As a mother and parent educator, I spend a good amount of time reading and learning about parenting. 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 prayerfully 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.
Defining Consequences and Discipline
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 or to “teach a lesson”). Consequences happen naturally, whether we want them to or not, because of the eternal law of Justice. Some people feel that punishment is too harsh and opt for using what they call “consequences” instead, when in reality they are the same thing if we are the ones determining what those “consequences” are. As we’ll see, 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. We’ve established that “consequence” means “the result of (not one’s chosen response to) an action.” 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.
“To discipline in the Lord’s way is to lovingly and patiently teach.” (Elder Lynn G. Robbins)
Consequences (which occur naturally, without our help) can be effective teachers when we offer only empathy and support as our kids face those consequences (no unhelpful “I told you so” or “That’s what you get” comments).
(An exception: 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 foresee harm and we can prevent it, 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. Deliberate inaction (choosing not to help) when we are able to help isn’t much different than punishment, and will lead our kids to believe we don’t have their backs. If the problem is continual, problem-solving together may be helpful.)
Guidance also effectively leads to learning and is what I believe true discipline is. Guidance is always helpful to our children in their learning process.
From an outside perspective, some guidance might look like what is often called “logical consequences” (such as holding boundaries, inviting and guiding our children to repair wrongs, and choosing not to put a child in a situation that requires a certain level of responsibility when we can see that they need more time, help or preparation before they’re ready and able to handle it, so as to not set them up for failure). But what it is is our response to behavior — and we always get to decide if our response is helpful (loving guidance) or adversarial (punishment, anger, force, etc). Guidance, which sometimes involves correction and setting appropriate boundaries, 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, flight or freeze). 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. Learning requires a state of safety and calm alertness (even when one has 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 being done 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 at a time when they need us the most (just as it would strain our connection and relationship with our spouse if they intentionally caused us pain or discomfort), 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 (in fact, when our guidance doesn’t seem to be getting through to them, working on connection is usually the first priority). Punishment teaches instead that it’s okay to use power over others — even people we love — when they don’t do what we want. Furthermore, 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 Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf’s talk from April 2017 General Conference, entitled Perfect Love Casteth Out Fear
.) I am more interested in how I can help my 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? Or might observation, reflection, conversation, and inspiration (from scriptures and stories of other people) accomplish this in a more effective way? Life provides plenty of consequences for us to learn from, without us having to manufacture more.
I was thinking about punishment from the perspective of the punished and realized that just as 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), punishing children probably does not lead them to this forethought and understanding, either. (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 children, both implicitly and explicitly, that they can always come to 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 good) 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.
“[God] wants to change more than just our behaviors. He wants to change our very natures. He wants to change our hearts.” (Dieter F. Uchtdorf)
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 (or demanding that our kids “pay a price”) 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“
, emphasis added). If we refuse to repent (turn to God) then we must eventually 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 (justice) and we’re refusing the conditions of the Savior’s payment on our behalf (mercy). For this reason, rather than focusing on teaching my children that they must always pay an externally-imposed price (or 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 help them feel His love and be inspired in their hearts to follow Him. Boundaries are crucial, but more than just understanding this, our kids need to know how to make things right when they do
cross the line, and have a desire to do so.
What’s more, young children (under age 8) are not even accountable for their mistakes, yet so often we treat them like they are by demanding that they pay a price that has already been freely paid for them. Instead, we can teach and influence and prepare them for when they are of the age of accountability and repentance is necessary for them (see D&C 29:46-47 and D&C 68:25-27). (And when they reach that point, we can, of course, continue to guide and inspire rather than demand or force.) In fact, we have been commanded to repent and become like little children ourselves, “for of such is the kingdom of God” (3 Nephi 9:22; 3 Nephi 11:38).
It is my Savior’s example that I try my best to follow in all that I do. He never condoned sin in the least, but He didn’t punish or coerce, either. Instead, He lovingly guided, inspired, and invited to do better, forgiving sinners and allowing for repentance. The only ‘price’ He asked was that of a broken heart and a contrite spirit (3 Nephi 9:20), which brings us to my third thought.
“And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.” (John 8:11)
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
So how can we effectively discipline (teach) our children and inspire them to follow Jesus?
First and most importantly, by consistently helping them become familiar with the Savior and feel His love (through stories, songs, pictures, discussions, and testimonies). 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 once we are of the age of accountability, 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 younger 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 that leads to Him, but we can choose in any moment (even the very next moment) to begin following Him again and do what He might do (whether it’s finding a win-win solution, apologizing, doing something nice for someone, returning or replacing an item, etc.). Every time we choose to follow Him, we are happy, and so is He. The primary song “I’m Trying To Be Like Jesus” is a great way to plant and nurture this doctrine in their hearts.
