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Rethinking Discipline


The homes we spent time in as a kid had a particular feel to them.

Maybe it was the way the backyard sounded at night, along with how your grandparent's house smelled during the day. Maybe your uncle or aunt had a funny sign on the wall that you never quite knew what it meant. Whatever it was, each home made you feel a specific way.

I remember feeling safe in certain homes, but on-edge in others. Even to this day, I'm not sure I could tell you why.

As a parent, lately I've been wondering if the kids in this generation feel safe in the homes they live in (and how much of that feeling of safety is up to us as parents). For instance,

  • Do they sense that we see them as worthy of respect...or in need of a lesson?
  • Do they sense that we think at any moment they're about do something great...or misbehave?

Jesus was pretty open with how he felt about kids. He opened up his arms to them so they could feel welcomed into his Kingdom. He also said that this was how we're to treat them.

Because God's heavenly home also has a particular feel to it, and it feels safe.

God invites us at our worst into His best. He knows we're capable of greatness even though without him we'd get stuck in our shortcomings.

What if our discipline-style reflected this somehow?

If our kids knew that we were going to respond instead of react when they made mistakes, might they become more at ease when coming to us when they blow it big-time?

I'm not suggesting that we weaken our efforts to guide our kids or abandon punishment altogether, but I am suggesting that we start rethinking discipline as an opportunity to be fully present in how we engage instead of an opportunity to react. For example:

  • Dignify the desire: Even the most horrible things our kids do tracks back to a basic desire. Perhaps they did what they did to feel accepted or because they had anger inside of them they didn't know how to properly address. If you can see what motivated them in the beginning, you can meet them at the foundation of where they went wrong versus saying, "You just need to behave better." Some of the unnatural things our kids do start in perfectly natural tensions where they really were doing the best they could with all that was presented before them. This is our opportunity to own that with them as we talk about other options they had in front of them in that moment. That leads to the next step.
  • Reclaim the decision process: Once you know what their motivation was, you can give better guidance on new ways to handle it. Saying, "The next time you're feeling this way, how about we try this instead?" helps them see what other options are before them and allows you to circle back to this list in the future. In this way, you end up supporting them versus combating them.
  • Invest in your kid: Let's face it—sometimes we need to give our kids a "time out" because we need it as much as they do. At some point, it's healthy to then circle back and find a productive way to spend time with our kids. They need to know that while we don't approve of what they did, we still love and value them.

By resetting ourselves, we turn discipline into an opportunity for our kids to reset.

Here's an example of how that might play out:

"Honey, remember when I said we would leave the play-place after five minutes? It is now that time. You can go down the slide one more time."

"I don't want to go!" 

"I can tell you really like it here. What's your favorite part about it?"

"The slides."

"They are fun. That's why I brought you here. It's also why when I ask you to do something, I first want you to say 'Okay' before you tell me you want to do something different. That shows me that you respect me and makes me more open to hearing your ideas. Like I said, I will give you one more turn down the slide but you need to say 'Okay' to me right now or else you won't get that turn."

"I still want to stay!"

"I know staying here makes you happy, but how you just treated me makes me sad. I really wanted you to respect me because I'm the one who decides if we're coming back. For now, we're going. You can walk or I will carry you." 

Obviously, there's no guarantee that you won't be dealing with a tantrum in this moment. "Been there, done that," right?

What's important is that we make sure our kids "feel" us trying to understand them even while we remain firm in what we expect back. We can apply this to parenting teenagers, too. We're helping our kids know we see them and will guide them toward something, instead of just waiting to punish them.

It's us giving our best even when they're at their worst.

Any thoughts on this?

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  • Tresse Heselwood

    Hi Tony, we tried this sort of reasoning with my daughter who is now 13. The conversation you wrote is pretty much the dialogue we would have with her from the age of 2 and while it worked often, it’s now resulted in us have an insolent, disobedient and argumentative child of 13 with raging hormones added it is making everyone’s life difficult. No more softly – softly for us. My 6YO son now gets very little explanation and my daughter is really rebelling as she wants to be treated as an equal rather than accept we are parents and don’t need to explain everything to her. It’s made a rod for our back that I wouldn’t want any parent to bear.

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