I was reading one day about disciplining children and, more specifically, about giving consequences. The author spoke of the importance of responding to negative behavior right away, as well as making sure the consequence is age-appropriate and relevant to the situation (that it “fits the crime”). The author then stressed that it’s necessary that the child “pays the price” (i.e. suffers) for the thing they have done wrong. Something about this (especially the last part) felt wrong to me, but I couldn’t articulate exactly why at the time. As I’ve studied and pondered in the weeks and months since, I have had a few concrete thoughts form in my mind concerning this idea of paying a price.
Consequences vs. Punishment
First, if our focus is on coming up with a way to make our child pay (suffer) for what they have done, then this is not really a consequence (i.e. the result of an action), but rather a punishment (i.e. pain — physical or emotional — caused intentionally by another person for retribution). Consequences happen naturally, whether we want them to or not. Some people feel that punishment is too harsh and opt for using “consequences” instead, when in reality they are the same thing if we are the ones determining what those “consequences” are. Punishment, even when it’s called “consequences,” may not actually lead to the outcomes we desire in the long run. Now, I am certainly not suggesting that true natural consequences aren’t important or that we shouldn’t discipline our kids, but it’s important to understand what true consequences and discipline are. The word “discipline” originates from the Latin word disciplina, which means “instruction,” and is derived from the root word discere, which means “to learn.” I think most of us would agree that this is our goal. We want our children to learn to do what’s right.
Consequences (which occur naturally, without our help) can be effective teachers when we offer only empathy and support as they face those consequences (no unhelpful “I told you so” or “That’s what you get” comments). (A caveat: not doing what we can to prevent a harmful natural consequence, when we are able to do so, is not helpful or kind. If we can prevent harm, we should. If help is needed and we are able to help, we should. Not only because it’s the right thing to do, but also because close calls — “your toy was left behind the car and almost got run over! Thank goodness I happened to see it! We may not be so lucky next time.” — still tend to get one’s attention and open them up for learning, without the risk of harm or damaging trust. Inaction (choosing not to help) when we are able to help isn’t much different than punishment.) It can be helpful to reflect with our kids, in a kind and nonjudgmental way, to help them see the connection between their actions and the consequences that followed. It is also helpful to discuss with our kids, clearly and without shame, possible or likely outcomes of choices as (or before) they make them. It is even helpful and necessary at times to reexamine our expectations and to remove or separate a child from a situation — even a desired one — that requires a certain level of responsibility (or at least move in closer to coach and guide) when we see that they need more time, help or preparation before they’re ready and able to handle it — not as a punishment, but as a help and to prevent further harm (I can think of several examples of this from the scriptures and church history). This might look like what is often called a “logical consequence,” but what it is is guidance and holding boundaries. It’s our response to behavior, and we always get to decide if our response is helpful or hurtful. Guidance, which sometimes involves correction and setting appropriate limits, is absolutely necessary to help our kids learn and to keep them and others safe. But what about punishment?
When a child (or anyone) is subject to punishment (pain caused intentionally by another person), their defenses shoot up and they shift out of their “reasoning brain” into their “survival brain” (fight or flight). The learning functions of their brain shut down. Punishment tends to create resistance and shame, which is not a good place to start if our goal is true learning, since learning requires a state of safety and calm alertness (even when we have done something wrong and feelings of sobriety and remorse are involved. Feelings of shame or resistance caused by punishment actually tend to overshadow feelings of remorse, because it keeps the child’s focus on themselves and what’s happening to them, rather than on how their actions affected someone else). Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, punishment tends to hurt our connection with our child (just as it would strain our connection and relationship with our spouse if they intentionally inflicted pain on us), and thus, their likelihood of trusting and cooperating with us in the future. Our connection with our kids is critical if we want to influence them for good and have them follow our guidance. Punishment teaches instead that it’s okay to use power over others — even people we love — when they don’t do what we want. Lastly, punishment addresses only outward behavior and fails to address underlying causes or teach skills for doing better. What punishment does tend to do is lead to either sneakiness and dishonesty, outright rebellion, or good outward behavior without internalizing its value or truly desiring goodness.
