Discipline: What Works and Why?JAMES STENSON
Here are some basic ideas about the parents' role of moral leadership in the family, often referred to as "discipline."
start with an absolutely basic principle: your rights of authority in the family.
Effective parent leaders understand that parenthood is not an elective
office; you do not have to curry favor with your children. Your rights as a parent
come with the job, with your responsibility.
In the home as in business,
authority and responsibility — rights and duties — must go hand in hand;
you cannot have one without the other. The two have to be proportional, of equal
heft. If you were handed a tough assignment at work but were denied the power
and resources to carry it out, you'd be stymied with the burden of your duties,
and you'd seethe with resentment at this injustice. Nobody — in any human
situation — can bear responsibility without the power to carry it out.
a parent, you take on enormous responsibility. You are responsible for your children's
welfare, and for this you answer to the law, to society, to your conscience, to
your Creator. In fact — and this is something parents seldom think about
— you will even answer later to your grown children; someday they will look
back and judge you, up or down, for the way you dealt with them in childhood.
So when a man and woman become parents, they take on rights as well. They
confidently claim the authority — the power to choose and decide — that
they must possess to lead their children responsibly, to keep them from harm.
Authority means, among other things, the right to be obeyed. Smart parents
may harbor quiet doubts about many things in family life, but they never doubt
their right to their children's obedience. They assert this right, as they assert
all their other rights, in a clear, no-nonsense way. But they do this with understanding
and affection: they're "affectionately assertive," and this is the essence of
word "discipline" has had a bad press. It's widely misunderstood to mean punishment.
But it does not mean punishment. Nor does it mean control for its own sake. And
it does not mean enforcing rules just for the sake of minimizing hassles at home,
a kind of "damage control."
Discipline certainly involves occasional punishment
and some control as well as clear guidelines for behavior. But its real meaning
is far deeper and more important. Discipline really means confident, effective
Look at it this way. The word "discipline" is related to the
word "disciple," and it springs from the Latin word meaning "to learn." Discipline
is what happens when some leader teaches and his "disciples" learn. Broadly speaking,
discipline means teaching and learning, leading and joining.
the key idea here, discipline in family life means teaching the children to acquire
— by personal example, directed practice, and verbal explanation (in that
order) — the great virtues of sound judgment, a sense of responsibility,
personal courage, self-control, and magnanimity. These take root in the give and
take of family life and then flower to healthy maturity through the steady nourishment
of confident, unified parental leadership. All this takes years.
(teaching) requires planning and patience as much as occasional swift corrective
action. It calls for example-giving as much as rules, and encouragement and praise
as much as loving denial and just punishment.
It means living in the family
such that children are made to do what is right — as the parents see this
— and shun what is wrong, and to explain the differences so compellingly
that the children will remember the lessons all their lives and then pass them
on to their children. That's the long and the short of it.
the effective parents I've known practice what might be called affectionate
assertiveness. That is, they assert correct conduct and attitudes
by their example, action, and words. At the same time they're unfailingly affectionate
with their children. They correct their children because they love them, want
to protect them, and care above all else for their future welfare and happiness.
They set out to correct the fault, not the person. They "hate
the sin, love the sinner." They're willing, on occasion, to risk being temporarily
"unpopular" with a wayward son or daughter — knowing that their future happiness
is at stake and that their children will someday thank the and revere them as
How do you show affection to your children?
physically touch them. You welcome them on your knee and embrace them. You take
their hand while walking together. You playfully squeeze them on the shoulder
or arm. When walking by them as they're sitting someplace, you pat them on the
head or ruffle their hair a bit. You invite them to sit next to you and pat them
when they sit down. You give them a wink and a smile. You tell corny jokes and
laugh at theirs. You tell funny stories and find other ways to share a good laugh,
but without offending anyone. You whisper things in their ears. (Sometimes, when
you feel like shouting something at your small children, have them sit on your
lap instead and whisper it into their ear; this never fails to get their attention.
And your correction comes across affectionately, as it should.)
happiness and pride in their accomplishments. You make praise every bit as
specific as blame. (Parents tend to make blame specific but to put praise
in vague generalities: "You've been a good girl this morning....") Praise them
for a job well done, even when they've done it as punishment: "You did a great
job making your bed this morning.... Your room is spic and span, just the way
it should be.... Your homework looks neat and professional, and I'm proud of you...."
Children need sincere praise from time to time. In fact, we all do. One of people's
greatest needs, at any age, is sincere appreciation.
