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How Has Child Discipline Changed?

By Sandy Fleming ; Updated June 13, 2017

From ancient times to present day, parents have striven to guide children into acceptable behavior for their own good and the good of society. Many forms of disciplinary techniques have been used to enforce parental will on offspring in the hopes that the children would follow the behavioral path the parents saw as being best. Over the years, the methods have changed, but not the goal. Parents today still want children to comply with the rules of society and to have successful lives.

Ancient History

Ancient peoples noted the need for childhood discipline in religious texts and in their traditional advice to parents. The Bible, for example, notes in Proverbs 29:15 that, "The rod and reproof give wisdom: but a child left to himself bringeth his mother to shame." Writer Vatsala Sperling notes in an article for "Hinduism Today" that ancient Indian parents were cautioned to treat children as children, allowing them freedom to express even their negative emotions while gently guiding them to a more mature understanding of acceptable behavior.

In Medieval Times

According to Nicholas Orme of the University of Exeter, children in medieval times were treated differently from adults in legal matters, and the authorities were as concerned about violence to children as they were to adults. In his article, "Childhood in Medieval England," he stated that, "Corporal punishment was in use throughout society and probably also in homes, although social commentators criticised parents for indulgence towards children rather than for harsh discipline." Salvation was the primary goal of discipline, and parents worked hard to ensure their children a place in heaven.

In Colonial Times

By the time of colonial development in the United States, parents were able to provide amusements for their children in the form of toys, according to David Robinson, writer for the "Colonial Williamsburg Journal." Robinson notes that even the Puritans allowed their young children to play freely. Older children were expected to quickly assume adult chores and responsibilities, though, to meet the harsh requirements of daily life.

Modern Ideas about Discipline

Even over the past hundred years, advice and societal norms about child discipline continue to change. Rex Forehand and Britton McKinney, in their article, "Historical Overview of Child Discipline in the United States: Implications for Mental Health Clinicians and Researchers," state that several major categories of changes continue to evolve to this day. Parents no longer automatically follow advice from religious or historical examples, but look to experts such as the famed Doctor Spock. Modern American society also pays increased attention to the rights of children. In turn, the government has begun to legislate discipline, which has in the past been a private family matter. Societal standards are far more mixed than they were several hundred years ago. Parents may find themselves torn between strict and harsh discipline ideas from the past and overly permissive methods that they find don't offer the control they need. Behavior management methods for children are no longer clear-cut, but rather consist of a hodge-podge of methodologies that seem most suited to the family at that instant. Time will tell if these changes are for the better or will be detrimental in the long run.

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