But don’t we need to make sure kids learn that something bad will happen to them when they make bad choices so that they won’t make bad choices in the future (especially ones that could have really huge consequences beyond our control)? Only if we want them to avoid making bad choices strictly out of fear of what will happen to them if they do, rather than doing the right things because they want to be the kind of person who does the right things. Fear of punishment does not lead to benevolence; there are better motivators than fear. (See this fabulous talk by Dieter F. Uchtdorf entitled Perfect Love Casteth Out Fear.) I am more interested in how we can help our kids see themselves as good people who do the right things, and in giving them tools to help them do the right things. Kids, like all of us, do need to learn that every choice has a consequence attached to it (see D&C 130:20-21) — some good and some bad, some that are obvious and some that we may need help recognizing, some that we see right away and some that we don’t see till later — but is creating artificial consequences the best way for them to learn that? It seems like observation, reflection, conversation, and inspiration (from scriptures and stories of other people) could accomplish this in a more effective way. I don’t need my husband to confiscate my personal belongings or make me do extra housework when I make a mistake in order to understand that stealing and murder can result in prison time or worse, or that driving drunk can kill someone — nor did I come to this understanding by being punished as a child. (Punishment from my husband probably would lead me to avoid him when I make mistakes, though, and I can understand why kids do the same. I feel strongly that we need to communicate to our kids, both implicitly and explicitly, that they can always tell us when they’ve messed up and that we will lovingly help them get back on track.) Even if punishment did result in that understanding, the fact that I wouldn’t want to steal, kill or drink and drive (because I don’t feel that those things are moral or right) is more significant. My desire and love for goodness and righteousness is more important — and that desire comes through love and inspiration, not fear or pain that someone inflicts on me. I feel strongly that what our children need us to be for them is not so much an enforcer or a guard, but rather a partner, a mentor, a helper, a guide, and an inspiration. For all of these reasons, punishment simply may not be the best form of discipline. (If you’re thinking, “But God punishes His children,” the way I understand punishment in the scriptures is simply the Law of Justice, which is addressed in thought number two.)
“Be your child’s partner, not their adversary.” – Unknown
The One who paid the price
Second, and more importantly, Someone else has already paid the price for every sin, mistake, and wrong decision that each of us has or will ever make. He suffered, bled from every pore, and gave His very life to pay that price. We learn from modern scripture that “God [has] suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent” (D&C 19:16). If we refuse to repent then we must suffer as the Savior did — not because suffering is necessary for each of us to experience when we make mistakes, in order to learn from them, but because the penalty must be paid and we’re refusing the conditions of the Savior’s payment on our behalf. For this reason, rather than focusing on teaching my children that they must always pay an externally-imposed price (suffer) for their misbehavior, I want to focus on teaching them about the One who has already paid the price for every misdeed, and how to turn to Him when they stumble. I want them to learn to recognize and right their wrongs with His grace and because they want to. I want to teach them early about repentance and how to use this precious gift, so that by the time they reach the age of accountability (see D&C 29:46-47), they are already familiar with the application of repentance and, more importantly, their hearts are filled with desire to remain close to the Lord. Limits and boundaries are crucial, but more than just understanding this, our kids need to know how to make amends when they do cross the line, and have a desire to do so.
Lastly, every time we do repent, we give up something we want (a sin) for something we want more (to follow the Savior and do what’s right). That is paying a price, but it’s not an arbitrary price that someone else imposed on us. Rather, it is a sincere and willful sacrifice. Choosing to repent also does not have to involve suffering, but instead offers great peace and joy.
An action plan
How do I plan to teach my children about repentance from the time they’re young?
First and most importantly, by consistently helping them become familiar with the Savior and feel His love (through stories, songs, pictures, and testimonies — more on this below). Just last night my daughter and I were having a discussion about how “no unclean thing can enter into [the kingdom of God]” (see 3 Nephi 27:19-20) and that sins and mistakes make us unclean, but that because of the atonement of our Savior we can become clean again through repentance, baptism, and renewing our baptismal covenants through the sacrament. Our children’s understanding of these truths is critical.
And we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins. (2 Nephi 25:26)
The way I have taught this simply to my young children is by saying that Jesus loves us so much and wants us to be happy, so He wants us to follow Him by doing what He would do. Sometimes we make choices that Jesus would not make (or want us to make) that get us off the path to following Him, but when we do we can immediately choose to begin following Him again (get back on track) by doing what He would do now (whether it’s apologizing, doing something nice for someone, returning or replacing an item, etc.).
What about in the heat of the moment when they make mistakes or poor choices? How can we respond if we don’t dole out “consequences” or punishment? We can first get control of ourselves (self-regulate) and the situation (kindly but firmly stop harmful behavior if it is still happening). Then we can fix our attention on connection and on the underlying needs and emotions driving the behavior, and help our kids process them (i.e. help them learn to self-regulate, which is the first step to self-discipline), while reinforcing limits and expectations. We can focus next on collaborative problem-solving (finding solutions that work for everyone involved, even if that’s just our child and us). And finally, we can empower them to repair damage — with our Savior and repentance as our focus and driving force throughout the entire process. This approach helps kids see beyond themselves, gives them tools and skills to use throughout their lives, and offers hope and empowerment to be able to have a positive impact on the world and to follow Jesus, even when they mess up.
