Disciplining Children: Some Points of View

Disciplining Children: Some Points of View

Your little girl talks back to you, your small son hits the baby. What can you do?

The short-term results of discipline include surviving each day with the house, the children, and your nerves relatively undamaged. But the long-term results of discipline determine the kinds of parents your children become and the understanding they gain of key gospel principles such as free agency, self-control, and their divine identity.

The Ensign presents here the views of three professionals and one gifted amateur on disciplining children: Eugene Mead, Brigham Young University professor of child development and family relations; Hermann Peine, Western Michigan University behavioral psychologist; and BYU sociologist Reed Bradford, whose wife Shirley is the gifted amateur.

The Ensign invites parents throughout the Church to share their own experiences with discipline. What works for your family? How does the everyday problem of coping with your children’s behavior fit into the eternal goal of celestial parenthood? What are your successful experiences with teaching children responsibility and obedience that respects their free agency and individuality? Selections from reader responses will appear in a future issue.

Reward Them, and Teach Responsibility

By Eugene Mead

I think there are two main principles involved in effective discipline. The first is one where parents take a positive approach to discipline—looking for things children do right instead of punishing them for their shortcomings. The other principle operates on the idea that families can train their children to be responsible.

Let me give an example of the first principle. It’s related to the “tired father syndrome.” Dad comes home from work, and what he really wants to do is kick off his shoes and read the sports page. But when he does that, the children inevitably end up fighting under his feet, and he spends 15 or 20 minutes acting as a judge and jury.

In effect, he spends 15 minutes with his children because of what they did wrong. I suggest that the family would be way ahead if Dad came home and spent 15 or 20 minutes noticing what his children were doing that was good, and then getting involved with them in their activities. Then he could say, “Okay, Dad would like the next 15 minutes for himself. You children find something to do while I read the sports page.”

He would spend the same amount of time, there would be positive feelings in his family, and the children would get attention for being good instead of for misbehaving—a much more positive situation.

Training children to be responsible is a process that can be approached in many ways. One is to teach the children that when they speak, parents listen and the children’s comments are then acted upon if appropriate. We frequently have a family council meeting, in addition to family home evening, that deals with certain problems and ways to solve them. The voting is democratic; our votes don’t carry any more weight than those of the children, and we abide by the results, whether it’s the way we like it or not. Let me give an example.

While I was doing graduate work, I was staying up late studying many nights, and I used to sleep until just before my wife left to teach school in the mornings. Then I’d get up and supervise the last half hour of getting the children ready for school. My son Stanley was about 11, and in family council meeting he said, “Things haven’t been going very well around here in our family lately, and the reason is that we don’t all get up and have breakfast together.”

The comment was obviously directed toward me, so I explained my point of view and he explained his. The vote was three to one that we have breakfast together, so I went along with the majority. And he was right. Things did start off better in the mornings.

Another way to teach responsibility is to be sure each person is responsible for the consequences of his own decisions. Stanley had chosen to do his piano practicing before breakfast and before going to school. When Stanley dallied at his practicing, he had to go to school late. He had a choice of being late for school or not, but he didn’t have the choice of whether he would go to school or not.

Even if a group decision on the items that the family is permitted to vote on turns out to be wrong, I think the most helpful thing is to let it stand. For instance, if the family has a choice between the circus and a movie and decides on the circus, then it doesn’t spend more money to go to the movie, too. If the decision turns out to be a bad one, it stands until the next family council meeting so that all can learn from the experience that bad rules can be changed by due process.

It’s important in teaching children to be responsible to introduce them early to decision-making. Even when our children were little, we’d give them a choice between two breakfast cereals, two treats on an outing, or many other situations demanding a single choice. Stanley and Marcia use the same techniques quite naturally on Christine, our three-year-old. They’ll ask her, “Do you want to go to bed right side up or upside down?” But they don’t ask her if she wants to go to bed. Then, once the child has decided, it is important to respect his decision.

It’s also important to teach by example. If both the husband and the wife are looking for the positive in their children, they can help each other find it. For instance, my 15-year-old daughter Marcia is quiet and doesn’t express herself very often. So lately my wife and I have really tried to stop and pay attention when she does say something. My wife is especially sensitive to her and that helps me. Now Marcia shares her feelings more easily and gives her opinions more frequently.

My wife and I disagree sometimes on what kind of discipline our children need. That’s to be expected, since we’re two individuals. We have a sort of rule that if I am disciplining the children, she supports me whether she approves or not and we talk it over later. I do the same for her, of course.

We have tried to avoid using physical punishment, even when the children were little. We seldom need to now; we set up limits, enforce them, and try to reward positive behavior. We have occasionally spanked because we’ve lost our tempers and felt frustrated, but that usually doesn’t prevent the problem from happening again. When I teach parent education classes, I often say, “Parents should probably spank when it will make them feel better, but they shouldn’t fool themselves into thinking they’ve taught the child anything about handling the situation the next time it comes up.”

If parents really care about their children, the things they do naturally are probably helpful. I believe, too, that a course on parenthood would be very helpful to both men and women at the high school level. Remember that raising children is the job of the whole family, not just the wife.

I think such a course in secondary school is necessary because, as a rule, our society is punitive. All of us have informally been taught how to look for mistakes and how to punish, but most of us have very little training in how to look for what people are doing right and how to reward good behavior. Yet it’s not difficult to learn. I hear my children giving each other choices, and giving us choices and rewarding our choices. They’ll ask, “Would you like to help me with this now, or would you like to do it after supper?” It makes it possible for them to meet adults on a very mature basis.

