Wednesday, February 17, 2010

A Loving Approach to Discipline?

The Question:
Dear Jane,

I was re-reading all posts on the blog, and I came across this paragraph from the very first post, when you were discussing showing love to our children and teaching them correctly:

Teach them to repent. When they make mistakes, our first impulse is to punish them or separate ourselves from them by having a time-out. Sometimes that's ok. But we need to take the time to explain simply what they have done and what the results were. How can we repair this? How can we make our brother happy? How will you clean this up? I could honestly address this for a few pages. How we deal with their mistakes is right at the core of developing their conscience. The more loving we are, the less shaming we are, the more free they will be to feel their own feelings of sorrow for what they have done. You said you could "address this for a few pages."

That is my desire, and my question for this blog: would you elaborate on this idea in a post? Basically, my question is, would you specifically address the question of loving discipline? You touch on a myriad of principles, just in this paragraph: connecting logical consquences to discipline; talking our children through their mistakes, rather than punishing them harshly; developing a keen conscience in our children; loving versus shaming; teaching repentance; and helping our children learn to repair themselves that which they have damaged. Would you elaborate? I am extremely interested to know what you have to say, and if you have any specific examples from your own experience as a mother.

Thank you for a wonderful read every week on the blog.


The Answer:

Dear Brynn,

The one area of parenting that has probably undergone the greatest evolution for me is discipline. When I started out as a parent, I was converted to the idea of "natural consequences." That is, that if my child did something wrong, I would allow him to suffer the consequences of his decision. Since many actions don't have immediate consequences, I would often create consequences when necessary. For example, if I told my son to be home by 5:00 and he walked in at 5:15, I would need to enforce the predetermined consequence. You will need to stay in tomorrow. I wish it were otherwise, but this is what we agreed upon. This method of discipline supposedly puts you and your child on the same side. You and he vs. the consequences. You "wish" he had chosen otherwise, but since he didn't...

This seems good and very logical. We are supposedly preparing our children for the "real world" with real consequences. But something about it really bothered me. It seemed very cold. And while, in theory, I was on the same side as my child, I felt like the enemy. And, worse than that, I wondered if they were feeling sorry at all for their behavior, or was it the consequences that they were regretting? At about this time, I discovered the book, "Raising Your Child Not By Force, But By Love". It's not a terribly "user-friendly" book but I couldn't put it down. It became a guide to me and changed my whole approach and as I applied its principles, I loved the results.

It is really based (as I mentioned in an earlier post) on the Golden Rule. We treat our child as we would like to be treated. How many times have we been 15 minutes late? We lost track of the time. We had a last-minute emergency. We were just trying to finish something up. With this in mind, when our child walks in later than agreed, we ask what happened. We tell them that we were starting to worry and that next time, we'd like a phone call if there is a problem. We give them a hug. Inside, they are feeling sorry and they resolve to do better. This pattern occurs again and again. Our child wants to please us and they want to do what is right. When we inflict a punishment, our child (who is not rational) feels anger, a sense of injustice (even though our consequence is perfectly fair) and distanced from us. They also feel (and this is a big key) that they have "paid" for their mistake and they have no need to feel bad about it. Either method will teach our child to come home on time or call. It's just that one method is externally motivated while the other comes from within.

I will give an example. My son Seth is 16 and a very good student. He's also very busy with sports, church, student government, etc. I noticed last semester that he wasn't spending as much time on homework as usual and I asked him about it. He reassured me. When grades came out, though, he was genuinely surprised that he had a C on his report card. I was tempted, of course, to lecture or insist that he give up something. But I didn't. I let him feel what he felt. Pretty soon he said, "I really deserved this grade. I just didn't do what I should have. I'm going to bring this up." And he has. The beauty is, that I assume a supportive role. I really am on his side and he feels it. I'm not the sheriff.

I believe that the reason Seth is this way, is because he has been raised for many years by love and not by force. He has a very keen conscience and we have a very close relationship. The real payoff for using this type of discipline comes when our children are teenagers. These principles of love and teaching didn't incite anger or resistance when they were children. Now that they are big and can assert their independence, we can rely on the fact that they will continue to make good choices because inside, they want to and because they love us. This is not a difficult or complex way to discipline. When in doubt about how to handle a situation, just think of the golden rule. It's that simple. How would I want to be treated? If I wrecked the car and came home, how would I want my husband to respond? If he rolled his eyes and lectured me (or grounded me from driving), I would feel defensive and angry. If he hugged me and sympathized with my experience, I would admit that I'd been foolish. "I can't believe I ran that light....I'll be more careful....I'm sorry." These are the sort of words that we will gradually hear from our children as we make them feel safe enough to say them.

When they feel genuinely sorry, a natural outgrowth will be a desire to repair their mistake. It's easy to help them find ways to do that. As they grow older, they will do it naturally. Yesterday my son Brian (14) was unkind to Peter (8). Brian and I went in his room and I asked him to tell me what happened. He told me what Peter had done--how he had badgered him until he had finally retaliated. I put myself in Brian's place and sympathized. "Peter really is at an annoying age. I can't believe how patient you are with him." That's all I said. Brian then admitted that he hadn't been very patient this time. Within a few minutes I heard him apologizing to Peter and things went well for the rest of the night.

Don't mistake this merciful, loving approach to discipline for overall permissiveness. We have very high standards for our children. We just promote those standards without shouting, punishing or belittling. But.... I must admit to semi-frequent soapbox lectures. I think they help me vent. My kids humor me and listen to them and as long as the lectures don't attack them personally, I think they're fairly harmless.

This is it in a nutshell. I encourage you to experiment with these principles for a long enough time that you see results. I'd love to hear your experiences.

With love,


  1. I'm not sure if you meant the last sentence, "I'd love to hear your experiences," to me or to everyone in general. The truth is, I have no experience, because I have no children! I just can't get enough of this parenting blog, because I feel I am preparing so well for the future! Thank you so much!

  2. Yesterday when my son (4) was disappointed that we weren't having pizza for dinner he started crying and saying "I DON'T love you when you don't give me pizza!" again and again. I was tempted to lecture him on unkind words, but instead I said something like "I'm really sorry your angry right now" and continued to treat him kindly. He stopped saying it. I made him a special drink at dinner and while he was drinking it he turned to me and said "I'm sorry I said I don't love you. I do love you. I won't say I don't love you any more. We can get pizza another time." WHAT? It was the sweetest apology and he sincerely meant it. He really regretted the words he had said in anger and wanted to please me again.

  3. Thank you for taking the time to write all that out! I really like your approach but I have to admit that I am scared to give up the "old" approach that you talked about in the beginning of your post. I guess the old approach as to do more with parents trying to exercise control whereas the golden rule approach has to do with slowly giving control to the child to enable him/her to make good choices. This gives me a lot to pray about! I am going to order that book ASAP

  4. Natalie, that is seriously a great story. It gives me a wonderful framework to think about as I enter that stage of my life in the future! Good job, by the way.

  5. love this is the times when my parents were merciful with me that i remember the most, felt the most loved, and felt changed for the better.

    thank you for inspiring me to be this way with my children.

  6. This is awesome advice. Is this the book you are speaking of? I want to buy it!

    Golden Rules of Parenting: For Children & Par… (Paperback)
    by Rita Boothby

  7. I remember lots of times growing up when my parents rewarded me for good choices (like when I left a party where they were watching a rated R movie and my parents bought me pizza and pudding), so I wasn't so scared to tell them about bad ones (I talked back to a teacher and got detention).

    I think rewarding the good behavior is a big part of this, too.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.