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Thomas Gordon

For a relationship to change in any significant way, he who holds the power must change. - T. Gordon

"Punitive discipline is by definition need-depriving as opposed to need-satisfying." - T. Gordon


Notes From Parent Effectiveness Training (PET)

Articles by Thomas Gordon

How children really react to control

The case against disciplining children at home or at school

Core Topics

Respect | Empathy
Caring | Listening

Free EQ for Everybody Book



I like the ideas of Thomas Gordon. Although he died in 2002, his ideas about parenting still are some of the best.

S. Hein


Notes and articles

Summary From Nobleednews.com

www.naturalchild.org... - Article by Gordon "Children don't really misbehave"

/www.naturalchild.org... - Brief biography



"Why are children the last ones to be protected against the potential evils of power and authority? Is it that they are smaller, or that adults find it so much easier to rationalize the use of power with such notions as 'Father knows best' or 'It's for their own good'?

"My own conviction is that as more people begin to understand power and authority more completely and accept its use as unethical, more parents will apply those understandings to adult-child relationships; will begin to feel that it is just as immoral in those relationships; and then will be forced to search for creative new nonpower methods that all adults can use with children and youth."

From Parent Effectiveness Training

Notes from Parent Effectiveness Training (PET) 1975

In the introduction Gordon says he was pleased when he was asked by schools for his help in training teachers. He writes:

Having harbored a secret ambition to invent some ways to effect a major transformation of the personalities and character of school teachers, I wasted no time accepting their requests. Here was my chance to change members of the profession whose representatives had caused my ejection from exactly 23 classes during my four years in high school ( a record which, with some pride, I have claimed is not likely ever to have been surpassed at my high school in Springfield, Illinois). (pg xii, xiii)

He then designed a course for teachers and called it the TET. He writes:

"The acceptance of both the course and the book in an institution that historically has been quite resistant to any significant changes in its system of human relationships has been personally gratifying to say the least. (pg xiii)

Later he writes that he believes "for a relationship to change in any significant way, he who holds the power must change." (p xv)

Below are direct quotes from the book:

Chapter 1 - Parents are Blamed But Not Trained

Everybody blames parents for the troubles of youth and for the troubles that young people appear to be causing society. It's all the fault of parents, mental health experts lament, after examining the frightening statistics on the rapidly increasing number of children and youth who develop serious or crippling emotional problems, who become victims of drug addiction, or commit suicide. Political leaders and law-enforcement officials blame parents for raising a generation of ingrates, rebels, protesters, hippies, peace demonstrators, and draft-card burners. And when kids fail in school or become hopeless drop-outs, teachers and school administrators claim that the parents are at fault. Yet who is helping parents? How much effort is being made to assist parents to become more effective in raising children? Where can parents learn what they are doing wrong and what they might do differently? Parents are blamed, but not trained. Millions of new mothers and fathers take on a job each year that ranks among the most difficult anyone can have, taking an infant, a little person who is almost totally helpless, assuming full responsibility for his physical and psychological health and raising him so he will become a productive, cooperative, and contributing citizen. What more difficult and demanding job is there? (p 1&2)

As a practicing clinical psychologist, I used to be as convinced as most parents that the period called "the terrible teens" was both normal and inevitable-the result of youngsters' universal desire to establish their independence and rebel against their parents I was sure that adolescence, as most studies have shown, was invariably a time of storm and stress in families. Our experience with P.E.T. has proven me wrong. Time and time again, parents trained in P.E.T. have reported the surprising absence of rebellion and turmoil in their families. (p 2)

I am now convinced that adolescents do not rebel against parents. They only rebel against certain destructive methods of discipline almost universally employed by parents. Turmoil and dissension in families can be the exception, not the rule, when parents learn to substitute a new method of resolving conflicts. (p3)

Parents today rely almost universally on the same methods of raising children and dealing with problems in their families that were used by their own parents, by their parents' parents, by their grand parents' parents. Unlike almost all other institutions of society, the parent-child relationship seems to have remained unchanged. Parents depend on methods used two thousand years ago! (p4)

A few professionals certainly have tried to pass on new ideas and methods to parents, particularly Haim Ginott, who pointed out in his book, Between Parent and Child, how parents can talk more therapeutically to a child and avoid damage to his self-esteem. However, even those relatively few parents who have read this and other books show little evidence in our classes of having modified their behavior very significantly, particularly their approach to discipline and handling parent-child conflicts.

Here are some quotes from the book

p14 It is essential that you learn what you are feeling.

p16 Being accepting is a characteristic of their own personality-- their inner security, their high tolerance level, the fact that they like themselves, the fact the feelings about themselves are quite independent of what happens around them, and a host of other personality variables. Everyone has know such people; although you may not have know what made them that way, you regard them as "accepting people." One feels good around such people--you can talk openly to them, let your hair down. One can be oneself.





On pages 10, 11 talks about parents who are winners, losers and oscillators. He implies that all conflicts are battles. He does not speak in terms of whose needs come first.

Judging by his website seems the company based on his ideas seems to be more interested in making money than in helping children and parents these days. There is some information on it, but mostly it seems like a big advertisement for his products and consulting services. (these were my original comments the first time I reviewed the site)

By the way if you are interested in parenting please be sure to read chapter 10 (eqe96_10.htm) from my book. While I was feeling very critical of parents when I wrote, I now actually feel amazed to see how accurate I was in my analysis of the cause effect relationships between parents and children. I don't feel boastful when I say this, but I do want people to appreciate that I was able to see things very clearly even though I was not a formally trained psychologist or child development expert.


Aprl 2006 update - After working with suicidal teens for the past few years, I feel even more sure that my ideas were right on target in my 1996 chapter on parenting. None of the teens I talk to would be suicidal or self-harming if the parents followed the suggestions in my book.

From nobleednews.com

Here is a copy of something from www.nobleednews.com (with some minor edits)

The specific link is http://www.nobleednews.com/the_gordon_model.htm#Initiating%20the%20Gordon%20Model


Gordon's basic approach is that discipline can not be achieved through either reward or punishment but rather must be developed within the character of the child and teenager.  Gordon believes that overt authoritarian discipline was harmful to the children and teens, leading to anti-social and self-destructive behavior.  He also doesn't believe in permissiveness and finds this approach to be just as damaging.  Rather he goes for a middle of the road strategy with the goal of helping people make decisions that help them control their own behavior.

Gordon's basic tenant is that

"You acquire more influence with young people when you give up using your power to control them...and the more you use your power to try to control people the less influence you'll have on their lives."

Gordon's Principal Concepts and Teachings

  • Authority -a condition that can be used to exert influence or control over others.  There are several types of authority.  The first three are types of influence but the fourth is a source of control over others.

