Discipline Don’ts

March 22, 2010

“Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline will drive it far from him.” Proverbs 22:15

The below list is my attempt as a father and teacher to apply a biblical worldview and common sense to the task of disciplining children. I do not mean to suggest that I follow these parenting prohibitions perfectly. Of course not, all parents stumble their way through the issues. But I do mean to suggest that I probably should follow them perfectly. . . . and I believe you should too. Children deserve appropriate, thoughtful, self-controlled discipline. The fact that parents are not perfect should not stop them from striving to get it right. Therefore, I offer this list for your serious consideration. Here are twenty-five disciplinary mistakes that you should never make.

Twenty-five prohibitions makes for a big list, but I think you will find each item to be quite relevant. I recognize that a list of “Don’ts” is a negative angle, but I propose that one of the biggest challenges to proper parenting is controlling our many destructive tendencies. Besides, you may find that in recognizing the “Don’ts,” the “Do’s” come into clearer focus.

1. Don’t forget God! The ultimate foundation for parental discipline is faith in the God who has revealed himself as “Father.” I could not possibly set forth all of the implications of this revelation in a paragraph, but needless to say, it has huge ramifications for parenting. The way you deal with your children will massively influence their view of God. Parents must reflect his gentle yet stern, serious yet forgiving attitude toward disobedience. Parents must pray for their children and with their children. Parents must explain to children that their disobedience to Mom and Dad is really disobedience before God. Parents must put attitude and behavior problems in the category of sin, and must explain that God offers forgiveness only on account of his Son. Parents must lead children in repentance and reconciliation with the One who entrusted those precious children to them. Forgetting God is the biggest mistake parents can make in disciplining their children. So don’t do it. Don’t forget God!

2. Don’t spoil your children! Parents who spoil their children usually don’t realize that they are. By letting their children get away with disobedience and misbehavior, they may think they are expressing love or saving their children from pain, but they are not. They are actually sending the subtle message that they do not care and setting their children up for a lifetime of pain. One of the major love languages of children is discipline. Appropriate discipline gives them security and stability. If you are not disciplining your child, you are not loving your child in a very important area, and deep inside the child knows it. Of course, the child doesn’t think that carefully about the relationship between love and discipline, but over time, a child will feel it. Children react to consequences in a number of negative ways, but once those consequences are finished, they will experience the peace and security of having parents who care. Some of my best moments with my daughters have come after they have been spanked. Don’t spoil!

3. Don’t count! Ever! If you are accustomed to giving children a three-count “1 . . . 2 . . . . . . . 2½ . . . . . . . . . . .” Stop it, today! Don’t do it, ever! It is horrible! It is horribly ineffective! All it does is teach children that they can delay obedience. Counting is used because holding children accountable is hard work. It is a way for adults to try to get out of the difficulties of discipline. It is lazy and bad for children. It also makes you look foolish in front of other adults. Oh, and don’t follow an instruction with “Now!” either because you are essentially using it the same way as counting. The “Now” part should be implied every time you give an instruction. Don’t say “Now!” Don’t count!

4. Don’t repeat yourself! The only reason to repeat an instruction to a child is for clarity. Sometimes we adults really are not clear enough for a child to get it, or we talk to them before they are able to hear our instructions. In such cases, the adult should repeat the instruction more carefully and explicitly. But adults should not repeat themselves simply because the child is being disobedient. If you know that the child has understood and has chosen to ignore you, give a consequence. Don’t repeat!

5. Don’t give warnings! Don’t attempt to control behavior with sentences that go like this: “If you . . . then I’ll . . .” This habit is destructive for a number of reasons. First, it traps the adult in a course of action that may or may not prove to be the best. If you threaten to throw the toy away even though it is the expensive Christmas present, are you really prepared to do it? Or are you just using a scare tactic that children will quickly learn to recognize? Second, it gives the child an option to disobey. The child now can decide if disobeying is worth whatever consequence has been threatened. Many times the child will take that option, and you will feel like you lost even when you give the consequence. Third, it diminishes the importance of simple obedience. In other words, it changes the focus from a need to obey just because it is Mom or Dad and makes the focus a need to obey in order to avoid a particular consequence. The first motive is far more important than the second. Don’t give warnings!

6. Don’t yell in anger! Yelling harms the effort to teach self-control to the child by demonstrating a lack of self-control by the adult. Sometimes adults need to speak pretty loudly in order to be heard over a noisy environment or over a long distance. Yelling in such an instance might be necessary in order to get attention. But yelling out of anger and frustration is never appropriate. It tells a child that he has control over your emotions by pushing all the right buttons. It also uses the relationship instead of the consequence as a tool for punishment. I sometimes wonder if yelling is not just really a reflection of the adult’s own stresses and problems that have nothing to do with the child. If so, the child has become an object for venting, not an object of loving discipline. Yelling is a substitute for real discipline. Don’t yell!

