by John L. Brown FRSH, ACSW, AGPA

The following is a reprint of a paper which John L. Brown pre­sented to directors of institutions for the treatment of emotionally disturbed children in December 1963. The occasion was a confer­ence organized, under the direc­tion of Miss Dorothy Boond, by the Ontario Department of Wel­fare in an effort to co-ordinate the work of the different treatment centres. The concepts which Mr. Brown brought forward for dis­cussion in the paper are as valid today as they were in 1963 and even more topical.


I must apologize for this paper in advance because I have really failed to carry out the assign­ment. I have gone over much of the literature, but by no means have I done justice to the literature -on -this subject. Further I have not tried to footnote or give credit to the concepts and ideas that I have gotten from the liter­ature. I recognize that a careful paper would devote more atten­tion to the literature and a proper footnoting and bibliography. I have neither the academic bent nor the time to do such a job and I hope, nevertheless, that this paper will bring some ideas on the subject into discussion and stimulate scholars and stu­dents who read to pursue the literature more diligently than myself.

Definition and Scope

For the purpose of this paper I will define discipline as the prac­tice of exerting external situa-tional influences on an individual to promote compliance (obedi­ence) and conformity.

Perhaps I should say a few words about this definition since dis­cipline frequently means many more things to some people.

Often the word "discipline" is used to mean those aspects of influencing others that come un­der the general heading of guid­ance, education, and training. "Frequently, basic—conditioning experiences are labelled discipline. The term sometimes gets con­fused with self-control and self-discipline. As for example, when we say, so and so is a well-dis­ciplined person.

Selma Fraiberg, in her book "The Magic Years" advocates the re­turn of the broad meaning of the word discipline to include train­ing and guidance as well as pres­sure exerted for conformity and obedience.

Frances Wickes in an old book called "The Inner World of Child­hood" treats the question of dis­cipline as an aspect of the indivi­dual learning to make choices. He recognizes that the ability to express one's individuality in making choices is a capacity that grows parallel to physical and emotional growth. He suggests that the child in the early years of development needs "the rest-fulness that comes from the hab­its of obedience", Mr. Wickes points out the need to be aware of the unconscious response to disciplinary measures as well as the awareness of the conscious responses. In the literature of Psychoanalysis we find many va­riations on the theme that devel­opmental readiness is a primary concern in considering aspects of discipline.

I have decided to restrict the meaning of discipline for the purpose of this paper to the de­finition I have given above recog­nizing full well that there are many many ways of approaching the question of discipline.

The key word in the definition I have chosen is the word "situa­tion", since through this word I mean to convey those external influences that are related in time to acts of disobedience and non-conformity. This leaves out consideration in this paper of those meanings of discipline which have to do with habit training, education and guidance. This concept of discipline implies that it is always external to the person and, therefore, that it is always assertive and aggressive and, as we know, can often be hostile and punitive.

Sometimes people feel that dis­cipline that is successful is "good" and discipline which is unsuccess­ful is "bad". But it should be clear from the very beginning that the success or failure of discipline does not alter the basic nature of this being an aggressive or hostile act. It is by nature assertive and aggressive. The literature is filled with ma­terial dealing with hostile, sadis­tic and punitive elements fre­quently found in the practice of discipline.

This report in no way is meant to be a prescription for discipline. I wish rather to raise as many questions as possible by a brief review of some of the thought and practice of discipline. It is designed to raise questions and challenge existing concepts. This report is in the nature of an outline since I have not been able to pursue much of the source material in the literature. There­fore, I would suggest that each section should be explored in de­tail and pursued by the reader out of his interest and knowledge of the subject. The following headings into which the material is organized is solely for my own convenience.

A Child's Responsibility for his Behavior

Discipline is associated with how we as adults, or how we as so­ciety, through our laws and ex­pectations, see the child's ability to be responsible for his beha­vior.

We know that the age at which children are considered responsible for their acts varies from culture to culture and historically from time to time, We know that in the English speaking world children were h,eld responsible at a very early age for their acts and that they were treated as adults for all crimes. The early recognition that this was not ap­propriate led to much of our child protective legislation and contribute to the development of children's services as we now know them.

Religious, bodies, In consideration of when a child is responsible in terms of sin, have varied in their outlook from time to time, but I believe generally a child under seven is not considered by the Catholic Church to be responsible for sinful acts,

If we see the child as being •responsible —knowledgeable.-about what he is doing, and at­tribute to that act wilfulness, without ulterior motive, we can see the basic rationales of indi­viduals and societies organizing to discipline the child as a means of forcing compliance and con­formity.

If, on the Other hand, we see the child as a growing organism and each act committed by the child as rooted in his prior experience, we are less in a position to de­fend the use pf discipline as a means of promoting compliance and conformity orderly, pre-dictable re-education and re-orientation makes possible the correction of breaches of com­pliance and conformity.

