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Disciplining our children – What can we learn from elephants?

    While watching a show about elephants on Animal Planet the other day, I found myself laughing out loud as an adorable little baby elephant emerged with his mother from the privacy of the birthing room and began learning herd discipline. While his mother and auntie elephants surrounded him inside a protective circle made by their bodies, his slightly older siblings eagerly demonstrated their knowledge of the expected disciplines and pecking order of the group.

    Their methods were rather tough but they were consistent and they were meaningful! While Mother looked on keeping Baby close beside her, one sibling intentionally backed up to him and gave him a kick with her back foot just to let him know she was the boss. Another tried to sit on him. Another shoved him out of the way and tipped him over. The members of the herd were all immediately involved in delivering early lessons of survival that would ultimately prepare him to become an independent, confident, productive adult elephant who would have a better chance of surviving independently.

    Although I found it humorous, it was kind of rough to watch and certainly an elephant thing, but I had to wonder if parents shouldn’t take a few lessons on child rearing from these elephants that would guide them in raising their own children to grow and becoming well prepared for adulthood. I thought to myself, “why not stop and think about this for a moment?”

    Since beginning my practice with parents of children having inherited, life-threatening, medical conditions in 1984, one concern that was clearly evident was preparing these kids for adulthood, even when they could die before becoming an adult. As their social worker, I found that adult emotions (fear, anxiety, feeling sorry, being depressed, sadness, pessimism, helplessness, hopelessness, etc.) often clouded the issues of guiding, disciplining and preparing sick children to become as independent and self-confident as possible. I learned from the parents that this was a real problem …… and eventually true for the child who surpassed the time of his expected death. It was often the case that neither the child nor his parents were prepared for that and it caused quite a conundrum in their lives as they struggled to find answers to what they should do “now.”

    Children are heavily dependent on their parents, other family members, and their community to teach and prepare them to assume as much age-appropriate independence as possible. But a huge factor in regards to this with the sick child is that that they are often given an “exception” because they have a grim diagnosis, are often sick, or are not expected to live long. In the end, however, giving that “exception” overlooks their inherent need to develop as much independence and self-confidence as possible; in other-words, their own sense of well-being in spite of their diagnosis.
    All children need to learn the meaning of discipline in order to reach adulthood well-equipped to be the least dependent on others as is possible.


    Consider what your affected child will be able to do when they become adults if you were permanently gone and they were totally on their own. Would you want them to handle as much of their self-care as possible? Would you want them to understand the meaning of right vs wrong? How would you hope other caretakers would care for your child and feel about them? Would you want your child to be cooperative, disciplined, productive, independent, confident adults.? How dependent on others would you want them to be?

    The first place any child learns DISCIPLINE; i.e.: the difference between what is right or wrong, what is dependent vs independent, is in their home (ages 0-5) …. They learn this from their parents and others in their life. It is part of learning how to act with others; peers, friends, siblings, parents, other adults. Discipline is a state of mind and body, and prepares people to adapt and be able to live in this world.

    Upon entering school or other programs outside their home, the child begins to learn the expectations and norms outside of their home as well. If they have not learned discipline within the expected structures in their home as delivered by their parents/adults in their lives, they will be ill-prepared for knowing how to respond in a disciplined fashion outside their home. Life can become very difficult for these children.

    It still goes without saying that the serious medical diagnosis you must live with every day will have a huge impact on this process because you [may] have no previous reference point or experience in your life towards which to turn. Plus, you are likely feeling so much stress, anxiety, sadness, frustration, helpless, hopeless, and so on that interferes with what would otherwise be your normal responses. In other words, you will need to learn your way through raising your affected child through on-the-job training, by talking to others who have and are living in like-circumstances, from your medical caregivers, from books, what’s on the internet, and/or parenting classes-especially classes for parents of children with serious medical conditions, etc.

    Suffice it to say, children with serious medical problems (as well as unaffected children), need parental guidance, structure, coaching, teaching, and parenting to prepare them for adulthood, even for those diagnosed with the possibility of living a short life-span. Parents need to seek out assistance from other knowledgeable parents and medical caregivers for the same.

    For your child and their siblings to experience and hear you delivering the message that all of their lives are equally as important when it comes to being disciplined, to having expectations of them, to creating goals for the future (short-term as well as long term goals), to discovering the things they CAN do and then doing them, is key to developing in their living protocol. Children and adults who have no goals or life purpose will be less motivated to overcome the obstacles they face and head out on their life journey well equipped to take on the challenges before them, like being self-sustainable. They need to feel purposeful. People very much need purpose to find meaning in their lives; for their own preservation and life. See your children as very much alive… right now. (With the key words here being “ALIVE” and “now”) See the need they have for consistent structure and discipline in their lives.

    See your affected children needing your wisdom. See how they need you to take breaks with them from time to time; to stop thinking about their medical condition (preferably with you – together). They need encouragement to concentrate on creating some reachable goals, for planning ways to confront future challenges both medical and simply about living life. They still need to have a system of discipline in place in their lives and they need that to come from the people who really love them……and the primary person in that regard is YOU.