Child Discipline

The Secret to Constructive Discipline

When our children get in the habit of disobedience, it’s easy to just keep harping on what they’re doing wrong. “I’ve told you a million times not to do that!” We might follow that up with some other form of reactive discipline, but it doesn’t seem to get to the heart of correcting the behavior.

When disciplining children, parents sometimes feel that once a consequence has been given, their job is finished.  Unfortunately, however, there may be tension left in the relationship and children feel guilty or may plan revenge.  Parental anger often creates tension between the parent and the child. And the parent further punishes by putting distance in the relationship. True repentance may also not have taken place, leaving room for anger or even bitterness to linger. Discipline is not complete until the relationship between the parent and child is restored. The child needs to understand the wrongdoing, but also feel the unconditional love and acceptance from the parent. The secret to constructive discipline is a positive conclusion. 

The positive conclusion can mean the difference between punishment and discipline. Punishment focuses on past misdeeds; discipline focuses on future good deeds. Punishment looks for justice in order to balance the scales; discipline teaches a correct response and helps the child learn wisdom. Punishment is negative; discipline is positive. Punishment is motivated out of anger; discipline is motivated out of love. The positive conclusion turns what otherwise might be punishment into a constructive learning experience.

A positive conclusion is a discussion you have with your child. Use it every time you need to correct or redirect your child.  During the early stages of development (ages two to eight), the structure of three questions and a statement gives children a helpful pattern each time they’re disciplined. Although two- and three-year-olds may not initially be able to respond appropriately, it’s helpful to begin this pattern when they’re young.  You may need to walk preschoolers through the process in order for them to benefit from it. Four- to eight-year-olds will quickly learn to expect these questions and a statement and be able to learn from the experience. As children grow older, you may want to put aside the structure and look more to the principles behind it.

At any age, it is helpful to spend some time discussing the problem in order to end the discipline time on a positive note. The positive conclusion isn’t a time of interrogation. It’s important to express love, forgiveness and acceptance during this discussion. A closer look at these three questions and a statement will show the benefit each one offers in making discipline times constructive learning experiences.

The first question is, “What did you do wrong?”

Ask it in a tender way, not accusing. This allows the child to admit personal sin. It’s important for the child to take responsibility for part of the problem and demonstrate sorrow for it. If others were involved, a child should not excuse an offense by blaming someone else. The sins of others don’t justify wrong actions. It takes two selfish children to have a fight. A common mistake here is that parents often engage in dialog about the whole situation: who else was wrong and whether it was fair or not or why such things happen. You’ll get much further if you ask instead, “What did you do wrong?”

Sometimes children say they don’t know what they did wrong. If they truly don’t know, it’s okay to prompt them. However, if they are trying to avoid responsibility, it’s often helpful to give them time alone until they are ready to own their part of the problem.

A second question, “Why was that wrong?”

Should be used to address heart issues directly. Point out the character qualities like pride, selfishness, anger or disrespect.  Help the child learn that behavior is only a symptom of something deeper. If Sally grabbed the book, Karen still needs to learn to respond with kindness and self-control. Most children, at first, have a hard time understanding why their actions were wrong. The “Why?” question and its answers provide opportunities for parents to teach children about the ramifications of wrong choices.

Once a child realizes why the behavior is wrong, the third question helps clarify what should be done instead. “What are you going to do differently next time?” focuses on a better way to respond. The wise parent uses this question to continue teaching.  By communicating the right response verbally, your child will begin to see the difference and learn to change. This often takes time and repeated discipline sessions.

Finally, always end with an affirmation. A helpful statement is,”Okay, go ahead and try again.”

This says, “I believe in you. Yes, you’re going to make mistakes, and there are consequences, but we can debrief and learn together.” Give children the encouragement to try again.  

The positive conclusion gives you an opportunity to communicate your trust and faith in your children as you tell them to go out and try again. After the positive conclusion, the child may need to complete restitution or reconciliation, enabling him or her to establish a clear conscience. Unresolved conflict hinders a clear conscience. A child needs to have the opportunity to say,  “I was wrong, please forgive me,” and then feel forgiven. The child may need to pick up the books that were thrown in anger or comfort a sibling he offended and then feel the relationship restored.

When discipline times are ended with a positive conclusion, the air is cleared and relationships are renewed. Children shouldn’t have to go around bearing the weight of unresolved conflict or the disappointment of their parents. Everyone feels better.

What is one of your secrets to constructive discipline?

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