When you tuck them
into bed, you linger a bit, just a couple of minutes to make small talk. Bedtime
is a great occasion to talk things over with children, and listen to them. All
their lives, they will fondly remember their bedtime chats with Mom and Dad.
of all, with both sons and daughters, you show affection with your eyes. You should
listen to your children with your eyes. When you deliberately make eye-contact
with them, especially when they're speaking to you, you show how much you care
for them. In your eyes they can read your soul — your love for them, your
pride in them, your hopes for their future.
Somehow, mysteriously, normal
children sense when their parents correct them out of love. Great parents correct
because they love. Even though kids dislike the correction itself, deep
down they grasp the love behind their parents' direction. Sooner or later as they
grow up, they understand that their parents' occasional wrath is aimed at their
faults, not them personally.
Since you, as a parent, show plenty of affection
in normal, non-confrontational situations in family life (which is most of the
time), and because you always show willingness to forgive once apologies are made
and punishment completed, your children sense the truth — that your whole
life, including episodes of corrective punishment, devotes itself to their happiness.
Later, as young adults, and even before they're out of their teens, they will
fully understand why your love moved you to act as you did, and they will thank
these things being said, what can you do to punish misbehavior in fairly serious
matters? Here is a list drawn from parents' experience:
but painlessly, restrain the children. Take them by the hand or arm and remove
them to someplace private. Take both hands or wrists in yours, hold the children
still, and look them in the eye. Say what you have to say in a low but "I-mean-business"
way and keep at it until they've understood and said they are sorry.
them physically and make them spend what some parents call "time out" — a
few minutes of isolation away from the family, even in a closed room. Don't let
them return until they've said they're sorry. (For very young children, you may
have to supervise their time in a corner or some other "punishment spot.")
older children, remove privileges. This means no games or television or use of
the telephone. For teens it might mean no phone calls or going out with friends
or use of the car. (Teens who display thoughtless attitudes and uncontrolled impulsiveness
are a menace on the road and shouldn't drive anyway. You can make this clear to
them: only responsible, mature adults may drive the family car.)
them to work. Have a so-called "job jar" at home. This is a receptacle containing
slips of paper describing jobs to be done around the house. Let the malefactor
pick out three slips and then choose one, which must then be done to your satisfaction.
Also, if kids complain they're "bored" around the house, direct them to the job
jar. Parents who do this hardly ever hear complaints from their kids about boredom.
The word "boring" disappears from the family vocabulary.
two siblings are quarreling and won't stop after one warning, put both of them
to work on the same project: cleaning dishes, raking leaves, gardening, washing
the car, whatever. This treatment usually brings about a reconciliation. Misery
have to insert a parenthesis here: For many kids in consumerist families, being
banished to the bedroom is scarcely a punishment at all. Typically, kids' rooms
bulge with stereos, radio, television, and electronic games galore, and the kids
live like pashas. Their rooms are essentially entertainment centers surrounding
From what I can see, many healthy families hold firmly to
this policy: each child's bedroom is a place for study, reading, and sleep —
period. Entertainment gadgets are only for common areas of the house, where people
can enjoy them together. This policy has the happy side effect of eliminating
distractions from homework. It works. And the kids learn a truth about life: When
we try to work and play at the same time, we wind up doing neither — leisure
is really enjoyable only when we've earned it.
In any event, whatever
method of correction you use with your small children, see it as an investment
that will later yield high return. Once you've established your authority in their
youngest years, then you've won most of the battle. When they're older, just a
businesslike warning or flashing-eyed glare from you, or even your expression
of "disappointment," usually works to restore cooperation. By that time, the kids
know you mean business. In child rearing as in law (and especially with the IRS),
there are few things as effective as a sincere threat.
parents — those who live this affectionate assertiveness — work with
each other to plan out different lessons of responsibility (that is, punishments)
in response to their children's varying types of misbehavior. This is important.
The more carefully these responses are thought out beforehand, and thus made routine
in family life, the calmer and more consistent both parents can be in handling
their kids' provocations.
This rational structure avoids, or at least
minimizes, the problem in many ineffective families, especially when dealing with
teen-agers — impromptu punishments imposed in anger, often harsh and over
reactive, and resented as unfair. Remember, you can be tough with normal children
and quite effective with them if, and only if, they perceive that you're trying
to be fair.
Here is a rational structure for imposing memorable correction
on the kids for their wayward ways. It's based on a sound principle from military
history: Those generals who chose their battlegrounds ahead of time usually managed
to win — Hannibal at Cannae, Wellington at Waterloo, Lee at Fredericksburg,
Eisenhower at Normandy.
Choose your battleground. Don't scatter your resources
trying to correct the kids every single time they do wrong. If you tried this,
you'd soon need to be fitted for a straitjacket.
