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The Secret to Constructive Discipline

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When our children get into the habit of disobedience, it’s easy to 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.  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.

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.

1. 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 dialogue 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.

2. 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.

3. 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?

Dr. Scott Turansky is an author and speaker known for his heartfelt parenting approach. He offers moms practical, real-life advice for many of parenting’s greatest challenges and is the founder of the National Center for Biblical Parenting.


Who’s the best behaved child in your class at school? Who might be the worst?

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