Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Parenting: Discipline versus punishment


One of the most critical decisions any parent must make—both before and during the child-rearing process—related to discipline. How will we discipline our children?

Before having kids, when I thought about this question, I tended to focus on the spanking versus time-out issue. Is spanking always right? Is it never right? Should you use your hand? Should you use a magazine or belt? Can time-outs replace all spankings?

But guess what? Now that I am a parent, I have found out that, frankly, the spanking versus time-out discussion is rather secondary. You see, the real question is not, “How will we discipline our children?” The real question is, “Are we going to focus on discipline or punishment?”

You see, we often forget that the word “discipline” actually means that we are teaching a method of behavior to which our children should adhere. So ask yourself: what teaching is actually going on when you punish your child?

Usually, we don’t teach at all, do we? Teaching is hard. It is far, far easier to spank or take away dinner or ground or remove video games or send to timeout—and to do so with a raised voice and a fit of anger. But those things are only valuable if you are actually teaching lessons. And do not kid yourself: your kids are not nearly as subtle as you think they are! If you are not explicitly spelling out the lessons for them, then they probably are not learning anything.

And if they are not learning anything, then you are not disciplining: you are merely punishing. Don’t get me wrong: mere punishment has its place at times, too. But if you really want to discipline your children, then you have to actively seek out “teachable moments”—the opportunities to teach your kids something about life.

In one phase of raising our children, we really tried to focus on negative reinforcement—the method of discipline/punishment in which you remove something that they like for bad behavior. It seemed to be working…until one day my youngest son refused to take a nap. Like, really refused. And he and my wife had a battle of wills for hours. By the time I got home that afternoon, the only thing left in his room was his bed! His toybox, toys, stuffed animals, etc. …all of it was piled up in the garage. (I’m not even sure how my wife managed to move some of that furniture outside…it must have been the extra adrenaline of the war that got to her.)

So we certainly have not been perfect, either. 

But what we have learned from this and other situations is that we have to be more creative, more clever, and better communicators to the children when we are disciplining them. We have to look at their mistakes not as failures per say, but as opportunities to learn the appropriate behaviors.

I thought I might share a few things that we have come up with, which you are free to steal and use as much as you want. Most of these were my wife’s idea, but I did contribute a few.


1. Rules for the house: simplify and focus

Sometimes for our kids, it seemed that they were getting overwhelmed with rules: don’t do this, do that, etc. That is not a grace-filled household, and it is not easy to clearly communicate to your kids as to why they shouldn’t have done something.

So we simplified it. On our wall in the kitchen, we have a chalkboard. And on that board, we have written the following: “Belote House Rules: 1. Love Jesus. 2. Love Others. 3. Obey Mom and Dad.”

Everything we do runs through those three rules. Often, the first thing I will say when disciplining one of our kids is, “Son, we only have three rules in this house.” I then proceed to tell him how the behavior for which he is in trouble fits into those rules. It helps him focus on the important things in life, in the appropriate order…and it keeps it simple and straightforward enough that he can easily grasp the value of the rules and which rules were violated.

They can remember three rules; remembering fifteen is tougher. If you can simplify the rules and focus them on just the “critical few”, then it makes it easier to communicate with them in those teachable moments.

2. Slamming the doors

My oldest son walked off in a huff one day and slammed the door to his room. My wife’s reaction was both perfect and brilliant.

Calmly, she opened his door and said, “Alex, I heard this door slam. That could break the door and cause mom and dad to have to do work to fix it. Clearly you need a bit more practice on shutting the door properly. I’ll tell you what: why don’t you open and close the door properly 25 times in a row. Count out loud so we can hear you from the living room. If you can do that and prove that you can close the door properly, then we won’t have to take it off.”

This was extremely effective. It tied his behavior into one of our rules (‘loving others’), it gave him a creative punishment that he will remember, and he hasn’t slammed a door since.

3. Not taking care of other people’s property

My youngest son loves two things: video games and clumsiness. At least, I assume he loves clumsiness, since he engages in it so much. This is a kid who once ran into a table at eye level, full speed ahead. (How you don’t see something that is going to hit your eye as you run into it, I’ll never know.) He sometimes simply falls over…while standing completely still and upright. He is so covered in bruises that I’m half afraid during a doctor’s visit they’ll call DHS. He may be sweet as can be, but an athlete, this kid is not.

Anyway, I digress. The kid loves video games. But in his excitement and carelessness, he once managed to break two controllers ($50 each!) within a month. Likewise, he once ruined a video game by taking it out and letting it just sit on the floor until it got all scratched up.

In both cases, the discipline was the same. We calmly explained to Ryan that it was important to take care of other people’s things, or they would not keep loaning him their things. We explained that when someone tries to love you and lets you borrow things that they bought with their money, if you break it their feelings might get hurt. And so, if he could not take care of Daddy’s video game system, then he would no longer be loaned Daddy’s system.

So after having the talk, I disconnected the video games and removed them from beside the TV. Even though it was only gone for a few days, it drove home the point: every time he walked past the TV, the lack of the video game system sitting there reminded him. Since that time, he has been very careful to make sure that he takes care of the video games.

Notice the key difference: I could have said, in anger, “Ryan! What are you doing? You are not allowed to play video games any more, since you broke daddy’s games!” That would have been punishment, and would have lost the teaching opportunity. Instead, we were able to put it calmly in terms of ‘loving others’, and so he understood it and the point was driven home without doing anything else.

(Now of course…I lost video games those few days too, since they were removed. But that helped make the point, so it was worth it.)

4. Hiding at church

One of our most recent (and I think, our best) moments of creative discipline happened just a couple of months ago. Our oldest son, Alex, got upset in his church class. As nearly as we can tell, he was about to cry and didn’t want any of his friends to see it. But rather than deal with it in class, or go to a teacher, or something else healthy, he ran from his class and hid. His teachers searched but couldn’t find him for several minutes—leaving his teachers a bit scared.

I give full credit to my wife, because I was furious at first. She kept us all calm and didn’t let me show it to Alex while we came up with a plan. When we talked to Alex about it, we put it this way:

“Alex, your church teachers work hard to make a class that is designed just for you. When you got upset and ran from the class, that showed your class that you did not want to be a part of it anymore. Even worse, it made your teachers scared because they thought you were lost. So was that “loving others”?”

He agreed that it wasn’t, so we came up with a plan. First, he had to write an apology letter to his teacher for scaring her; we delivered it to Mrs. Sara that afternoon and he read it to her. (Do it soon…don’t let it wait two or three days; the sooner, the better for teaching the point.)

Next, though, was the big winner. We told Alex he wasn’t going to be punished since his teacher forgave him. But since he had chosen not to be a part of his class, he would come to big church with us the following week. If he later decided to rejoin his class, we would talk about it then.

He did really well in church: he participated (including loudly answering the preacher’s rhetorical question), he sang, he took notes, he behaved. And when we were done, he politely said, “Dad, I had fun in big church. But I’m ready to be a part of my class again.”

Since then, we haven’t had any problems.



These are four things that we did right in the course of raising our kids; we have certainly done four hundred things wrong. But we are trying, hard, to change from the natural (and easy) method of just punishing our kids for wrongdoing, and instead to intentionally look for teachable moments and spend the time investing in our kids.

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