Before having children, I worked for years as a camp counselor and as a teacher in a large public high school. Both arenas taught me the importance of discipline in a child’s development. Without structure and rules, summer camp would quickly devolve into some version of Lord of the Flies. Without order in the classroom, my students would never have the opportunity to learn.
Through my years of working with kids, five guiding principles helped me as a counselor, teacher, and especially as a mom. While not all methods work for all children, I’ve found these principles work for a variety of children, regardless of their age, sex, or disposition.
1. Teach proactively, rather than reactively.
Children need to be taught what is right just as much as they need to be corrected. Bible stories, daily events, and mistakes provide opportunities in various situations to ask, “What would be the right thing to do?” Allowing your child to communicate the proper course of action helps him to understand more fully than just hearing it from your lips.
When my kids were young, before entering a grocery store I would playfully ask, “Are we going to act like hooligans in this store?” Of course, they’d respond, “No!” Then I’d ask, “What does a hooligan do in a store?” They’d come up with all sorts of suggestions: running around the store, not listening to Mom, standing in the cart, asking for candy, yelling loudly, and a host of other silly ideas.
Proactively reviewing grocery store expectations beforehand greatly helped their obedience. Children need daily reminders on how to be a friend, how act in public, how respond to unkindness, and how to apologize. If we spend all our time saying “Don’t do that” without also saying “Do this,” our kids will grow increasingly frustrated, not knowing the correct choice to make.
2. Give both consequences and rewards.
When God made his covenant with the people of Israel, he set before them blessings and curses (Deut. 30). He clearly previewed the blessings of obedience and the consequences of disobedience. As we train our children it’s helpful to do the same.
Some parents hesitate to give a reward because they consider it the same thing as a bribe. However, rewards and bribes are substantially different in what they communicate. Rewards encourage and praise right behavior. Bribes reward and encourage wrong behavior. The two can often look similar, so let’s consider an example.
An 18-month-old is struggling to sit in her cart at the grocery store. A bribe would look something like this: Mother and child enter the store. She attempts to put the child into the cart. The child screams, throws a fit, and kicks her mom. The mother attempts again, but the same thing happens. In her frustration, she looks in her purse, finds a lollipop, and gives it to her child to get her to sit in the cart.
In contrast, a reward would look something like this: Before leaving the car, the mother looks her child in the eye and says, “I know at times going in the grocery cart can be difficult. So, if you can go in the cart nicely, then I will have a surprise for you. Do you think you can do a good job today?” The child responds “Yes,” and looks forward to the surprise. They walk in the store, the child goes into the cart and the mother shows her the lollipop. She promises if she can stay in the cart and do a good job, she can eat the lollipop once they are halfway through the trip.
In the first situation, the child is in control. Essentially she’s being rewarded for yelling, kicking, and screaming. In the second situation, the mother is firmly in charge of the situation, and the child is rewarded for right behavior. Rewards help our children eventually understand the goodness of God’s ways, and that he rewards our labors (Col. 3:23–24).
3. Enforce the rules you give.
When I began teaching, some of my students were only five years younger than me. I realized I had to enforce my rules if I wanted to gain their respect. They had to believe my “yes” meant “yes” and my “no” meant “no” if I was ever going to maintain order in the classroom.
The same is true with our kids. If you tell your child she’ll have to leave the park if she hits another child, then leave the park when she hits someone. If you tell your son he won’t get to watch the movie if he fails to make his bed, then follow through when he disobeys. Our children need to know we’re true to our word—even when it’s difficult.
That said, I should also mention: Only give a consequence you are willing to enforce. If you really want to take your child to see the movie or stay at the park, then find a consequence that better suits the situation.
We all have to accept that disciplining our children is rarely convenient. So often they disobey when we’d rather be doing something other than taking the time to lovingly correct them. Yet the fruit of faithful discipline is worth the sacrifice it requires. I promise.
4. The method of discipline must be effective.
Different families will use a variety of methods to discipline children. In fact, even within the same family, different children require different consequences. Regardless of the method, however, we learn from Hebrews 12:11: “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”
Whatever discipline method you employ, it must be uncomfortable for your child. To clarify, this does not allow for abuse of any kind, or for a parent to “get their anger out” on their child. Discipline is for a child’s good, not a parent’s anger. If you’re angry or frustrated, you should wait until you calm down before correcting your child.
In our family, the first stage of discipline begins with a stern rebuke and reminder of the consequences. We remove him from the situation, get down on his level, and firmly tell him that his behavior is not acceptable. If he fails to heed our warning, we usually put him in time out, with the number of minutes depending on his age. If he won’t sit in time out or continues to disobey after the time out, a spanking follows.
As children grow, these methods become less effective, so it’s important to re-evaluate. The loss of privileges, financial penalties (for something ruined or broken), or extra chores are better consequences for older children. Whatever the discipline, it needs to be effective for that child.
This reality is difficult as a parent. I love seeing my children happy, and it’s painful to cause their unhappiness. Yet the promise of Hebrews 12:11 comforts our fears. There’s a harvest of righteousness and peace for those trained up by discipline. We bless our children by loving them enough to discipline them.
5. Catch them doing right.
I’ve found this to be a powerful method of encouraging children. I regularly teach 4-year-olds at church. The fastest way to get all the kids sitting calmly is to say, “Everyone look! I love how Sarah is sitting so nicely with her hands in her lap, ready to listen to the story.” Immediately, 15 other children are sitting, hands in lap, ready to listen.
Praise is a powerful tool and a blessing for children. It helps them to know what’s right, and at the same time communicates you care about them. All of us would like a boss to see the good we do and praise it, not just correct our mistakes. Similarly, our children need us to be watching them for right behavior, every bit as much as correcting wrong behavior.
This type of encouragement is especially important for kids with behavior problems or kids going through a season of acute disobedience. Their ears perk up with the slightest praise. Catch them doing something—anything—right as often as you can.
Most Important Principle
These discipline principles have helped my husband and me, but they are limited. Only God can change our children’s hearts. All the parenting wisdom in the world cannot save or transform our children; only Jesus can.
As we seek to be wise in the parenting techniques we use, the most important thing we can do is spend time in the Word and prayer, asking God for guidance. He listens, he understands, and he promises to faithfully provide all the wisdom we need (James 1:5). May we seek him, asking him to be at work in our children’s hearts.