The question settles around whether, and to what degree, we wish to promote free choice. The individual's capacity to make choices hinges heavily on his prior experience and the feelings, attitudes and values he attaches to behavioral phenomena and his relationships to people and things.

The child needs an orderly exist­ence. This need varies with the in­dividual and it varies according to the individual's overall capa­city and his changing capacity as he grows and matures. Expecta­tions that are geared to the in­dividual's readiness and capacity are generally rewarded by be­havior that complies and con­forms.

Most services for children and most child legislation is still skewed in the direction of adult standards and expectations and adult patterns with stated or im­plied responsibility for acts. The fact that we have young children in our training schools certainly underlines this point. At the same time of course, the fact that we call them training schools masks the elements of discipline and punishment inherent in their structure. It is difficult for us out of our philosophical heritage of good and bad, of right and wrong, of sinful and non-sinful, to free ourselves of value judge­ments in relationship to chil­dren's acts.


We must raise the question of whether we would ever want to remove value judgements about children's behavior. There con­fusion arises. When we are deal­ing with children living in their own homes and functioning re­latively normally we certainly cannot remove value judgements from their behavior. A misdeed is a misdeed and we disapprove of it. This really means that we dis­approve of the child and the child's behavior which are really inseparable.

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However, when we are dealing with emotionally disturbed chil­dren, who are insecure in their ties to others and suffering from poor self-image and weak ego-strength, we need to distinguish the act from the child acting. It is as though we say "you are okay, but what you do is not okay," This implies that the child can do otherwise and this is, in effect, an assertation to the child of our confidence in hig ability to manage himself differently. It is ego-supportive and creates an image of an adequate and able individual. There comes a time in tha treatment of the disturbed child when his self-image is in­tact and his ego-strength assured, and we must no longer make this distinction — the act and actor are one.

The parental Rights and Responsibilities for the Control of the Child versus the Community's Rights and Control of the Child,

It is well for us to recognize that the absolute authority of the parent which once went un­questioned is diminishing, There is a strong increasing trend to­wards more uniformity of con­trol by society. This implies of course that it will be necessary for the community collectively to also assume a different kind of responsibility for the training and preparation of children in terms of their ability to conform and comply at an earlier age.

In this paper I have no argument against this trend. I believe es­sentially that the only way there can be adequate training and preparation for children to live in compliance and conformity with society is by laving a more uni­form means cf training and pre­paration at an early age. To leave such an important area to the caprice of the individual parent, even though our sentiments may favour this, will lead to the ulti­mate destruction of the society itself.

As we have given up, of necessity, the responsibilities for the education of our children within the family and in our own fashion so must we give up the responibilities for training the  child in matters of compliance and conformity within the family. The unevennless of the parent's capacity to perform, the function of training jln compliance and conformity challenges our plati­tudes about ;he contributions of the home to the child's function­ing in society as an adult.

We have before us evidence from Russia, Chinp, and Israel, qf the recognition of a need for more uniformity in training at an earilier age in compliance and conformity. We  may not like the social philosophy those countries but these socie­ties are turning out emotionally strong, positivel oriented children who are dedicated to their community find who show an im­pressive compliance and conform­ity to its goals, aspirations and problems, The defense of Western democracy would be infinitely more simple and the outlook more hopeful if we In the West could produce coming genera, tions of children with such dedi­cation, conviction and conformity to the ideas of our way of life.

 Markarenko in his book "Road to Life" describes in detail the devices used in developing group pressures for compliance and conformity and utilizing social dynamics to effect individual change. It may well be that we need to explore this subject more and not be frightened away from it by our fear of violating indi­vidual rights and responsibilities.

Individual Dynamics of Conformity and Compliance

In all discussions of discipline we must look in the final analysis tq what it is that motivates an individual to comply and con­form.

Discipline Is based on the con­cept that compliance and con­formity arise out of the indivi­dual's fears of hurt, annihilation, destruction and death. This is "Only a part of the story of com­pliance,

It ib certainly true that com­pliance and conformity can be forced out of such fears but far more Important — because of its power — la the fact that con­formity and compliance are na­tural by-products of the child's wish to please and to be like the adult, It is as. if the individual human being in infancy and childhood flees from individuality and "Isolate loneliness" and that this force Is strong enough so that the child is willing to give up pleasures In order to conform and comply and thereby to be like pr to please the adults who are important to him.

Social psychologists like Schack-ter, Festinger, Pepiton and New-eings, speak of de-individuation as a basic force for affiliation and motive for conformity.

I want now to look at what causes a breakdown in these basic motivations for conformity and compliance.

(a) There is no object*, or the object is an inconsistent, un­predictable object and of course this makes it impossible for the individual to wish to be like or to please. In such situations the most insidious and subtle threats to survival are detected sub­consciously by the child and we have through over-conformity an inhibition in expressing basic fears and impulses, flattening of affect and other symptoms with which you are familiar in your work with children from such backgrounds.

