The Anatomy of Discipline
After I became a parent, I began to see what a great equalizer parenting is. Parenting doesn’t discriminate based on your race, nationality, or gender. It doesn’t care how old you are or how many degrees you do or do not have. No matter who you are, or what your background is, parenting is one of the toughest and yet most important roles you could have in life. Tim Kimmel, author of Grace Based Parenting, describes parenting in this way, “You’ve been handed a piece of history in advance- a gracious gift you send to a time you will not see- and you play the biggest role in how that history will ultimately be recorded.” We all want to get it right with our kids and one of the greatest areas of struggle in parenting is discipline. Let’s take a look at what makes for effective discipline and why it is effective.
First, the word “discipline” is defined by Webster in multiple ways. The first definition is “punishment” which is how many of us utilize the word in our speech. However, if we trace it back to it’s origin in Latin, disciplina or discipulus, it means “instruction given, teaching, learning, knowledge”. (per etymonline.com) This is the definition we want to focus our attention on as we discuss the topic of discipline. Ultimately, the purpose of disciplining is to teach our children what to do and how to act, not to punish or shame them.
In their book, No Drama Discipline, Drs. Dan Siegel and Tina Bryson heavily discuss the importance of bringing your children close throughout the process of disciplining. This is essential for several reasons. One, it teaches children that they are loved no matter what their behaviors are. When we work to connect before we offer correction for their behaviors, we calm their brains and bodies. Through the act of co-regulation, helping our kids to regulate their emotions through the regulation of our own and offering tools for them to utilize, we are able to bring their brains to a place of being able to receive correction.
Second, it is important for discipline to bring some sting. Let me explain what I mean by this. As an adult, if I choose to quit paying my mortgage, I- along with my family- am going to have some painful consequences that will ultimately land all of us on the street with very few options. That is a real-life consequence to real-life bad decisions, and I would be dragging my family down with me. It is important for our children to feel something painful that serves as a reminder to not make the same wrong decision twice. As a parent, it is essential to keep in mind that what is costly for one child may not be for another. One child may feel as thought they have lost the world when they lose a toy for a few hours or a day and another may not care at all. If you are not utilizing a currency that they value, the lesson falls on deaf ears and a hard heart.
This is where many parents get in trouble with discipline. They know there needs to be a consequence, but they may not know what the consequence should be or how severely it should be delivered. Many times in working with families, I see parents who have taken their child’s phone away for a month, and on one hand, that seems logical. But after further evaluation, what we see is that child’s currency is now gone for a month, and parents have no more leverage during that time. Essentially, it is like giving the child a blank check with no money in the account. They can do what they want, and there is no price to pay. The discipline loses its effectiveness.
What we have learned is doing shorter terms of discipline works much better. The effect is the same, as losing their phone for 2 days is just as painful as losing it for a month. Also, there are times where you, as the parent, can give your child a chance to redeem the consequence. For example, if your child disobeys and you decide to take away screen time for the remainder of the day. Depending on the level of disobedience, you could choose to give them an opportunity to lessen the consequence or earn back their screen time. Maybe they can do extra chores, or maybe it depends on their mood (we call it “having a happy heart” at our house!). Regardless of the stipulations you put on it, it gives your child the ability to have some control, even in the midst of discipline. And it teaches grace. That our actions have consequences, but there is room for redemption.
Third, discipline needs to bring wisdom. Depending on your child’s age, the way we discuss discipline with them will vary. With a preschooler, it may be a very simple cause and effect. Because they chose to hit their brother with a toy, they no longer get to play with that toy for the day. For a teenager, this conversation should look very different. Teens have the ability to think abstractly, therefore allowing for deeper, more meaningful conversations. Teens can understand motive and are able to become introspective and assess themselves and the reasons behind their own decisions. Helping teens evaluate another person’s perspective helps to develop empathy.
In having these conversations about discipline with your children, regardless of their age we do a couple of things. First, we increase their trust in us. It is so helpful for our children to know they are being led by parents who love them and whose love is unaffected by their choices. Our children are more confident when they know their parents make choices based on logic, not emotion. Emotions are often difficult to read and impossible to predict. Kids can move with confidence and trust when they know what to anticipate from us. Second, when we communicate the whys of our discipline, we are lovingly connecting their choices with the impact they have on the world around them. Our kids don’t live in a bubble and the earlier they understand that, the better off they will be. They carry those lessons with them once they are learned.
It’s no secret that discipline is a necessary and often difficult part of parenting. When we remember the appropriate meaning of the word discipline, “to teach”, it helps to re-focus our efforts on what will be most beneficial for our children. By focusing on bringing them close to calm their brains and bodies, bringing some sting to serve as appropriate reminders of their connection to the world around them, and bringing them wisdom to serve as teaching tools they can carry with them for the rest of their lives, we are able to appropriately set up the anatomy of discipline. Of course, the ultimate goal is for them to carry the discipline we give them to become self-disciplined. But that’s a different post for a different day.