Note: This post has been revised as I have learned more about the most effective ways to inspire positive character traits in children.
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 (all of it, but especially the last part) felt wrong to me, but I couldn’t articulate exactly why at the time. As I’ve thought about it in the weeks and months since, I have had two main thoughts form in my mind.
First, if our focus is on making our child pay 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. “to subject to pain, loss, confinement, death, etc., as a penalty for some offense, transgression, or fault”–according to the dictionary). The word discipline means ‘to teach,’ which I think most of us would agree is our goal. We want our children to learn to do what’s right. Consequences that occur naturally can be excellent teachers when we stay out of the way and let the consequence do the teaching, while we offer only empathy (no ‘I told you so’s). But what about punishment? When a child (or anyone) is subject to punishment (pain caused intentionally by another person for retribution), they shift out of their “reasoning brain” into their “reptilian brain” (fight or flight). The learning functions of their brain shut down. They literally can’t learn the lesson we want them to learn while they’re in fight or flight. Additionally, and more importantly, punishment hurts 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. Punishment simply is not the most effective or healthy or respectful form of discipline.
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). For this reason, rather than teaching my children that they must pay a price for their misbehavior, I want to teach them about the One who has already paid the price for every misdeed. 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 familiar with the application of repentance and, more importantly, their hearts are filled with desire to remain close to the Lord.
How do I plan to teach my children about repentance from the time they’re very 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 that below. What about in the moment when they make mistakes or poor choices? How can we respond if we don’t dole out ‘consequences’ or punishment?
In her book and in her course, Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids, Dr. Laura Markham teaches parents the importance of setting necessary limits with empathy, as well as how to empower their children to make amends, using what she calls The Three Rs: Reflect, Responsibility, and Repair (see below). Reading and listening to her description of this tool brought to my mind the repentance “steps” that are often taught to youth.
*Note: While specific steps can be helpful, I really want to stress that, just as repentance is so much more than following a set of steps or a checklist, this process must be approached from the heart and with the Spirit, without control or coercion, keeping the relationship with your child at the forefront. It is the principles and the way they are delivered that matter.
Some of the things I’ll share below are things we can do in the moment when our child is struggling; some should only be done after everyone is calm. Additionally there are things we can do at times of calm and connection (as mentioned above) 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 moment:
Calm yourself. 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.
Empathize while setting a limit. The empathy is key here! Repeat what you see and hear without judgment. Don’t pick sides. Acknowledge your child’s perspective and feelings as you gently stop harmful behavior.
*A note about setting limits or boundaries: I have come to question why I am setting a limit and if it is really necessary or if it’s a knee-jerk response. I have decided that there are only two legit reasons for me to set a limit or boundary: for safety reasons, or to protect the rights and property of another person. Any other “boundaries” are really just excuses to control my child.
As I gently stop my child from hitting: “I won’t let you hit. Hitting hurts. You were upset when your brother took your blankie. That’s your special blankie…. When you’re ready we will figure out other ways we can solve this problem.”
The first of The Three R’s (*adapted from Dr. Laura Markham’s book Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids): Reflect. 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 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 you yelling; you sounded upset. What happened? How did you feel when brother took your blankie? And then what happened? How did that make your brother feel?”
To sum up, in the moment: As calmly as you can, gently stop harmful behavior (set boundaries) with lots of empathy and lots of listening. Maintain the connection with your child! In the heat of the moment, that’s really it! Check out this article that goes into a bit more detail (this is from one of my favorite respectful parenting blogs).
Once everyone is calm:
The second R: Responsibility (aka Problem Solving). (*It is important to not move on to this step until the child feels that they have been heard and is calm, even if that means it’s later in the day or at your next family meeting [remember they can’t learn or reason while in fight or flight, nor will they be feeling very generous until they’ve been heard].) 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. It will help her be “response-able” (able to respond respectfully and appropriately). Brainstorm with her appropriate alternative responses for future similar situations. If appropriate, ask her if she’d like to practice now. Remember that mistakes are wonderful opportunities to learn, and treat them as such!
“What are some other ways you can let your brother know you’re angry that won’t hurt him?” You can discuss strategies for calming down, and then offer suggestions for alternative actions if necessary, such as finding brother’s blankie and trading with him. Practice right then if appropriate.
(*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, focusing on your connection with your child and helping them process their emotions in a healthy way — in other words, focusing on the heart — will do more to improve behavior than just about anything.)
The third R: Repair. Lastly, invite the child to fix things with the person she hurt in whatever way she’d like when she is 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. Trust that if she is feeling connected to you and her heart is being fed goodness consistently (see below), she will repair on her own when she is ready. Forcing an apology won’t actually help her learn to feel remorse or make amends on her own in the future.
“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. Is there something you would like to do to fix your relationship with him? What do you think will help him feel close with you again?”
“You don’t want to fix it? Okay. I know that you’ll think of just the right thing to do to fix things with him when you’re ready.”
To sum up, once everyone is calm: Problem-solve together and invite reconciliation. Remember not to control the situation (or your child) but instead, trust them and trust the process!
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 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 filling your family’s down time with these stories, rather than trying to teach them to your children in their moments of weakness. Why? Marlene Peterson of The Well-Educated Heart (this is what we use 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!)
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 and guide our children, which requires connection and trust and open hearts. Punishment and control do the opposite of that. Let us inspire hearts instead.