When our children were young, Barb and I quickly learned that parenting skills were not intuitive or inherited, so we sought mentors who could help us. Bill and Jane, a couple in our church, the parents of five wonderful daughters, agreed to share dinner with us once a month to discuss parenting issues. I remember the evening that Bill and Jane taught us about what they called “effective discipline.”
Bill explained that discipline comes from the root word disciple and means “to teach or to coach.” It means teaching appropriate and biblical thinking and behavior. On the other hand, he said that punish means “to correct” or “to chastise.”
When used effectively, punishment always supports discipline. Inappropriate punishment, however, can cause confusion for the child and results in little or no discipline. The goal of parenting is to equip children with what they need to be successful, satisfied and spiritually mature adults. It’s through discipline that we equip our kids by teaching them such things as the critical correlation between choices and consequences, the principles of responsibility and accountability, and biblical ways to deal with problems and frustrations.
Assess your current methods. The following six questions are designed to get you thinking about how you discipline. As you consider each question, your honest reflection can help you fine-tune your methods — or reassure you that you’re already headed in the right direction.
Have I set clear boundaries in my home?
Children have the right to know what is and what is not acceptable behavior before they are held responsible for keeping those rules. Parents who clearly define the boundaries will virtually eliminate the overwhelming sense of injustice children feel when they are corrected for behavior they didn’t know was unacceptable. If you haven’t explained a boundary to your child, don’t enforce it.
Start with a look at the boundaries you’ve established in your home. Do your children understand the boundaries? It is your job to draw the proverbial line in the sand and let your children know, “On this side of the line is obedience. On that side is disobedience.”
For example, my wife and I expected our kids, Kate and Scott, to be home on time. To arrive home late, without calling ahead, would result in a consequence. One year, we took a beach trip to the Florida Panhandle. While we were there, Scott went out with some neighborhood kids. We asked him to be back by 8 p.m. When he didn’t arrive on time, we began to worry — even more so when he didn’t answer his cellphone. By the time he returned, just before 9 p.m., we were very concerned — bordering on frantic — and preparing to call the beach police.
“But, Dad,” Scott complained when I expressed my disappointment with his tardy arrival, “I thought you meant 8 p.m. at our home time!” We lived in the Mountain time zone; the beach was in the Central time zone. He assumed he was obeying, while we were worried to death.
If you’ve been loose with your expectations, create a list and post it in a prominent place. To help your kids understand what is required of them, organize rules into categories. The boundaries may include expectations concerning their safety and the safety of others; respect for one another, themselves or belongings; matters concerning hygiene, and so on. Be sure to review the list with your children and explain both your expectations and the consequences for disobedience.
Barb and I had certain rules for everyone in our family: Everyone always wore a seat belt in the car; it was not acceptable to interrupt when another person was talking; we went to church together every Sunday. Not only did we hold our children accountable for these behaviors, we allowed our children to hold us accountable as well.
Are my demands reasonable?
In developing your list of expectations, consider weighing these questions against your rules and consequences:
• Are the rules and consequences appropriate for my child’s age and level of maturity?
• Are the rules and consequences fair and reasonable?
Although it’s wise and healthy to encourage our children to do the best they can — pushing them to do things in an excellent manner — it is our responsibility to be certain our children are capable of doing what we expect.
If you discover that some items on your list don’t work for your family after all, make the necessary adjustments. Then, as your children grow into new responsibilities, you may find you’ll need to update your rules. For example, as our children grew in age, maturity and responsibility, we extended their return-to-home curfew later and later. When Scott was a junior in high school, he had an 11 p.m. curfew on Fridays. Every passing year should bring fewer rules, less direct discipline and more independence because your children have proven they can make wiser, safer choices.
Have I distinguished the difference between defiance and childishness?
I still remember the first time I heard a Focus on the Family broadcast that explained that children should never be punished for behavior that is not willfully defiant. It really hit home.
When Kate, age 6, would forget to put her dirty clothes in the laundry hamper, or when Scott, age 3, would leave a blanket in the living room, I needed to realize that these behaviors were normal for children their age. These were acts of childish irresponsibility, not willful defiance.
When children willfully choose to rebel, it is appropriate for parents to allow them to experience well-defined consequences. However, childish irresponsibility should be handled with patience and careful instruction.
