I was in line at a wedding reception with my friend Ginny, when she began sharing her frustrations about her three children.
"Susan," she said, "I'm always disciplining them, and I never seem to get anywhere. I continually break up fights, punish them for back talk, and remind them to be thoughtful. Am I too strict, or too lenient? Everybody seems to have a different theory on discipline. I feel like such a failure!"
As the mom of five, I've been in Ginny's shoes. All the different approaches to discipline can be confusing—and exhausting! But I've discovered it helps to recognize two prevalent philosophies that shape disciplining styles—and how they differ.
The Religion of Self-Esteem
The religion of self-esteem teaches that our most important job as a parent is to make our child feel good about himself, to be secure, even to like us. Someone who follows this style tends to be lenient in disciplining. When your toddler misbehaves in church, you think it's "cute," and you ignore him. Or if your preteen refuses to do a task you've assigned her, you let it go because you don't have the energy to argue.
This approach to discipline is tempting, especially if you come from an abusive or legalistic background and are making a conscious attempt to parent differently. But keep in mind, love and discipline aren't opposites; they're inseparable partners. You build a child's sense of self-esteem when he knows the boundaries. A child who calls the shots in the home will become insecure—not secure.
How do you avoid becoming too steeped in the religion of self-esteem?
Be firm during your child's early years; loosen up as he gets older. Doing the opposite usually backfires. Your young child must learn that when you say "no," you mean "no," not "maybe"—even if he pitches a temper tantrum.
Don't be afraid to expect your child to behave—and provide consequences if he doesn't. Be sure to follow through with punishment. Kids need structure, and if you threaten your child but don't follow through when he misbehaves, he learns his actions don't have consequences. This devalues him—just the opposite of what you want to accomplish!
Teach your child to wait. That toddler who wants a cookie right before dinner must be taught to wait until after he finishes his dinner. The child who wants to hang out with her friends has to learn to wait until she's finished her chores. Much of life involves waiting, and you do your children a disservice if you don't teach them the art of delayed gratification. If they learn this lesson while they're young, they're more likely as teens to wait for sex until they're married.
Don't be manipulated by feelings. "I don't want to go over to her house today. She's not my friend anymore," Mona's daughter, Sally, pleaded.
"I'm sorry," Mona replied. "I understand how hurt you feel, but you made a commitment to go to her house today, and you need to keep your commitment. Let's pray together that God will work in your relationship when you go to her house."
Validate your child's feelings—they're real. But then teach your child to do what is right, even if she doesn't feel like it. God uses tough times as life preparation. A mature person does what's right, not necessarily what she feels like doing.
The Religion of Regulations
The religion of regulations teaches that in order to insure your child behaves, you must have long lists of rules. But it's easy to overburden children with so many expectations that they begin to feel as though they'll never measure up. When you do this to your children, they become frustrated and insecure. It's not much fun growing up in a home like this! Here's how to soften this approach to discipline:
Be consistent in enforcing the most crucial regulations. It's far better to have a few rules you consistently enforce than a long list you don't. Determine what you expect, and what the consequences are for infractions. Then follow through!
Make sure the punishment's realistic. It needs to fit the infraction. Don't say to your young child, "Since you didn't finish your breakfast, you can't have anything to eat for the rest of the day." By mid-afternoon you'll want to give into his hunger demands. Instead say, "No sweets or snacks until you eat a healthy meal."
And instead of saying to your teen, who's a half-hour late for curfew, "You're grounded for a month," say, "Next time you have to be in one hour early. If you don't keep curfew again, the following will happen … "
Give lots of praise. In today's culture, we applaud success. Yet God applauds character: "The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control" (Galatians 5:22-23).
It's easy to praise your child for making the A or the winning goal. But the bulk of your praise should be for her character. Kids come into the world with varying levels of ability, but all children can grow in this regard. So say, "Sweetie, I'm proud of the way you've befriended Janet. You have the gift of kindness, and I'm so proud of you."
Have fun as a family. Laugh and do crazy things. Go out for ice cream in the middle of the night. Play hide-and-seek in the dark. Move the furniture out of a room, put on some old music, and dance. Collect jokes and read them at the dinner table. It's important to make your home a fun one.
Most of us tend either toward disciplining according to the religion of self-esteem or the religion of regulations. So recognize your tendency and take steps to balance your style. But whatever your tendency, keep in mind the ultimate goal of discipline: to train your children to obey you, the one who loves them, so that as they grow, they'll be better able to obey God. After all, why would they obey God, whose voice they may not hear audibly, if they haven't learned to obey you?
As you train your children, remember it's not nearly as important what your children think of you now as it is what they think of you when they're adults. You're not running for most popular parent; you're equipping your kids to be healthy adults with a love for Jesus and others.
Susan Alexander Yates is the author of several books, including How to Like the Ones You Love: Building Family Friend ships for Life (Baker). Susan and her husband, John, have five children.
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