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Bring Out Their Best

How to build your child's character through loving, values-based discipline.

The domestic drama playing out in front of me started out as a familiar one. A young mother in the grocery checkout lane was telling her 3-year-old son, "No, You may not have that candy."

So far so good, I thought. But sometimes "No" is not the last word in the exchange between a parent and a child.

"Don't say no!" the boy yelled as he stood to his full toddler height on the seat of the cart. "Say yes!"

Oh boy. Now, he had everyone's attention.

But Mom held her ground. With a little more force she repeated, "No. You can't have that."

Now the little boy was ready to pour it on: "I … WANT … THAT … CANDY … BAR … NOW!" he shouted, wildly flailing his arms and indiscriminately grabbing candy, gum, breath mints, and a Reader's Digest as his embarrassed mom tried to simultaneously wrestle his trophies from his hands and pick up the boxes of candy he had strewn across the floor. What a scene! But it wasn't over yet. The shocker was still to come.

"I hate you!" he roared with baby veins popping out from his neck. "And I am going to potty on your face!"

Have you ever heard an entire crowd gasp in unison? In the shocked silence that followed, every adult tensed and waited for Mom's response. This kid was really asking for it.

But instead of meeting this outburst with firm discipline, she folded, "Please don't talk to Mommy that way," she begged. "You break my heart and hurt my feelings when you say things like that."

Oh no! I thought to myself. He's 3! He's angry! He doesn't care how you feel! You've just handed over the control of this situation to a toddler. Don't you know the whole world is going to rise up and discipline him someday if you don't set some boundaries about what's acceptable and what isn't?

Now to be fair to this young mom, I don't know the behavior patterns of her child. I don't know what kinds of discipline she's tried that have seemingly failed to make an impact. I don't know what has caused the intense anger behind this little boy's shocking words. But I could see that this mom didn't have a clear plan for dealing with his tantrum.

You've Gotta Have a Plan

What parent hasn't faced a discipline dilemma and wondered what in the world to do? Discipline is simply too difficult and too important to approach without a solid plan of action. A plan can guide parents to operate according to their real values—not just the immediate situation—no matter how strongly a child pushes. More importantly, a plan helps parents use discipline as a tool for communicating their true values, which is the real point of discipline.

You can develop a unique custom-fitted discipline plan for your family. In the heat of the moment, instead of wondering what to do, consult the plan to help bring focus to an emotionally charged parent/child exchange.

Step 1: Set Your Sights

When our sons were young, my husband, Steve, and I became increasingly aware that discipline involved a great deal more than behavior modification. Discipline showed our sons who their parents really were. Discipline was a way of reinforcing the behaviors and attitudes we believe are consistent with a godly life. In order to instill these values in our children, we needed to think through the goal of our discipline strategy.

Think about the big picture of your role as parents. Ask yourselves, "What do we want our children to be like in 20 years? Who do we want to send into the world? What values are we really passionate about?" These kinds of questions helped Steve and I identify the core values we wanted to pass on to our children. They helped us think about the kind of family we wanted to be and the ways we wanted to impact the world.

Step 2: Make the Short List

It's probably important to you that your children be loving, kind, and giving. But I encourage you to move beyond these basic values to more concrete ideas about the character of your children. We discovered that even though there were many areas we wanted to teach our sons about, discipline—with sure painful consequences—was only necessary in five main areas: obedience, respect, excellence, involvement in a community of faith, and piano lessons (more on that in a minute!).

We centered our discipline on areas that shaped our sons' character and that would have lasting consequences in their lives. Consider the decisions your children will make as they grow into adulthood. What character traits will they need to make godly decisions? What core values will they need to become healthy, high functioning adults? What character traits did Jesus show us that you could teach to your children through discipline?

Don't get too hung up on this part. It hardly matters what areas you pick as long as you stick to your basic values and clearly communicate them to your children. I also suggest making this a short list. More than five or six core goals can be confusing for you and your children. It's better to have a few that really matter than to muddy up your plan with too much detail.

Step 3: Make it Happen

Once we had our core, it was time to communicate the plan to our children. Obviously, you'll need to communicate in an age-appropriate way. But never assume your children know why you're making a rule or why these values are important to you. Be clear about what you're trying to accomplish.

Here's what we said to our boys:

1. Obedience is important. Why obedience? Life is full of authority figures—parents, teachers, bosses. A person who can't take direction, and who doesn't know how to negotiate with deference and respect will struggle in nearly every situation. It was important to us that our sons learn how to fit into the societal scheme of life.

Our expectations were clear early on. We laid it on the line, saying, "Don't directly disobey us, unless you want to suffer the consequences. After you have been told no, don't whine and nag trying to wear us down. This is also considered disobedience. We can be respectfully appealed to, but we will not bend to manipulation."

2. Mutual respect is absolutely essential. Our sons would most likely have wives and children someday and threatening to "potty on someone's face" just seems too barbaric of an approach to shared life! So we believed it was essential to practice mutual respect in our home: parent to child, child to parent, child to child, and oh yes, the really hard one, parent to parent!

3. Excellence is the standard. Someday our sons would enter the work force and the work habits they learned as children would determine their future success in life. If it was important for their future, it was important in our home. We asked that they always put forth their best effort in any commitment that contributed to their character formation, such as homework, church involvement, and extracurricular activities.

4. We are part of a community of faith. Our long-term goal was to raise sons who would be leaders of the church in their own generation. Taking part in the spiritual life of our family and our church was a non-negotiable. Complaining that youth group was boring would not get our children a pass to drop out. Instead, we challenged them to make it better.

5. Piano lessons and practicing are a must! I know this blows some minds, but here was our reasoning: There are some things that can only be learned a finger at a time at a keyboard. The world has been changed by people who were disciplined enough to sit alone year after year and write the book, or paint the picture, or form the revolutionary idea that convicted, inspired, and led the rest of us to a higher plane. When you learn music, you learn a discipline that involves a lot more than notes!

You're probably wondering when I'm going to tell you how to discipline your child. Well, I'm not. Effective discipline isn't really about this or that technique (although you'll find that some lend themselves better to lovingly shaping your child's character than others). It's about putting forth an intentional effort to instill our values in our children. In doing so, children not only take these values to heart, they actually bond to us as people.

The real tragedy for a child who is disciplined without an underlying plan may be that he may never come to really know and embrace his parents. A child who is threatening to "potty on your face," may be calling out to learn who his parent really is and where that parent is going to draw the line. It's as if he is asking, "How can I love and buy into you, when I can't figure out what you stand for?"

We stuck with our plan throughout our years of active parenting. It allowed us to pick our battles and gave us something concrete to turn to when our boys pushed the limits. Our goals gave us a real sense of knowing what we were doing and why we were doing it. We didn't have to reinvent the wheel every time one of our boys threw a tantrum or disobeyed. Discipline became a way of shaping our boys and passing our values on to them. Our sons are young adults now and we are happy with the men they have become. More importantly, they are, too. You can't ask for much more than that.

Valerie Bell is the author of several books, including, Getting Out of Your Kids Faces and Into Their Hearts (Zondervan), and Faith-Shaped Kids (Moody). She and her husband, Steve, live in Illinois.

Fall 2002, Vol. 15, No. 1, Page 39

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

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