The so-called character disorder, psychopathic or sociopathic chil­dren come under this category.

(b) The object is a negative, rejecting object. In this situation the motivation to please and to be like, while it still may operate, tends to break down and the child most frequently is inclined to retaliate or to react negatively in turn. Force by the adult usually follows and, depending on the child's experiences up to this time, he will either conform or

*The use of the word "object" here is meant to convey an adult who is in an authority relation­ship to the child and in a position to apply pressure for compliance or conformity: e.g., parent, teach­er, policeman, clergyman.

find other means of fighting back, or not conforming, in disguised ways.

These are children who are un­related but may have a potential for relationship. Frequently they are masochistic or sadistic chil­dren. For them, positive identi­fications with adults are difficult. Identifications with fantasy par­ents frequently is a strong com­ponent of these children.


(c) Motivation to conform and comply breaks down at the point when there is an external pressure to [destroy or forcibly alter the individual or the indi­vidual's self image. These are situations where the child sym­bolizes something to the adult that is intolerable to him or where the^adult's own inadequacy nJemands "feeding" on the iden-~tityT~and self (images of others.

Fear of hurt, destruction and death only adds to the already overburdening threat.

These are children who are living with sadists] or repressed, homi­cidal adults,j or in homes where the adult annihilates the identity of the child, because he is afraid of what thej child symbolizes to him. These children are generally shy and withdrawn, fearful of ex­tending themselves, fearful of trying. It is as though they have been imprisoned by extreme re­jection and denial of themselves.

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(e) Sometimes the motiva­tion to conform and comply breaks down because of the child's inability to comprehend the potentials of the situation. He just doesn't understand what is going on. The use of force or fear does not help to clarify this situation.

These children cannot under­stand a complicated relationship, or expectations that are set for them. Most children who are or­phaned, or who have been moved frequently from foster home to foster home, or from institution to institution, find themselves in this situation — a situation where their total expectation had been geared to one set or standard of behavior, only to find that in the new situation, different expecta­tions, which had not been com­municated to the child, governed their responses. How they react to being placed in such incon­siderate circumstances will, of course, depend on what each child brings to the situation.

(f) Sometimes a child's basic motivation to conform or comply breaks down because of a consci­ous or unconscious desire to punish, hurt, or retaliate directly against, the adult. Threats and fear of hurt only intensify the force causing the breakdown in the motivation to conform and comply.

Sadistic and masochistic children make up this category.

(g) Sometimes the motiva­tion to conform or comply breaks down because the child's desire to punish, hurt or retaliate -is—dis—

-placed-from a prior situation or person to a present situation or person.

These are the children who are preoccupied with "correcting" wrongs that have been done to them in the past by displacing negative feelings on to the people in the present. Homicidal chil­dren are common in this category.

(h) Sometimes a child's mo­tivation for conformity and com­pliance breaks down because of his aggressive desires to explore, master and control situations, objects and persons. We must remember that not only does the child explore the physical world about him but he also explores the social world about him. We are less tolerant of his groping for social relationships and fre­quently fail to understand his social conflicts which are often  the child's crude exploration of social phenomena. Threats only discourage in an area in which the child should be encouraged to explore and the fear created may inhibit him throughout his life in social relationships.

In institutions and foster homes bright children who have energy free to aggressively explore the world around them make up this category. They are generally strong willed children who are struggling to explore the world around them despite its dreari­ness.

(i) Sometimes the child's motivation to comply and con­form breaks down as a result of feelings of rivalry and jealousy. With children this is certainly the most predominant cause of breakdowns in motivation for compliance and conformity.

These children  are easily identi­fied because they include every­one — normal and abnormal — since feelings of rivalry and jeal­ousy are part of the human re­sponse.

(j) Sometimes the motiva­tion to comply and conform breaks down as a result of bids for attention, special care or the testing of the security of his relationships to the adults and to the peers in his surroundings.

In this category, of course, you find children who have a great need for tender, loving care and who seem to be insatiable. They aren't, but the drain can be very heavy on the adults  and peers These   kids are hungry for affiliation and sometimes make a great nuisance of themselves. "Misbehavior" some­times results in the child's bid for reassurance and attention.

What Motivates the  Discipliner?

There are individual dynamics that motivate the discipliner, too. I will not go into them at great length because I don't know that area well enough, and there has been precious little written on it.

It is obvious, of course, that the discipliner is motivated primarily by aggressive, hostile or destruc­tive feelings in all his acts of discipline. Generally, behind these feelings of aggression, hostility or destruction, lie fears of threat or annihilation to self image or deep anxieties about personal ade­quacy and inadequacy.