Instead, establish three
levels of misbehavior, each calling for proportionately heavy response. In rising
order of seriousness, these are...
First, misdemeanors. These
are minor infractions, just kiddish misdeeds arising from childish inexperience,
thoughtlessness, reckless impulsiveness — such as tracking mud in the house,
noisy rough-housing, throwing missiles indoors, forgetting (that is, honestly
forgetting) to do chores, failing to put things away. A lot of these habits the
kids will outgrow anyway. These misdeeds call for quick but low-level response,
or sometimes just letting the matter go. It's like the quality control system
in a factory: try to catch a sample every few times. You don't need to correct
minor goofs every single time, and you might go crazy if you tried.
serious infractions. These are acts where children infringe on the rights
of others, especially siblings — causing offense by name-calling, taking
property without permission, physical aggression, refusing to give or accept apology,
using profanity, and similar deeds of barbaric injustice. Though you can occasionally
overlook the misdemeanors mentioned above, you must correct these serious lapses
of justice and charity practically every single time.
Never forget, every
time you correct your children's injustices, their infringements on the rights
of others, you are forming their lifelong conscience and ethics. You are preparing
them for the way they will later treat their spouses, children, and professional
colleagues. So there is a lot at stake here. Don't let up and don't give up.
felony infractions. These are serious matters that endanger your children's
welfare, either now or later in life, and they call for the severest punishment
every single time, whatever this might be. The kids should have the roof fall
in on them.
For the youngest children this category obviously includes
whatever physically endangers them now: playing with fire, wandering into the
street, poking metal objects into electrical outlets, and the like. Punishment
should be swift and memorable. It seems that nearly all parents, even the most
pacifist, react this way instinctively.
But equally important are those
wrongdoings that threaten children's welfare later on as adults — those acts
that imperil their basic concepts of respect for rightful authority and the importance
of personal integrity. You must impose swift, serious punishment every time your
children do the following:
disrespect for you personally — call you names, try to strike you, raise
their voice in anger at you, say that they "hate" you.
to defy your authority — say "no" or otherwise refuse to comply with your
direction, or deliberately "forget" to do so. This pertains even in relatively
minor matters, especially after you've given warning. If you direct your child
to clean up a mess of his and he refuses or just walks away, then the issue becomes
one of authority, not just clean-up. You must not permit him to get away with
lie to you, especially after being put on their honor to tell the truth.
three areas are vitally important for your children's welfare. Everything
you have to teach your kids depends on their respect for you and for your authority
and for their own word of honor. If you lose this, you lose them.
parents combine rightful authority with respect for their children's rights.
do have rights, of course. Not because they're children, but because they are
people; and all people, even young ones, have certain basic rights. Here are the
rights that great parents keep in mind as they exercise moral leadership in the
Right to privacy (up to a point). Children need a certain
security of privacy. For instance, they should have a place of their own to keep
personal effects away from prying by other family members. And their normal, above-board
dealings with friends should be respected as "personal," essentially no one's
business but theirs.
Naturally, these privacy rights are not absolute, just
as they're not absolute in adult society either. Sometimes privacy rights must
give way before higher necessity; for instance, the law can force testimony under
oath about some personal affairs, and it makes allowances for "reasonable search"
in criminal investigations.
So, too, in your family. Your children's privacy
rights give way to your parental rights wherever some serious danger suggests
itself — for instance, in possible involvement with drugs, or what you perceive
as excessive intimacy with the opposite sex. But in normal circumstances, parents
who respect their children's privacy generally find that their children grow to
be open and sincere with them. If you respect their rights, they will respect
your judgment, and then come to you with the truth. It is control-oriented, excessively
prying parents who find their children close-mouthed, secretive, and sneaky.
time to time, through rage or oversight, you may blunder in doing justice to your
children. Nobody's perfect. Whenever this happens, follow up with an apology.
to presumption of innocence.