So, what’s the difference between willful disobedience or defiance and childish irresponsibility? It boils down to the intention of the child. A little boy who in his exuberance accidentally knocks over a sippy cup is just being a child — not demonstrating disobedience. However, if you’ve told the child not to drop the cup on the floor and he looks defiantly at you and smiles as he drops it — this is not childish irresponsibility.
When a child knows what behavior a parent expects from him or her, but the child instead deliberately disobeys, child psychologists would define this as willful defiance. On the other hand, childish irresponsibility is defined as acts that result from a child just being a child. This would include behaviors exhibited by immaturity, limited attention span, forgetfulness, inability to manage frustrations and tendency toward accidental mishaps. Childish acts that do not reflect willful defiance need coaching, not punishment.
Do I use the appropriate correction for each situation?
Once children understand what is expected, parents need to hold them accountable to behave accordingly. Parents need to connect behavior with consequences when their children misbehave. Consequences may be in the form of correcting language, warnings, timeouts, or loss of rewards or privileges.
When nose-to-nose confrontations happen, it’s important to know ahead of time what you will do. For example, not turning off the computer, cellphone or TV at the agreed upon time could result in the loss of the electronic device for the rest of the day. If you have to prompt the child a second time, she could lose privileges for the next day as well.
When your children disobey, simply apply the agreed upon consequence, without getting angry. Firm, consistent application of known consequences keeps you in charge and the children in line without resorting to hurtful words or angry outbursts.
Punishment must not only “fit the crime,” but the consequence must also be undesirable — it must be negative enough that your children choose to avoid willfully disobeying in the future.
Our daughter loved to read. To punish her by sending her to her room was not painful — it was delightful. However, taking her books away for a day or two was a punishment she would avoid at all costs.
One time, Kate was taking out some of her frustrations on her younger brother by pinching and hitting him. We sat down to talk with her about the source of her frustration and other options for dealing with her anger. Then I asked her, “Kate, if you choose to pinch, bite or hit your brother, what is a consequence Mom and I should enforce?”
Kate thought a moment and then said, “Don’t let me read a book for 30 days.”
Barb and I smiled at each other. The consequence was both unreasonable and unfair. “Why don’t we make it one day?” Barb suggested, and we all agreed.
Children need to see us as secure and confident parents who will quickly and lovingly allow them to experience consequences for their willful defiance.
Do I reassure and teach my child?
After each incident of willful defiance, regardless of the correction required, our children need reassurance that we love them. After punishment, when they’ve calmed down, we can open our arms — and our laps — and hold them close. We can tell them how much we love them.
Scott was our super-strong-willed child. He constantly tested boundaries and crossed them. Barb would say, “If I set up a fence, Scott will either lean against it to test it or purposefully cross it, just to see what I’ll do!”
One day when he was 4, Scott willfully crossed a line. I immediately punished him, which resulted in his crying. I left him alone for a few moments to calm down. When I returned, I knelt in front of him. “Scott, I want you to know how much I love you. However, I did not like what you did. And I did not like to have to enforce the consequence. But I love you more than you can imagine. Can I give you a hug?”
He nodded and fell into my arms, sobbing as he apologized.
Then we talked. I emphasized why he was punished and reminded him how he could avoid punishment in the future.
These special moments build love and respect, while also teaching the consequences of failing to follow established rules.
Do I keep my cool while carrying out a child’s punishment?
Punishment should be administered in love. Always. If we are angry, we should not administer strict correction right then. An angry parent needs a timeout.
If you feel anger bubbling up, take a slow, deep breath or two or three — even pray a quick prayer. Let the anger cool down before saying or doing anything that you will regret. If necessary, walk away — even walk outside. But, if you do, be sure that your child is in a safe place. Allowing time to pass not only helps your emotions subside, but it also gives your child time to think about his or her infraction.
The goal of disciplining children is to guide them toward good behavior so they’ll have the ability to get along with others. Discipline helps children make wise and safe decisions, eventually equipping them to accept responsibility for their choices.
Dr. Walt Larimore is a former physician in residence at Focus on the Family and author of Lintball Leo’s Not-So-Stupid Questions about Your Body.