“How do I discipline my child?” This is one of the most frequently asked questions that I’ve received since publishing, “Discipline: A U.S. Marine’s take on what it is and why we need it.” It’s a wise question because on one hand, discipline done right can influence positive behavior, solidify your relationship, and increase your child’s chances of succeeding in their life’s endeavors. On the other hand, discipline done wrong can have traumatic long-term effects, reduce confidence, and create a rift in your relationship that is incredibly difficult to mend. Here’s a brief overview of what I previously wrote so you’ll have context for my recommendations today. I encourage you to read (or listen to) the entire article!
Recap of “Discipline: A U.S. Marine’s take on what it is and why we need it.”
Discipline is training and preparing, not chastising and punishing.
If I were to break my idea of discipline down into its simplest form, I’d submit that discipline is a cyclical process where you learn from someone you trust, reenact what you learned (self-discipline), and teach what you’ve learned. The word discipline was tainted over time to incorporate “chastisement” or “punishment”; however, “discipline” originated from a word that describes a teacher presenting information that a pupil accepts.
Effective discipline leads to self-discipline.
We emphasize discipline because we want our children to apply what they learn in our absence. That’s self-discipline. You lead others to become self-disciplined by applying the following fundamentals:
- Set the example!
- Remember, it’s a team effort.
- Create a structure for repetitive actions.
- Be consistent and persistent.
- Reward and hold accountable.
- Prioritize education and explain the “why.”
Building upon this foundation.
I’ve read several books since I wrote my original article about discipline that have caused me to reflect on my own relationships at home and work. There are two specific books that I highly recommend to any parent, teacher, mentor, or caregiver. The first book is Daring Greatly by Brené Brown that talks about embracing our vulnerabilities. I honed in on her philosophy on how ineffective and harmful it is to “shame” others into compliance. The second book is Hold on to Your Kids by Dr. Gordon Neufeld and Dr. Garbor Maté. Their thoughts on viewing every interaction with our children through the lens of connection or “attachment” resonated with me.
I’m going to intertwine some of the concepts from these two books, and use some of Dr. Neufeld and Dr. Maté’s principles of natural discipline (chapter 16) in Part 2; but first, I want to establish a baseline understanding. We must relinquish control of the outcome.
Relinquish control of the outcome.
Yes, this seems counterintuitive and potentially contradictory to what I have previously recommended. I admit that this can even seem like advice from a defeated father. Contrarily, I couldn’t be more inspired and motivated to deepen my relationship with my children as I lead them to become self-disciplined! I still believe that we should begin with the end in mind like Dr. Steven Covey recommends in his books; however, I believe we’ve become unhealthily obsessed with how our children will turn out. A combination of this obsession and failing to embrace our own vulnerabilities associated with what appears to be our children rejecting us can taint our relationships and diminish our influence.
Children are living beings… not robots. That means that no matter how much you attempt to control the environment or manipulate external factors, only the child can determine the person he or she will become in the future. I highlighted the words “manipulate” and “determine” because these two contrasting concepts underpin my entire philosophy. Another word for manipulate is “coerce,” which is to persuade someone to do something by using force or threats. This kind of leadership may actually be effective in getting your child to do what you perceive to be the right thing–garnering praise from the untrained eye.
I counter by explaining that this type of leadership usually restricts creativity, damages the relationship, and often develops individuals who are unable to solve complex problems–especially in the absence of direct supervision and guidance. The negative impact on the relationship is arguably the most crucial aspect because it creates a vulnerability for the child that is filled by immature people with no vested interest in the child’s success in today’s peer-oriented society.
The bottom line:
There’s no code you can enter that will develop your child into what you assess to be the perfect being. Attempting to do so will only cause emotional distress for you and your child.
Relinquishing control of the outcome isn’t an excuse to become disconnected or give up leading your children; it’s a freeing mindset and daily commitment to doing your best to mentor and guide your children without attempting to control their actions. Many metaphorically describe this phenomenon as “teaching a man to fish” or “leading a horse to water.” In both scenarios, you lead the individual towards what’s best for them, but you cannot attempt to force them to take a certain action. They must determine their own fate.
Punishment vs Redemption
This foundational belief or “baseline” is what forced me to reexamine my take on punishment. Oxford Languages describes “punishment” as “the infliction or imposition of a penalty as retribution for an offense.” I cringe at the eerie parallels between that definition and what the United States Department of Justice describes as a “response to crime” within the criminal justice system construct. Therein, offenders are apprehended, tried, and punished. Some would argue that rehabilitation and restitution have received recent attention. However, the fact remains that “an estimated 68% of released prisoners are arrested within 3 years, 79% within 6 years, and 83% within 9 years.”
This highlights that the crime-punishment methodology becomes cyclical, and it has the potential to condition one’s mind to persist in this dangerous cycle. For example, when my oldest daughter was three, her daycare implemented what was called “the red chair.” The teacher could send a child to the red chair for 1 minute of time-out for every year of the child’s age if he or she committed an offense. Well, there was this young man who loved to hit others. So much so, that he would hit someone and immediately begin walking to the red chair to serve his sentence…without being told. My wife and I still chuckle about this, but it is one of many examples of how punishments only lead to immediate compliance, not the change in behavior we seek.
A different approach.
Leading our children to become self-disciplined requires a different approach. This approach should help them recognize what they did wrong, understand why it is wrong, and determine they will not do it again. That’s why I encourage parents, teachers, mentors, and caregivers to remove the word “punishment” from their vernacular. Instead, teach your children that there are positive and negative consequences for our actions.
I also encourage leaders to implement rules and restrictions that keep the child focused on their daily priorities and maintaining a connection with those who share common values with the adult. As I’ve said before, there are a lot of people and things grasping for our children’s attention to influence their behavior. Either we can combat those influences or collaborate with them. Either way, we must be intentional about how we lead and guide our children.
My dad has always given me wise advice even if I pretended I wasn’t listening. One piece of advice he gave me was, “always give your children an opportunity to redeem themselves.” We cannot overlook this important note. To “redeem” is to regain possession of something. So what is lost when our children do something wrong? Nothing! No matter how frustrating their behavior may have been, you still love your child unconditionally. The problem is your child may perceive that they are disconnected from you, and their perception becomes their reality.
I’m not suggesting that we pamper each of our children’s fleeing emotions. This would be an exhausting and fruitless endeavor. However, we must be keenly aware of the moments our children feel disconnected from us. Strengthening the connection to our children should always be the focal point of any interaction with them. This leads us to our first principle of discipline in Part 2 of this series: Use connection, not separation, to bring a child into line.