For the past three weeks on Parenting Wisdom Wednesdays I have been talking about the difference between Discipline and Punishment. You can find the other posts here and here and here if you haven’t read them yet. We have discussed the definition of discipline, how discipline looks to the future while punishment repays the past. We’ve also considered the importance of parental attitude (love or fear/anger). Now I want to talk about what good discipline looks like and to talk about the “fallout” or “fruit” from punishment or discipline.
My husband and I have two boys ages twelve and five. The big seven-year gap between them has made me even more acutely aware of the specific developmental needs and capabilities of my children. For example, my younger son is learning to properly put away his laundry each wash day. In comparison, my oldest son loads the machine, puts in the soap and any additional treatments and takes the load out to fold and put away. Of course he hangs his clothing, and hangs it in an orderly manner. The two are worlds apart in their abilities and maturity. Laundry is only one small area where their skills and abilities are vastly different.
When my oldest was younger, I did what most moms do with their first born. I put a lot on his little shoulders and thought of him as older than he really was. I had no one to compare him to in terms of what to expect. I bring this up in light of discipline and punishment, because I think we need to take into account the capacity our children have for learning and consider their developmental needs at each stage of their lives. We have to be careful not to expect too much of them too young in terms of their capacity to consistently obey us as parents. We can help them learn to listen to us and we can show them good ways to do things by our example and instruction, but we really shouldn’t expect to consistently see mature qualities like patience and self-control and considering others in children under age two.
In the earliest years of a child’s life, the need is for freedom to explore while the parents keep the environment safe enough for the child to discover their immediate world. You don’t need to cover your home in bubble wrap, but you do need to focus on helping your child trust you and feel loved and secure. There are times for discipline (instruction) in the early years — especially the toddler years. That second year of life is a great time to allow natural consequences. When your child chooses to do something you have said not to do and there is a painful, but not dangerous consequence, let them experience that consequence as it will teach them way more than your words, warnings or over-protection ever could.
As your child ages, you can expect more from them. Your relationship is more connected and they have (hopefully) become accustomed to the limits you set as a parent. Discipline in action involves the elements of instruction (telling your child what is expected and training them how to do what you expect when needed), the use of positive modeling (living out what you preach), allowing natural consequences (letting painful outcomes come without hindering those outcomes in any way) and the provision of logical consequences when there are not natural consequences which will come (coming up with your own “if you … then …” outcomes to their choices). And all discipline comes into play while you consistently consider their four basic emotional needs. If you need to review those, you can find them in a series here.
As you meet your children’s needs and you discipline them instead of using punishment, your children grow in self-control, personal responsibility and the ability to trust you as a parent. Punishment does not engender these positive outcomes in your child. Only discipline will reap the harvest of righteousness. Punishment produces pain that is not productive and it results in children who are wounded instead of healthy and whole.
When a child is punished, they learn to be controlled by outside influences as opposed to developing self-control. The child who is punished will learn to respond to the way other people treat him. The child who is punished learns to blow with the wind, leaning towards whatever will help him avoid a negative response from those around him. You may see children who have been punished who appear to have great self-control. They can sit still when commanded, listen to their parents better than the best soldier in an army, but where is their heart? Outward compliance is not the same as inward self-control.
Discipline allows the child to learn from his or her experiences. The parent’s attitude is loving and comes alongside the child. In that way, a child who is disciplined learns to control themselves because they have the freedom to choose and have grown into a self-controlled place. Isn’t this the way God parents us? He allows us choices. Those choices have consequences and He is loving and comes alongside us as we grow into greater levels of self-control.
The same goes with personal responsibility. Children who continually are shielded from the outcomes of their choices, whose parents do not set limits or who never receive consequences for their poor decisions and actions end up taking no responsibility for themselves. On the opposite end of the spectrum, children who are punished tend to see things through the lens of guilt, blame and negative outcomes (receiving them or avoiding them). These children do not learn responsibility (though, again, they may do many responsible things) because they are learning to comply in order to get by. When a child is disciplined they are able to take ownership for their own choices. Personal responsibility becomes a natural outflow of the process of discipline because the child is treated fairly and the choices they make teach them. If they are told not to eat too many sweets, and they still go after three cupcakes at a party, their stomach will ache. They will feel the result of their choices and they are free to learn from that result.
Sometimes loving discipline is a matter of giving an imposed or logical consequence, like when my boys have left their toys around the home. Now, I let them do that throughout the day as things flow, but we have certain times of the day which are called “clean sweep” (otherwise known as mom’s sanity needs a refresher). I will set a timer for a reasonable amount of time and say, “Clean sweep.” I don’t have to say anything else. They know if they want to keep anything that is out, it needs to go all the way away. Why do they know that? Because if the timer goes off and they haven’t picked up certain items, it is my turn for clean sweep and I take those items to my room and put them on a high shelf in my closet and they can either buy them back or earn them back by cleaning up consistently for a certain number of days. My boys have become so good at clean up that they now they take items and put them away without any prompting. They don’t always do that, but they are growing in personal responsibility in response to my loving discipline in this area.
Finally, children who are punished tend to fear or resent their parents. They do not have a trust-based relationship with their parents, so they end up often having a hidden (or outward) passive-aggression in the way they relate to authority. The Bible tells us that a gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs it up. I remember in earlier years when my parenting sometimes lacked what I have gained now. One day I was reading that verse and it struck me that the anger we may stir up in our children may not come out today or tomorrow, but it is there. If we give a harsh response to their behaviors and choices, we are stirring up wrath in them. There is often an underlying message of “you can’t make me” in some of these children who have been punished and in others there is a sad loss of self as the child gives up trying to express their own individuality and lives to please the parents just to avoid more punishment.
Children who are disciplined in a healthy manner can trust their parents because their parents are safe and consistent. They come to their parents and they seek out their parents advice because their parents have set healthy limits, and given (or allowed) negative consequences in a spirit of real love. In the life of a child who has received love and discipline, parents are seen as wise guides rather than stern police or mean judges.
There is much, much, much more to say on this subject. I hope to share with you over the coming months some posts inspired by a wonderful book from the 1600s. You heard me right. This guy, Francois Fenelon, wrote a book called “The Education of a Child” and he points out 20 principles for raising children that are too good not to share. So, keep coming back here on Wednesdays and I’ll keep sharing the wisdom I’m finding and road-testing at our home. God bless you as you discipline and love those amazing children of yours.