disciplinary techniques explicitly or implicitly provide such a focus. Both love withdrawal and power assertion direct the child to the consequences of his behavior for the actor, that is, for the child himself, and to the external agent producing these consequences. Induction, on the other hand, is more apt to focus the child’s attention on the consequences of his actions for others, the parent, or some third party. This factor should be especially important in determining the content of the child’s standards. That is, if transgressions are followed by induction, the child will learn that the important part of transgressions consists of the harm done to others (Hoffman and Saltzstein 54).

Did you catch it? Shift the focus. When we shift the focus of behavior from the child to the child’s impact, something changes. We engage empathy and studies have evidenced the fact that the ability to mentalize the experiences of others… can lead us to take prosocial steps to reduce their pain.

Why Should You Care?

I’m going to yield this section to Dr. Gwen Dewar of ParentingScience.com who formulated a clear and compelling case for the use of inductive discipline. This list is fantastic! The entire article is wonderful and I highly recommend you read it.

1. Warm, responsive parenting promotes secure attachments, and protects kids from developing internalizing problems.

2. The children of authoritative parents are less likely than the children of authoritarian parents to engage in drug and alcohol use, juvenile delinquency, or other antisocial behavior (e.g., Lamborn et al 1991; Steinberg et al 1992; Querido et al 2002; Benchaya et al 2011; Luyckx et al 2011).

3. Talking with kids about thoughts and feelings may strengthen attachment relationships and make kids into better “mind readers.”

4. Parents who avoid reprimanding kids for intellectual mistakes (e.g., “I’m disappointed in you”) may have kids who are more resilient problem-solvers and better learners (Kamins and Dweck 1999; Schmittmann et al 2006; van Duijvenvoorde et al 2008).

5. Encouraging independence in kids is linked with more self-reliance, better problem solving, and improved emotional health (e.g., Turkel and Tezer 2008; Rothrauff et al 2009; Lamborn et al 1991; Pratt et al 1988; Kamins and Dweck 1999; Luyckx et al 2011).

6. An authoritative approach to discipline may help prevent aggression and reduce peer problems in preschoolers (e.g., Choe et al 2013; Yamagata 2013).

7. Kids with warm, responsive parents are more likely to be helpful, kind, and popular.

How Can We Use This Knowledge?

Let’s start by considering what “inductive” means. You may have heard the phrase inductive reasoning, which means making specific observations that lead to a general theory. For instance, a child might induce from burning their hand on a hot car hood that hot car hoods can be dangerous for people. Induction is an effective teaching method for children, because it gives them room to form hypotheses about their lives. By the same token, it can result in false assumptions, so we have to make sure we’re providing accurate, truthful information alongside our explanations of genuine, logical outcomes. So, what do we do in practice?

Manage Our Own Emotions: While it’s important to be honest with our children, too much honesty about our feelings while emotions are intense can become oppressive. Did your child hurt you deeply? Make you feel you couldn’t trust them? Embarass you? These are big adult feelings and you’re feeling them with your adult heart and mind. It will not serve your child to express your personal disappointment in them, as doing so places the focus on the child and not on the child’s impact. When the crisis has passed, it’s ok to use “I” statements to reflect on the impact your child’s actions had on you. For instance, “I felt hurt when you told me you hated me. I know that you said it in anger. I’ve said hurtful things too when I was angry. Can we talk about what happened so we understand each other better?”

Start with the Three Rs: Regulate (or Co-Regulate), Relate, and Reason. Walking with your child through these steps is the most effective way to diffuse a highly emotional situation and arrive at a place of mutual connection. Check out my post Peaceful Parenting Won’t Work on My Child for an explanation of how the Three Rs work. In short, we must first help our child come to a place of peace and balance. Then, we should empathize with our child in their distress, even when we’re feeling frustrated with their behavior. Then, and only then, can we work through the situation logically and coach our child toward a better response in the future.

Focus on Impact Without Shaming: I hope it goes without saying that angrily berating a child with “LOOK WHAT YOU DID!” is counterproductive even though it focuses on impact. When we express ourselves in this manner, we risk engendering “intense feelings of anxiety over loss of love which may disrupt the child’s response especially to the cognitive elements of the technique” (Hoffman and Saltzstein 55). Instead, it’s important to start from a place of empathy and gentleness. Name what the other person is feeling. Ask the key question, “What did you hope would happen?” and give your child the opportunity to process what led up to the challenging incident.

My son tends to lash out physically when he’s upset, and the source of his upset is all too often his little sister. She adores him to the point of annoying him. He tries different ways to get her to leave him alone until he suddenly hits or pushes her. Whenever this happens, I help my daughter first, giving her hugs and letting her know I’m there for her. Then, I turn my attention to my son. We run through the Three Rs and, once he is calm and listening, I explain that his sister got hurt when he hit/pushed her. I tell him she is sad and remind him that he loves his sister. And, I usually tell him that he can always tell me when he’s feeling upset with her, and I will help him. Often, that’s all it takes for him to walk over and offer a hug. It’s so beautifully simple when children are very young, isn’t it? These experiences are practice for adulthood when my children will be well acquainted with empathy and will know how to handle even the toughest situations.

Here’s the thing. Children learn by watching and doing. They never need to be punished in order to learn right from wrong. When we teach them what is expected of them and demonstrate the impacts of their actions, they learn. They get it. They develop a moral compass. And, then they are internally driven to do what is right, whether or not they anticipate a parent finding out what they’ve done. The science is clear on this: empathy mediates moral internalization. All we need to do is lead by example.