Since these are the basic motivat­ing forces behind the discipliner's acts, and since these are difficult to admit to, most discipliners find it necessary to rationalize their discipline elaborately. It is interesting perhaps to briefly look at why these basic motiva­tions break down in the disciplin­er. We know that this is what happens frequently and the result is inconstant discipline and a great deal of discomfort to the discipliner.

Mostly, the discipliner recognizes an acting-out of his inner perso­nal needs against the child. The discipliner is unable to tolerate this in himself.

If the discipliner consciously or unconsciously feels unsatisfied about what he is doing in his role

of discipliner, he generally acts in a manner to compensate or make up for his discipline. (The ways in which he does this can be frequently very subtle and un­conscious, or can be very direct and recognized so.) Frequently the discipliner's rationalization in regard to the need for discipline and the Tightness of his acts lead him to intensify and over mea­sure what he feels guilty about using. The light taps of the strap or ruler, which created the guilt, become severe blows as a result of the guilt.


It has been said that the negative impact of discipline is modified by its being constant and predict­able and that there is nothing more destructive than inconstant, unpredictable discipline.

The General Practice of Discipline

I wish to review here the general practice of discipline as we can observe it around us.


Common practice of disciplines at the present time is to use in­dividual discipline and most of the works on discipline stress in­dividual discipline. Individual dis­cipline takes many forms. We shall review briefly a few of them.

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Hitting — Hitting is done ei­ther with an object flexible or hard against any part of the body. At the present time in Ontario it may include hands, a strap, a cat-o'nine-tails, a hose, short sticks, or clubs, brushes with stiff bristles of various kinds, rulers, yardsticks and other paraphernalia. In all in­stances these techniques and methods of hitting are meant to bring about instant compliance and conformity and they range in effectiveness from immediately successful to completely inade­quate. These methods are some­times used to punish after a lapse of time acts which met with disapproval.

Isolation — Isolation in indi­vidual discipline has been devel­oped to a fine art second only to the art of hitting, in our training schools and other corrective in­stitutions. It generally means that the child is placed for a period of time in isolation from outside contact or from all out­side stimulation. Frequently it takes the form of being placed in restricted compartments with-—out-outside contact—asd—with a limited diet.! It may take the form of being isolated in an en­tire room with magazines, radio, T.V. and other stimulating media at the disposal of the child. It is meant essentially to force com­pliance and conformity by depriv­ing the child of wanted or needed contacts.

Threatening — There are va­rious forms of threats, direct and indirect and some of these are so subtle as to defy description. They range from the giving of castor oil and drinking urine to the presence of ominous gestures andmovements on the part of the adult. The very at­mosphere of ja residence, a room or a house can contain powerful threats to individual children. In talking to child care workers you frequently hear boasts of how they are able to manage certain children with a glance or some other subtle look or gesture. This is always a measure of the degree of fear present in the child of unspoken, but well known con­sequences.

Depriving — Depriving in­cludes all those things which take something needed or wanted away from the child and in which the child is not himself isolated. It may include such things as not getting food or it may be something as direct as paying a fine.


Group discipline is generally in disfavour and people who disci­pline must admit that it is used frequently in practice though not admitted. It may be that we need to take a fresh look at group dis­cipline if we are to define disci­pline as the practice of exerting external situational influences on an individual to promote con­formity and compliance.

I would guess that our rather confused ideals about the rights of individuals would lead us to brush over group discipline as a subject not deserving our atten­tion. We somehow fail to recog­nize the implications of our logic when on the one hand we say that we each carry a social re­sponsibility for one another and for one another's acts, and on the other hand we say we are reluc­tant to have the group suffer be­cause of the behavior of one of its members. Our society with its high incidence of maladjustment and delinquency certainly suffers for the acts of one. To believe that we are untouched by the in­dividual act is to ignore reality.


Withholding rights and pri­vileges — This usually takes the form of depriving the total group or a sub-group of privileges and rights because of a wish to force group pressure on an individual or a sub-group- to comply and conform. If it is arranged well there can be a tremendous amount of "heat" generated and brought to bear on the individual or sub-group. However, it fre­quently backfires and the heat is generated against the authority. It often leads to strong re­sentment toward authority, but this may be the result of poor management and improper inter­pretation.

Threatening group conse­quences and isolating groups — This method is not practised as often although sometimes used. Training schools practise a spe­cial form of this in their good conduct lodges and system of merit ribbons. These are so arti­ficial and unrelated to life as to be pathetic and a discredit to the adults who use them.  


It may be, however, that there are powerful social forces that need be explored more fully and at an earlier age that would gen­erate more compliance and con­formity in the early years and that would remain effective throughout life.

Certainly, the social interdepend­ence of each individual on each other suggests a need to give top priority to exploring group dy­namics in the service of com­pliance and conformity not just in treatment and training centers, but in all walks of life with the "normal" and with the malad­justed.