Discipline: Helping or Hurting?

Catholic Conundrum

My Dad has told me time and again that he still remembers his ‘good’ teachers.

He can’t quite put his finger on it, what made them ‘good’ teachers.

“I tink it’s a gift.”

In rural Ireland, whatever qualities commanded attention and respect without emotional and physical abuse must have seemed gifted, saint-like.

‘Bad’ teachers, by contrast, commanded attention by bullying: threatening, humiliating and shouting at children, and of course, whipping welts into their palms with canes.

One line Dad remembers was, “This hurts me more than it hurts you.”

Sadistic sounding stuff.

Dad remembers the big debate in the 1960’s about corporal punishment in Ireland, as the zeitgeist began to move away from bullying kids into submission.

The question asked by one bully was, “How are we going to control the children?”

The prospect of teaching children without physically abusing them was not on the menu.

From our historical standpoint, six decades removed, it’s so obvious.

Try explaining to an ancient Roman that there could be a society without slaves. Simply not on the menu.

Different times, different times.

Luckie Legs It

My friend Luckie is a long-haired, gentle giant of razor sharp intellect and loveably oafish tendencies. He went to a Blairite descendent of such a Catholic school in London in the 2000’s.

I laugh and laugh at Luckie’s schooltime stories, because he is such a peaceable fellow now, but was something of a tearaway at school.

“If a teacher was ever stern with me or threatened me, or said you have to do this or you can’t leave this room until you do that, I would just run.”

As soon as a teacher played the blunt authority card – like Matilda’s Dad, “Because I’m big and you’re little, I’m smart and you’re dumb…” – Luckie would wait for his opening, then grab his stuff and leg it.

Running rings around the teachers, Luckie would hide in one room, then when the teachers came in to find him, sneak out and run to another. He tested whether the CCTV cameras were in operation, and used only a couple of hiding places more than once. He often had several teachers sprinting around the school looking for him at one time.

And so it was, that Luckie would finally be caught and cornered in a room, facing panting and perplexed teachers, who would employ more modern chastisements and punishments, like calling his parents, isolation and writing lines in detention.

Yours Truly

I could be somewhat of shit at secondary school.

I was prone to pissing around in class and known for smoking cigarettes out of it. I never did a shred of homework.

But if teachers treated me with respect when pulling me up on misbehaviour, I would always be respectful.

There were a couple of teachers, though, the shouters and blunt authority types, who demanded respect but commanded disrespect.

Play the stern card, without a semblance of respect and a two-way conversation, then I’m blank, mate. Nodding my head, yessing my mouth, rolling my eyes.

It was hard enough to get good advice between my ears at the best of times, but if you went down the stern route, you are getting nowhere.

I remember one specific bollocking for that very dismissiveness, from a classic blunt authority type, and mid-bollocking I was told to stop rolling my eyes. This order elicited an eye-roll.

Why Discipline?

How should we discipline kids?

I work with teenagers, many of them ‘troublesome’ – how do I ‘discipline’ them, if their behaviour goes awry?

What does ‘discipline’ even mean?

Discipline can sound harsh, punitive, like we are trying to punish rather than correct behaviour.

What do we wish to achieve when we ‘discipline’ kids?

To get them to do things we want them to do, and to get them to stop doing things we don’t want them to do.

And, too often, cause them discomfort in the meantime, a weird wish to heal by hurt and harm.

(Re-)Defining Discipline

The definition of discipline is ‘the practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behaviour, using punishment to correct disobedience.’

‘Training people to obey rules and codes of behaviour’, I am on board with. That is much of the work I do with young people, helping them map out right from wrong by way of mentoring and informal education.

A key issue I clearly see as affecting young people is our continuaal over-reliance on ‘using punishment to correct disobedience.’

Punishing kids is often our default reaction to disobedience, even for minor and inconsequential behaviours. And, I reckon, this discipline-first approach harms more than it helps kids.

The Latin roots of the word ‘discipline’ (disciplina meaning ‘instruction’ and discere meaning to ‘learn’) do not imply punishment.

When the word and concept reaches the messy self-loathing of medieval Catholicism, ‘discipline’ begins to imply and even require punishment. Instruction and learning eventually came with punishment baked into it.

What If…

Let’s release the subject of young people for just a second, but remain on topic.

What would you think if your manager shouted at you for distracting a colleague at work?

