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Zen and the Art of Discipline: Teaching Adults to Stop Fighting Like Children 

click to enlarge Beth Anspach at home with her kids and her kids’ friend. - HILLARY HARVEY
  • Hillary Harvey
  • Beth Anspach at home with her kids and her kids’ friend.

The hula hoops hang, unused, around the Kindermusik classroom in Red Hook while the students, in their stocking feet, sit in rapt attention. The teacher, Beth Anspach, in a tie-dyed t-shirt that reads, "We wish you well," animatedly details a framework for disciplining children. It's called Conscious Discipline, and it differs from traditional methods in its aim to strengthen a child's will rather than break it. It's not a technique or a set of steps that can be learned in a weekend, or even in her eight-week class series for parents and teachers. Anspach says it's a lifestyle.

As parents scribble notes, Anspach turns adage after adage about discipline on its head. It's not about how to make children obey; it's about how to help children be successful. Rather than controlling our children, we need to attune to them. It's an approach that adheres to only one old maxim: the only person you can change is yourself. As the mother of Conscious Discipline, Dr. Becky Bailey promises, with a change in parental behavior, children feel connected and mirror the attitude. But it requires a new perspective.

"We equate misbehavior with a lack of respect," Anspach tells the class. But because of children's developing brains, there are social skills that they're missing. It's not neuroscience, but Conscious Discipline does rely on an adapted brain model to help caregivers cultivate compassion and empathy, both of which are needed during discipline. It focuses on three brain states: the brain stem (where tantrums happen), the limbic system (the emotional center), and the prefrontal cortex (where reasoning takes place). For kids' brains, which are hardwired to seek and appreciate patterns and routine, lengthy explanations when a child is in her brain stem, or a time-out while he's in his limbic system, is a missed opportunity to teach the missing skill (learning to calm herself or to ask for what he needs in an appropriate way). Seeking to draw children from the first brain state into the third, disciplinarians reach deep to remain composed, recognize where the child is at, and see the particular moment as a teaching opportunity.

Force, Coercion, and Manipulation

In class, Anspach explains that she was once just another juggling mom. "All the things I thought were discipline didn't feel good or right to me." Feeling the pressure one day 13 years ago as her toddler tantrummed in front of the parents of her Kindermusik students, she thought, "There's got to be a better way to discipline." So she Googled that sentence, and found Bailey's 1994 book, There's Got to be a Better Way. Between reading and attending trainings with Bailey and her associates, Anspach earned the credential Conscious Discipline Certified Instructor and began to teach the program locally.

"Parents would cry on my shoulder, 'If I were a good parent, I would be able to make my child do this,'" Anspach remembers. "I wanted to share with them that they weren't failing at their jobs." In fact, the job title was failing. If we ask society at large What's a parents' job? the frank answer is: To make children behave. When we see a crazed toddler in the supermarket, we think, "That mother just needs to..."Anspach says we're clearly sending that message to each other. "The reality is that it's not possible to make anyone do anything without force, coercion, or manipulation. And then you're left feeling crappy and powerless." In reality, a parent's job is to keep children safe, and that, they can do. "Once you take that stress and pressure away from performing at making their children whatever, then parents can be in their problem-solving, brilliant brains, and set the limits to help their children be motivated."

Spare the Rod

Parenting a toddler or adolescent can sometimes feel like an abusive relationship. Any word or action, or even anything that happens outside the home, can set this person you love into an uncontrollable rage. And when you're a stay-at-home parent, like Erica Tamburrino, there's often no respite.

Tamburrino uses the Conscious Discipline script when her two-year-old is jumping on the bed. First, Tamburrino finds eye contact. "Sebastian, you're so excited, but that's not safe. I know you can think of another way to bounce." Giving him the opportunity to make his own choices keeps him calm and builds his brain. As Anspach explains, our brains respond to eye contact with serotonin, the feel-good hormone. And feeling good is integral to the brain development that makes lasting impressions. When Sebastian drops to his knees to bounce, she beams, "You did it!" Tamburrino says it's a struggle in the beginning. "It feels like a lot of manipulation, but Conscious Discipline refines some of your ways of saying things that matter a lot to a little person."

Speaking of Conscious Discipline, Beth Anspach

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