7. Don’t give weak consequences! Spankings need to hurt, or you are wasting your time. Actually, all consequences need to hurt. The painfulness of the consequence is the basis of the hope of correction. Take away the pain, and you take away the hope. Think about it. How fast over the speed limit would you drive if you did not have the fear of a large fine? It is better not to give a consequence than to give one that sends no message. Don’t be weak!

8. Don’t give ridiculous consequences! Kids, like all people, have a built in sense of fairness. They know deep inside when they are guilty and when the adult is attempting to give an appropriate consequence. So even though it is important for a consequence to hurt, it is equally important that it not be over-the-top. Some parents are almost braggadocios about some of the extreme measures they have taken with their children. Well, maybe there is a time and a place for making a statement with a more extreme measure, but I believe that the regular pattern should demonstrate appropriateness. Consistently exaggerated consequences will eventually exasperate a child. They will become discouraged and embittered. Don’t be ridiculous!

9. Don’t settle for ineffective punishments! If a consequence is not working, it needs to change, and usually it will need to get worse. The principle of graduated consequences is fundamental to all discipline. It is in our court system, the military, and our schools. If it becomes evident that a child is stubbornly stuck in a bad pattern, you must press on that child with greater weight. Appropriate increases are important, but a parent simply cannot allow a child to develop a settled pattern of defiance. Don’t settle!

10. Don’t give group punishments! Unless everyone in the room is an offender, don’t punish everyone in the room. Don’t punish the innocent with the guilty. It is easy when three out of four children are going crazy just to punish them all, but you shouldn’t for several reasons. First and foremost, it is unfair. Why should the one child who was obeying suddenly receive a consequence? Second, misery loves company. If a disruptive child knows that he has the power to bring down everybody, he gains a subconscious sense of power and even pleasure. He may also feel like he is getting away with something. These feelings may actually further misbehavior rather than discourage it. Third, children don’t understand group accountability. I think it is a good idea to use group discipline sometimes with mature minds in order to teach teamwork and mutual accountability. Good examples would be college sports teams or military boot camps. But kids don’t get it. Don’t punish the group!

11. Don’t miss opportunities to praise! In other words, don’t just be about corrective discipline. Also be about positive reinforcement. One of the major driving causes of misbehavior is the desire for attention. If your child knows that he will only get attention from you when he is misbehaving, then the child will subconsciously do whatever gains attention. And I’m not just talking about rewards. Rewards are important, but compliments are more important than awards. Children need to hear when their parents are proud, and they need to hear it a lot. Don’t forget to praise!

12. Don’t neglect the relationship! “Rules without relationship equals rebellion.” You have to invest time and energy into a relationship with any child that receives your discipline. The child has to know that you are interested in them, not just their misbehavior. If a child gets your attention only when you are correcting their behavior, the child will feel unloved and might start misbehaving just to get attention. Besides, why would anyone neglect the joy of time with children? The rewards of the workplace or of leisure activities cannot compare with the rewards of investing in your children. Don’t neglect!

13. Don’t keep punishing a child after the child has been punished! It is a big mistake to stay angry with children, to give children the cold shoulder, or to drop additional unexpected consequences on them after they thought the punishment was over. Such treatment is really additional punishment on top of the punishment that they have already received. It confuses children, and it is a subtle way to undermine your own punishment decisions because you are acting as though they are not adequate. Whatever the punishment, when it’s over, it needs to be over. Don’t keep punishing!

14. Don’t debate with a disobedient child! It is a good thing to explain reasons for obedience to children, but not in the midst of an obedience crisis. When children respond to a clear instruction with the question “Why?” they are attempting to divert the matter of obedience. It is so deceptively effective that some parents probably think it is legitimate even upon reflection. But it is not. Getting trapped in a debate with a non-obeying child is not very different from being wrapped around a child’s finger. Instead, recognize that a diversion tactic is being employed and respond, not with a conversation but with a consequence. Remember this order: obedience first, explanation later. Don’t debate!

15. Don’t punish in public! Shaming a child in front of others is terrible. Don’t yell at children in front of others (Yelling is a no-no anyway. Right?), and don’t spank children in front of others, even their siblings. Some parents might think that embarrassment is an effective tool to prevent disobedience, but the downside is too great. It changes the issue from between the parent and the child and makes it between the child and everyone else. It is also very awkward for everyone present. If the disobedience happens at home, go into a bedroom and shut the door. If the problem occurs in a public place, find a private place for the punishment like a bathroom or the car. It is better to delay the punishment until an appropriate place than to give an immediate embarrassing one. Anyway, delayed punishment creates a fearful anticipation in the child that can be highly effective. Don’t punish in public!

16. Don’t forget to reconcile! When a child disobeys, the relationship has been compromised for the sake of the child’s disobedient impulse. Of course, the child is still the beloved son or daughter of the parent, but the strain on the relationship demands reconciliation. Giving a consequence is not enough. After the consequence is given, the child needs to confess the disobedience and ask forgiveness. The parent needs to listen and forgive. Then the parent needs to reassure the child of his unbreakable love. Hugs and kisses should abound, and the child should feel the security of the relationship. Don’t forget to reconcile!

