“My eight-year-old was a natural spender,” Melissa said about her daughter, Pita. When money came into Pita’s hands, she would spend it immediately, on the first brightly colored plastic trinket she saw, even if it was a pooper-scooper for the dog they didn’t have.
“Last year, she headed to Walmart’s toy aisle hoping her older brother, Garret, or I would give her a few bucks so she could buy something,” Melissa said. Pita had learned to bat her big blue eyes and put on a dramatic pouty face, which unfortunately often worked on Garret. But this time, her brother said no.
So Pita turned to her mom. “Mom, I bought him stuff when I had money, and now he won’t do the same,” Pita said through her tears— some real and some not. “Can you buy me something? This is just $3.99.”
“My first reaction was to punish her, because we’ve been over this a thousand times already,” Melissa said. “But I remembered the need to keep my cool as best I could. I took a deep breath, or maybe it was two breaths that day.”
Then Melissa responded this way: “I’m sorry, Pita. I’m sure you’ll do much better next time and save some of your own money for later.”
Melissa reports that Pita has become a wiser spender since that particular Walmart incident. A year later, Pita’s hard-earned money now stays in her backpack for a day or two, and sometimes even for a week.
If you’re like most people, you tend to connect discipline with correction, consequences, or punishment. But on that day in the store, Melissa was disciplining her daughter with training and redirection. As a mom, she was seeing discipline as the bigger idea of “disciple-ing.”
Melissa didn’t know it, but by providing loving discipline to her daughter and helping her build important life skills, she was also providing a good offense against suicide. The goal of discipline is to lead your “disciples” to the place where they have the skills and confidence to tackle the world on their own, in a healthy way.
In the end, you’ll want your child to have four basic life skills.
Self-discipline and regulation: Good discipline brings kids to the point where they can regulate their own choices and behaviors. Early in the process, teach your child something like this: “No matter how old you get, someone will always bug you and tell you what to do. You can either bug yourself, which is self-discipline, or you automatically give other people permission to bug you. The choice is yours.”
Resiliency: If we try to control and protect our kids, we deny them the opportunity to toughen up in the school of hard knocks. This good kind of toughness can be taught by way of age-appropriate consequences. A toddler who gets scratched quickly learns not to tease the cat.
Balance: Balance has to do with maintaining mental and emotional equilibrium. It’s the ability to bounce back to a healthy outlook after dealing with a difficult circumstance. A child who has figured out how to keep herself on an even keel will be ten steps ahead of her peers when it comes to weathering the storms of adolescence and the ups and downs of adult life.
Competence and confidence: By trying new things, failing, and trying again, children eventually achieve a level of competence that in turn becomes the foundation of personal confidence.
The Heart of Discipline
The words discipline and disciple are derived from the same Latin root. Discipline is a process of learning by following in the footsteps of a wise and experienced master. It’s our job as parents to be teachers of that kind. Parents are the world’s original life coaches.
Discipline is more than a slap on the wrist for bad behavior. It’s a strong goal-oriented way of thinking. It’s a training course for life that will always be conducted for the child’s benefit. The goal is to help your child become the best he can be.
With loving disciple-ing, the emphasis is on influence rather than control. Wise parents know that effective child-rearing is a process of releasing your child into the world. The objective is not to keep your daughter on a tight leash, but to loosen the reins gradually while teaching right and wrong by your own example and giving her opportunities to practice. That’s a scary thought for many of us.
If you’re a military veteran, you remember basic training. It was there you learned the disciplines to be a soldier. As a parent, you’re teaching your child the disciplines to be a healthy adult. The intention behind parenting is to prepare rather than insulate. You can’t possibly protect your children from all the bad and threatening things that might happen to them out in the real world. Your job is to prepare them to face the challenges by modeling discernment and teaching strong decision-making skills.
Real discipline is partly a science, partly an art. When it comes to discipline, what we really want to know is fairly simple: How can I prepare my children to face the world with confidence? What sort of life training will enable them to reach adulthood safe and sound?
What about Rules?
Before we get to some practical points about how to discipline, let’s talk about the healthy way to understand rules when it comes to disciplining our kids.
We need to remember that discipline is not primarily about punishment or correction. We can’t fulfill our responsibilities as parents by posting a set of rules on the refrigerator and punishing our children when they break the rules. In actuality, rules and discipline are two different things.
Rules really have nothing to do with behavior modification. Rules are for two things, which are
- to keep safety in, and
- to keep chaos (un-safety) out.
That’s it. Rules are to make the environment safe for every member of the family. Discipline, as we’re describing, is concerned with facilitating a child’s growth and development. It’s about shaping children’s characters and training them in the way they should go.
Here are a few tips for building self-discipline, resiliency, balance, competence, and confidence in your children.
Maintain a Safe Environment
A safe learning environment is crucial for discipline. Above all, your child needs to know that Mom and Dad will always love and accept him no matter what. Remember, a safe home environment includes balanced elements of both nurture (love, kindness, and acceptance) and structure (rules, regulations, and consequences). So be alert to what your child needs at the moment and provide either the structure or nurture he requires.
Distinguish between Hurt and Harm
Teachers and learners need to remember that “hard is good.” The fact that something is difficult doesn’t necessarily imply that it’s bad. This applies to lessons like obedience, self-control, and good manners, as well as algebra and English grammar. Valuable training often hurts (just ask any athlete), but pain is not the enemy unless it causes permanent damage. So what’s the difference between hurt and harm?
Here’s a way of looking at the difference:
- Hurt: It’s painful and may be unpleasant, but there’s no permanent or long-lasting damage and no negative effect.
- Harm: It’s painful and may be unpleasant, and there is some form of permanent or long-lasting damage or negative effect.