What would this look like in practice? Let’s look at an example (a common one with young kids). Note that while this example involves young children, these tools and principles apply to all ages and types of misbehavior. Some of the things I’ll share below are things we can do in the heat of the moment when our kids are struggling; some should only be done after everyone is calm. Additionally there are things we can do at times of calm and connection that will inspire our children’s hearts to be generous and repentant, and I will share some specific ideas for this as well — after all, I believe these moments have the greatest effect on the heart, which will have the greatest effect on their choices.
In the heat of the moment:
Step one — Self-regulation:
Calm yourself (self-regulation). This approach to discipline (i.e. teaching, guiding) is not effective when we’re angry! The Spirit must be part of this process.
I tell myself “it’s not an emergency.” I shake out my hands and breathe deeply. I remind myself that my child is acting this way because she’s struggling and needs my help to work through the beliefs and emotions driving the behavior and to solve the problem appropriately. I sometimes say a quick prayer for help and to invite the Spirit.
Step two — Limits with empathy (Emotion Coaching):
Stop or prevent harmful behavior while empathizing with feelings. Acknowledge your child’s perspective and feelings as you gently but firmly stop harmful behavior — all emotions are acceptable but all behavior is not.
*A note about setting limits or boundaries: I have come to start asking myself why I am setting a limit and if it is really necessary and important or if it’s a knee-jerk reaction. I have decided that for me it usually comes down to one of two reasons that I set a non-negotiable limit or boundary (along with loving guidance and discussion, which we’ll get to): for true health and safety concerns, or for the respectful treatment of people and property — basically anything that causes harm. Most other “limits” are usually arbitrary or just excuses to control my child. Rather than demanding obedience for my arbitrary rules and limits, I’d rather focus in my home on common obedience to God and His commandments. For everything else, there is still guidance, discussion and collaborative problem-solving. I also feel that personal boundaries are important in any relationship, but it’s helpful for me to keep an honest focus on actual needs and what’s important to each family member, and finding ways to get everyone’s needs met as often as possible.
As I stop my child from hitting: “I won’t let you hit. Hitting hurts. You were mad when your brother took your toy. That’s your favorite toy, I know. And we can’t hurt people, even when we’re mad.”
Continue with Emotion Coaching. Once everyone is safe and harmful behavior has stopped, repeat what you see and hear without judgment and without picking sides. Listen attentively. Hold space for them and allow them their feelings. Label emotions and empathize with them. This (setting limits on behavior while acknowledging and helping to process emotions, along with problem-solving, which we’ll get to) is called Emotional Coaching, and it helps kids to process the emotions that drive their behavior without automatically acting on them (among other benefits). We all do the things we do because of the way we feel, particularly about ourselves or as a result of our needs being met or not. This obviously doesn’t excuse the times we don’t act appropriately, but it does matter, because then we can know to focus on learning self-regulation first (which includes getting the Spirit with us) so that we will then be in the state of mind to want to learn and choose the right. Kids have it even harder than adults because the part of their brains responsible for emotional regulation are underdeveloped, but when we model it for them and practice emotion coaching with them, it creates neural pathways in their brains, which train the brain to respond in this way more readily (as they are strengthened and reinforced over time). Part of emotion coaching involves reflection and listening.
In a non-attacking tone, ask the child to start at the beginning and tell you what happened, and really listen to her side. Without blame or shame, help her connect the dots which will help her recognize that, just as she was hurting, her actions hurt someone as well. This is best done through asking questions. Dr. Laura Markham says, “When you ask open-ended questions and help your child “narrate” what happened, her rational brain gains understanding. This gives her more control over her emotions and behavior in the future.”
“I heard yelling and crying; you sounded very upset. Why don’t you start at the beginning and tell me what happened? How did you feel when brother took your toy?… You were angry, I see. And then what happened? How did that make your brother feel?… We can’t hurt each other, so when you’re ready, let’s figure out what else you can do.”
It is also important to give each person involved an opportunity to be heard (to share their perspective and needs/goals) and process their emotions. Our role during this process is one of a mediator, not a judge.