Authority E - expertise

Authority J - job description

Authority C - contracts and agreements

Authority P - the physical, financial, psychological power to control others (edited by S. Hein)


Authority S - survival. parents' power over children due to the child's life being dependent on parents

Authority L - love. when a person feels loved and cared about by another.

Authority R - respect. when respect is earned and the person feels respected by another

* These last two were added by S. Hein

  • Non controlling methods of behavior change -- methods teachers can use to influence student behavior in a positive manner without resorting to rewards and punishments.

  • Problem - a condition, event or situation that bothers someone.

  • Problem Ownership - individual troubled by a problem is said to "own" the problem.

  • Behavior Window - a visual device of Gordon's used to determine if there is a problem and who owns it.

  • Primary Feelings - the basic feelings one has following another person's unacceptable behavior.

  • Secondary Feelings - manufactured feelings one senses after the difficulty is solved.  For example, once a teacher realizes a student who has been hurt on the playground will be okay, she becomes angry because the child broke the playground rules.

  • "I" messages--messages that tell another person how you feel about their behavior.

  • "You" messages--blaming statements

  • Confrontive "I" Messages-messages that attempt to influence another to stop the unacceptable behavior.  "I'm glad everyone is so excited about the project but I can't give you your instructions unless you can hear me."

  • Shifting Gears-changing from Confrontive to a listening posture

  • Students' Coping Mechanisms-students react to coercive power by either running, fighting or giving in.

  • Win-Lose conflict resolution-ends the dispute temporarily with a winner and a loser.

  • No-Lose conflict resolution-everyone wins

  • Door openers-words or actions that invites folks to talk about what is on their minds

  • Active Listening-carefully listening and demonstrating understanding of what another person is saying

  • Communication Roadblocks-comments that can shut down student willingness to communicate

  • Preventive "I" messages-messages that attempt to prevent future misbehavior.  "I hope we can all be quiet for the visit from the physicist.  Can you all help me to keep it quiet?"

  • Preventative "You" message--you message to prevent future misbehavior.  "You were very rude last time we had a guest in the classroom.  You made me very embarrassed.  I hope you do better this time."

  • Participative Classroom Management-leadership approach that encourages students to take a part in problem solving and decision making concerning the classroom and the rules within.

  • Problem solving-a process in which

    • people clarify the problem

    • present possible solutions

    • select a solution all can live with

    • put the solution in place

    • see how the solution is working

Initiating the Gordon Model

So you've decided you like this model of behavior management but just how do you get started?  Here's what you might want to do.

  • Step I

Figure out just how you'd like students' to behave in given situations.  When do want them to talk?  When do you want them quiet?  How neat does their work need to be?  How much talking can you deal with? 

  • Discuss your concerns with your students

On the first day let students know what the class will be like and what you'd like from them.  Allow students to be part of the planning and problem solving.  Be an active listener in order to keep communication with your students open. 

  • Help students learn to function within the parameters of the classroom agreement

Use frequent reminders and engage students in role play that demonstrates the skills needed to follow the class agreements.  The idea is to teach students ways to problem solve so that they increasingly control their own behavior. 


The difference between rules and agreements.

When someone isn't following the agreement, a new agreement is needed, not punishment. Agreements are made between equals, with neither party having the power to force or punish the other.


More about TG

Thomas Gordon is a clinical psychologist who is the founder and director of Effectiveness Training International, a group whose instructors offer teachers, parents, physicians, managers, young people and others training in discipline and group management.  He has also written several parenting books that offer teachers and parents help in teaching children to be more self-reliant, self-controlled, responsible and cooperative. 






Case against discipline - This is a reprint from www.nospank.net


By Thomas Gordon

The article examines and evaluates the commonly held belief that children must be disciplined (controlled) by parents and teachers. Semantic imprecisions in books authored by discipline advocates are illustrated, and more precise definitions are provided for such terms as discipline, authority, power, control and influence. Why both rewards and punishments are ineffective and hazardous to the mental and physical health of children is extensively documented. Finally, alternatives to disciplining children are proposed, illustrated, and supported by research findings. These include methods that encourage the involvement of children in family and classroom rule-setting, methods that foster participation in all phases of the learning process, skills that influence children to solve their problems themselves and control their behavior out of consideration for the needs of others, and a non-power method of resolving adult-child conflicts so that neither loses (or both win).

Thomas Gordon (B.A., DePauw University; M.A., Ohio State University; Ph.D. Human Development, University of Chicago) has been a faculty member in the Psychology Department and at the Counseling Center of the University of Chicago; Director of Aviation Research, American Institute of Research; an organizational consultant; and a private practitioner as a client-centered therapist. He is the founder of Gordon Training International, an international human relations training organization that distributes his programs for parents, teachers, managers, youth, salespersons, and couples. Beginning in 1951 with his chapter, "Group-Centered Leadership and Administration" in Carl Rogers' Client-Centered Therapy, the main focus of his professional career has been applying client-centered theory and skills in training people how to create satisfying and therapeutic relationships at home, in schools, and in the workplace. Over a million persons in twenty-four countries have taken his training. He is the author of eight books: Group-Centered Leadership (1955), Parent Effectiveness Training(1970), Teacher Effectiveness Training(1974), P.E.T. in Action(1976), Leader Effectiveness Training (1977), Discipline That Works (1989), Sales Effectiveness Training (1993), and Making The Patient Your Partner (1995).

It is my strong belief that an in-depth analysis of the practice of disciplining children at home and in the schools is long overdue. Any idea so universally accepted and so rarely questioned deserves to be evaluated. As an avowed person-centered therapist, student-centered teacher, and group-centered leader, I bring strong biases to this analysis. These are tempered, however, by the findings from the many pertinent research studies I have discovered and by a quarter of a century of teaching parents and teachers viable alternatives to discipline-effective non-power methods. Some of these methods are rooted in the person-centered philosophy so ably championed by Carl Rogers-methods that grant children a lot of freedom but freedom within limits, methods that promote self-discipline and self-responsibility, methods that foster motivation, creativity, and emotional health.


One of my first discoveries was that people writing about discipline were not using the same definitions of certain words they were commonly employing. This made for muddy waters and widespread misunderstanding, to say the least.

Take the word discipline itself. As a noun, the definition of which is "behavior and order in accord with rules or regulations," discipline provokes no controversy. Everybody appears to be in favor of discipline in the classroom or good discipline of a basketball team. The noun conjures up order, organization, cooperation, following rules and policies, and consideration for the rights of others.

The verb, "to discipline," has two quite different meanings. The first is "to train by instruction and exercise; to drill, edify, enlighten." This variety of discipline, too, seldom causes arguments. However, the second meaning of the verb, "to discipline," is what makes hot and heavy controversy. Here are some synonyms for the second kind of discipline, which is a controlling-restricting-chastising-punishing type of action:

correct, direct, keep in line, regulate, restrain, check, curb, contain, arrest, govern, oversee, manage, harness, birdie, rein in, leash, muzzle, restrict, constrain, confine, inhibit, chastise, reprimand, reprove, rebuke, criticize, make an example of, punish, castigate, penalize.