Don't rush to judgment. Listen to your children's side of things, especially in
dealing with your older children, and most especially when you did not personally
witness the alleged misdeed. But by the same token, never undercut your spouse
if it was he or she who witnessed things. If you think your spouse is mistaken
or over reactive, then discuss the matter privately.
not to be publicly embarrassed. Whenever you can, make corrections personally
and privately, as you would in business. If you chew out your child in front of
siblings or friends, the lesson is probably lost. Your child's resentment at public
humiliation acts like static to cancel out your message. Corrections made privately
— eyeball to eyeball — go straight to the point.
to just punishment. An angry, over reactive punishment easily skyrockets
way out of proportion to the original provocation. To be effective and long-lasting
— to get the lesson across for life — punishment has to be fair. It
will be fair if it's rational, and it's rational if thought out carefully beforehand,
as mentioned above. Sometimes, in fact, you can even ask your son or daughter
to propose a suggestion of their own for reasonable punishment: "What do you think
is fair? Make me an offer." More often than not, surprisingly, their proposals
turn out to be reasonable, and sometimes even more severe than what you had in
to a second chance. This means that, once apologies and restitution are forthcoming,
the kids start with a clean slate. Children, like all the rest of us, resent grudge-bearing
and long memories for past misdeeds that were supposedly forgiven and over with.
We do not really forgive unless we also forget. When you truly forgive and forget,
you show the kids that you disapprove of their faults, not them personally. Forgiveness
like this is crucial, absolutely indispensable for family solidarity. The family
is one place in the world where we can always count on a fresh start.
If you imposed an excessive punishment, then retract it and scale back
to whatever seems reasonable. Don't ever be afraid to say "I'm sorry" to your
children, and to explain why. Never fear that you'll seem inconsistent in their
eyes. You really are being consistent in what matters most — your heartfelt
determination to treat them fairly. When you apologize, you teach them a valuable
lesson: you put justice ahead of your ego. What are we talking about here? In
all of this we're really talking about the way responsible grown-ups try to treat
each other. You, like anyone else, would expect other adults to respect your rights
to privacy, presumption of innocence, personal dignity, just punishment, and so
on. You'd expect this treatment from your spouse , your employers, the law. So,
what you're really teaching your children is ethical conduct among responsible
adults. You are treating your children as adults-in-the-making, and you begin
by respecting them as people.
negative guidelines are at least as helpful as positive ones, often much more
so. It's sometimes useful for a parent to know what not to do — that is,
what to avoid — in a complicated situation.
I used to ask veteran
parents (people whose children had grown and gone) what warnings or other "negative
know-how" they'd pass on to younger parents . In paraphrase, here are some bits
of hard-earned wisdom they shared with me....
husbands: Don't neglect your wife. She needs what we all need: understanding,
affection, gratitude, support, and appreciation. For sure, she doesn't get these
from the kids when they're small. So if she doesn't get them from her husband
either, then she doesn't get them at all. You can tell you're neglecting her if
she starts complaining about small things around the house, one after another,
circling around and around the central problem: your apparent unconcern for her.
Wake up. Pay attention. Listen to her opinion, help her out, tell her she's great,
hug and kiss her from time to time — all this goes a long way. Every time
you kiss your wife in front of the children, you are, in effect, kissing each
of them in turn.
wives: Don't undercut your husband. Do all you can to lead your children to respect
their father and his authority. He simply cannot lead as a father without his
children's abiding respect. Your children's growth in character, their lifelong
happiness, can rise or fall on how deeply they respect their Dad. So lead them,
by your example and your praise for him, to view their father as you do: a great
man, a model of masculine strength and accomplishment, a self-sacrificing hero
worthy of the whole family's gratitude and honor. Your children's respect for
their Dad grow directly from your own esteem for him, and this is crucially important
to his influence on their lives.
to this story from a man in the Midwest: "I was the youngest of five children
in a single-parent home. My Dad died when I was an infant, so I never knew him.
My mother raised us as a widow, and she was a great woman. Every now and then,
when I was getting out of hand as a boy, and even as a teenager, my Mom would
take me aside and say, 'Jimmy, your father would never approve of what
you're doing right now! He would be very upset. So stop it...' This never failed
to touch me, not once. It always brought me to my senses and made me straighten
Do you see? The father of this home continued to influence his children
for good, even after his death, because of his great wife's love and honor for
him. Because he was still alive in her heart, he was still the father of this
underestimate your children. Have high ambitions for their swift, step-by-step
growth into maturity. We all tend to become what we think about, and kids tend
to become what their parents expect of them. Even when they sometimes let you
down and you have to correct them, make them understand that you see this as just
a blip along the way. You have no doubt, none whatever, that they'll someday grow
into excellent men and women. You're proud of them, confident in them. Always
treat teenagers like large children. Think of them, and treat them, as near-adults.
Pull them up, fine-tune their consciences, welcome them to adult reality. Show
them how to balance a checkbook, pursue a job, work professionally, please their
bosses, deal respectfully with the opposite sex. Show them how to buy good clothes,
take care of their wardrobe, and dress well. When they complain, "Why don't you
trust me?" teach them that you distinguish between integrity and judgment. You
trust their integrity and sense of family honor, their honesty and good intentions
— always have, always will. What you must mistrust for now, in good conscience,
is their inexperienced judgment; that is, you cannot and will not let them hurt
themselves through their naïve blunders. When they start thinking like responsible
adults, then you'll trust them right across the board — in judgment as well
ever tell your teens that the high-school years are the best part of their lives.