What would your reaction be if your parent didn’t ask if you could do them a favour, but ordered you, and if you don’t do it right now you are grounded for a week?

What would you think if your boss threatened staff with inane punishments for lateness, like writing lines in silent isolation?

These are, sadly, weirdly, realities in 21st century relations with our kids.

Something I’ve learned working with ‘troublesome’ teenagers: you cannot order them to do anything. Still less, you cannot shout at and punish them for not following your instructions immediately and in the exact manner you wish.

You cannot expect teenagers – dosed to high merry hell on hormones, always on the cusp of dropping everything and legging it from the disciplinary maelstrom of their lives – to react positively to being bossed around, and then bollocked for not responding positively to being bossed around.

Add a turbulent childhood and some trauma into the mix, these kids are permanently primed to flip, to push back against people and reject blunt authority. And that it is not their fault.

My most rewarding work has been with these sorts of teenagers. The teenagers who express their dire unmet need for consistency and empathy, by telling everyone to f*** off.

To meet this unmet need for non-judgemental consistency in the lives of young people, if only for an hour or two a week, is the highest privilege I have had in this line of work.

I am going to be here for you, and I am going to support you and make things happen for you, even if you have been excluded, or arrested, or call me a ginger C-word.

All I see are unmet needs crying out for satisfaction; all I hear is, ‘Somebody, anybody, notice me, love me.’

Don’t You F***ing Dare!

I have worked with a young person the last year who was adopted by a local couple.

His real parents were incarcerated for the abuse done unto him.

It cannot be overstated how important developing safe and trusting relationships is after such trauma.

I pick the young person up, and we go through the motions; they take the piss out of my car, my bonnet held on by duct tape, and they ask whether I’ve had any more parking tickets.

“I’ve been in detention,” they tell me, writing lines. Ha! Last century called, and they want their disciplinary measures back. Even the word detention, to detain a child, what are we doing?

I ask why, and they tell me a teacher threatened to phone Dad if they didn’t behave, to which this young person replied, “Don’t you f***ing dare!”

I cannot stop laughing at the boldness, I just love it, the life in it. I guess it was nice for them to have a laugh about it as well, because the laughter in the situation and in life generally is difficult to hear within a silent classroom.


Ironically, I am writing this the day after I ‘disciplined’ a group of more than 20 teenagers at my youth club.

I love my youth club, and I love those teenagers.

I see my colleagues and I as providing space for them to practice being better versions of themselves, through activities and informal education, whilst we model that better behaviour we want them to emulate.

But this session, I had asked for litter to be picked up one too many times.

“There are chips and condoms all over the pavement,” I tell the club loudly, my most-serious-face on.

“If somebody doesn’t start cleaning it up in the next two minutes, I am closing club.”

There is finger-pointing, bickering, laughing.

“I said,” I say, with a boom to my voice, “I am about to close club if you don’t start cleaning up the chips and condoms outside.”

Still, no movement, some plaintive denials, more finger-pointing.

“Out! All of you, club is closed. Animals! All of you, out.” That is the first time this year I’ve had to close club early, and it didn’t feel good, but it felt right. Is that sadistic? A kind of ‘this hurts me more than it hurts you’ situation?

My colleagues and I cleaned up cheesy chips and condoms from the pavement, being watched by some of the young people whom I just ‘disciplined’.

Right or wrong? We shall see next week, I guess. Seeing the surprised and forlorn looks on so many faces told a story: Shit! We pissed off Liam!

I’ll have a stern word next week, and then immediately melt back into my happy non-judgemental self, playing pool and uno and chatting hither and thither between the mass of sweaty disaffected youth, as if nothing ever happened.

Don’t Tell Me What To Do!

Last week was the first time I’ve seen Luckie in years.

We made merry in the Mariners, won him some carvery rib in the meat draw, and we strode home together, arms over each other’s shoulders.

In our merry stride, we fast approached dog mess on the pavement.

I yank Luckie out of the way, exclaiming, “Dog poo!”

Luckie turns to me, his face angry. I crease up laughing.

I have to catch my breath before saying, “How much do you feel like young Luckie being ordered to do something now?”

Luckie’s face reverts to its default mould of gentle sanguinity.

“Why, I feel like I ought to go back there,” he tells me, stamping his foot on the pavement and twisting it side to side, “and stand in that shit if I f***ing want to!”

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