The difference between a mentoring and a disciplining relationship with your children is rooted in a focus of fear. Ray Rivers explains why one is a more successful dynamic for both stepdads and dads.
Should stepfathers (and fathers!) more properly act as “mentors” or “disciplinarians”?
It’s a volatile question and one likely to elicit a variety of responses.
From my perspective as a therapist, this question seems to especially anger—threaten, really—those “disciplinarians” who might be defensive about their ability to act as “mentors” in the first place.
But just like any issue of importance, the debate is going to be incredibly passionate and completely meaningless unless we get our terms straight.
So what is the difference between a “disciplinarian” and a “mentor”?
It must first be acknowledged that many daunting challenges affect how parents create boundaries for their children. There is not necessarily “blame” for the various circumstances of the many unique family systems, and there are often no easy answers.
Children in a home where there is a “new” mom or dad have been almost by definition traumatized along the way, with myriad resulting behavior issues. It is also true that (again, in stepfamilies) many times the adults in the homes feel so understandably needy for companionship that some of the tough collaborative work of real familial integration does not get done (ultimately, of course, one way or the other, there is no avoiding it).
But even acknowledging the many relevant factors, there is a core issue regarding these two terms— “disciplinarian” and “mentor”—I would like to highlight.
It is this: to the degree that the answers are “easy” and “effective,” this is generally because strong boundaries have been established within a loving, respectful environment—a “mentoring” environment.
Those who argue for “discipline” would assert they are instilling boundaries and correcting behavior by establishing consequences. “Mentoring” does in fact do this as well: the self-efficacy cultivated by true mentorship is entirely due to rightly guided boundaries and behavior.
So what are we really talking about here?
What people really mean by a “disciplinarian” approach is that boundaries are instilled through fear.
In a mentoring situation, there are certainly consequences for irresponsible behavior—and indeed, Dad may be angry or disappointed, and share this fact for you to consider. However, in a “disciplinarian” household, it’s personal—Dad is going to be mad—at you! Whether passive-aggressively or active-aggressively, he is pissed off, and you are going to feel it.
This squanders the possibility for a safe space—“home”, as it should be, in which there are consequences for mistakes, but the feeling-tone of love and support is never violated, even during episodes of anger or disappointment. Such a home is optimal for each member of the family, at every age, “extended” or not.
Instead, the “disciplinarian” feeling-tone trains young men to make choices based upon the fear that others are going to deliberately hurt them (physically or emotionally) in a personal way.
This approach actually sabotages self-responsibility. It is a different, inferior lesson to the mentoring one of making a behavioral choice based upon the inherent worthiness of the choice itself. The result of this misguided sensitivity is either (self)-destructive rebelliousness, or pathological fearfulness.
One of the most common scenarios I see in my therapy practice is that of the stepfather who feels like his wife “coddles” her son, and has taken it upon himself to put a stop to this in the name of “discipline” by being an overbearing bully. In these homes, everybody is miserable.
The term “bully” here is a constructive criticism, not a judgmental one. Being a mentor is truly beyond the scope of many men’s life experience, especially that provided by their own father; this fact in itself is so painful that many men double-down on the “tough” approach in the name of loyalty to their old man. Not everybody has the inclination or circumstances to face the hard work of acknowledging and transforming the pain of their upbringing; they stop short instead at the legacy of fear (of “betrayal”) and shame (at coming up short in their present circumstances). In these cases, the highest value therapy can provide is to heal the deep wounds that the bully himself is carrying.
If you get in trouble in a “disciplinarian” home, there is no love; there is only coldness or anger and both of these are violent and destructive. Both create misery which is then doubled, quadrupled, exponentially dispersed into time and space beyond the immediate situation, into future families and relationships. It is sublimated and displaced, one person at a time, into cultures and governments and professions. It is the death of real values. It is force and manipulation where truth and power should be.
Being a mentor requires great strength, patience, selflessness, wisdom and an ability to emotionally self-regulate. It demands the highest level of personal power and authority. It models right behavior by example. It accomplishes the precise aims of the “disciplinarian” approach—and in the process, heals the past and creates the space for the highest possibilities of the future.
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