Four Easy ways to improve the way you discipline
By Jim Jackson
Jim Jackson and his wife, Lynne, are the co-founders of Connected Families, an organisation focused on helping parents discipline with love and purpose. They are the authors of *Discipline That Connects With Your Child's Heart.*
Karla was fed up with her son.
"Every day after school, he drops his backpack and goes straight to his computer," she told me. "When I confront him about playing games before doing homework, he melts down or storms off. So I've had to ground him from the computer. “Karla was exhausted and overwhelmed, searching for answers.
"This has to stop," she exclaimed. "He needs to learn!"
"What are you hoping he'll learn?" I asked.
"That we can't have so much disrespect!" Karla responded. "But the harder I try, the worse it gets. Sometimes I've been tough, taking away privileges. That just makes him mad. Other times I try diplomacy, or I'll let an incident slide, hoping he learns on his own. Nothing I do seems to connect with him."
Karla's experience illustrates the difficulties with discipline that many parents encounter. They bounce between two extremes when responding to misbehaviour: being domineering (charging in and controlling behaviour through aggression or threats of consequences) and being passive (giving up on some discipline issues because confrontation seems difficult). Yet neither controlling nor avoiding a child's misbehaviour teaches kids the necessary lessons of respect and responsibility. We may get the behaviour we want or a temporary illusion of family peace, but our children won't develop the ability to make wise decisions on their own.
Is there a better approach — one that allows us to reach our kids' hearts during discipline? I believe there is. As we correct our kids, they need to hear four important messages:
'You are safe with me'
To learn life's important lessons, our children must first feel emotionally and physically safe. When we charge into an interaction focused on the need to control behaviour, our children may see us as unsafe, particularly when we show anger. But when our kids see us as safe — safe to talk to about conflict, motivations and behaviour — they're more receptive to our love and guidance.
Sometimes in order to make progress, we need to step back for a moment and survey the situation. At times, that's a lesson I've learned the hard way. Whenever I stormed into the fray with my three kids, wielding the force of my agenda without surveying the field, I never made much progress. Most of the time, I lost mileage.
From this, I learned that when I wanted my discipline to connect, I had to do some preparation first. This might just be taking a deep breath and stepping away for a moment. Consider the goal of what you want them to learn as a future participant in a healthy community.
When we take a moment to manage our stress and emotions, the subsequent interaction with our kids sends a crucial message: "You are safe with me." This message establishes a foundation for the other messages.
'You are loved no matter what'
Does your discipline show love? As parents, we often think so. "It's tough love," we say. "Hurts me more than it hurts them."
There is some merit in "tough" measures as one part of loving discipline. But if that's all children receive, they'll miss the bigger picture for misbehaving people. Rarely is tough discipline delivered with forgiveness and grace. And even if we sincerely believe our discipline is done in love, our kids often hear a very different message. They hear, I'm a bad kid or I'm a problem.
Conversely, parents may try to show love by letting kids off the hook. There are sometimes good reasons for leniency. But if we habitually ignore misbehaviour, kids aren't held accountable for their actions.
Most parents recognise the importance of expressing love, but we miss many opportunities to show love when love is most needed. If we express love only when we like our children's behaviour, we show them conditional love. Our most powerful expressions of love occur when kids misbehave. It's the only time we can convince our kids that we'll always love them no matter what they do.
I sometimes ask parents to consider what it would look like if their moments of discipline were videotaped. If that recording were shown to a group of kids, with the volume off, what might they say it's like to be the child being disciplined? Body language, facial expressions, words and tone — these all give a set of messages to our children.
When children feel loved through touch, through listening ears, gentle words and empathy, they want to behave in ways that please the one loving them. When love like this shows up during discipline, rigid defiance melts like ice on sun-warmed pavement.
'You are called and capable'
Humanity has been created with unique capabilities to equip them for good works. When our kids misbehave, those gifts don't disappear; they just show up in selfish and unhelpful ways. Indeed, misbehaviour often involves some sort of gift that has gone skewed. Parents can either try to suppress the skill to stop the behaviour or redirect it for powerful purposes.
This perspective can help us form new attitudes in the moment of discipline. We can begin to see strengths that are concealed behind a child's misbehaviour. Behind whining is an element of persistence. Behind an argumentative child is confidence and unflinching honesty. Strong-willed kids may become great leaders. Other incidents may reveal glimpses of creativity and courage hiding behind the misbehaviour.
Affirming a child's strength when he or she has used it for negative purposes isn't easy. But it can be life-giving. We can focus on a child's potential more than on his failure — the potential to use a strength for good — and then hold him accountable for his decisions.
You might say: "I usually admire your persistence, and someday it will serve you well, but how you're using that strength right now isn't helpful. If you pause the game right now, you can play again after doing homework. If you don't, then you'll lose the privilege for the rest of the week."
These types of responses, respectfully delivered, open up new possibilities for guiding our children through behaviour challenges.
'You are responsible'
When consequences are needed we administer costly measures to the child, not with the belief that enough pain will lead to change, but knowing that learning to make wise and good choices can sometimes be painful. If they did something in an unhelpful or hurtful way, ask them to suggest and role play a response in a right or honouring way. We can ask several times in the hopes that they'll learn a helpful habit.
A critical part of discipline is helping kids recognise the natural impact of their decisions — to be drawn into the reality that "whatever one sows, that will he also reap!” When kids discover the actual results of behaviour (not the artificial results from adult intervention), they are often moved to repair what they've done.
So as parents, we first help them understand who was hurt or inconvenienced, or how some physical thing needs to be fixed. Then we help them figure out some ways to repair that. For example, when a child uses hands to hurt a sibli