Clearly, the teach-train-inform kind of disciplining is an effort to influence children, while the second kind of disciplining is an attempt to control them. Most teachers and parents want nothing more strongly than the ability to influence youngsters, but in their zeal to do so, fall into the trap of using control methods-imposing limits, making rules, sending commands, coercing, punishing, or threatening punishment. Control methods don't really influence children to choose particular ways of behaving, they merely coerce or compel them to do so.

We must also recognize two radically different kinds of the control type of discipline: externally imposed or internally imposed, other-imposed or self-imposed, discipline by others or self-discipline. I didn't find anyone against self-discipline, although most of the dare-to-discipline advocates fail to mention it. There is controversy, however, and it's quite widespread, over what is the best way to foster self-discipline in children and youth-a conflict over the "means" to achieve the agreed upon and valued "ends"-namely, self-disciplined children. Most teachers and parents, I suspect, take the position that children "internalize" adult-imposed discipline, hoping it will be eventually transformed into self-discipline, a theory championed by Freud and by most psychologists who advocate disciplining to control children. Seldom did I find anyone challenging this traditional belief, as I shall do later.

Another source of semantic confusion comes from the term authority. Everybody who writes about discipline uses this word, but few authors recognize the existence of the various meanings the term has. First, there is the authority derived from a person's special expertise: "He is an authority on corporate law," "He speaks with authority." This is often referred to as earned authority. I've adopted the convention of labeling it Authority "E" - for expertise.

Second, there is the authority derived from the job (or role) a person occupies in life. Airline pilots ask passengers to fasten seat belts, and they usually comply; a committee chairperson is given the authority to open and close its meetings and to guide and direct what goes on in between. I've termed this kind of authority Authority "J" - for job.

A third kind of authority is derived from understandings, agreements, rules and contracts people make in their relationships with others. I agree to drive my daughter to the auto repair shop; in our family we have an understanding (policy) that we knock before entering another's bedroom; we have agreements as to who does each and every one of many jobs in our house. I call this Authority "C" - for contract.

Finally, there is the authority derived from possessing power over another-power to control, dominate, coerce, bend one's will, and so on. Call this Authority "P" - for power. This type of authority is what people mean when they talk about "obedience to authority," "exercising your authority," "a breakdown of authority," "rebelling against authority." Understandably, it is the authority many teachers believe they need to discipline (control) children at school.

I found countless examples of cloudy thinking due to failure to recognize the difference among these four kinds of authority. Most frequent was the common assertion that teachers or parents are justified in using their authority (Authority "P") to discipline youngsters because kids need and want the adult's superior wisdom and knowledge. Wisdom and knowledge obviously are Authority "E," not Authority "P." Another common rationalization I often found in the dare-to-discipline books is that power-based authority (Authority "P") is justified because the word discipline was derived from the root word disciple, meaning a learner. A perceptive reader would see through this deception, recognizing that you use Authority "E" to teach and instruct disciples, not Authority "P."

I also discovered that dare-to-discipline advocates try to make using Authority "P" sound less authoritarian and coercive than it is by using euphemisms for this type of authority. These are nice-sounding terms interchangeable with authority-such as the "leadership" of teachers and parents, "benign" authority, the "loving leadership" of one's parents, "guidance," or "being authoritative."

Even when using the Bible to justify adults' punishing children (Authority "P"), James Dobson, perhaps the most widely known dare-to-discipline advocate, confuses two kinds of authority. He first cites this scriptural admonition, "Children obey your parents in all things, for this is well-pleasing unto the Lord." Then he cites another passage (Ephesians 6:4) to further justify parents using authority, but this second scriptural definition of discipline involves giving children suggestions and advice, which is clearly Authority "E":

Don't keep on scolding and nagging your children, making them angry and resentful. Rather bring them up with the loving discipline the Lord himself approves, with suggestions and godly advice. (my italics)

"Suggestions and godly advice," as I see it, are ways of instructing or teaching (Authority "E") and not demanding obedience (Authority "P"). One might assume, as I did, that dare-to-discipline defenders at some deeper level actually disapprove of disciplining children. Why else would they need to use so many euphemisms and Biblical passages to justify using their power? And one might guess that many disciplinarians feel guilty about using their power over persons smaller than they are ("This hurts me worse than it does you").


To control children, teachers and parents obviously need some kind of power. What is it and how does it work? Power to control another (not influence another) is derived from possessing the means to satisfy some need of the other person or to deprive the other of satisfying some need. To use the terminology of psychologists, power to control others comes from employing rewards and/or punishments. In theory, when behavior that the controller wants is rewarded, it strengthens or reinforces that behavior (increases the probability of the behavior recurring); and when behavior that the controller does not want is punished, it weakens that behavior (decreases the probability of the behavior recurring).

In practice, however, rewards and punishments don't always produce the results desired by the controller. Parents and teachers seldom can ensure the existence of certain conditions that are necessary for rewards and punishment to work effectively. Let me explain. For rewards to work (1) the child must be kept completely dependent on the controller to provide the rewards (be prevented from obtaining the rewards himself or herself), (2) the rewards selected by the controller must be needed strongly enough by the child, and (3) the rewards must immediately follow the desired behavior.

For punishment to work (1) the child must be prevented from escaping the punishment, (2) the punishment must be severe enough to be aversive, (3) the punishment must be administered without delay right after the unacceptable behavior occurs, and (4) the child must be kept in a state of fear of the controller's punishment.

With very young children, these conditions may occasionally be met, but with children over 8 or 10 years of age, it becomes almost impossible to meet some or all of these conditions.

Another severe limitation of rewards and punishment is the fact that both parents and teachers gradually run out of both effective rewards and effective punishments as their children grow older and move into the teen ages. This is one of the principal reasons why the adolescent years bring on so much storm and stress for families and schoolteachers. Having relied so heavily on controlling children with power, adults haven't learned methods of influencing them without it, so when their supply of power runs low when the adolescent years are reached, they are literally left impotent.

In fact, I have observed a common scenario both in families and in schools. When children are very young, most adults start using rewards to control them. When they see mounting evidence of the failure of rewards to work, they begin to administer punishment, usually in a mild form. When mild punishment fails to deter unacceptable behavior, as it most often does, then they resort to more severe punishments (harder beatings, more severe deprivations). But at the same time the children are growing older and bigger, and the adults run out of severe punishments. Or the kids learn how to avoid it by lying or escaping from it or by running away. It's then that many parents, recognizing their impotence, give up completely trying to control, a posture incorrectly perceived as "permissiveness," when in fact it would more accurately be called "helplessness." It's ironic that many so-called permissive parents are actually autocratic parents who have lost all their former power to control their youngsters.


