Thursday, March 25, 2010

A Letter From Jane: Discipline

Dear Readers,

What a great experience it’s been so far, connecting with you on this blog. I feel like I’ve met so many wonderful mothers. I love your comments! They fill in all the gaps in my answers and it feels like, together, we create solutions that are real and complete. I wish we could all get together somewhere.

I’ve decided that occasionally, I’m just going to talk to you—without answering a question. I feel like, in some ways, the ‘question’ format leaves gaps and may cause confusion. So, once in a while, I’m just going to lay out an idea for you. For example, we’ve never discussed babies—how to truly nurture a baby. I feel that this is basic and key to our success as we teach our children later on. I’d love to hear your ideas on early bonding, and as you’ve probably guessed, I have a few of my own. So that will be one of my topics.

But because so many of your questions have focused on discipline and my answers create a somewhat incomplete picture, today, I’m going to lay out my whole philosophy on that subject. This “laying out” will include bits and pieces or things you’ve already read in my answers but, hopefully, will create a more complete picture.

Motherhood took on a whole new meaning for me when I adopted a more proactive approach that was based on some basic goals. The two goals that I have as I raise little children are 1) to preserve and strengthen our relationship and 2) to develop their deep, inner feelings of right and wrong. When your children emerge from these early years and become teen-agers, you will want to have firmly established those two things. It isn’t the easiest method of parenting. It takes constant thought and focus. The focus is on building a strong bond of love, helping children to succeed at what you ask them to do, and teaching instead of constant disciplining.

Physical discipline is destructive when you consider both of those goals. Not only does it damage the relationship, but it absolves a child of responsibility for what they’ve done. They have paid for the crime so there is no need to feel sorrow for it. At best, it is a deterrent—and if our goal is just to produce acceptable outward behavior, then it’s useful. The motivation will be fear of punishment. But our goal is to develop our child from the inside out—the motivation being a desire to be good.

Living by rigid natural consequences can also be counter-productive for the same reasons. This is where my philosophies might become confusing. Shouldn’t we provide a consistent environment where there are always the same consequences? Sometimes. I love structure and routine. I think they build security. But when our children make mistakes, our focus should be on teaching them, helping them to repair any damage and fostering their own feelings of sorrow.

It’s hard for me to watch parents who hold their children to high standards of accountability at an early age. The Lord is very clear that little children are without sin. He doesn’t hold them accountable for sin until they are 8. Why do we think that a 3 year old should pay for their sins? They’re young, with brains that are not fully capable. They don’t think or understand things the way adults do—even though they may be very smart. We are teaching them every day how to obey. Hopefully, they are getting better and better at it. Sometimes, they have bad days, or even a bad week or two. They move from stage to stage, and for some children, these transitions are difficult. Our role is to love and teach them through.

Success is defined by moments—I call them amazing moments—when we see our child respond to their own feelings. Here is a recent example. My daughter Natalie was driving home one evening with her husband and all the boys. They had planned to stop for pizza but changed their mind. Four year old Jack was disappointed and started to cry. He continued crying as they drove home and said “I don’t love you, Mom.” Natalie didn’t reprimand but realized that this had been a big disappointment for Jack and continued home. Later, without saying anything about Jack’s behavior, she made smoothies for the boys. While Jack was drinking his, he said, “Mom, I’ll never say I don’t love you any more.” This is an amazing moment. It may seem small but it represents a great deal. Jack was not forced to apologize. His gesture sprang from his own heart. He realized that he had been wrong all on his own and he repaired it. The two goals we talked about came in to play—Jack’s love for his mother and the development of his own conscience.

Children, as they grow, have an innate sense of right and wrong and they feel a level of discomfort when they misbehave. When we are kind to them-- when we don’t make them pay for their mistakes, they feel uncomfortable until they do something about it.

Keep in mind that Jack is four years old. His mind is much more developed than a two-year old. And while you may see some of these “amazing moments” in your 2 or 3 year old, they will become much more frequent in later years.

You can kill this sensitivity in your children if you are in the habit of using harsh punishment or discipline. It may take a while for their consciences to respond on their own once you instead take the time to help them really tune in to it. Ease up on the way you discipline, avoid force. Don’t frame things up with consequences “if you do that one more time….” but instead take in the situation, figure out what you are trying to teach, and patiently keep teaching it. You’re not allowing your child to run wild, but rather very actively taking the time to know your child and lovingly helping him to grow in positive ways.

For children between 18 months and 3, the emphasis is on teaching and loving. Don’t engender anger. Try to avoid this. Just shepherd them patiently through these irrational years and learn to love and appreciate their wonderful, joyful little ways. Hold them close and read every day. Play their games. Gently enforce limits without terribly high expectations. Some of them are so precocious that we think of them as little adults—especially oldest children, but the “logical” side of their brain is not even close to fully developed. The biggest myth and mistake of parents of 2 and 3 year olds is that “if I let them get away with this now, they’ll turn into juvenile delinquents.” Instead, think, “when this child is five, he will have outgrown almost everything I’m worried about.”

