Karla was fed up with her son.
“Every day after school, he drops his backpack and goes straight to his computer,” she told me. “When I confront him about playing games before doing homework, he melts down or storms off. So I’ve had to ground him from the computer.”
Karla was exhausted and overwhelmed, searching for answers.
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“This has to stop,” she exclaimed. “He needs to learn!”
“What are you hoping he’ll learn?” I asked.
“That we can’t have so much disrespect!” Karla responded. “But the harder I try, the worse it gets. Sometimes I’ve been tough, taking away privileges. That just makes him mad. Other times I try diplomacy, or I’ll let an incident slide, hoping he learns on his own. Nothing I do seems to connect with him.”
Karla’s experience illustrates the difficulties with discipline that many parents encounter. They bounce between two extremes when responding to misbehavior: being domineering (charging in and controlling behavior through aggression or threats of consequences) and being passive (giving up on some discipline issues because confrontation seems difficult). Yet neither controlling nor avoiding a child’s misbehavior teaches kids the necessary lessons of respect and responsibility. We may get the behavior we want or a temporary illusion of family peace, but our children won’t develop the ability to make wise decisions on their own.
Is there a better approach — one that allows us to reach our kids’ hearts during discipline? I believe there is. What’s more, parents can think, act and love in alignment with God’s heart for discipline. As we correct our kids, they need to hear four important messages:
‘You are safe with me’
To learn life’s important lessons, our children must first feel emotionally and physically safe. When we charge into an interaction focused on the need to control behavior, our children may see us as unsafe, particularly when we show anger. But when our kids see us as safe — safe to talk to about conflict, motivations and behavior — they’re more receptive to our love and guidance.
Sometimes in order to make progress, we need to step back for a moment and survey the situation. At times, that’s a lesson I’ve learned the hard way. Whenever I stormed into the fray with my three kids, wielding the force of my agenda without surveying the field, I never made much progress. Most of the time, I lost yardage.
From this, I learned that when I wanted my discipline to connect, I had to do some preparation first. This might just be taking a deep breath. It also could be a prayer or stepping away for a moment. The point is to replace the goal of making the problem go away with the goal of calmly modeling God’s grace and truth.
When we take a moment to manage our stress and emotions, the subsequent interaction with our kids sends a crucial message: “You are safe with me.” This message establishes a foundation for the other messages.
‘You are loved no matter what’
Does your discipline show love? As parents, we often think so. “It’s tough love,” we say. “Hurts me more than it hurts them.”
There is some merit in “tough” measures as one part of loving discipline. But if that’s all children receive, they’ll miss the fullness of God’s heart for misbehaving people. Rarely is tough discipline delivered with forgiveness and grace. And even if we sincerely believe our discipline is done in love, our kids often hear a very different message. They hear, I’m a bad kid or I’m a problem.
Conversely, parents may try to show love by letting kids off the hook. There are sometimes good reasons for leniency. But if we habitually ignore misbehavior, kids aren’t held accountable for their actions.
Most parents recognize the importance of expressing love, but we miss many opportunities to show love when love is most needed. If we express love only when we like our children’s behavior, we show them conditional love. Our most powerful expressions of love occur when kids misbehave. It’s the only time we can convince our kids that we’ll always love them no matter what they do.
I sometimes ask parents to consider what it would look like if their moments of discipline were videotaped. If that recording were shown to a group of kids, with the volume off, what might they say it’s like to be the child being disciplined? Body language, facial expressions, words and tone — these all give a set of messages to our children.
Just as believers respond to God’s unconditional love, when children feel loved through touch, through listening ears, gentle words and empathy, they want to behave in ways that please the one loving them. When love like this shows up during discipline, rigid defiance melts like ice on sun-warmed pavement.
‘You are called and capable’
God has created us with unique capabilities to equip us for the good works He has for us. When our kids misbehave, those gifts don’t disappear; they just show up in selfish and unhelpful ways. Indeed, misbehavior often involves some sort of gift that has gone awry. Parents can either try to suppress the skill to stop the behavior or redirect it for powerful purposes.
This perspective can help us form new attitudes in the moment of discipline. We can begin to see strengths that are concealed behind a child’s misbehavior. Behind whining is an element of persistence. Behind an argumentative child is confidence and unflinching honesty. Strong-willed kids may become great leaders. Other incidents may reveal glimpses of creativity and courage hiding behind the misbehavior.
Affirming a child’s strength when he or she has used it for negative purposes isn’t easy. But it can be life-giving. We can focus on a child’s potential more than on his failure — the potential to use a strength for good — and then hold him accountable for his decisions.
You might say: “I usually admire your persistence, and someday it will serve you well, but how you’re using that strength right now isn’t helpful. If you pause the game right now, you can play again after doing homework. If you don’t, then you’ll lose the privilege for the rest of the week.”
These types of responses, respectfully delivered, open up new possibilities for guiding our children through behavior challenges.
‘You are responsible’
When consequences are needed, our ultimate model is God, who “disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness” (Hebrews 12:10). So we administer consequences not with the belief that enough pain will lead to change, but knowing that learning to make wise, godly choices can sometimes be painful. Sometimes this is as simple as giving children a do-over. If they did something in an unhelpful or hurtful way, ask them to repeat that response in a right or honoring way. We can ask several times in the hopes that they’ll learn a helpful habit.
A critical part of discipline is helping kids recognize the natural impact of their decisions — to be drawn into the reality that “whatever one sows, that will he also reap” (Galatians 6:7). When kids discover the actual results of behavior (not the artificial results from adult intervention), they are often moved to repair what they’ve done.
So as parents, we first help them understand who was hurt or inconvenienced, or how some physical thing needs to be fixed. Then we help them figure out some ways to repair that. For example, when a child uses hands to hurt a sibling, he can make things right by using hands to help, perhaps by doing a chore for that sibling or maybe creating a card affirming the one he hurt. Or a child who has been warned several times about playing outside in socks without shoes may have to dip into her own piggy bank to buy replacements.
Well-administered consequences help kids feel remorse for what they’ve done but also experience an action that helps make things right. A child who refuses to finish chores gets privileges back when the chores are done — and after he does an extra chore to compensate for any inconvenience caused to others. A child who has lied helps create a practical plan to restore trust in her affected relationships.
Related book: Discipline That Connects With Your Child’s Heart
A child’s “gifts gone awry” is also a great way to repair the damage. If expressiveness was used to tear a sibling down, a consequence might be to have the child find ways to use that gift to build others back up, perhaps by sharing four encouraging and loving thoughts with his sibling. Over time, this strategy helps kids develop their own vision for using their gifts in honoring ways.
There are many possibilities, and this approach will likely take a unique shape as it plays out in your home. But the basics stay the same. Instead of being punitive, consequences should be constructive. And remember that even a constructive consequence imposed in a controlling or angry manner will not ultimately lead a child toward real heart change. Consequences rest on the foundations of safety, love and affirmation.
And even if changes in your children’s behavior come more slowly than you hope, you will still learn to be peaceful and confident in your efforts, driven more by what’s best for each child than by the urgency of the moment. When we are grounded in this purpose, we’re far better positioned to influence our children toward wiser decisions over the long haul.
Jim Jackson and his wife, Lynne, are the co-founders of Connected Families, an organization focused on helping parents discipline with love and purpose. They are the authors of Discipline That Connects With Your Child’s Heart.