William James on Child Discipline

William James (1842-1910) became one of the leading thinkers of his day, and through his writings he remains one of the most influential psychologists and philosophers the United States has ever produced. There is a certain wisdom and kindness that runs through his work that I particularly admire. So, in an earlier post when I wanted to come up with ideas on how parents can best teach their children how to respectfully deal with criticism, I naturally turned to him. In that post (see HERE) I mentioned a few of his ideas. For example, I explained how he advocated dealing with a child that has a “balky will.”

Dealing with the Balky Will Child

teaching-children-picture-1William James explained that certain children, if they do not succeed immediately in doing something just right and are then criticized, flare up in anger and refuse to cooperate. Such children are oftentimes treated as sinful and are punished; or else the parent pits his or her will against the child’s will.

John Wesley

John Wesley

William James

William James

At such times some have argued that children should be forced to do as they are told, even if one has to whip them ten times running. “Break its will, in order that his soul may live!” exclaimed John Wesley, an eighteenth century theologian.  But William James disagreed.  “Such will breaking is always a scene with a great deal of nervous wear and tear on both sides, a bad state of feeling left behind it, and the victory not always with the would-be will breaker.”

When a situation of this kind occurs, and the child is all tense and excited, James believed that it is best to drop the subject for awhile.  Direct the child’s mind to something else, and then, a little later on, bring it up again. As likely as not, the child will go over it now without any difficulty.

horse-whisper“It is in no other way that we overcome balkiness in a horse,” said James.  “We divert his attention, do something to his nose or ear, lead him around in a circle, and thus get him over a place where flogging would only have made him more invincible.”

I personally have tried this approach many times when my wife, Andrea, and I were raising our two sons. It worked beautifully. So, whenever I taught a course called “How to Discipline Your Children and Have Them Still Like You,” I would offer it as one of my suggestions. Interestingly, some parents felt very uncomfortable with this. They would say something like,

“If you let your kids get away with doing wrong, you will end up reinforcing their balky behavior. The children will come to think they have won, and begin to think that to get out of behaving appropriately, they just have to throw a tantrum.”

child-dicipline-3Well, it just so happens that if you use the William James approach consistently, you really don’t reinforce balkiness because children soon realize that they have not won. They simply come to the understanding that “dropping the subject” does not mean that anyone has won. Instead, they soon connect the “dropping the subject” fact with the “bringing the topic up again later” fact. Dropping the subject, comes to mean their parents will be returning to the subject after they and their parents have some time to calm down and think about the issues in a more calm state.

Children typically are excellent observers of their parents’ routines, so in this type of situation there really is no need to say anything. However, for parents who are particularly anxious about reinforcing their child’s balky behavior if they were to just drop the subject, they can simply add a few simple words to this technique. Thus, when they decide to drop the subject, they might say something like, “Let’s take a little time out and we’ll discuss this more later.”

If this is shouted, rather than said in a pleasant tone, some children will have an added motivation to resist changing the attitude they initially took. So, if you find you can’t really control your tone, perhaps keeping silent makes the best sense.

Okay, so dealing with the “balky will” is one suggestion derived from my reading of William James. Let’s move on to a related approach.

Teach Kids to Choose to Act Rightfully Because It Leads to Something Good, Rather Than Because It Avoids Something Bad

William James tells us that anything people can avoid under the notion that it is bad they may also avoid under the notion that something is good. Those of us who act under the negative notion, was viewed by the philosopher Baruch Spinoza, as slaves. Those of us who act under the notion of good are free.

With this in mind, William James, in a lecture to teachers, said:

discipline-4See to it now, I beg you, that you make freemen of your pupils by habituating them to act, whenever possible, under the notion of a good. Get them habitually to tell the truth, not so much through showing them the wickedness of lying as by arousing their enthusiasm for honor and veracity. Wean them from their native cruelty by imparting to them some of your own positive sympathy with an animal’s inner springs of joy. And, in the lessons which you may be legally obliged to conduct upon the bad effects of alcohol, lay less stress than the books on the drunkard’s stomach, kidneys, nerves, and social miseries, and more on the blessings of having an organism kept in lifelong possession of its full youthful elasticity by a sweet, sound blood, to which stimulants and narcotics are unknown, and to which the morning sun and air and dew comes as sufficiently powerful intoxicants. 

scales-of-justiceThe general idea here is that in the arena of the moral life, whenever a positive ideal is aroused, it is as if the whole scale of values change its equilibrium. As James makes this point, he declares that at such times, “The force of old temptations vanishes, and what a moment ago was impossible is now not only possible, but easy.”

To this end, James liked to tell stories of people illustrating the ideals he most valued. Abraham Lincoln was one of his favorites because the former president “accomplished results under the most intricate possible conditions.”

Using this idea, I have created a series of novels designed to present a hero that generally acts for the good, although he makes his share of mistakes along the way. The first of these novels, A Hero Grows in Brooklyn, is suitable for children as young as 7 or 8 if read together with their parents. This type of reading provides parents a great opportunity to pleasantly discuss a number of issues well before something awful suddenly springs up.

a-hero-grows-pictureMiddle school students can read A Hero Grows in Brooklyn on their own, and it can be downloaded on a computer or any of the popular electronic readers for free HERE. The other novels are more suitable for high school students and mature readers because sexual feelings begin to be explored.

Interestingly, I originally wrote the novels to encourage youth to think more deeply about certain issues before they became embroiled in situations they had not given deep thought to. However, I soon learned that when I told these same stories to graduate students at the University of Minnesota, they loved them just as much as my original target audience. So, I encourage anyone who is interested in these ideas to see what the novels have to offer.

In closing today’s From Insults to Respect post, let me add one more point. Sometimes we parents have kids who don’t seem to be learning what we want to teach them as quickly as we would like. Frustration begins to mount. At such time, I recommend meditating on the following William James quote:

patience-is-a-virtue“Be patient, then, and sympathetic with the type of mind that cuts a poor figure in examinations.  It may, in the long examination which life sets us, come out in the end in better shape than the glib and ready reproducer, its passions being deeper, its purposes more worthy, its combining powers less commonplace, and its total mental output consequently more important.” 

Have a great week, and I hope you’ll soon join us once again,



Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on.  This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional intelligence.  To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.




Is Spanking Harmful?
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About the Author

Jeffrey Rubin grew up in Brooklyn, received his PhD from the University of Minnesota and has taught conflict resolution there as well as at a psychiatric clinic, a correctional facility and a number of public schools. He has published articles on anger and conflict resolution and has authored three novels.


  1. I think it’s very sad to bastardize A Tree Goes in Brooklyn. Could we just co-opt Beloved and make it about men?

    • Hi Prof. Kristen, I read both A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Beloved, both magnificent novels. I feel that I learned from them and from them I have come to express a man’s view, while sitting on the shoulders of such masters of the art of story telling.

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