One of the main mistakes parents make is to accidentally teach misbehavior. For example, when children fight they usually do it because they get some kind of payoff. It’s sometimes rewarding to make the other child cry or run away. If you push him off the rocking horse, you’ve then got the rocking horse. Or, especially for smaller children, they get Mom and Dad involved and get the reward of having their attention. If that’s why your children are fighting, stop reinforcing them. Either ignore them, go into another room, or send them to another room. Let children learn to settle their own differences.

We had an interesting experience at the university nursery school. All of the teachers inconspicuously withdrew one morning and went in the observation room when two of the four-year-old boys started fighting over a truck. Finally, one of the boys looked around and exclaimed, “Hey, no teachers.” He dropped the truck and wandered off. Fighting is often for the attention of adults.

When our children fought, we always sent both of them out of the room, but into another room together, so they could keep on fighting if they wanted to. They hardly ever did. It’s when the children are playing well together that parents should notice them. Parents should attempt to “catch them being good.”

Show References 

  • Dr. Mead is an associate professor of child development and family relationships at Brigham Young University. He teaches Sunday School, serves as a committee member in the Aaronic Priesthood MIA and as a home teacher in the Edgemont Fifth Ward, Provo Utah Edgemont Stake.


A Tool, Not a Weapon

By Hermann Peine

Punishment either involves the infliction of something we don’t like or the withdrawal of something we do like. But because both forms of punishment are disagreeable, we assume that once behavior is punished it is less likely to happen again. However, that assumption isn’t always correct.

Any parent who has tried to change a child’s behavior by scolding him, spanking him, or by removing his privileges shouldn’t be surprised when the child exhibits some unwanted side effects—such as tension, sulking, or verbal abuse.

A person who is punished may even develop an actual illness or physiological disorder.

Furthermore, once punishment is removed, misbehavior tends to recur unless the punishment has been extremely intense. These extreme forms of punishment should be avoided in raising children, since cases have been recorded where children have stopped talking for weeks, months, or years following severe punishment by a parent.

So, why do we punish?

The principal reason is probably because we are rewarded for doing it. It is the disturbing action of others that we most frequently punish. The immediate result of such punishment is that the disturbing behavior stops. For instance, children are running around the house while the mother has a headache. She finally explodes, yelling, “I want everyone to be quiet this very minute!” Silence follows.

The mother finds the momentary stillness a great relief and has been rewarded for yelling. However, when alternatives of going outside or into another area of the house are not available to the children, they will be back at it shortly. But what will mother do this time?

Mother is being trained to be a shouter. Worse yet, she is also teaching her children how to yell and punish.

Another situation in which parents are often trapped is in assuming certain punishments are perceived by the child as punishment. Some children are so deprived of adult attention that they may “work” for a spanking. The spanking, then, is not a “punishment” for that child, but is attention.

Other parents follow punishment with a reward, and the child soon learns this relationship. An example of this is a parent who, after spanking his child, explains how sorry he was to have had to do it and then takes the child for an ice cream soda. The point is that this is often the only situation where the child gains such attention, so he will soon learn to get attention by first working for and then going through the punishment. Self-abusive (masochistic) behavior is often developed in this way.

Another negative effect of punishment is that the setting itself in which the punishment is applied may become punishing. A child who is thrown from a horse may react toward all horses with fear. If an adult attempts to place the child back on the horse, but discontinues because the child screams, the child’s screaming is rewarded by his being taken away from the frightening situation (the horse), and his fear of horses remains.

Many fathers who have had to punish their children after coming home from work have sadly found that the children have learned to avoid them. In such cases the father has been associated with punishment instead of love and strength.

The negative effects of punishment are clear. But should punishment alter an individual’s behavior in every situation? I do not wish to be the advocate of never using punishment, but there are situations in which natural punishers affect an individual’s behavior in a very positive way. For instance, when a child burns himself on a hot stove, he learns from the experience.

Why should “natural” punishment work in such a situation? The reason is that when an individual discovers an alternate way to behave in a situation without getting punished, he will cease to behave the way that punishes him. This occurs even with mild punishments. The procedure is even more effective when the punishment is delivered immediately following the action. The difficulty for many is that they don’t know how to perform the alternative behavior.

Take an incident in the second-grade classroom of Mrs. Jones. Billy has already become the school terror, at seven years of age. Mrs. Jones tries to give most of her praise and attention to children in the class who complete the assignments and are cooperative, but Billy learned long ago that he could gain a great deal more of the teacher’s time by misbehaving. In this case, punishment by verbal reprimand for showing off is ineffective and may, in fact, be the attention that Billy is working for.

A successful alternative for punishing this child is difficult to find because of his severe academic deficit. Billy needs to find a situation where he can learn academic skills or where he may excel in some other area to derive the praise and attention he seeks. If he doesn’t his life may be full of more serious punishers, for the seven-year-old clown may become the 17-year-old delinquent.

For Billy, punishment is not the answer. He requires love and a great deal of attention for his good qualities; in fact, punishment alone should never be used without rewards to encourage good action.

It is important for adults who punish others to ask themselves whether they are interacting in a positive way. Parents need to remember they are not only influencing the way their children act, but are also teaching their children how to be parents. Do you want your child to become a punitive person?

Parents need the self-control not to use punishment only as a weapon, but also to use it as a tool for achievement of good behavior.

Illustrated by Phyllis Luch

Show References 

  • Dr. Peine is an assistant professor of psychology at Western Michigan University. He serves as scoutmaster in Kalamazoo Ward, Lansing Michigan Stake.

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