Discipline: 4 Skills to Help You Run the Parenting Race

I’m a runner. I jog two to three times a week. Running and parenting have a number of similarities. One day I received an advertisement in the mail that read, “For most people, the hardest thing about exercising is…sticking with it.” The same thing could be said about parenting. Persevering and being consistent are hard work.

I’ve learned four success principles for running which also apply to parenting.

As you think about parenting, imagine yourself as a runner. These principles keep me running—and keep me disciplining—when I feel like quitting. They keep me going when I’m running and they motivate me to take action when I feel too tired or preoccupied to discipline my children. These principles make up what I call my philosophy. Your principles may be the same as mine, or they may be different. Either way, you’ll want to personalize them for yourself.

Running the Race: Focus on the Goal

When I go out running, I focus on a goal. My goal is to run around the lake two times, that’s about two and a quarter miles. I know that’s what I want to accomplish. It’s not a time for me to chat with people or fish in the lake. I’m a runner. I’m running and my goal is clear.

You may develop a number of goals for your children over the years, but a child’s primary job is to learn to obey. It’s helpful for you as a parent to focus on the goal—realize that your children’s primary job is to learn obedience. There are a whole lot of other things that can get parents sidetracked, but teaching obedience is the goal. Parents are the teachers. Each small act of defiance or disobedience is an opportunity to teach this important character quality.

What does it mean to obey? Obedience has a number of components. First, to obey means to submit. Children need to obey even when they think they have a better way or they don’t like what their parents are telling them. It’s not their responsibility to critique the parenting they receive, but to respond humbly.

Obeying also involves maintaining a good attitude while submitting. Parents must teach their children that if the attitude isn’t right, then obedience isn’t complete.

Obeying is a child’s God-given responsibility. It is a way of showing honor. The fifth commandment says, “Honor your father and your mother.” The job of parents is to help children learn to show honor, which includes deferring to the parent’s authority and obeying instructions. Honoring and obeying don’t come naturally; they need to be taught.

I was praising my son, Joshua (age 12 at the time), to a friend for his obedience and responsiveness. My friend said to Josh, “It sounds like you’re going to grow up to be an old man.”

Laughing, I turned to Josh and said, “Do you know why he said that?”

“Yes,” Josh replied. “It comes from that Bible verse that says if you honor your father and mother you will live long on the earth.”

Children are blessed when they learn obedience. Parents need to view each act of disobedience as an important teaching opportunity. When you understand this truth you will be more motivated to discipline consistently, even when you don’t feel you have the energy.

Running the Race: Endure the Pain

When I run, my calf muscles ache! Sometimes my chest or my ankles hurt too. There is pain involved in running. I need to persevere even though there’s resistance.

Parents shouldn’t be surprised by resistance. Yet, haven’t you ever disciplined your child, and then wondered if you did the right thing because of a poor response? Do you second-guess yourself when your children respond negatively?

It’s as if parents expect their child to say, “Thanks, Dad, for sending me to my room. I really appreciate the limits you set for me,” or “I appreciate it, Mom, when you make me clean up my toys and make my bed.” Children are not going to naturally respond that way. Those who expect their children to appreciate their discipline are frustrated parents.

When you send your son to his room and he stomps all the way there and then slams the door, you now have two problems, the original offense and the bad attitude.

Children need to learn to accept and respond graciously to correction, but this doesn’t come naturally. It develops over time as your children mature and as you work with them on their attitude and the condition of their heart. The time spent talking to your children about their attitudes has lasting implications. They need to learn how to respond humbly and graciously to correction.

When children respond negatively, it is important to look beyond the immediate struggle and focus on the future good. Remember that a child’s immediate response is not an indicator of the effectiveness of the discipline. Parents must see they are disciplining for the long-term benefits. Remembering this can help you to persevere.

Resistance should not keep us from our goal. Just because my calves hurt when I run, that’s no reason to give up. And when children respond negatively to discipline, that’s no reason to quit.

