The Family: A Proclamation to the World counsels parents to bring up their children in love and righteousness. Among the greatest challenges parents face is persuading children to comply and treating them with loving direction when they don't.
According to parenting scholars, parents use three major approaches to win their children's compliance: coercion, love withdrawal, and induction.
Parents who use coercion attempt to force their will on their child through hostile or severely punitive means, such as yelling, ordering, hitting, or demeaning. While such strategies often yield compliance, research shows that parents who frequently use them produce children who lack social ability are withdrawn, lack spontaneity, are more aggressive and have an underdeveloped conscience.
Parents who use love withdrawal show disapproval and suspend their loving attention until the behavior changes. For example, they might refuse to talk to their child until she complies. Research on the effectiveness of this approach shows mixed results, but they do indicate a child may suffer from excessive guilt if frequently disciplined this way.
Induction includes reasoning with children and explaining the effects of their behavior on others. It uses patience and gentle persuasion to encourage desired behavior. Experts say induction is a far healthier form of discipline than either coercion or love withdrawal. Parents who regularly use induction produce children who have better-developed consciences and are more socially competent, responsible, internally motivated to make good choices, independent, confident, and achievement-oriented.
Sometimes, however, simple reasoning is not enough to win compliance. On these occasions, parents may be tempted to yell, threaten, or ground their child. Invoking consequences is a better alternative. When parents allow children to experience the direct results of their choices, rather than shielding them from these results, children learn for themselves that certain actions produce certain outcomes. The emphasis is on teaching the child, not punishing him. For example, a child who gets up late for school and misses the bus will learn an important lesson if he has to walk to school rather than be driven by a parent. A child who doesn't pick up her dirty socks and put them in the hamper should experience the direct result of her choice -- no clean socks to wear.
It's important for parents to set up in advance the consequences that will logically follow from a particular misbehavior. For example, a teen who breaks curfew loses the use of the family car for a predetermined amount of time. A child who goes to visit friends without telling Mom or Dad first loses the privilege of spending time with friends for a time. When there isn't a clear connection between a misbehavior and a consequence, parents are likely punishing rather than teaching.
In order for consequences to be effective, they must be given in the spirit of guiding and teaching, say parenting scholars Wally Goddard and Larry Jensen. Discipline should be delivered in the context of a love and tender concern for a child's long-term welfare. Parents should have a sincere interest in teaching children correct principles and not see discipline as an opportunity to vent or take revenge. Parental authority should never be mistaken for the opportunity to command or abuse. If we're feeling like we want our children to suffer "for their own good," Goddard and Jensen say, we probably don't have the right spirit.
Some parents insist on harsh punishment or immediately assign consequences for misbehavior. But parenting scholars Craig Hart and Lloyd Newell say it's important to understand the reasons behind a child's misbehavior before deciding on discipline. Sometimes a child behaves badly because of a disorder that requires medical attention. Perhaps a child is acting out to gain attention, meet an unfilled need, or express fear or worry. A teen might be late getting home from an evening outing because he helped a stranded motorist. Reacting with immediate punishment or assignment of consequences in these situations would probably be counterproductive. Parents should sincerely try to understand their children's behavior rather than simply react to it. With understanding, parents can provide more effective discipline and be better teachers to their children. Full understanding of the circumstances surrounding bad behavior can also help parents plan ahead to prevent potential problems
After being corrected, children often have a particularly strong need to feel their parents' love. Children need to know that they are still loved and valued, even when they misbehave. Wise parents follow up discipline by assuring children they are loved and cared for.
What about spanking? Although there is some mixed evidence on the results of spanking, most experts agree other options are better. Spanking teens has particularly negative outcomes, both for the teen and for the parent-teen relationship. Better strategies include withdrawing privileges, giving time out, providing opportunities to apologize and make amends, or imposing other consequences.
In short, the best discipline style avoids harshness and minimizes reprimands. It is a careful balance between reasonable strictness and unconditional love and acceptance. Effective discipline is always delivered within the context of a loving parent-child relationship.
Here are practical suggestions for disciplining with love:
- Calm down. Correct children when you're calm and collected, not when you're frustrated and angry. If you catch yourself about to discipline with anger, take a deep breath, stop, and count to 30. Or send your child to his room and go to your own bedroom to compose yourself and think about the situation.
- Strive to understand your child's misbehavior before you discipline. Is your daughter acting out because she is tired, restless, or anxious for attention? Maybe a nap or some extra time with you would be more beneficial than punishment. Is your son in a freedom-seeking stage of growth (typically the two's, three's, and the teenage years)? What can you do to help him seek independence safely and responsibly? Is something in the environment bothering him? Perhaps he's lost a favorite toy or he's afraid of the dark or he performed poorly on an exam. Maybe your child just didn't know better. If so, teach him rather than punish him.
- Use consequences. Consequences teach children how their actions affect their own and others' lives. Consequences work better than threats and nagging. They're especially effective if your children are included in deciding what consequences should follow what misbehavior. For example:
Before children go out, many parents have a routine of asking the Who-What-Where-When questions: Who are you going to be with? What will you be doing? Where will you be? What time will you be home? They agree together on the answers. Any changes in plans must be approved by a phone call. Otherwise, friend privileges are lost for a time.
Most parents assign their children chores, often with the expectation they'll be done before dinner. If they complain about doing their chores, they can be asked to go to their rooms until they agree to comply. Otherwise, they miss dinner.
- Look for alternatives to spanking and physical punishment. Options include withdrawing privileges (unsafe driving will result in not being allowed to use the car for one week), emphasizing the damage or pain caused ("You made your sister so sad when you called her that," or "This has really damaged my trust in you,") and requiring restitution (apologizing, working to repair damaged property or injured relationships).
- Continue to love. When discipline is given, make sure you follow it with love and affection. Assure your children that even when you don't like what they do, you still love them. Express confidence in them ("We all make mistakes. I know you'll do better next time.")
Written by Megan Northrup, Research Assistant, and Stephen F. Duncan, Professor, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.
- Goddard, H. W., & Jensen, L. (2000). Understanding and applying proclamation principles of parenting. In D. C. Dollahite (Ed.), Strengthening our families: An in-depth look at the proclamation on the family (pp. 124-134). Salt Lake City, UT: Bookcraft.
- Hart, C., & Newell, L. (2000). Proclamation-based principles of parenting and supportive scholarship. In D. C. Dollahite (Ed.), Strengthening our families: An in-depth look at the proclamation on the family (pp. 100-123). Salt Lake City, UT: Bookcraft.