How Stories Discipline

Stories have long been used not only to shape behaviors but also to present listeners with the disciplinary consequences of compliance and noncompliance. Live a good life, say the traditional stories of Christianity, and you will be rewarded with a heavenly eternity; but fail to follow the teachings of the faith and you will be punished with damnation in hell. Be good, we teach children in tales of Christmas, and Santa Claus will bring you presents—but misbehave and you face the prospect of a season devoid of presents. Do not steal or be selfish, says the Aboriginal tale of Wakala, or you could be turned into a crow. Help out a friend in need, or miss out on the rewards, says the story of the Little Red Hen. Many such tales teach not just the socially or personally appropriate behaviors in which to engage but also the consequences of failing to do so.

Effective skills in discipline are seen as one of the key parental ingredients in determining that a child does not experience conduct problems (Brinkmeyer & Eyberg, 2003; Dadds, Maujean, & Fraser, 2003; Sells, 2003). Yet, in an age when governments talk ofbanning spanking, threats can be seen as emotionally abusive, nagging is ignored, and harsh disciplinary action can see a child-carer facing litigation, what is a parent to do? Mothers in Nepal have resolved this problem by customarily avoiding the use of corporal punishment such as smacking (Sakya & Griffith, 1980). Yelling or screaming at errant children is frowned on. So how do they discipline their children?

The control of childhood behavior comes in the form of stories. To keep a child quiet, or to dispense discipline, children are told fearful stories of terrifying characters who may be humans, animals, ghosts, or evil deities. Given our cultural perspective, we may or may not agree with this practice. From a background of current Western attitudes to child rearing, it may sound cruel or even emo tionally abusive to tell children tales of terror; but for Nepalese parents it may seem equally cruel for children to watch violent TV cartoons without any clear moral message or disciplinary function.

The practice of using tales as a primary method of discipline is described here, not as a question of what is right or wrong (depending on our cultural view), but to illustrate two points. The first is to portray the way that stories are used traditionally in cultures other than our own. The second is to highlight the power they may have in the control of behavior—a factor relevant to their therapeutic use.

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