Principles and Guidelines of Child Discipline

Can you suggest some basic, general guidelines on how to discipline children? We've just become parents and neither of us had positive role models growing up. We want to do a good job raising our child – what principles should we keep in mind when it comes to discipline?

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Here are six basic principles to keep in mind as you prepare for the weighty task of raising a child in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.

First, the key to effective child discipline is learning to balance love and limits. Children cannot survive without experiencing consistent and unconditional love. From the first day of life until the journey to adulthood is complete, your child must know that your love is rock solid, the foundation on which she can build and the home-base from which she can safely and confidently launch her exploration of the world. But children also need, and actually seek, boundaries and ground rules. There is nothing inherently contradictory about the expression of love and the enforcement of limits. On the contrary, the two are intimately related. Allowing a child to have her way without any restraint is not an expression of love. At the other extreme, harsh, rigid or authoritarian treatment of children, even if on the surface it would seem to produce model citizens, isn’t an appropriate exercise of limit-setting.

Second, it is crucial that you as the parents assume leadership in the home. For a variety of reasons, including fatigue and the burden of heavy responsibilities, it’s possible for parents to find themselves struggling simply to maintain order and manage the demands of daily life. After a few years of this, it’s easy for kids to start setting the family’s agenda. This in turn can cause them to drift into an attitude of general disrespect or disregard for the parents’ authority. It should be obvious that this is an unhealthy situation. Children want to know and will ask in a variety of ways, “Who’s in charge here?” If the answer is, “I guess I am,” the result will be uncontrollable, disruptive and generally unhappy children.

Third, you need to become proficient at distinguishing among normal behavior, childish irresponsibility and willful defiance – all of which require different kinds of parental responses. The normal explorations of infants and toddlers should not be squelched but encouraged (in ways that are safe for themselves and their surroundings). And while irresponsible acts, such as spilling the milk or leaving the bicycle out in the rain, clearly need correction, they don’t represent a direct challenge to your authority and should not be treated as such. Willful defiance takes place when your child 1) knows and clearly understands what you want, 2) is capable of complying and 3) refuses to do so. When confronted with this kind of behavior, you should act clearly and decisively, meeting the challenge head-on. You don’t need to be harsh or hostile, but you must not back down. If you don’t establish your right to lead early in the game (by age two or three at the latest), your ability to influence or control your child later on will be seriously compromised.

Fourth, it’s vital to your own mental health to accept the fact that parent-child conflict is inevitable. There’s nothing wrong with you if friction and tension arise from time to time within the circle of your growing family. On the contrary, this is absolutely normal. Effective, loving parenting is characterized not by the absence of conflict, but by the resolution of conflicts in ways that preserve both your leadership and your child’s dignity.

Fifth, love and concern for your child’s best interests must be your final guide; and while it’s vital to balance love with limits, as stated above, it’s equally true that love may take you in some unexpected directions on certain occasions. It may lead you, for instance, to allow a child to suffer the natural consequences of his irresponsibility even when you might easily come to the rescue and bail him out. On the other hand, love may also influence you to overlook the specifics of a child’s transgression based on his intentions. If he makes a mess in the kitchen while trying to fix breakfast for you, the motive of the heart should overshadow whatever has been spilled on the counter and floor. Love will also cause you to examine your own motives as you deal with different child-rearing situations. If you feel that your motives are unclear and your actions unpredictable, spend some time with an older, more experienced parent, or meet with a pastor or counselor to discuss what has been taking place.

Finally, stay on your knees. You’ll never be able to figure it all out, and that’s precisely why you need the Lord’s supernatural help so desperately. There is only one Parent who completely understands all sons and daughters on the face of the earth, and seeking His wisdom on a daily basis should be a priority for all who train and nurture children.

If at any point in your parenting journey you feel that you need help applying these principles to the specifics of your situation, don’t hesitate to give our Counseling department a call.


Related Video
Effective Child Discipline: Dr. Kevin Leman examines extreme approaches to child discipline and provides counsel on how to rear your children in a balanced way.

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