As parents we don’t like it when our kids hurt. That’s normal. Yet children actually need some constructive pain and adversity in their lives in order to grow strong and healthy. They just need us to protect them from serious harm.
Structured choice is a vital element of good child coaching. It gives your kids a voice and a certain amount of control over their lives. Both are important for the development of competence and self-confidence. When it’s 10 degrees outside, you can ask, “Do you want to wear the blue coat today or the green one?” If your child says, “I don’t need a coat!” you can respond, “That’s not one of the choices; blue or green?”
Offer a Positive Focus
Verbalize what you want your child to do, not what you don’t want him to do. If you’re constantly nagging, “Don’t hit your sister!” you’re creating a mental image of “hitting sister” and reinforcing the negative behavior. But if you get out some toys and say, “Play nicely with your sister,” you’re giving your child the positive mental image of what to do.
Try this. Whatever you do, right now as you read this, don’t think of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France. We’re going to tell you again, don’t think of the Eiffel Tower. What image do you have in your mind? The Eiffel Tower? We told you not to think of the Eiffel Tower, so stop thinking of the Eiffel Tower. If you don’t stop thinking of the Eiffel Tower, we’re going to give you a consequence!
All this time, you were told not to think of the Eiffel Tower. And every time you were told not to think of the Eiffel Tower, what mental image popped up in your mind over and over again? Most likely . . . the Eiffel Tower.
Now, try this. Think of a bison or buffalo—the big animal with an overgrown head, small horns, and a goatee. What image popped up in your mind’s eye now? Most likely one of a bison. And while you were thinking about a bison, guess what you weren’t thinking about? The Eiffel Tower.
Rather than tell your children what not to do—the Eiffel Tower— and thereby giving them a mental image of that very behavior, tell them which behavior you want them to do—the bison.
Allow for Do-overs
This is an extension of the last point. If your child fails to play nicely, tell her to try again. So what if it takes him a million times to get it right? That’s how we learn. “Do-overs” have a greater impact on the brain than negative consequences. They create synaptic connections that promote memory and reinforce positive behaviors.
Consequences can be a useful accessory to do-overs, especially in cases of willful disobedience. It can be helpful to allow a child to choose a consequence for his misbehavior. For example, you might say, “Would you rather lose iPad privileges for two days or skip dessert for a week?” Kids need to understand that bad choices lead to bad consequences, even in adult life. This brings us back to the hurt versus harm idea. Consequences are meant to hurt—just not harm.
Beginning at a very early age, teach your children how to use their verbal skills. Model appropriate ways of expressing emotions. Listen to them when they talk. Zero in on the real questions they’re asking. Wherever and whenever possible, help them understand why you require a certain kind of behavior.
Offer Justice, Mercy, and Grace
Model God’s love by responding to your children’s behavior with age-appropriate measures of justice, mercy, and grace.
Justice is the response you need to give when a wrong has been committed. It’s the treatment that fits the behavior. Justice teaches children the difference between good and bad and underscores the impact of wrongful choices and actions.
For example, let’s say your son is learning to drive and shows careless tendencies from time to time. You find out from another student’s parent that your son had a minor fender bender in the school parking lot that he “forgot” to tell you about. When you confront him, he blames the parked car for the incident. This is a time for justice. Consequences should be given for the wrong action in order to encourage him to learn a lesson so his driving behaviors change for the better.
Mercy is not getting what you deserve. You can consider offering mercy to older children who already understand the difference between right and wrong and who probably won’t gain anything more from getting a consequence. Until a child is old enough to remember right from wrong, you’ll probably need to offer more justice than mercy.
Say that your son, who’s normally a very conscientious driver, has a minor fender bender in the school parking lot. He volunteers the information to you, admits it was his fault, and understands how it happened. You determine that administering a consequence, which he deserves and is willing to accept, won’t help him learn his lesson any better. This may be a time when you choose to extend mercy and not give him a consequence he deserves.
Grace is getting what you don’t deserve. You should extend grace to your children readily yet sparingly. The goal is to create a safe environment for your children without fostering a mind-set of entitlement— that attitude of having a right to privileges and special treatment.
This would be a time when you surprise your son by letting him take the family car to the upcoming ball game. He didn’t ask; he didn’t do anything to earn it either. You extended the privilege to him just because you wanted to treat him to it.
As you work to provide a positive program of loving discipline for your children, watch out for three things that can easily derail your parenting efforts: anxiety, perfectionism, and a tendency to live “one generation back.”
It’s easy for parents to be worried about making mistakes. Don’t let that happen to you. If something does go wrong, remember that you, like your kids, can always have a “do-over.”
This point is closely connected with the previous one. The false idea that you need to be perfect can prevent you from getting started. We’ll say it again: there’s no such thing as a perfect parent. If you have perfectionistic tendencies, deal with them so you can make this parenting journey with less stress and more confidence.
Living “One Generation Back”
If you’re like most of us, you can probably think of some ways in which your parents could have done a better job of raising you. If your parents were too strict on you growing up, you may try to fix your childhood experience by being overly lenient in your parenting. If your dad never attended any of your ball games, you may try to heal your disappointment by being at every one of your children’s games. Don’t get stuck trying to fix your childhood or think you’ll change it by how you parent today.
It’s a Journey
We need to remind ourselves that discipline is a journey, not a destination. It’s a process that begins the moment a child emerges from the womb and doesn’t end until each child leaves home. When boiled down to essentials, it’s all about practice, practice, practice. Your child needs practice, and so do you! So keep practicing your disciple-ing. Keep helping your children build the life skills of self-discipline, regulation, resiliency, balance, competence, and confidence—skills that make a person stronger and less likely to end up with thoughts of suicide.