Most parents associate discipline with punishment. But there’s a big difference for you and your child!
The word “discipline” comes from the word “disciple”—someone who is a follower of the teachings of another. So let’s ask ourselves, “Am I the kind of person I want my children to follow?“
If we look at the life of Christ he did not influence his followers by punishing people—he did it through:
– Coming alongside and modeling words and behavior
Children don’t always listen well, but they are always watching and imitating us.
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What’s the most powerful tool for shaping behavior? Relationship. My power to influence and lead my child is directly related to the strength of the relationship that I have them. True discipline connects whereas punishment alienates.
Time outs, spankings, or taking things away are the most common forms of punishment that I hear moms talk about. But does punishment change behavior, or is there a better way to think about this?
Why do we think we can make children do good by making them feel bad?
Consequences vs. Punishment
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Traditional approaches to parenting basically start with the underlying notion that making children feel bad will somehow make them want to do good.
“Time out” is an example and probably one of the most popular forms of punishment. This assumes that children engage in inappropriate behavior because they choose to and isolation and separation will make them want to change.
What is wrong with spanking? It teaches children that power and pain dominate. I want you to be “nice” so I hit you. That doesn’t make sense and undermines the fundamental role of the parent as a child’s protective shield.
When children feel threatened, they are biologically driven to seek safety and protection from those who love and care for them. But when those who love and care for them are the source of the fear, the child has no where to do go. It is psychological poison.
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Think back to our relationship with God. The more we love Him the more we want to please and obey—and deepen our relationship.
A consequence is the result or effect of an action or condition. All of our behaviors, attitudes, and actions have a consequence—positive or negative. The consequence for studying for an exam is increased likelihood that I will pass it. The consequence of pulling the cat’s tail is that the cat will likely scratch me.
Children should always be held accountable for their actions in a way that informs and teaches them the appropriate thing to do. Through demonstration, modeling, coaching and practice.
What does discipline look like?
One of the simplest, and most effective, changes parents can make is instead of time out, give a “do-over.” But we must make sure that the child really knows what the appropriate behavior looks like.
You might have to give your child the words to say. For example, you are sitting at the dinner table and the child demands, “Gimme more potatoes!”
Say something like, “Let’s try that again. This is what we say, “May I have more potatoes please?” and then have the child say it.
There is a scientific principle at work here. When a child does a “do-over” we’re actually activating the connections in the child’s brain related to appropriate behavior. If we consistently respond and ask the child to “try it again,” each time we do that, the connections in the brain are becoming more established and the child is more likely to demonstrate appropriate behavior.
Are there additional strategies to put in our tool box?
People often resort to time out and other ineffective and alienating strategies because they have no other tools.
When you have to say “no,” whenever possible follow it up with two opportunities for a “yes.” If your child says no when it’s time to go to bed, don’t be controlling, but stay in control. Follow up with something like, “Would you like to walk like a gorilla to your room, or dance to your room?”
Rigidity is often an issue and gets in the way of good parenting. Flexibility, problem solving and reason are tools we use as children get older.
Accountability is always is always appropriate. Shame is not. Holding children accountable for their actions builds strong kids with grit. Shaming and punishing them pushes them into rebellion. Letting them get away with bad behavior makes them weak.
We won’t always get it right—it’s not about being perfect but being authentic. We are going to mess up. But modeling the process of owning your own mistakes, and making it right, allows children to realize that relationships don’t fall apart when someone doesn’t get it right.
Dr. Barbara Sorrels is a mom and grandmother. She’s also the Executive Director of The Institute for Childhood Education. Her experience as a parent, author, university professor, consultant, and children’s pastor brings a unique perspective to her speaking, and writing. www.DrBarbaraSorrels.
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