When your children resist discipline, you’ll be motivated to persevere if you remember that you are working for a greater good: building character in your children. Don’t be surprised or discouraged by a negative response. Work to teach them to appreciate correction but don’t let their lack of responsiveness deter you from your job. Teaching a humble response to correction takes time.

Running the Race: Look for Ways to Make It Positive

When I run, I always take music with me. I look for ways to make the experience more enjoyable. Make the experience positive helps me to persevere.

You’re probably saying, “Yes, I know discipline is supposed to be positive, but how can I be positive when my kids are doing the wrong thing?”

First, state rules and requests in positive terms whenever possible. Instead of saying “Don’t shout,” you might say, “We talk quietly in the store.” Clearly stating or restating the rule in positive terms gives the child a clear picture of what is expected and keeps your interaction on a positive note. This simple adjustment can help you as a parent focus on what you want instead of what you don’t want.

Instead of complaining about the clothes all over your daughter’s room, you might say, “Remember, we put our clothes in the hamper when we take them off.” You want to give gentle, positive reminders to point children in the right direction. Instead of saying, “Stop banging that drum,” you might say, “You may play that drum outside or in your room.” In this way, you are giving a choice of two positive options and focusing on a solution instead of complaining about a problem.

Another way is to keep a positive atmosphere while disciplining is to look for approximately right behavior and affirm it. Don’t wait until things are absolutely right. If you ask your child to clean up the toys but find that only two things are put away and six are left out, you might say, “Oh, I see you put the blocks away, that’s great! And I like the way you lined up your trucks. Now let me see you put the balls in the box where they belong.” In this way you encourage steps in the right direction.

When my son, Timothy, was learning to dress himself, we had a rule that he needed to be dressed before coming to the breakfast table. When he came downstairs with his shirt on backwards and his shoes missing, we still praised him. He was trying. Pointing out his shortcomings would have been discouraging. He had tried and was feeling good. We wanted to encourage his efforts. Look for ways to affirm approximately right behavior whenever possible.

Positive reinforcement is much more powerful than negative reinforcement. Dish out praise in large portions, especially when you see a positive action that is a result of previous discipline.

One mother wore a golf clicker on her arm for a day. Every time she made a negative comment she clicked one side. Positive comments were tracked on the other. She was astonished to find that her negative comments outnumbered her positive ones eight to one.

Sometimes parents become tired and discouraged in their parenting because they feel they’re being negative all the time. Make an effort to break that negative cycle and focus on the positive. Take time to interact with your children about the things they are doing right. In this way, you will make discipline a positive experience.

Running the Race: Think Long-Term

I don’t run just to feel good every day. I run because I want to feel healthy. I’m thinking about the long-term effects of regular exercise. Parents can persevere and be consistent when they think long-term. Discipline could be spelled T-I-M-E.

Proverbs says, “Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not turn from it.” You are training your children for the future. You are not simply changing your child’s behavior to make your present circumstances easier. Think long-term.

When your daughter’s ball rolls into the street and she starts to run after it, you yell, “Stop!” You don’t want her to evaluate your instruction. You want her to instinctively stop at the sound of your voice. This is the kind of obedience children need to develop in their lives so they will respond to God in the same way.

There are many reasons why parents discipline their children. Developing your own personal philosophy of discipline will motivate you to be more consistent and to persevere in your parenting. When you’re tired or you’ve solved too many problems already and you’re faced with another challenge, your ability to persevere will depend on your philosophy of discipline. The strength of your understanding of your calling as a parent and your reasons for disciplining will give you the ability to press on when you feel you are too physically or emotionally tired. Having a clear philosophy of discipline will give you the motivation to persevere and be consistent.

Used with permission from the book Eight Secrets to Highly Effective Parenting by Scott Turansky, D.Min. and Joanne Miller, R.N., B.S.N.