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In her 1963 essay, “Total Effect and the Eighth Grade,” Flannery O’Connor’s purpose was to argue that children should be required to read the classics that define Western civilization. In the course of making her case, she made a comment that every parent should be required to read on a regular basis. She said, in effect, that the whims and preferences of children should always, always be sublimated to the sense and judgment of their elders.

“And what if the student finds this is not to his taste?” she asked. “Well that is regrettable. Most regrettable. His taste should not be consulted; it is being formed.”

I have since read the entire essay—a spirited defense of classical education— and I recommend it to one and all, for I have never read a better rationale for classical parenting than is contained in the above quote.

A British Conservative politician once said that it was the first right of a people to be governed well. Substitute “child” for “people” and that about sums up my philosophy of child rearing, which is not my philosophy at all, but one that I inherited from my parents and grandparents.

A child, lacking foresightedness, does not know how to govern himself well. He does not know what is in his best interest. He is most likely to prefer that which is bad for him and reject that which is good for him. Thus, he would rather drink a can of soda than a glass of water, eat a bowl of ice cream than a helping of broccoli, play video games instead of doing chores, stay up late rather than going to bed at a reasonable hour, disobey rather than obey, and so on. His parents and teachers must provide the restraint and direction that he is not mature enough to provide for himself.

For at the child’s age, proper restraint and direction are essential to turning the antisocial toddler into a disciple who will trust and look up to his parents, follow their lead, and subscribe to their values. In the same order, that’s respect, obedience, and loyalty. And “proper” in both cases means with lots of love.

In effect, O’Connor was saying that children, irrespective of IQ, do not think correctly. In this regard, all too many of today’s parents think discipline is all about shaping proper behavior by manipulating reward and punishment. That isn’t discipline at all. It’s behavior modification, and, as I’ve said in previous columns, that’s how one trains a dog, not a human being. Discipline is the process by which a child is taught to think properly. A child who thinks properly will behave properly, but the converse is not true. A child who only learns what behaviors are appropriate to which situation may well become nothing more than a clever manipulator.

Therefore, a child is properly disciplined by being taught right from wrong and the reasons why right is right and wrong is wrong. Discipline, then, is about values. Proper behavior is the measure, not the object. Nonetheless, until the child’s values are formed, he must be restrained from doing what he wants to do and directed toward doing what he does not want to do.

And as Flannery O’Connor said, he need not—should not—be consulted about it.

Family psychologist John Rosemond is the director of the Center for Affirmative Parenting in Gastonia, North Carolina. For information about his talks and workshops, contact Tracy Owens-Jahn at or (817) 295-1751.

Living With Children: What Is Discipline?

by John Rosemond
From the September 2009 Signs