Health & Fitness

You can instil discipline without using the rod

Learning by encouragement
Learning by encouragement is more effective than by causing pain. PHOTO | FOTOSEARCH  

Qn: “What is the most appropriate age to begin punishing a child for mistakes? My son is two years and is such a menace”

You have the wrong end of the stick and your starting point is clearly mistaken. In general, people give (and receive) punishment because of wrongdoing.

At the age of two years, a child does not know right from wrong. Before he could walk, it is unlikely that you punished your child to “teach him how to walk”.

When he is five years old, it is not likely that your child will be able to do algebra. If you consider that to be wrongdoing on his part and you decide to punish him for it, then you will be doing the wrong thing!

This rather lengthy introduction to the answer to your question is only intended to convey the message that a child’s growth and development takes place in stages, and that children learn different things in life as they grow older. A 10-year-old child should have a greater vocabulary than his five-year-old sister. Neither should be punished for not having a full adult vocabulary. They should be encouraged to learn.


Many parents confuse the concepts of punishment and discipline and often use the words interchangeably. You seem to be one such parent. Punishment is defined as the infliction or imposition of a penalty as retribution for an offence, in other words “crime demands just punishment”. Looked at this way, what crime has the two-year-old committed, wet his bed perhaps?

Discipline on the other hand is defined as “the practice of training people to obey rules or code of behaviour”. The key word here is train. Although we sometime use punishment to train people, we know that learning by encouragement is more effective than by causing pain.

Just to make your life (and mine) more complicated, the Bible seems to support punishment as a way of creating discipline. In the Book of Proverbs 13:24, we read, “He that spareth the rod hateth his son”.

Many have made this the guiding principle in using punishment to guide their children. They have clearly not read the book of Psalm 23:4 that states, “Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” In this case the rod is used as the shepherd used the rod and staff, to guide his sheep. Same word, two meanings! A 16-year-old girl was brought to us a few years ago on the advice of the headmistress of the seventh school she had been expelled from.

The letter from the school matron stated in part, “I have never seen a girl like this one. No amount of caning seems to affect her in any way. If anything more beating seems to make her more determined to rebel”.

When we saw her, she had been thrown out of school because she had set up a thriving business in the school selling cigarettes and bhang. She had established a supply chain that ensured a steady flow of stuff to the school. The watchman, boda boda people as well as a number of dealers were all making good money. She had been able to establish the business chain in a few weeks after entering a new school. At the end of her treatment, the doctors made a diagnosis of Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD). A review of her past history gave the diagnosis away. She had from an early age been a difficult and defiant child. She broke all the rules.

Whereas it is true that many children are at best rather difficult, children with ODD stand out from an early age, often before the age of eight. Such children are always angry and irritable in their mood, often losing temper and breaking things for no apparent reason. They speak to adults with much resentment and do not seem able to obey adult authority. They are often upset and blame others for all their mistakes. Such children seem to be on a mission of destruction. Our patient fitted all the descriptions of ODD.

In the process of educating her parents, it was pointed out that experts have many theories on the causes of ODD. Some parents (perhaps like you) use punishment as the only way of guiding their children. Such children become rebels and exhibit such behaviour. Some say that the condition runs in families (genetic) while others blame the environment. Nobody is sure exactly what causes this condition.

In her case, the girl we saw was also abusing drugs and had attempted suicide in the context of a depressive illness. The rod had not helped her at all! She had in the process developed many other complications including drug abuse and severe depression.