  1. Most people are already aware of many of the negative effects of trying to control children with rewards:
  2. Children begin to "work for the rewards," as, for example, students working for grades instead of for learning.
  3. Children can become addicted to getting rewards-they habitually seek praise, approval, or compliments, as well as tangible rewards.
  4. As children grow older they begin to see the hidden agenda (control) behind adult rewards.
  5. Praise often conveys to children a certain element of unacceptance, as in this statement, for example, "Today you understood the lesson because you weren't daydreaming as you were yesterday."
  6. Children often disbelieve praise when it doesn't match their self-concept.
  7. Praise and other rewards heighten rivalries and competitiveness between children.


Punishing children is endemic in the United States. Evidence shows that more than 90% of American parents hit toddlers and most continue to hit their children for years (Straus, et al., 1997). In a 1994 USA Today/CNN Gallup Poll, 67% of a national sample of American adults agreed that "It is sometimes necessary to discipline a child with a good hard spanking." In schools, the frequency of corporal punishment has been decreasing steadily as more and more states have enacted laws prohibiting corporal punishment, yet the practice is still prevalent. Schools are now the only public institution in the U.S. where corporal punishment is still legal. It is no longer permitted in the military, in prison or in mental hospitals.

We can only guess how many parents and teachers employ other kinds of punishment-for example, deprivations, extra work, confinement, verbal abuse, the silent treatment, and staying after school. No doubt in my mind, close to 100% of teachers and parents regularly employ some form of punishment to control youngsters despite the proven deficiencies and dangers of punishment. Here are some of the principal ones:

  1. For punishment to work, it must be severe, and yet when it is severe, youngsters look for all kinds of ways to avoid it, postpone it, weaken it, avert it, escape from it. They lie, put the blame on someone else, tattle, hide, plead for mercy and make promises to "never do it again."
  2. Boys of 12 years of age whose parents scored high in restrictiveness and punishment showed strong tendencies toward self-punishment, accident proneness, and suicidal intentions (Sears, 1961).
  3. The more corporal punishment a person has experienced, the more likely he or she is as an adult to: be depressed or suicidal, physically abuse his or her child or spouse, engage in other violent crime, have a drinking problem, be attracted to masochistic sex, and have difficulty attaining a high-level occupation and high income (Straus, 1994).
  4. Mothers of children with low self-esteem were found to have used less reasoning and discussion and more arbitrary, punitive discipline (Coopersmith, 1967).
  5. Children of punitive authoritarian parents tend to lack social competence with peers, to withdraw, to not take social initiative, to lack spontaneity (Baldwin, 1948).
  6. Children of controlling (authoritarian) parents who valued obedience and respect for authority showed relatively little independence and social responsibility (Baumrind, 1971).
  7. Less than 1 out of 400 children whose parents did not hit them were found to be violent toward their parents, as opposed to children who had been hit by their parents. Half of the latter group had hit their parents in the previous year (Straus et al., 1980).
  8. Studies of the family backgrounds of both male and female juvenile delinquents consistently show a pattern of harsh, punitive, power-assertive parental punishment, in contrast to non-delinquent youngsters (Martin, 1975).
  9. Schools using more physical punishment often have more vandalism, student violence, poor academic achievement, truancy, and higher drop out rates (National Coalition to Abolish Corporal Punishment in Schools, 2001). It is quite clear: Punitive discipline is hazardous to the mental health of children.


Although the philosophy and practice of trying to control children by administering rewards and punishments is nearly universal in both families and schools, promising alternatives to this ineffective method do exist, and pockets of innovation and change can be found, if one looks diligently enough.


It is a well-established principle that people are more motivated to comply with rules or limits if they have been given the opportunity to participate in determining what they should be.

For over quarter of a century, in my Parent Effectiveness Training (1962) and Teacher Effectiveness Training courses (1974), our instructors have been advising parents and teachers to avoid making rules unilaterally. Via tape-recorded examples, demonstrations, and role-playing, we teach methods for involving children in the process of determining the policies and rules they will be expected to follow. Among such family policies and rules are those covering bedtime, TV usage, household chores, storage of playthings, use of the telephone, allowances, privacy, homework, and any other activity that has the potential for generating problems or conflicts. Over a million parents have been exposed to this new way of determining family rules. Similarly, in Teacher Effectiveness Training (T.E.T.) we offer the same methodology for involving a class of students in the process of classroom rule-setting. I am grateful to Norma Randolph and William Howe, then working at the Cupertino, California school district, for convincing me years ago that even first-graders are capable of assuming responsibility for participating with their teachers in setting rules. It was a common practice for children in the lower elementary grades in that district to use posted "activity cards," which helped them manage their own classroom behavior and remove the teacher as the major controller (Randolph & Howe, 1966). Here are examples of these "reminder" cards:

  • Getting myself into the room
  • Getting ready to work
  • Listening
  • Group discussion
  • Working with the teacher
  • � Following directions
  • Working alone
  • Working with a partner
  • � Working in a group
  • Getting myself out

Some students, when tempted to ignore a classroom rule they had helped set, rose out of their seats, walked up to the front where the cards were posted, and touched the appropriate card as a reminder of the rules.


Another non-controlling method taught in the P.E.T. and T.E.T. is sending "I-messages." Typically, teachers and parents confront children with "You-Messages," those containing heavy loads of blame, judgment, criticism, each of which provokes resistance and lowers the child's self-esteem:

  • "You're acting like a first-grader!"
  • "You take your seat right away!"
  • "You ought to be ashamed of yourself!"
  • "You're driving me crazy!"
  • "You're being naughty!"
  • "You will have to stay after school now!"

In P.E.T. and T.E.T. we provide a variety of experiences for learning and practicing non-blameful "I-messages" as the means for telling the child exactly why his or her behavior is unacceptable to the adult:

  • "When there is so much noise, I can't hear what anyone is saying."
  • "When the paints aren't put away, I have to take a lot of time to do it myself."

I-messages are actually "appeals for help," which partially accounts for their superior effectiveness in influencing children to change their behavior. In addition, they place full responsibility on the child for initiating the change, are less likely than You-messages to injure the relationship, and do not damage self-esteem. A teacher reported this incident shortly after taking the T.E.T. course:

I was reluctant to try an I-message with the kids I have. They are so hard to manage. Finally, I got up my courage and sent a strong I-message to a group of children who were making a mess with water paints in the back of the room by the sink. I said, "When you mix paints and spill them all over the sink and table, I have to scrub up later or get yelled at by the custodian. I'm sick of cleaning up after you, and I feel helpless to prevent it from happening." I just stopped then and waited to see what they would do. I really expected them to laugh at me and take that "I don't care" attitude they've had all year. But they didn't. They stood there looking at me for a minute like they were amazed to find out I was upset. And then one of them said, "Come on, let's clean it up." I was floored. You know, they haven't turned into models of perfection, but they now clean up the sink and tables every day whether they've spilled paint on them or not.