17. Don’t gossip about your children! Gossip is talking about someone’s problems to people who do not need to hear. It is not gossip for parents to discuss their children’s issues in private or with a school authority or when seeking wise counsel. But it is gossip to talk about your children’s problems just because they provide fodder for discussion. God hates gossip, and I have a feeling that he especially hates gossip against children. And especially don’t gossip about your kids in front of your kids! This offense is particularly destructive because it humiliates children and treats them like they don’t exist. They have sensitive ears and hearts. Don’t gossip!

18. Don’t be inconsistent! Okay, so that is kind of a double negative, but you get the point. Children need their parents to be steady and predictable. They need to know that disobedience and misbehavior will receive a controlled consequence every time. They also need to know that obedience and correct behavior will have their faithful benefits. I wonder if some parents might think that being unpredictable is a strength that keeps children on their toes. Nothing could be more skewed. The goal of parenting is not to keep kids on their toes, but to teach them trust. Trust requires stability. Capriciousness is no substitute for consistency. Don’t be inconsistent!

19. Don’t discipline a kid for being a kid! Discipline is for disobedience and misbehavior. It is not for being uncoordinated, energetic, or naive. Kids are going to spill their drinks. Kids are going to be loud and rambunctious sometimes. Kids are going to misunderstand. Parents must have patience where patience is due and provide outlets for rambunctiousness. Don’t make rules that are impossible for kids to obey. Don’t squelch all expressions of energy. Don’t get upset at innocent behavior. Don’t discipline kid-stuff!

20. Don’t give rules you are not prepared to enforce! Not every house has the same rules, which is fine. So here is a guideline for determining which rules your house is going to have: If you are not willing to go to battle, don’t draw the battle line. Further, don’t go to battle over things you can’t win. Just war theory incorporates the following two questions: Is the war worth the cost? Is the war winnable? These questions should apply to your home. Before making a rule, you have to ask yourself if it is worth going to battle over and if victory can be accomplished. These considerations are behind why I do not have a steadfast rule about running or squealing in my house. To me, the strain of eradication is not worth the time and effort. Now, you might think I’m crazy to let my kids run around the house. That is your judgment, but you had better enforce the rules consistently and get the victory. Otherwise you are undermining your own authority and confusing your children. Don’t give unenforceable rules!

21. Don’t be deceived by secular psychology! It is a minefield of destruction. Secular psychology starts with the basic premise that every child is fundamentally good and ends with the goal of personally autonomy. These notions are a far cry from the Bible’s teachings about the sinful nature and man’s desperate need for the Good Shepherd. And be careful when you are listening to “Christian” psychologists too. Often times they are simply representing the influences of secular culture. Take every thought captive to the Word! I’m not saying that everything that comes from secular psychology is necessarily wrong, but I am saying that I would never trust anything unless I found confirmation for it in the Bible. The combination of a biblical worldview, good Christian mentors, and common sense is far more powerful than the suggestions of the lost. Don’t be deceived!

22. Don’t just sit there, Dad! Dad, do not sit idly by while your wife is dealing with discipline. Such passivity would be to neglect your awesome responsibility as the head the home. If you ever hear your wife being disrespected or disobeyed by your children, an instinctual reaction should trigger in you to go investigate and deal with the problem. The only time that Mom should have to exercise discipline on her own is when Dad is not home. And there will be enough times for that, so if you are home, get involved! Your leadership sets the tone for the entire home. It all starts with you. Don’t sit there, Dad!

23. Don’t present a divided front! Another massive mistake occurs when parents openly disagree with each other’s disciplinary decisions in front of children. Mom, if Dad is involved and he gives a hard punishment, don’t get teary-eyed and upset with him in front of the kids for his attempting to lead in the arena of discipline. If you must cry, go to the back of the house. Dad, if Mom has a rule that you think is silly, don’t disregard it in front of the children. Talk in private about disagreements, but don’t cut each other’s legs out from under yourselves in front of the children. This principle of a unified front is important not just at home but also among the child’s teachers and other authorities. If the child gets the sense that he can play the authority figures in his life against one another, he will. Don’t be divided!

24. Don’t give cheep grace! Instead, give costly grace at opportune times. I have in mind two huge thoughts here that work together. First, children need to receive a just punishment for their misbehavior most of the time. They simply must feel the weight of consequences and the consistency of boundaries. If getting off the hook becomes the expectation, they have become accustomed to cheep grace. Don’t let them get out of punishment on a regular basis. Second, children need to recognize that the grace they do receive has a price. The saving grace of God came at the expense of his Son. It is costly grace. Costly grace is free to the recipient but expensive to the provider. Keep that in mind. The next time you decide to give a disobedient child a break maybe it should come at some evident expense to you. That kind of grace preaches the gospel. Don’t give cheep grace!

25. Don’t give up! They are your children, and you are their only hope. There are going to be times when you don’t know what to do. In those times, God is able to supply you with the strength you need, but he definitely will not approve of throwing in the towel. Don’t underestimate your power as the parent of your child. The fruit of faithful disciple may take years to fully realize, but the number-one influence upon a child is still the parents. Don’t give up!

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