When our son, Peter, was 2, he had a terrible habit of head-butting anyone holding him against his will. If you picked him up from behind, he would throw his head back and give you a fat lip. I remember when three of us had fat lips at the same time! He was also impossible to take into stores. He would just get overly stimulated by the experience and behave terribly. My sister used to joke, “It takes a village to raise Peter.” Fortunately, our family of 10 was a small village by then. I’d like you to know him now at age 8. He is purely delightful. Everyone who knows him, loves him. He’s well behaved and happy and never gives us fat lips and is great in stores.

When our daughter Marlee was 2, she refused to sleep in her own bed. She wanted to cuddle up to go to sleep. I didn’t know why—whether she was just scared or lonely, but it wasn’t a big deal to me. So I put a small mattress under the side of my bed and let her sleep there (or usually put her there after she had fallen asleep.) She’s in college now. She sleeps in her own bed. And to tell you the truth, I miss that soft little body curled up beside me.

My very wise uncle, who had raised a very large family said at the end, “I think the only time we really mess our children up, is when we become overly anxious about them.” A loving, accepting environment brings out wonderful things in children. Doesn’t it bring out the best in you? That’s why the golden rule is a good key. When you have to say no, say it lovingly. “ I know. I wish we could stay here at the park all day. But we have to go home and have a snack.” Then pick them up and soothe them to the car. In this way, even saying no can strengthen your bond. They feel understood and sympathized with rather than dominated.

These are the principles I have lived by for the past 20 years or so, and every personality type flourishes with them. I even work part time with wayward teens and I feel that the same principles apply. Love is light. Light helps everything grow. The difficult part is to stay loving through all the stages and phases and struggles. That’s why motherhood is a sanctifying experience.

Hopefully this has been helpful.

All my love,



  1. I love this post. I'm trying to get rid of some of my harsh "do it one more time and..." and add some of your loving approach. I have 6yo, 3yo, and 8 month old boys. I want to teach them with love and help them feel empathy.
    Any thoughts on helping a 3 yo that uses hitting, scratching, biting whenever he isn't being listened to, he does it mostly to his older brother. I want him to understand that it hurts others. I try to help him understand. Maybe we just need to remember time is on our side.
    Thanks for your blog posts.

  2. Thanks so much, this really cleared things up for me!!

  3. Thanks for taking time to address this issue generally. It is a beautiful summation of my own goals as a mother. I especially love the comments about our inclination to expect too much from our children. I know I struggle with that! Often!

  4. Jane,
    Thank you so much for this blog. You give me insights that are much different than from the home I grew up in. I read your posts and think to myself, "Yes, this is the kind of mother I want to be." Thank you for helping to teach me that it's possible.

  5. Jane,

    This is exactly what I needed. I just printed it off to study further. I really appreciate this! Your Blog is fantastic and has honestly been an answer to prayers. And had validated what I have always tried to do but often been ridiculed for. Thank you!! Thank you! Thank you!

  6. Sniff, sniff. Thanks for the post. It gives me a lot to think about as I have a 17 month old and a 3 year old. I love the guidance your blog gives. Thank you!!

  7. I just found this blog and I've been reading on and off all day! Oh my! You have to write a book! This is amazing! Thanks for all the love-filled advice and counsel. I'm subscribing and linking you to my blog. Just wonderful!

  8. I love the post! Thank you for your thoughts as I have been thinking about this lately as a mother of 17 month old twins. I look forward to your post about nurturing babies!

  9. You are a marvel... I often wondered HOW my parents made me FEEL the way they did. They employed those very principles about which you have written. I just didn't know it. They were interested in MY SUCCESS in life and respectfully and lovingly encouraged me. (I could never really put my finger on their parenting style...until you write about it. Thanks!)
    Jane, you need to publish your writings. They are priceless!

  10. You know I can honestly say that hearing your thoughts on being a mother is making me want to be a better mother myself. Thank you for these wonderful posts you do and the inspiration you are to many of us.

  11. i'm so grateful for you & how you inspire me to want to be better. you should write a book!

    thank you so so much! you are such a blessing.

  12. Thank you. Reading this will really help me be a better mother. Please write a book!

  13. Thank you for your amazing letter. I especially love the paragraph that begins, "It’s hard for me to watch..." My 3.5 year old has been the greatest challenge of my life. He is a good, energetic, precocious boy who is the size of a 5 year old. I get extremely uncomfortable when others treat him like a 5 year old and not a 3 year old. Reading this I realized that I hold him to a higher standard one that I do not hold his 2 year old brother to. You gave some fantastic insights that I hope I can begin to really use before my 3rd boy is born in June.
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts so willingly.

  14. Thank you! This post is amazing and I will be re-reading this over and over. I do think that many people underestimate the abilities of young children, but you put this in perspective for me in encouraging my son to excel in what he loves, but not being so hard on him for VERY minor behavior of a two year old! He is such a wonderful boy!

  15. I heard about your blog from my friend Jill who is your niece and am so glad I did. I have been feeling that there are things I need to change in my mothering and everything I have read makes so much sense! I have a 2 1/2 year old girl and 6 month old boy and I wish I had known many of these things before they were born! I have the problem of expecting too much from my 2 year old and I also just worry too much! Thank you so much for your perspective and insight. I have a lot of loving to catch up on!


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