Why I Don’t Make My Children “Pay the Price” For Their Misbehavior (And What I’ve Found That Works Better)

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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 felt wrong to me, but I couldn’t articulate 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 a choice), 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. But what about punishment? When a child (or anyone) is subject to punishment (pain caused intentionally by another person), they shift out of their “reasoning brain” into their “reptilian brain” (fight or flight). The learning centers 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, 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 cooperating with us in the future. Punishment simply is not the most effective or healthy form of discipline.

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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 to teach them to recognize and right their wrongs, with His grace. 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.

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How do I plan to teach my children about repentance from the time they’re very young?

In her book and in her course, Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids, Dr. Laura Markham teaches parents how to empower their children to make amends, using what she calls The Three Rs: Reflect, Repair, and Responsibility (see below). Reading and listening to her description of this tool brought to my mind the repentance “steps.” Then a couple months ago I was visiting with my sister-in-law and a friend (we’ll call this friend Sara), and we were talking about discipline. Sara shared with us a new approach to disciplining her kids that she had begun using, which was bearing awesome results. She came up with this new approach (I believe with the guidance of the Spirit). It really resonated with me and I felt that this was a link I had been missing.

Sara invites the Spirit when correcting or disciplining her children by singing a hymn or primary song, telling a story or parable that teaches a principle that relates to the child’s infraction, and praying with her child(ren). The details of how this scenario looks for her family differ from the way I have adapted it for my own family, but the principle is the same. Likewise, you may adapt it to better work for your own family. I have only used this approach a few times so far, but it made a remarkable difference each time.

These are the steps I have used:

  1. Calm myself. This approach to discipline is not effective when I’m 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 handle the situation appropriately so that she doesn’t do something she’ll really regret.
  2. Empathize and set (or enforce) a limit. This must be done with empathy, kindness and love, as well as clarity and firmness. “You were upset when he took your blankie because that’s your special blankie, right?…You were so mad, but sweetie, I won’t let you hit your brother. Hitting hurts.”
  3. The Three R’s (*adapted from Dr. Laura Markham’s book Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids)
    1. Reflect – In a non-attacking tone, ask the child to tell me what happened, and really listen to her side. Without blame or shame, help her recognize that her actions hurt someone. Identify the what, why, and whether that action was safe/appropriate. 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.” “How did you feel when brother took your blankie? And then what happened? How did that make your brother feel?”
    2. Repair – Ask the child what she can do to fix things with the person she hurt. Offer ideas if necessary. If the child isn’t ready to repair, I don’t force it. This means that she is still feeling too angry or threatened, so I may go back a few steps if necessary. 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 to hurt him, but when you hit him that did hurt him. So how can you fix your relationship with him? What would you like to do to help him feel better?” 
    3. Responsibility – Part of helping a child learn to take responsibility is helping them be able to respond differently in the future. Help her recognize that she always has a choice to make and that that choice will impact those around her. Help her be “response-able” (able to respond appropriately). Equip her with appropriate alternative responses for future similar situations. If appropriate, have her role-play. This helps her know how to make necessary changes moving forward. “What could you do next time something like this happens, instead of hitting?” Discuss strategies for calming down, and then offer suggestions for alternative actions, if necessary, such as finding brother’s blankie and trading him. Practice right then if appropriate.  (*Note: I don’t expect my kids to actually remember to do this the very next time. It usually takes being taught correct behavior over and over again before it sticks. 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.)
  4. Once the child is calm (remember they can’t learn or reason while in fight or flight), use a parable/story or song to teach the correct behavior. Jesus often taught in parables. I think this is a very effective teaching tool when teaching anyone, but especially children. This also helps invite the Spirit. The story can be gospel-based, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be. “Let me tell you a little story about Jesus. Do you know what Jesus did when people treated Him badly? He was kind to them and He helped them, even when they were mean. In fact, right before He died, He prayed and asked Heavenly Father to forgive the people who were trying to kill Him.” Sing  I’m Trying to Be Like Jesus.
  5. End with prayer. Ask forgiveness, for help to do better next time, and for an increased measure of love in our home. Thank Heavenly Father for sending His Son to make it possible for us to repent. Either parent or child can offer the prayer.

This might seem like a lot, but it doesn’t have to take long. The whole encounter may only take a few minutes, but even if it takes longer, when it’s over we are left feeling love and encouragement and harmony rather than frustration and disconnection. And I feel confident that, with the help of the Spirit, I am helping my children truly learn the desired lessons that will lead to emotional intelligence, positive behavior, and the ability repent when they stumble.

Obviously some encounters are going to take longer or be more involved. Sometimes it might be necessary to remove the child from the situation, or to physically stop them from doing something. Other times it might be necessary to save the teaching for a later time if everyone is too upset in the moment. And obviously the age, temperament, etc. of the child are going to impact what takes place and how.

I don’t necessarily follow every single step listed above every time my child misbehaves, nor do I necessarily follow the steps in this exact order every time – this is just a guideline. Cater this to your child’s individual needs and follow the Spirit. One thing that has been helpful for me is to make a list in advance of stories or songs I might use for scenarios that tend to pop up often. In the heat of the moment it can be hard to think on my feet.

The most important thing here for me is inviting and involving the Spirit in disciplining my children. My goal is to teach them in a way they can really learn, and to instill in them a desire to do what’s right, for the sake of doing what’s right. I believe that can really only be accomplished with the help of the Spirit.

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