If it doesn’t seem to be anger driving the behavior, determine what unmet need might be the underlying cause. Is he hungry? Bored? Tired? (Or wired because he’s overtired?) Overexcited or overstimulated? Lonely? Did he have a hard day at school or with friends and needs a safe place to offload his feelings? Meet his needs the best you can before doing anything else, even if that just means slowing down and snuggling on the couch, or maybe roughhousing for a few minutes. If you’re worried about this reinforcing or showing acceptance for bad behavior, consider that behavior is a symptom; it’s a message that your child is having a hard time and needs your help. Kids generally don’t truly want to do wrong or hurt anyone (even if they feel like they do in the heat of the moment), and there is always a reason for their behavior (which obviously doesn’t make it okay, but it is of significance and it needs to be addressed for lasting change) — they just need help processing their tangled thoughts and emotions and regulating themselves sometimes. If they’re dysregulated they won’t be able to hear you anyway. Once they’re calm and feeling connected to you, they will be more open to your guidance.
To sum up, in the heat of the moment: As calmly as you can, gently but firmly stop harmful behavior (set limits) with lots of empathy and lots of listening. Meet the underlying needs driving the behavior. In the heat of the moment, that’s really it!
*Note: obviously some behaviors need to be stopped immediately for safety reasons, which means this will sometimes be the first step. We can then calm ourselves before moving on to anything else.
Once everyone is calm:
Step three — Collaborative Problem Solving:
(*It is important to not move on to this step until the child feels connected to you, feels that they have been heard, and is calm [remember they can’t learn or reason while in fight or flight, nor will they be feeling very generous until they’ve been heard] — even if that means you drop the issue for a while and bring it up later.)
Problem-solve. Part of a child learning to take responsibility is our empowering them be able to respond differently next time. By problem solving together she will be able to recognize that she always has a choice to make and that that choice will impact those around her. An important part of this step is perspective-taking, or looking at the situation from the other person’s perspective. These things will help her be able to respond more consciously, respectfully and appropriately with time and practice. Brainstorm with her appropriate alternative responses for future similar situations that would work for all parties. You can even ask her if she’d like to practice now, if you feel so inclined. Remember that mistakes are wonderful opportunities to learn, and treat them as such!
“How do you think you would feel if he had hit you? What are some other ways you can let your brother know you’re angry that won’t hurt him? What would you want him to do if you were in his place?” You can discuss strategies for calming down, and then offer suggestions for alternative actions if necessary, such as finding a toy for brother and offering to trade with him. Practice right then if desired — “Would you like to try a do-over?”
(*Note: I don’t expect my kids to always make the right choice the very next time. It often takes repeated exposure to true principles before they penetrate our hearts enough to stick. Just look at us with our “favorite sins,” or with the counsel we constantly hear from the Lord. He has to repeat Himself a lot too. More on this in a moment. Additionally, since kids have underdeveloped prefrontal cortices which means big feelings, which drive behavior, and limited ability to regulate those feelings (and thus, behavior), focusing on your connection with your child and helping them process their emotions in a healthy way — in other words, giving them tools and focusing on the heart — will do more to improve behavior than just about anything.)
If there is still an issue that is unresolved, encourage the kids to brainstorm together to find solutions that work for each of them.
“What ideas do you two have that you can both be happy with?… Tim, does that work for you? And you too, Sarah?”
“…I say unto you, be one; and if ye are not one ye are not mine.” (D&C 38:27)
One final note about collaborative problem-solving: kids under the age of about 4 may not be able to participate much in this process. For kids this young we can just redirect their actions and show them what they can do instead (that will hopefully still meet their needs/goals in a more acceptable way). This still requires problem-solving and creativity — just from us!
“When you’re mad you can stomp your foot and say, ‘I’m mad!'” Or… “You want to throw something? Let’s find some soft stuffed animals to throw into this laundry basket.”
Step four — Repair:
Invite to Repair. Lastly, invite the child to fix things with the person she hurt in whatever way she’d like when she feels ready. Offer ideas if she asks for them. If the child isn’t ready to repair, don’t force it. This probably means that she is still feeling too angry or threatened, so you may go back a few steps if necessary, or simply drop the issue for now. Just remember to follow-up with her later. Forcing an apology won’t actually help her learn to feel remorse or make amends on her own in the future. It’s important for our kids to understand what it means to be sorry — that they feel bad for what they’ve done because they can see that it caused harm, and they resolve not to do it again. Additionally, forcing apologies is really no different than a parent-imposed “consequence” (punishment). Repairing can be the expectation without being forced, and if they’re not feeling generous enough to repair, then there’s still more emotional work that needs to be done first.
