By Carrie Friesen, MD

We all know that discipline is important, but it is also difficult, time consuming, and easy to avoid. One of the most important goals in discipline is to “shepherd” your child’s heart, as author Ted Tripp puts it in Shepherding a Child’s Heart. In other words, I hope my response to my misbehaving child helps her at a deep, inward level in addition to correcting the outward behavior.

This involves investing our lives in our children though open and honest communication, which helps them understand themselves and the world in which they live. They need to understand not only “what” they did wrong (the external behavior), but also “why” they did it (from the inward abundance of their heart). What we do is a product of how we are on the inside. The most helpful discipline must be directed to the heart, and not just to change outward behavior. In this regard it is not punitive, or “punishment,” but rather a “disciplining” and teaching process. To do this well, you must engage your children – talk with them and learn to understand them.

Think of the discipline process as having three main components: instruction, encouragement, and correction. Instruction in how they are to live is clearly communicating to them our expectations, and modeling for them how to do this. Encourage them to do the right thing with verbal praise and physical affection (and, in appropriate situations, material reward). This will reinforce and increase the likelihood of the desired behavior. Correction is necessary when, in spite of encouragement, a child does not follow instruction.

Forms of correction must suit the child’s age and developmental stage. For very young children, a firm “no” and removing them from the temptation is best. A young infant who is innocently curious (not cognitively and willingly defiant) would not need more serious correction. Toddlers may benefit from physical restraint and time-out. Adolescents tend to respond to grounding and privilege removal. To be effective, all care-givers for a child must be consistent and persistent in how they discipline. It is confusing for a child to not know if he will get away with something one time and not the next.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends not spanking. On the other hand, the American College of Pediatricians concluded in a review of the medical and psychological literature that “there is evidence of short-term effectiveness and positive long-term outcomes when parents use disciplinary [nonabusive] spanking within a nurturing environment.” However, this conclusion is subject to the ACOP’s detailed guidelines, including that spanking should never be done on impulse or in anger, should be used selectively for clear, deliberate misbehavior, and should follow a deliberate procedure. Spanking can be susceptible to crossing the line into ineffectiveness or abuse, and is a topic that cannot be adequately examined in this blog post.

Here is an example of how “shepherding the heart” and correction can be combined into profitable discipline. Imagine that three-year old Jane just hit her sister, Suzy, in anger (hard to imagine, I know). Mom makes sure Suzy is OK, and then takes Jane to a private place. When Jane has stopped crying, Mom asks her about why she is angry. The hitting (outward behavior) needs to be corrected, but the anger (inward condition) also needs to be dealt with.

Mom might ask, “Jane, do you love Suzy?” If “yes,” great, but Jane might say “no.” Mom could tell Jane that when she was a girl, she sometimes found it very hard to love her little brother, and that she knows this can be hard for Jane. “But Jane, we love you, and want you to grow up to be a beautiful, loving person, and so we cannot let you continue on this path of anger toward your family. You are going to have time out. Are you ready to accept it so that it can help you turn away from your anger?” The correction won’t work until the child is calm and ready to accept it. This could take some time.

After the correction there should be a similar talk, and a guided reconciliation (“I’m sorry” and a hug) between Jane and Suzy. Suzy could be guided in forgiving Jane.

Discipline with the goal of reaching the hearts of our children is difficult, but it will pay off for them in the long run. Remember that your children are not perfect and will need to be shown grace. Remember when you are not perfect in how you discipline them (and get angry or impatient with them) that you can model to them how to apologize and ask for forgiveness, and give yourself grace.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on teaching and disciplining your children!