“Bring up your children in the love and fear of the Lord; study their dispositions and their temperaments, and deal with them accordingly, never allowing yourself to correct them in the heat of passion; teach them to love you rather than to fear you.” (Discourses of Brigham Young, sel. John A. Widtsoe, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1941, p. 207.)
These words from Brigham Young present the ideal in disciplining and training children. As parents, our greatest desire is to rear our children so that they learn to live in accordance with gospel principles and develop a pure and virtuous character. Discipline with this as a goal will be most effective if it is done in love.
Love is not an action or a technique; it is a feeling which guides our actions. When love fills our hearts, our actions reflect that love, and our desire is to do only that which will benefit our children. When we feel love, our actions toward a child who is arguing with his brother will not be a result of our own frustration. Rather, they will reflect our desire that he not harm himself through a habit of contention.
The following principles can help us create an environment in which true instruction can take place.
Principle 1: Establish a loving relationship in which correct principles can be taught
Christ was the perfect example of how love can be used to discipline and to teach. He was patient with the imperfections of his disciples and maintained a loving relationship with them in spite of their imperfect behavior. He showed them respect due children of our Heavenly Father. At the same time, he did not condone their behavior—or ignore it. When their attitudes needed correcting, he taught them, leaving no room for misunderstanding.
Our children deserve this same kind of relationship as we teach and train them. Too often, however, because our children are younger and less experienced than we are, we view them more as objects than as individuals. We treat them as we would a vacuum cleaner—pushing them around or putting them away when not in use. When we forget that our children deserve our respect, our relationship with them becomes one of correction and commands—“Make your bed”; “You forgot to close the garage door when you got in last night”; “You’d better get started on your homework.”
However, when we remember that our children are fascinating, growing individuals, we soon desire to spend time with them in constructive ways. We enjoy learning about their interests, because their interests expand our own. And as our relationship becomes one of mutual respect and learning, we spend more time being with them and find we need less time to correct negative behavior.
Within the context of a loving relationship, we can teach correct principles without linking them to our child’s negative behavior. We can teach, for example, the importance of honesty before a child ever thinks of stealing. Then if the child ever does steal, instead of becoming upset, we can discuss with him the principle and what he needs to do to repent.
Principle 2: Be unified and consistent as parents
No training can be truly effective if both parents do not agree on the method of disciplining each child. Elder Dallin H. Oaks has said that “the father presides and has the ultimate responsibility in the government of the home, but parenting is obviously a shared responsibility. Both parents occupy a leading role in teaching their children, and both must counsel together and support one another. … In the sacred task of teaching the children of God, parents should unite and combine their efforts to dispel the powers of darkness from the lives of their children.” (Ensign, June 1985, p. 9.)
If parents are to be unified, they must spend time together discussing ideas and planning approaches. One couple met this need in a weekly “partnership meeting.” They left the home (often stopping for a root beer) and discussed the current needs of their children. Another couple plans a weekend away several times a year—a time to plan, set goals, and strengthen their own relationship. These times give a couple the chance to become united in their feelings and objectives.
When parents are unified, children cannot play one parent against another. One young man remembers going to his father sometimes “with a big question”—usually seeking permission to go fishing. “He would always ask me what Mom had said. If I asked Mom, she would ask me what Dad had said. If neither of them had already ‘said’ anything, I would be given an answer. But if one had already said no, the other gave me the same answer. I soon learned that it was useless to try to get one parent to reverse the decision of the other.”
Sometimes you may disagree with the way your spouse handles a problem with one of your children. In these situations, it is still better to support your spouse. You can always discuss the problem later, privately.
Once parents have agreed what behaviors they desire in their children and how to teach those behaviors, they should be consistent in using the approach they agreed upon. If a child is reproved one time for unacceptable behavior but not another—when there are visitors, for example—the child will become confused. Teaching will not take place. Once parents are unified in purpose, they need to be willing to make the sacrifices—in convenience or personal feelings—to consistently act in that purpose.
Principle 3: Make correction a learning experience
Sometimes when we correct children, we merely react to the circumstance. The child’s action upsets our plans or our image of ourselves as good parents, and we become frustrated or angry. Action taken with such an attitude is seldom helpful. It erodes the relationship we have developed with our children and lowers their feelings of self-respect. But as we learn to discipline our own feelings, yielding to the whisperings of the Spirit, we can make discipline a learning experience.
One young girl was working in the garden with her father. Tiring of the work, she asked if she could make them both some lemonade. However, as she made the drink, she spilled sugar and water all over the kitchen. The father, who came in just then, might have looked around the kitchen and been upset at the mess. Instead, he recognized a teaching moment. “‘You know,’ he said, ‘Mother will be home soon. I wonder what she’ll think when she sees this floor and cupboard. What do you think we ought to do about it?’ Sally looked around at the mess and said, ‘I think I better get it cleaned up fast. Would you help me, Daddy? I’ll get the broom and dustpan, if you’ll get the mop cloth.’ Together Sally and her father got things back in order.” (Relief Society Courses of Study 1985, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1984, p. 96.)
Principle 4: Use physical punishment rarely and with restraint
There are few occasions when spanking is as effective as other methods of correcting misbehavior. These may be occasions when there is an immediate need to change a child’s behavior—if he is in imminent danger, for example, or is abusing another child.
Physical punishment, in fact, loses its effectiveness when used with any frequency. The big problem with spanking is that it is generally used for the wrong reasons, as a release for emotions rather than as a means of disciplining the child. No discipline, particularly physical discipline, should be used to vent our anger.
In our time, great attention is being given to child abuse. Tragically, many parents, even some Latter-day Saint parents, go way too far in their use of physical discipline. In fact, physical discipline is a method that some parents would be better off never using. Some experts feel that physical discipline is so fraught with the danger of excesses that only the genuinely mature parent has the wisdom and self-control to use it appropriately.
President Gordon B. Hinckley, in speaking of correction, reminds us that “the Lord, in setting forth the spirit of governance in his Church, has also set forth the spirit of governance in the home in these great words of revelation:
“‘No power or influence can or ought to be maintained … , only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; …
“‘Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost [and only then I think]; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy;
“‘That he may know that thy faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death’ (D&C 121:41, 43–44). …
“When little problems occur, as they inevitably will, restrain yourself. Call to mind the wisdom of the ancient proverb: ‘A soft answer turneth away wrath.’ (Prov. 15:1.)
“There is no discipline in all the world like the discipline of love. It has a magic all its own.” (Ensign, June 1985, p. 6.)
Photography by Eldon K. Linschoten