Children usually learn more by what we do and who we are than by what we say, so modeling Christlike behavior and repentance is very important. Any time we lose it and yell at them, or forget our end of a deal or a promise we made, or model inappropriate behavior in our dealings with someone else, we can take the opportunity to model reconciliation and repentance (because it’s the right thing to do and that’s who we want to be, not because we’re trying to teach a lesson). We can apologize, and make further restitution if applicable. We can even ask our child if we can pray with them when we have hurt them or let them down. We can confess our wrongdoings to the Lord and ask His forgiveness. We can pray for help to do better and for greater love in our relationships. Praying together in this way can be very healing. We can remember that mistakes (which we all make) can be wonderful opportunities to learn and grow and connect more deeply with others, and treat them as such.
What about in the heat of the moment when our kids make mistakes or poor choices? How can we respond if we don’t dole out “consequences” or punishment?
- We can first get control of the situation (kindly but firmly stop harmful behavior if it is still happening) and ourselves (self-regulate, which includes getting the Spirit with us). We can take deep breaths, shake out our hands, acknowledge and label our emotions, tell ourselves it’s not an emergency (which it feels like it is when we are in ‘fight or flight’ mode), say a quick silent prayer, etc.
- Then we can fix our attention on meeting the underlying needs driving the behavior, and helping our kids process their emotions (i.e. helping themlearn to self-regulate, which is the first step to self-discipline), while reinforcing boundaries and expectations — all emotions are acceptable but all actions are not. We do this by listening to their perspective (truly listening with the goal of understanding) and helping them label their emotions. We can then help them get their needs met or express their feelings in a more acceptable way (through words and/or tears — yes, crying is an acceptable way), while reinforcing the behavioral standard.
- Once everyone is feeling heard and calm, we can focus next on collaborative problem-solving (finding solutions that work for everyone involved, even if that’s just our child and us). Part of this is practicing seeing things from each other’s perspective. It’s best not to go into a problem-solving session having already decided what the solution is going to be (even if we know it must include not hurting people or things). It truly should be a solution that addresses each person’s needs and concerns as well as possible.
- And finally, we can invite and empower them to repair damage that may have been done, in whichever way they choose, when they feel ready. We can pray with them if they want to, and we can offer ideas if they ask. If they are not feeling generous enough to repair right away, don’t force it. Instead, express confidence that they will come up with just the right way to fix things when they’re ready, and then follow-up with them later.
Note: For very young children (toddler and even preschool age) we can usually just redirect their actions to something that will meet their needs and goals in a more acceptable way (e.g. “no throwing balls in the living room — let’s take this outside”), and then, if applicable, we can model restitution and involve them in it (e.g. “let’s see if Sissy needs a hug” or “let’s get this cleaned up,” as we grab a rag for each of us and start cleaning).
Yesterday my kids got into an altercation when my daughter accidentally knocked my son down. He was angry, and hurt her back. I intervened as a mediator (rather than a judge) and made sure they were physically separated enough to prevent further harm. I told them I needed a moment to calm down, and took some deep breaths while repeating my mantra (“it’s not an emergency”). Then I listened to each of them, one at a time, tell their side of the story. I acknowledged their feelings and experiences, and reinforced that we can’t hurt people, even when we’re mad. We discussed briefly what we can do instead (e.g. use words to express anger, come find Mom, etc.). And then they decided what they wanted to do to repair their relationship, and we moved on.
One of my favorite quotes says, “Discipline is helping a child solve a problem. Punishment is making a child suffer for having a problem. To raise problem-solvers, focus on solutions, not retribution.” (L.R. Knost)
This approach helps kids see beyond themselves, teaches accountability to others, gives them tools and skills (like empathy and collaborative problem-solving) to use throughout their lives, maintains parent-child connections, 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.
This approach also applies to all types of problems and misbehavior, not just interpersonal conflict. We don’t necessarily need to do this whole process for every little issue, and I am certainly not perfect at remembering to take this approach every time, but if we can keep our focus on helping and guiding with love and connection, the Spirit will inspire, guide and help us to truly inspire, guide and help them to learn.
“Those who are filled with the pure love of Christ do not seek to force others to do better; they inspire others to do better, indeed inspire them to the pursuit of God.” (Howard W. Hunter)
Letting go of punishment and control is very scary for most parents. We feel that it’s our job
our children behave and obey and learn (not to mention that it often feels easier, at least when they’re young). But really our job is to guide, teach and inspire our children, which requires connection and trust and open hearts. Punishment and control do the opposite of that. Let us inspire hearts instead