Baumrind (1971) found that nursery school children who rated high in self-control and self-discipline had parents who refrained from punitive messages or punishments and instead made extensive use of reasoning and what she termed "cognitive structuring." This academic-sounding term turns out to be our I-message-telling children the negative effects of their behavior on others. Baumrind explains that these messages help children internalize the consequences of their behavior and develop conscience or inner control-what I call self-discipline as opposed to externally administered discipline.

To influence infants and toddlers, however, parents and teachers obviously must assume a more active role and employ nonverbal (behavioral) methods. When very young children whine or pester or throw their food on the floor or dawdle or make messes, adults have available a variety of such nonverbal methods:

  1. Guessing what the child needs or what deprivation lies behind the unacceptable behavior and then satisfying the need.
  2. Substituting for the unacceptable behavior some other behavior that is acceptable to the adult-as, for example, giving the child a damaged pair of nylon hose as a replacement for the new pair the child pulled out of the drawer.
  3. Modifying the environment to produce a change in the child's behavior-for example, childproofing the classroom or home, enriching the child's environment so as to capture the full interest of the child, providing designated areas for messing or painting, and assigning storage areas.


Today, we are seeing a quiet revolution in the way many companies are being managed. This new leadership style is called "participative management," because it relies on extensive employee involvement in making decisions and solving problems related to the workplace environment, the design of products, the methods of production, quality improvement, cost control, and the like.

More and more U.S. companies are instituting some form of participative management. Some have trained their managers and supervisors with our course, Leader Effectiveness Training, (L.E.T.). The benefits of this more democratic style of leadership can be quite remarkable: increases in employee productivity have jumped 100%, grievances have fallen from 3,000 per year to 15, absenteeism has been cut in half, 80% decrease in products rejected because of poor quality (Simmons & Mares, 1983).

Also, we have been witnessing a growing recognition of the importance of increasing student participation in order to improve learning motivation and decrease discipline problems among teachers, school administrators and teacher educators.

Urich and Batchelder (1979) describe how an urban school drastically changed its social climate by increasing student involvement in tackling such important problems as tardiness, absenteeism, apathy, and low achievement. The students worked with teachers and administrators to come up with improvements in each of the problem areas.

In other schools, students have been given the opportunity to monitor their own academic progress and identify areas of needed improvement. In one study, such students were found to make significant gains in study habits and achievement (McLaughlin, 1984).

Some schools have allowed students to participate in academic goal getting and in designing their own tailor-made high school courses (Burrows, 1973). Other schools have involved students in cooperative projects with peer workgroups, resulting in enhanced academic and social skills (Johnson & Johnson, 1975).

Students also have been given responsibility for correcting unproductive behavior of their peers (D uke, 1980), for sharing their opinions concerning the quality of their teachers' instructional skills and teacher-student relationships (Jones & Jones, 1981). Student participation has been extended into some of the schoolwide administrative issues, such as school discipline, school climate, textbook adoptions, new curricula, budget-cutting, and energy savings (Aschuler, 1980).

Renowned psychiatrist William Glasser, author of the bestseller Schools Without Failure (1961), prescribed a challenging remedy for disciplinary problems in our schools in his book, Control Theory in the Classroom (1986). Students are organized into teams of two to five students made up of low, medium, and high achievers. The high achievers help the lower ones, team members are urged to depend a great deal on themselves and their own creativity, they choose how to offer the teacher evidence of how much they have learned, and each student gets the team score.

The superiority of such cooperative learning efforts over the traditional competitive student-student relationships has been conclusively established in a comprehensive review of 122 studies, published from 1924 to 1980. The results were remarkable: 65 studies found that cooperation produces higher achievement than competition, only 8 found the reverse; cooperation promoted higher achievement than independent work in 108 studies, only 6 found the reverse (Johnson, Maruyama, Johnson, Nelson, & Skon, 1981).

In a study of 18 "alternative high schools" in California, where there were personalized teacher-student relations, student participation in school governance, and a non-authoritarian rule structure, the researchers found that both teachers and students reported fewer and less serious disciplinary behavior problems than in the conventional high schools with minutely defined adult-made rules and rigid ways of dealing with infractions (Duke & Perry, 1978).


When children experience some form of deprivation or unmet needs, they often react by behaving in disruptive or non-cooperative ways-both in their families and at school. Acting-up children are usually troubled children-youngsters carrying around a lot of frustration, disappointment, resentment, or anger. And troubled children also make poor learners. Consequently, it seems obvious that both discipline problems and low achievement could be reduced in schools if teachers could be taught how to be more effective as helping agents or counselors. This is precisely one of the principal objectives in the T.E.T. course.

I naturally chose the client-centered methodology of counseling as the model to be taught in both T.E.T. and P.E.T., having been trained by Carl Rogers and having many years in private practice as a client-centered therapist.

Our training has three principal objectives:

(1) To show teachers and parents how their habitual ways of responding when children share their problems can act as communication-blockers and convey nonacceptance. We call these non-facilitative messages the "Twelve Roadblocks"-ordering, warning, moralizing (shoulds and oughts), giving solutions, teaching, evaluating negatively, evaluating positively, ridiculing, psychoanalyzing, reassuring (consoling), probing, and kidding (diverting);

(2) To help teachers and parents reach a reasonable level of competence in responding to children with Active Listening, which conveys acceptance and shows accurate understanding;

(3) To influence parents and teachers to have more trust in children's ability to solve problems themselves.

By and large, I'm convinced that we have succeeded rather well in accomplishing these objectives. Considerable evidence of this can be found in some of the research studies that have evaluated the effects of P.E.T. and T.E.T. We have located over sixty separate studies, many of which unfortunately have flawed designs or inadequate statistical procedures. Robert Cedar at Boston University took twenty-six of the more carefully designed of these studies and included them in a meta-analysis, a statistical technique for combining and analyzing the findings from many different studies. The results of his meta-analysis were as follows:

  1. P.E.T. had an overall "effect size" of 0.33 standard deviation units, which was significantly greater than the effect size for a group representing alternate treatments-such as behavior modification training, Adlerian-based parent training.
  2. The better-designed studies were found to show significantly greater effect sizes of P.E.T. than the less well-designed studies.
  3. P.E.T. was shown to have a positive effect on parent attitudes and parent behavior, and this effect endured for some period (up to 26 weeks) after the course was completed.

Cedar (1985) concluded: "Most of Gordon's claims were (with qualifications) substantiated."

