The day after my daughter’s second birthday, something crazy happened. My sweet little princess almost instantly transformed. She went to bed a cute ball of sugar and cuteness. She woke up the next day a tiny tyrant, complete with temper tantrums, stomping and screaming, throwing herself on the floor, and occasionally pulling handfuls of hair out. I haven’t figured out what caused the change, I’m pretty sure there was something in the cake. The terrible twos had begun and there was no going back.
I’ll admit that deep down I wonder if she will grow out of it, or if I will raise her into one of those adults who throws tantrums at the grocery store because the line is too long. This shift has prompted a number of discussions between my wife and I on the matter of proper discipline. We don’t always agree on the right way to discipline, but we agree that correction is important to raising a child who has learned how to live and act properly. Here are some of the basic concepts that come into play in our discipline strategy.
Discipline is an act of love. As tough as it seems, discipline is a loving response to incorrect behaviors. The author of Hebrews points this out.
And have you completely forgotten this word of encouragement that addresses you as a father addresses his son? It says, “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.” Hebrews 12:5-6
God demonstrates wise parenting by redirecting behaviors to change the direction of those he loves. Discipline turns us from decisions, behaviors, and attitudes that could potentially cause us great harm. Ignoring destructive behavior or responding in a manner that is inadequate to change the behavior may feel nicer than punishment, but it brings more pain when ingrained behaviors need to be relearned later.
Discipline is best when it instructs. One of the clearest memories I have of being disciplined as a child was that it was always followed by my parents sitting with me and explaining the purpose for the correction and basic instruction on how to behave.
Discipline must be proportional. There is a hard balance to manage with children and discipline. Micromanaging a child crushes them. Responding to minor infractions with huge punishments is out of proportion and will only result in either a crushed sense of independence or resentment. The real objective is a chance of direction. Paul presents this idea in the household code he included in his epistle to the Ephesians.
Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord. Ephesians 6:4
Discipline must be timely. Discipline must be clearly associated with the behavior for it to be effective. The age of a child is important to take into account when determining timely discipline. A 3-year old doesn’t do as well associating consequences with behaviors the further apart they take place. Correcting a toddler for behaviors that took place a week ago simply won’t be effective. They don’t think that way. Teenagers, on the other hand, are a little more mentally advanced and can associate consequences with actions that are a little more removed. Another important component of timeliness is the emotional state of the child at the time of correction. It always makes me scratch my head when I watch a parent trying to reason with a child in the middle of a full tilt tantrum. Tantrums are the point where thinking isn’t going to happen. Period. Instruction at this time will not correct the behavior.
Consistency is key. Children are keenly aware of how you are going to respond. They know if they can get away with things because you aren’t going to respond. Further, sending mixed messages will only confuse them. There is a degree to which discipline is classical conditioning. Inconsistency will undermine the conditioning component. If you make a threat of punishment and don’t follow through, you will have more trouble in the future. If parents are openly divided on discipline issues, the child will recognize it and figure out how to work the division to their advantage. It’s necessary to figure out your approach and stick with it.
Remember that you love your kid. When your child picks the worst possible moment and way to act out, it’s hard to remember that you are responding out of a desire to correct their behavior so they will be successful adults. Kids have an innate skill for driving their parents nuts. The only reason they can do this is because they are so precious to us. When other people’s kids have tantrums, I don’t pull my hair out the same way I do with my own. It’s harder because we love them.