The Yin and Yang of Discipline, by Chris White, MD


Have you ever felt confused by the seemingly contradictory advice from “parenting experts?”
You are not alone. Each approach to parenting — especially in the arena of discipline — claim to have the best method and often flatly refute the views of the other approaches. This drove me crazy, until one day the pieces snapped into place.

Children need a variety of forms of nourishment to grow up whole and reach their full potential.
Just like the physical body needs a variety of foods to get its complete nutritional requirements, the developing psyche needs a broad palate of interactions for each of its parts to mature into their full potential. I call these interactions relational nourishment and they come in two primary flavors.

The yin aspects of relational nourishment are unconditional love and space.
In the chinese system, yin energies are receptive, accepting, and allowing. When we unconditionally love our children and allow them to be exactly as they are, their nervous systems relax into a parasympathetic state of rest where rejuvenation and growth occur most ease-fully. When they “upshift” and want to try something new — to mix-it-up with the world in some way — allowing them the room they need “waters” their developing sense of autonomy, agency, and feelings of competence. These yin aspects promote resilience through relationship and the natural development of independence.

The yang aspects of relational nourishment are mentorship and healthy boundaries.
Although on the one hand children are perfect exactly as they are, they also have a long way to go in terms of developing the qualities and capacities that lie dormant within their soul’s potential. Children learn from the people they love, so it becomes imperative that we model for them a wide range of desirable behaviors. Showing children how to work with frustration and anger in a constructive manner, being consistently respectful to all living beings, and displaying how the mature amongst us always make amends after a squabble provide “sunlight” for our child’s developing psyche and “scaffolds” it in the direction of emotional health. Setting clear boundaries when something is not healthy for our child — or is disruptive for the family as a whole — is providing essential “nutrients” for their capacities of impulse control and adaptability. These yang aspects also nourish resilience through an emotional “heartiness.”

Mis-takes are also a key ingredient in growing into our full potential.
In secure attachment relationships children experience a mis-attunement every 18 seconds on average, and they survive this just fine. In fact, I would argue they not only survive it, but thrive as a result of. Each moment of mis-attunement in a loving relationship provides the opportunity for children to practice their own capacity for self-regulation for a short period of time until the connection is restored. It is important to do some training in self-regulation at home first, because out in the world the mis-attunements will be more frequent and often occur in circumstances of less support, compassion, and understanding. So allow the messiness of life and relationships to nourish your child in place of stunting them with the anxiety and stress of perfectionism.


Take Home: In order for our kids to develop whole — for all of their dormant qualities and capacities to come into fruition — we need a holistic approach to discipline and parenting. When you begin to understand the yin and yang of discipline,  you will become much more flexible, pragmatic, and relaxed as you continue to guide your kids toward becoming the self-motivated, self-directed young adults capable of responsible actions and respectful interactions.

Try: This week, see if you can track how your intuitive response to situations with your kids naturally oscillates between a variety of approaches. Do you notice that sometimes when your child “acts out,” you simply provide more love and connection as you recognize the source of their frustration? Do you notice that at other times, you give them room to make mistakes and let the consequences of their actions impact them and teach the lesson without your interference? Or at other times do you notice you simply say, “Hey buddy, we don’t yell and scream here. Try it a different way.”  Simply tract what you do instinctively to get a feel for how well you are providing all five forms of relational nourishment.

If you notice that you tend to provide certain aspects easily (say love and space), but have a more difficult time providing others (like boundaries), ask yourself why this might be. Perhaps you don’t see the value in boundaries? Or perhaps you have a “knot” in your psyche that keeps you from interacting in certain ways because of your history? Just explore. No judgment. You will know what to do when the time comes.

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