There is also a wealth of "hard data" showing conclusively that the same facilitative skills we teach in T.E.T. greatly help teachers better achieve even the traditional and commonly accepted goals of our schools-such as, scholastic achievement, good attendance, creative thinking, and high motivation for learning. In one study (Aspy & Roebuck, 1977), involving 600 teachers and 10,000 students (from kindergarten to grade 12), the students whose teachers were trained in the skills of empathic understanding, acceptance, respect, and positive regard for students as persons were compared with students whose teachers were not trained. The students of the trained teachers were found to:

  • Miss fewer days of school (4 fewer days a year)
  • Make greater gains on academic achievement measures, including both math and reading scores
  • Be more spontaneous
  • Use higher levels of cognitive thinking
  • Increase their scores on 10 tests
  • Make more gains in creativity scores
  • Show increased scores on self-regard measures
  • Commit fewer acts of vandalism
  • Present fewer disciplinary problems

Another study showed a significant reduction of disruptive behaviors as a result of teachers being trained in facilitative skills. Roebuck measured the teachers' empathic understanding, respect for students, and the degree of student involvement provided by the teachers. Her findings: more disruptive behavior in classes whose teachers were low in empathic understanding, respect, accepting students' ideas, and inviting students' thoughts and opinions (Roebuck, 1980).

Under the leadership and supervision of two German social scientists, Reinhard and Anne-Marie Tausch, a large number of doctoral dissertations and masters' theses produced evaluations of the effects of teachers' facilitative skills on student effectiveness. Here is a clear and beautifully worded summary of the findings:

In all of the school studies, empathic understanding, genuineness, warm respect, and non-directive activities proved to significantly facilitate the quality of the pupils' intellectual contributions during the lesson, their spontaneity, their independence and initiative, their positive feelings during the lesson, and their positive perception of the teacher. If we want to diminish stress, aversion, and impairment of physical and emotional health in schools and at the same time facilitate the development of personality and the quality of intellectual performance, then we will need a different kind of teacher than we seem to produce at present. Teachers are needed who can create in their classes an atmosphere in which there is empathic understanding, pupils receive warmth and respect, genuineness is encouraged, and the teacher can be facilitative in non-directive ways. (Tausch & Tausch, 1980, pp. 217-218)


Although getting youngsters to participate in mutual rule-setting significantly prevents a lot of adult-child conflicts in families and in classrooms, conflicts will always arise for which no rules have been previously established. Parents and teachers have to deal constructively with these unexpected situations or else their relationships will suffer. Most teachers and parents, with few exceptions, are locked into "either-or" thinking about resolving conflicts with children: They are either strict or lenient, either tough or easy, either authoritarian or permissive, either their solution in the conflict prevails or the youngster's solution prevails. In our classes we show how both of these "either-or" approaches to conflict resolution are win-lose methods-either the adult wins and the child loses or the child wins and the adult loses.

A father shows this either-or thinking when he describes the power struggle in the parents' relationships with their children in this excerpt from a recorded interview:

You have to start early letting them know who's boss. Otherwise they'll take advantage of you and dominate you. That's the trouble with my wife-she always ends up letting the kids win all the battles. She gives in all the time and the kids know it.

Children, too, see their conflicts with adults as win-lose power struggles. Cathy, a bright 15-year-old, expressed this clearly in a recorded interview:

What's the use of arguing? They always win. I know that before we ever get into an argument. They're always going to get their way. After all, they are the parents. They always know they're right. So, now I just don't get into arguments. I walk away and don't talk to them. Course it bugs them when I do that, but I don't care.

In P.E.T. and T.E.T. we teach parents and teachers how to resolve conflicts with an alternative method called the No-Lose Method (or the Win-Win Method), in which both the adult and the child participate in a process of six separate steps:

Step I: defining the conflict in terms of needs
Step II: generating possible solutions
Step III: evaluating the possible solutions
Step IV: reaching an agreement on the best solution
Step V: determining what is required to implement the solution
Step VI: evaluating the effectiveness of the solution

Readers may recognize that these six steps are similar to John Dewey's six steps for effective individual problem solving. We have found they work equally as well as steps for effective resolution of conflicts between individuals.

The No-Lose Method of resolving conflicts requires a firm commitment to an entirely different posture from that assumed in the traditional win-lose methods. The parent or teacher conveys this message to the child:

We have a conflict-a problem to be solved. I don't want to use power to win at the expense of your losing. But I don't want to give in and let you win at the expense of my losing. So let's put our heads together and search for a solution we can both accept.

The No-Lose Method derives its influence from Authority "C," the authority derived from people having made a mutual commitment to an agreed upon solution.


Despite the universal use of rewards and punishment in families and schools, I have found abundant evidence of the ineffectiveness of both as a method of control. In addition, punitive discipline itself has been shown to be deleterious to the physical and mental health of children.

Since the early 1960s I have been deeply involved in offering training to parents and teachers in non-power and non-controlling methods, which I firmly believe are far more effective than discipline in influencing children to be cooperative, considerate, responsible, and, above all, self-disciplined. I have briefly described these methods, documenting their positive effects on children's mental health.

These non-power methods add up to a new and far more effective model of parenting and teaching. By giving up using power, parents and teachers will foster self-disciplined children. By relating to children democratically and refusing to be either dictators or doormats, parents and teachers will increase children's compliance with rules through involving them in the process of making the rules. By helping youngsters find their own solutions to problems, parents and teachers will foster more independence, more control over their own destiny, and higher self-esteem. By involving children in their own learning process and in the process of governing their classrooms and schools, teachers will make schooling far more interesting, prevent disciplinary problems, and foster higher achievement motivation.

And by making a commitment to resolve all conflicts with children so nobody loses, parents and teachers will equip children with the skills to become a new species of world citizen-persons who will eschew the use of violence in dealing with conflicts between individuals, between groups, between nations.

No one has expressed more clearly how power-based methods create psychopathology than Abraham Maslow (1970):

Let people realize clearly that every time they threaten someone or humiliate or hurt unnecessarily or dominate or reject another human being they become forces for the creation of psychopathology, even if these be small forces. Let them recognize that every man who is kind, helpful, decent, psychologically democratic, affectionate, and warm is a psychotherapist's force even though a small one.

All of us working in the field of human relations owe a debt of gratitude to Carl Rogers for his development of an effective method of counseling and psychotherapy, rooted in a basic trust of the client's capacity to find constructive solutions to his or her problems. And all of us have profited from the theory growing out of Carl's experiences as a client-centered therapist-particularly his "necessary and sufficient conditions" for facilitating therapeutic change or helping another person function more effectively.