“I know you love your brother and you don’t really want him to be hurt, but hitting him did hurt him. So he may not be feeling very close to you right now. What would like to do to fix your relationship with him? What do you think will help him feel close with you again?” Or…
“You don’t want to fix it? You must be pretty mad still. I know that you’ll think of just the right thing to do to fix things with him when you’re ready. I can’t wait to see what you come up with! I’ll check back with you later.” Or…
“Hurting your brother was not what Jesus would do, but you can choose now to do what Jesus would do. What do you think He would do?… What is something nice you can do for your brother to fix your relationship?”
Note: For very young children (younger than 4) we can usually just model reparation and include them in it.
“Oh no, brother is hurt! Let’s see if he wants a hug (or let’s go get get him a bandaid).”
To sum up, once everyone is calm: Problem-solve together and invite reconciliation. Remember not to control your child but instead, guide them, trust them, and trust the process.
Note: If you’re trying these things and it doesn’t seem to be working, stop and take a deep breath. Focus on connection and meeting needs. If all else fails, connect (until your child feels connected to you — don’t continue until they do).
So when our children misbehave we can: Keep everyone safe and protect rights and property. Model self-regulation. Connect and practice emotion coaching. Problem-solve together. Practice seeing the perspective of others. Help repair. This gives our kids tools and helps them learn skills for conflict resolution and solving problems more appropriately. We don’t need to do this entire process for every little thing, but if we can keep all of our guidance, correction and discipline focused on these things — preventing harm, connection, seeing the child’s perspective and why they might be acting a certain way, finding win-win solutions, making repairs, and especially on following Christ — we are more likely to help our children be able to do better. We can ask ourselves each time, “Will this response be helpful? Will this help me guide my children and help them to learn and desire to do better?” I can tell you right now that I am far from perfect at following this plan every time, but when I do, things go better.
In times of calm (not associated with a child’s misbehavior):
Model reconciliation and repentance. Any time you lose it and yell at your child, or forget your end of a deal or a promise you made, or model inappropriate behavior in your dealings with someone else, you can use these times as opportunities to model reconciliation and repentance. Apologize. Make restitution if necessary. You can even ask your child if you can pray with them. Confess your wrongdoings to the Lord and ask His forgiveness. Pray for help to do better and for greater love in your relationships.
Use stories or songs to teach positive character traits or behavior. Jesus often taught in parables. I think this is a very effective teaching tool when teaching anyone, but especially children. These stories can be gospel-based (such as scripture stories), but they don’t necessarily have to be. As I said before, stories about Jesus and others from the scriptures who knew Him are some of the most influential.
I recommend sharing these stories during down-time, rather than trying to teach them to your children in the heat of the moment or in their moments of weakness. Why? Marlene Peterson of The Well-Educated Heart (we use this for our homeschool and it is wonderful!) was talking in a recent podcast about a book by Elizabeth McCracken that teaches character traits to children. She said that the author explains in the book “why it actually backfires to try and teach character directly.” She says, “To do so is a form of compulsion, and the heart resists it. The best thing to do is to plant seeds through story, and then allow them to grow and bear fruit in their proper time and place. The problem is the child who is…taught [directly] may understand [the character trait] in his mind, but knowing is not doing, and knowing is not necessarily desiring…. I’ve seen mothers try and correct character flaws in the moment with a story… For instance, a mom may catch a child telling a lie, and immediately wants to find a story to teach him how bad that is. I was thinking about it; that’s kind of like trying to teach me the harmful effects of chocolate chip cookies on my waistline right as a warm batch is brought out of the oven. I’m probably still going to eat them because it’s really enjoyable, and I’ll resist you telling me otherwise. The little child who told the lie is serving a purpose with that lie. In the moment, he’s not likely ready to give it up. But, teach me in another way about too many chocolate chip cookies, when the temptation isn’t right in front of me, and my heart may make the decision to forgo them in the future. And that’s the point. The heart has to see and feel and desire. No one can force that. But stories can plant desires.”
On her website Marlene has provided access to many of these character stories in audio form (see month 12). Turn them on in the car, while the kids are drawing or doing something with their hands, or at bedtime. (*Note: there are currently some changes being made to the website and the audios are temporarily unavailable. Keep checking back!) There are also children’s books that are full of stories that teach character, like this one.
Letting go of punishment and control is very scary for most parents. We feel that it’s our job to make our children behave and obey. But really our job is to lead, guide, influence and teach our children, which requires connection and trust and open hearts. Punishment and control do the opposite of that. Let us inspire hearts instead.