This isn't true. Adolescence, in fact, is one of life's toughest times: coping
with blunders and glandular upheavals, surfing up and down learning curves. Tell
your kids, and above all show them, that every stage of life is interesting, challenging,
enjoyable for anyone with a sporting, adventurous spirit. Teens who've been well
brought up have a great life ahead of them, like the life they see in you. (Think
about it: How many older teens and young adults are tempted to commit suicide
because they believe what they've been told: the best part of life is behind them?)
let your kids weasel out of commitments. Don't let them take back their word on
a whim. Before they make promises or otherwise commit themselves to a course of
action, press them to think consequences through and understand their terms, because
you will hold them to their word. If they want to buy a pet, make them first commit
themselves to feeding and caring for it — then hold them to that. If they
accept an invitation to a party (after first checking with you), they're obligated
to attend even if something more alluring turns up. If they want to take guitar
lessons, make them promise to persevere, no matter what, for two or more years.
ask children if they'd "like" to do something that you expect them to do anyway.
Simply tell them firmly and positively of the plan. And similarly, don't ask "OK?"
at the end of a directive request — "It's your turn to put the dishes away,
OK?" What you mean by this term is "Do you understand?" But they may take it to
mean "Do you approve? Is this all right with you?" This misunderstanding can lead
you're correcting your kids and they ask "Why?" — don't argue with them.
If they're looking for an explanation, give it once only. If they persist with
"Why?" then they're looking for an argument, not an explanation. Close off the
matter. In other words, they must take your "no" as an answer, but you don't take
theirs. You can dialogue with your kids about many issues, but there's no "dialogue"
about your rights as a parent.
let your kids dress in such a way as to bring shame to the family. Nobody has
a right to do this.
miss small opportunities to talk with your kids. Listen politely and respectfully.
You can talk with them while driving, doing dishes and other chores together,
walking and biking, working on hobbies you share, tucking them into bed. If you
cut down on tube-watching, you'll find slivers and chunks of time here and there.
Make the time, and never forget you haven't much of it left — your kids will
grow up with incredible swiftness.
shout at your kids all the time. It's a waste of breath. If one of your kids needs
a talking to, take him or her out for a walk or a soda — and say what you
have to say in a calm, serious way. Don't forget to listen, either — for
your kids' view of things, though wrong, may still have a point. A couple of heart-to-heart
talks are better than a dozen explosions.
get trapped into blazing arguments, especially with your teens, and most especially
if you have a temper. Words can wound and take a long time to heal. If tempers
are flaring, put off the discussion till later — that evening or the next
day — when you've both cooled down. If you go too far, be the first to apologize.
forget to praise your children, and be specific about it. Kids need a pat on the
back from time to time. We all do. Give praise for effort, not just success. Teach
the kids this adult-life lesson: because success depends on effort, then effort
is more important than success. You always appreciate when your children try.
down to your children's level, but don't stay there. Kids are kids, and you have
to come down to their level to take them by the hand. But your long-term goal
is to bring them up to your own level — to lead them, patiently over time,
to think and act like mature grown-ups. So live like a grown-up. Enjoy being an
adult on top of life, and let them see what this means. If they see you enjoy
living as a confident, productive adult, they'll have a life to look forward to.
Stenson. “Discipline: What Works and Why”.
Published with the permission of
James Stenson gives permission to copy or e-mail this folio or
any others from his Web page (see below). He asks only that you include the following
attribution statement at the bottom of each folio: "Permission is hereby granted
to reproduce this material for private use. It is taken from the Website of James
B. Stenson, educational consultant."
Stenson is the author of Anchor:
God's Promises of Hope to Parents, Compass:
A Handbook on Parent Leadership, Upbringing:
A Discussion Handbook For Parents of Young Children and Lifeline:
The Religious Upbringing of Your Children among others. Mr. Stenson is
also the author of numerous articles and booklets including the very popular “Preparing
for Peer Pressure, A Guide for Parents of Young Children” and “Successful
Fathers — The Subtle but Powerful Ways Fathers Mold Their Children's
Characters”. An educator, author, and public speaker, Stenson was the co-founder
of The Heights School in suburban Washington, D.C. and founder and first headmaster
of Northridge Preparatory School in suburban Chicago.
Copyright © 2003 James