Rogers' important contributions became the basic core of my Effectiveness Training programs-the starting point for the later development of my own model of helping relationships. While Rogers developed his list of characteristics of a helping relationship principally from his experiences as a professional helping agent, my model emerged in the context of my attempt to teach lay people how to be more effective as managers, parents, or teachers. In the position of being professional therapists, we seldom get into serious conflict with our clients; we put aside our own needs (and problems) so we can devote nearly full attention to helping our clients meet their needs and solve their problems; communication is predominantly one-way from client to therapist; we don't live with our clients, or work with them; and we are not in a dependent (or interdependent) relationship with our clients as we are, for example, in the manager-worker relationship.

Consequently, for me to teach parents how to have better relationships with their children, managers with their workers, or teachers with their students, I found it necessary to offer them additional skills and methodologies, which seldom are required in the counselor-client relationship-for example, modifying the environment (enriching, limiting, childproofing), sending confrontive I-messages, mutual rule-setting, using the No-Lose Method of conflict resolution, and democratic governing facilitating subject-matter classroom discussions.

If I were called upon to find a convenient way to describe my model for effective relationships of the kind we deal with in our training programs, the word democracy first comes to mind. I believe we have been teaching parents, teachers, managers, and spouses how to create and maintain democratic relationships-relationships in which I help you meet your needs and you help me meet mine, relationships that are synergistic (separate persons working cooperatively together with greater total beneficial effects than the sum of their individual effects), and relationships that are equalitarian.

I happen to believe that relationships that are democratic will necessarily be therapeutic, and the more democratic, the more therapeutic. Carl Rogers knew this from his personal experience and he expressed it in a variety of ways:

My influence has always been increased when I have shared my power of authority. (1977) By refusing to coerce or direct, I think I have stimulated learning, creativity, and self-direction. These are some of the products in which I am most interested. (1977) Where control is shared, where facilitative conditions are present, it has been demonstrated that vital, sound, enriching relationships occur. (1977)


Aschuler, A. (1980). School Discipline: A socially literate solution. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Aspy, D. N., & Roebuck, F. N. (1977). Kids Don't Learn from People They Don't Like. Amherst, MA: Human Resource Development Press.

Baldwin, A. L. (1948). Socialization and the Parent-Child Relationship. Child- development, 1 , 127-136.

Baumrind, D. (1971). Current patterns of parental authority. Development Psychology Monograph, 4 (1, Pt.2).

Burrows, C. (1973). The Effects of a Mastery Learning Strategy on the Geometry Achievement of Four and Fifth Grade Children, Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Indiana University, Bloomington.

Cedar, R. B. (1985). A Meta-Analysis of the Parent Effectiveness Training Outcome Research Literature. Ph.D. thesis, Boston University, School of Education. Coopersmith, S. (1967). The Antecedents of Self-Esteem. San Francisco: Freeman.

Dobson, J. (1970). Dare to Discipline. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House.

Duke, D. L. (1980). Managing Student Behavior Problems. New York: Teachers College, Columbia University.

Duke, D. L., & Perry, C. (1978). Can Alternative Schools Succeed Where Benjamin Spock, Spiro Agnew and B. F. Skinner Have Failed? Adolescence, 13, 375-392.

Glasser, W. (1961). Schools Without Failure. New York: Harper & Row.Glasser, W. (1986). Control Theory in the Classroom. New York: Harper & Row.

Gordon, T. (1955). Group-Centered Leadership. Boston: Houghton Miffin. Gordon, T. (1970). Parent Effectiveness Training. New York: Wyden.

Gordon, T. (1974). Teacher Effectiveness Training. NewYork: Wyden.

Gordon, T. (1976). P.E.T. in Action. New York: Wyden.

Gordon, T. (1977). Leader Effectiveness Training. NewYork: Wyden,

Johnson, D. & Johnson, R. (1975). Learning Together and Alone: Cooperation Competition and Individualization. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Johnson, D. Maruyama, G., Johnson, R., Nelson, D., & Skon, L. (1981). Effects of Cooperative, Competitive and Individualistic Goal Structures on Achievement: A Meta-Analysis. Psycholoqical Bulletin, 89, 47-62 Jones, V., & Jones, L. (1981). Responsible Classroom Discipline. Newton, MA: Allyn &Bacon.

Martin, B. (1975). Parent-Child Relations. In M. L. Hoffman & L.W. Hoffman (Eds.), Review of Child Development Research. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Maslow, A. H. (1970). Motivation and Personality. (2nd ed.). New York: Harper & Row.

Maurer, A. 1001 Alternatives to Punishment. (1984). Berkeley, CA: Generation Books.

McLaughlin, T. (1984). A Comparison of Self-Recording and Self-Recording Plus Consequences for On-Task and Assignment Completion. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 9 185-192. Randolph, N., & Howe, W. (1966). Self-Enhancing Education. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford Press.

Roebuck, F.N. (1980, March). Cognitive and Affective Goals of Education: Towards a Clarification Plan. Presentation to Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Atlanta.

Rogers, C. R. (1977). On Personal Power. New York: Delacorte.

Sears, R. R. (1961). The Relation of Early Socialization Experiences to Aggression in Middle Childhood. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 63, 466-492.

Simmons J., & Mares, W. (1983). Working Together. New York: Alfred Knopf. Straus, M.A., Gelles, R. J., & Steinmetz, S.K. (1980). Behind Closed Doors: Violence in the American Family. New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday.

Straus, M.A. (1994). Beating the Devil Out of Them: Corporal Punishment in American Families. New York: Lexington Books.

Tausch, R., & Tausch, A.M. (1980). Verifying the Facilitative Dimensions in German Schools - Families - and with German Clients. Unpublished manuscript.

Urich, T., & Batchelder, R. (1979). Turning an Urban High School Around. Phi Delta Kappan, 61, 3.

Watson, G. (1943). A Comparison of the Effects of Lax Versus Strict Home Training. Journal of Social Psychology, 5 102-105.


How Children Really React to Control - Thomas Gordon

How Children Really React to Control
Thomas Gordon

"Punitive discipline is by definition need-depriving as opposed to need-satisfying."

When one person tries to control another, you can always expect some kind of reaction from the controllee. The use of power involves two people in a special kind of relationship - one wielding power, and the other reacting to it.

This seemingly obvious fact is not usually dealt with in the writings of the dare-to-discipline advocates. Invariably, they leave the child out of the formula, omitting any reference to how the youngster reacts to the control of his or her parents or teachers.

They insist, "Parents must set limits," but seldom say anything about how children respond to having their needs denied in this way. "Parents should not be afraid to exercise their authority," they counsel, but rarely mention how youngsters react to authority-based coercion. By omitting the child from the interaction, the discipline advocates leave the impression that the child submits willingly and consistently to adults' power and does precisely what is demanded.

These are actual quotes from the many power-to-the-parent books I've collected along the way:

  • "Be firm but fair."
  • "Insist that your children obey."
  • "Don't be afraid to express disapproval by spanking."
  • "There are times when you have to say 'no'."
  • "Discipline with love."
  • "Demonstrate your parental right to lead."
  • "The toddler should be taught to obey and yield to parental leadership."

