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Loving Discipline That Works

Feel like all you do is yell at your kids? Here's a better way
Loving Discipline That Works

Parents face dilemmas like this almost daily: Mikey talks back when you tell him to pick up his toys. He's been talking back a lot, in fact, and you've had it. After getting your anger under control, you send him to his room. You tell yourself: "He'll think twice before he sasses me again."

The next day in the car, you tell Mikey to stop kicking the back of your seat. But he keeps kicking all the way to the store, then throws a fit when you won't buy him a box of Happy Hyper Flakes cereal.

When you get him home, you put his favorite toy on a closet shelf, sit him down for a time-out, and tell him he won't be allowed to watch his favorite Veggie Tales video all day. But after his time-out there's another confrontation, and you're about to lose your mind. That's when you ask yourself: "What am I doing wrong? Why can't he just behave?" You know you can't go on like this, but you feel like you've exhausted all the options.

Positive Discipline

We make discipline a bigger challenge than it needs to be, in part, because we tend to equate discipline with punishment. But punishment is only a small part of the process. It's more helpful to think of the positive side of discipline, a word that means "training." In training our children to become responsible adults, we teach them the values and skills they need to succeed in life. It's a positive enterprise.

For example, when a child is rude to an adult, a parent's initial reaction might be to punish the child. But before taking that step, consider whether proper manners have been explained to the child. Rudeness can be replaced with respectful behavior. And in practicing good manners, the child also learns important social skills that she'll use the rest of her life. Where punishment might have solved a temporary problem, training sets behavior on a positive course for life.

A second aspect of discipline is correction. While punishment involves a penalty, correction involves turning a child away from disobedience so he'll head in the right direction. In many instances, a word of correction is all that's needed: "Don't ride your Big Wheel into the street because you might get hit by a car."

If words don't work, the next step is corrective action. Let's say the child insists on riding his Big Wheel into the street. Before punishing him, take an intermediate step. Calmly lead him to the back yard swingset. Now removed from the temptation of a busy street, he can have fun in a safer part of the yard.

Training our children and correcting them with words and actions are ways we teach and guide without resorting to penalties. But if your child continues to defy you, it's time for punishment. That's when discipline becomes negative because punishment causes discomfort.

The Love Connection

Whether it's the loss of privileges, a time-out or a swat on the back of the diaper, punishment gets a child's attention. It shows that the parent is serious about enforcing a rule that the child insists on breaking. But too often, we forget to punish our kids in the context of unconditional love. Some parents fear that heaping love on a child who seems devoted to messing up is giving the child a license to disobey. But that's a misunderstanding of discipline. We need to discipline our children because we love them, not instead of loving them. The worst thing we can do is withhold our love as a form of punishment.

When a child is being belligerent, it's natural for a parent to feel angry. But no matter how many times your child breaks the same rule, don't allow your frustration to cause you to love her conditionally. If a child feels neglected, it won't be long before she starts acting up. If her need for love and attention still isn't met, she will likely continue the same misbehavior, or do something worse, until she feels loved.

My wife and I raised two children to adulthood. One of our kids was almost always cooperative, while the other seemed to be constantly in trouble. I know how easy it is to shower love on the pleasant child and present an impenetrable facade to the child who regularly pushes the limits. Like most parents, I've thought to myself, I'll start giving him lots of hugs when he starts controlling that smart mouth of his. But I realized that following that impulse is putting conditions on love. And conditional love doesn't reflect God's approach to us, which is an unwavering love that is unaffected by our failures.

God disciplines us because he loves us (Hebrews 12:5-7). It's crucial that we express unconditional love to our children even as we punish them. A child needs to hear: "I love you no matter what, even when you disobey. But you kept hitting your brother after I told you to stop, so I'm not going to allow you to play with your friends today. You have to stay indoors."

Just as we know we can turn to God with our deepest sins, disciplining our children in love will keep them turning to us even as they get older and the stakes become higher. For some teenagers, home is the last place they want to go when they're in trouble. But if a teenager has felt unconditional love, he's more likely to come home and tell the truth when he's in trouble. If his parents' love is dependent on his good behavior, however, he'll look for help somewhere else.

We want our children always to turn toward home, so it's essential that we put no conditions on our love. Whether we are teaching and training, correcting our children with words and actions, or punishing them for repeated misdeeds, we need to do it in love. God loves us no matter what we do. We need to link our discipline with that same kind of love for our kids.

Gary Chapman is a pastor and counselor who leads seminars on marriage and family life. He is the author of several books, including The Five Love Languages of Children (Northfield), co-authored with Dr. Ross Campbell, and The Other Side of Love (Moody). For information on his seminars, call (800) 254-2022 or (800) 356-6639.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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