Associate Professor of Voice, Shenandoah Conservatory Artistic Director of the CCM Vocal Pedagogy Institute
I have a five-year-old and a ten-month-old. They are absolutely adorable 90% of the time, but the other 10% of the time it is like watching a Mogwai turn into a Gremlin.
Since the five-year-old started Kindergarten, we have been witnessing more Gremlin moments, so my wife picked up the book “Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline” by Dr. Becky A. Bailey and had me start reading it as well. The philosophies in this book guided the discipline strategies at my son’s preschool. In that setting, he thrived and made huge gains in controlling his outbursts. As we read the book, we are realizing we are falling into the trap of “fear-based discipline.” According to Dr. Bailey, fear-based discipline focuses on what was not done or what was handled the wrong way. Examples include saying “Do you call this room clean” or “Talk to each other and work it out. If I have to get involved, you will both be sorry.” According to Dr. Bailey, fear-based discipline strategies trigger physical stress responses and hamper a child’s ability to learn. The stress response includes the release of cortisol, which at high levels can damage the hippocampus, which plays a major role in memory and learning. The research shows that fear-based discipline actually fosters the behaviors that parents are trying to eliminate. In addition, children tend to become more resistant to authority and may experience permanent changes to their brain chemistry.
As a parent, this is a major wake-up call. My wife and I find ourselves resorting to fear-based strategies not because we want to be harsh parents, but rather because we do not know what else to do. There are times we ask our adorable Mogwai to do something over and over again, and when we get frustrated we end up raising our voices. Instead of listening to us, he goes into Gremlin mode and sometimes I swear his head spins around.
This book has helped us realize the problem is we are modeling fear-based resolution skills to our son. His reactions when we use that approach are a result of the stress he feels from hearing us raise our voices and the resulting cortisol release. If we do not change our approach now, he is going to grow up and use those same skills to navigate his everyday life. I’ve watched enough Dr. Phil to know we cannot let that happen.
The alternative suggested by the author, is to teach self-control to children by modeling it as adults. So, when the five-year-old yells at the ten-month-old to give him back a toy, instead of us getting upset, we teach the older child how to handle the situation. By taking the time to show him how to distract his younger brother with a more appropriate toy, while taking his own back, he is learning how to de-escalate a situation and find a peaceful solution. The book is full of great strategies and we are already seeing a difference in only two weeks.
As I read this book, I am finding myself considering the pedagogical implications. I look back at my own education and a lot of what was modeled for me was how to be harsh and cold-hearted towards students. I had some excellent teachers who were warm and caring, but others would chastise students in front of the entire class or in their lesson, just to beat them down with the philosophy that we must all be put in our place. For instance, I remember a voice teacher asking a student on the first day of her master’s program, “Do you have a degree in music? You should ask for your money back, that was horrible singing. Go sit down.” No further constructive or helpful advice, just a demeaning rebuke of the student’s talent. The rest of us sat in complete shock and had no idea how to respond. After all, this was supposedly one of the best voice teachers in the country according to Opera News magazine; he had dozens of alumni working at the Met and NYCO and some were quite famous. This man taught hundreds of people with fear-based pedagogy and as a witness to the ensuing emotional roller coaster, I can tell you the results were awful. I imagine some of his students have followed in his footsteps because we tend to teach what we know. If you have only been taught with fear, how could you know there is another way?
As I reflect on the pedagogical implications of this book, I am convinced that fear-based discipline has a similar effect in the voice studio. I have many students who are visibly upset by any critical feedback. Part of the issue is probably because they have a fixed versus a growth mindset, but I can’t help but wonder what role a history of fear-based pedagogy may play in their response. Perhaps out of my own reflex to be nothing like my own fear-based teachers, I’m realizing I am better at avoiding fear tactics with my students than I am with my sons. Something to work on for sure. Below are a few examples of ways to manage a frustrating situation without resorting to fear that I have adapted according to the principles in Dr. Bailey’s book.
Do you have other methods for avoiding fear-based pedagogy? If so, please share them below. If you are not already following the blog, you can sign-up on the bottom of the page to receive an email each time there is a new post. If you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing it on social media as well. Finally, a huge shout-out to my wonderful wife Jackie who is always giving me great ideas for this blog. As always, thank you for reading and have a great week in the studio! ~ Matt