What these books have in common is advocacy of the use of power-based discipline with no mention of how children react to it. In other words, the dare-to-discipline advocates never present power-based discipline in full, as a cause-and-effect phenomenon, an action-and-reaction event.

This omission is important, for it implies that all children passively submit to adult demands, perfectly content and secure in an obedient role, first in relationships with their parents and teachers and, eventually, with all adult power-wielders they might encounter.

However, I have found not a shred of evidence to support this view. In fact, as most of us remember only too well from our childhood, we did almost anything we could to defend against power-based control. We tried to avoid it, postpone it, weaken it, avert it, escape from it. We lied, we put the blame on someone else, we tattled, hid, pleaded, begged for mercy, or promised we would never do it again.

We also experienced punitive discipline as embarrassing, demeaning, humiliating, frightening, and painful. To be coerced into doing something against our will was a personal insult and an affront to our dignity, an act that devalued the importance of our needs.

Punitive discipline is by definition need-depriving as opposed to need-satisfying. Recall that punishment will be effective only if it is felt by the child as aversive, painful, unpleasant. When controllers employ punishment, they always intend for it to cause pain or deprivation. It seems so obvious, then, that children don't ever want punitive discipline, contrary to what its advocates would have us believe. No child "asks for it," "feels a need for it," or is "grateful for it." And it is probably true, too, that no child ever forgets or forgives a punitive parent or teacher. This is why I find it incredible that the authors of power-to-the-parent books try to justify power-based discipline with such statements as:

  • "Kids not only need punishment, they want it."
  • "Children basically want what is coming to them, good or bad, because justice is security."
  • "Punishment will prove to kids that their parents love them."
  • "The youngster who knows he deserves a spanking appears almost relieved when it finally comes."
  • "Rather than be insulted by the discipline, [the child] understands its purpose and appreciates the control it gives him over his own impulses."
  • "Corporal punishment in the hands of a loving parent is entirely different in purpose and practice [from child abuse]....One is an act of love; the other is an act of hostility."
  • "Some strong-willed children absolutely demand to be spanked, and their wishes should be granted."
  • "Punishment will make children feel more secure in their relationship."
  • "Discipline makes for happy families; healthy relationships."

Could these be rationalizations intended to relieve the guilt that controllers feel after coercing or committing acts of physical violence against their children? It seems possible in view of the repeated insistence that the punishing adult is really a loving adult, doing it only "for the child's own good," or as a dutiful act of "benevolent leadership." It appears that being firm with children has to be justified by saying, "Be firm but fair"; being tough is acceptable as long as it's "Tough Love"; being an autocrat is justifiable as long as you're a "benevolent autocrat"; coercing children is okay as long as you're not a "dictator"; and physically abusing children is not abuse as long as you "do it lovingly."

Disciplinarians' insistence that punishment is benign and constructive might be explained by their desire that children eventually become subservient to a Supreme Being or higher authority. This can only be achieved, they believe, if children first learn to obey their parents and other adults. James Dobson (1978) stresses this point time and time again:

  • "While yielding to the loving leadership of their parents, children are also learning to yield to the benevolent leadership of God Himself."
  • "With regard to the specific discipline of the strong-willed toddler, mild spankings can begin between 15 and 18 months of age....To repeat, the toddler should be taught to obey and yield to parental leadership, but that end will not be accomplished overnight."

It's the familiar story of believing that the ends justify the means. Obedience to parental authority first, and then later to some higher authority, is so strongly valued by some advocates of punitive discipline that the means they utilize to achieve that end are distorted to appear beneficial to children rather than harmful.

The hope that children eventually will submit to all authority is, I think, wishful thinking. Not all children submit when adults try to control them. In fact, children respond with a wide variety of reactions, an assortment of behaviors. Psychologists call these reactions "coping behaviors" or "coping mechanisms".

The Coping Mechanisms Children Use

Over the years I have compiled a long list of the various coping mechanisms youngsters use when adults try to control them. This list comes primarily out of our Parent Effectiveness Training (P.E.T.) and Teacher Effectiveness Training (T.E.T.) classes, where we employ a simple but revealing classroom exercise. Participants are asked to recall the specific ways they themselves coped with power-based discipline when they were youngsters. The question yields nearly identical lists in every class, which confirms how universal children's coping mechanisms are. The complete list is reproduced below, in no particular order. Note how varied these recurring themes are. (Can you pick out the particular coping methods you employed as a youngster?)

  • Resisting, defying, being negative
  • Rebelling, disobeying, being insubordinate, sassing
  • Retaliating, striking back, counterattacking, vandalizing
  • Hitting, being belligerent, combative
  • Breaking rules and laws
  • Throwing temper tantrums, getting angry
  • Lying, deceiving, hiding the truth
  • Blaming others, tattling, telling on others
  • Bossing or bullying others
  • Banding together, forming alliances, organizing against the adult
  • Apple-polishing, buttering up, soft-soaping, bootlicking, currying favor with adults
  • Withdrawing, fantasizing, daydreaming
  • Competing, needing to win, hating to lose, needing to look good, making others look bad
  • Giving up, feeling defeated, loafing, goofing off
  • Leaving, escaping, staying away from home, running away, quitting school, cutting classes
  • Not talking, ignoring, using the silent treatment, writing the adult off, keeping one's distance
  • Crying, weeping; feeling depressed or hopeless
  • Becoming fearful, shy, timid, afraid to speak up, hesitant to try anything new
  • Needing reassurance, seeking constant approval, feeling insecure
  • Getting sick, developing psychosomatic ailments
  • Overeating, excessive dieting
  • Being submissive, conforming, complying; being dutiful, docile, apple-polishing, being a goody-goody, teacher's pet
  • Drinking heavily, using drugs
  • Cheating in school, plagiarizing

As you might expect, after parents and teachers in the class generate their list, and realize that it was created out of their own experience, they invariably make such comments as:

  • "Why would anyone want to use power, if these are the behaviors it produces?"
  • "All of these coping mechanisms are behaviors that I wouldn't want to see in my children [or my students]."
  • "I don't see in the list any good effects or positive behaviors."
  • "If we reacted to power in those ways when we were kids, our own children certainly will, too."

After this exercise, some parents and teachers undergo a 180-degree shift in their thinking. They see much more clearly that power creates the very behavior patterns they most dislike in children! They begin to understand that as parents and teachers they are paying a terrible price for using power: they are causing their children or students to develop habits, traits, and characteristics considered both unacceptable by most adults and unhealthy by mental health professionals.

from Discipline That Works: Promoting Self-discipline in Children, New York: Plume/Penguin, 1989, (pp. 78-81).