Reproving Betimes With Sharpness

41 No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned;

42 By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile—
43 Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy. (D&C 121:41-43)

These verses from the Doctrine and Covenants are often used in the context of parenting and family relationships, and I think they can teach us so much. But it wasn’t until I studied verse 43 in a little more depth that I really understood all it was saying. I used to think it was talking about the necessity to be stern or harsh with our children at times when we discipline them, but then to show them love after the fact. As though it’s okay to spank a child or deliver some “tough love” punishment as long as you follow it up with love afterwards. To me that seemed a little contradictory to the counsel in verses 41 and 42 that urge us to use persuasion and gentleness. It turns out that what I learned in my studies fits a lot better with the other two verses. So let’s break verse 43 down and look at it a little more closely.

Reproving betimes

Reproving means ‘correcting,’ and betimes means ‘early on.’ We need to correct a potentially harmful (particularly in a spiritual or eternal sense) situation early on. But I think it’s important to make the distinction between intervening before real damage has been done, and acting in the moment when we’re in ‘fight or flight’ mode. Usually when we feel like we have to do something about a child’s behavior right this second it’s because we’re triggered and in ‘fight or flight’ mode, and is actually the absolute worst time to take action if there is no true emergency. (And if immediate safety is a concern, then once we have prevented potential harm, we can calm ourselves and connect with our children before any discussion or correction takes place.) Our rational brain is out of commission when in ‘fight or flight,’ and if there is no true emergency (as is usually the case with a child’s misbehavior), we tend to do things we later regret when we act in these moments. As we’ll see momentarily, it’s important that this correction isn’t done in anger.

…with sharpness…

This is where I learned the most. What does ‘sharpness’ mean? If you follow the chain of footnotes beginning with the one next to this word you will be led to verses that talk about the Word of God being quick and powerful and “sharper than a two edged sword.” The Word of God is plain and bold, quick (alive, living, lively) and powerful (full of energy, energized, active, effective). I loved this explanation from the February 2017 Ensign:

Two-edged swords have been around about as long as there have been swords. A sword whose blade is sharpened on both sides is able to penetrate and cut at every contact point and with every movement. This means that it can be thrust more quickly and deeply and can cut more easily.

What We Can Learn
A two-edged sword:

Penetrates. Through the Spirit, God reveals things “to our spirits precisely as though we had no bodies at all” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith[2007], 475). His word can also cut through culture, habits, biases, preconceptions, and doubts to speak to the innermost part of us, whether we are righteous or wicked. When people hear His word preached with power, they are often “pricked [or pierced] in their heart” (Acts 2:37) and desire to repent. In fact, the word of God has a more powerful effect on people’s minds than the literal sword (see Alma 31:5) and is one of the catalysts for developing faith (see Romans 10:17).

Divides. God’s word can separate truth from error and “divide asunder all the cunning and the snares and the wiles of the devil” (Helaman 3:29). It can help us identify the half-truths and complications that cloud our thinking by setting them up against God’s plain and precious truths.

Cuts in any direction. The word of God as revealed in the scriptures and teachings of living prophets is versatile and applicable in many situations for our blessing or condemnation, our edification, inspiration, instruction, or chastisement. And as we “treasure up in [our] minds continually the words of life” (D&C 84:85), the word of God is then “quick and powerful,” “lively and active” as we share it with others and apply it in our own lives.

…when moved upon by the Holy Ghost…

If we are truly being moved upon by the Holy Ghost to correct our child’s behavior, we will feel only the fruits of the Spirit – love, peace, compassion, etc. There will be no anger or pridefulness or resentment driving this correction. Also, since this verse specifies that we should reprove when moved upon by the Holy Ghost, maybe it’s not necessary or beneficial to correct every little thing? Children learn more by our modeling than anything, and when they’re constantly being reprimanded for every little thing they’re probably learning that they’re bad, or to criticize others, more than they’re learning correct behavior. Might it be more effective to focus on solutions with them? To show them the appropriate behavior? I personally think so.

and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy.

First, if we’re showing forth an increase of love, this reaffirms to me that the correction itself must be done with a feeling of love. We must be feeling and conveying love already and then increasing that love to remove any doubt about our feelings for the child. Second, the plainness of the Word of God can feel kind of harsh or uncomfortable when we are in need of correction, and while the truth needs to be plainly understood in order to affect change, I believe that the greatest motivator is love. Simply being right isn’t enough to be effective in getting people to do the right thing if we’re angry or condescending or condemning in our approach. But when we (human beings) feel cherished and accepted and of great worth, when we feel pure truth, we want to continue feeling that way. We want to be near people who make us feel that way. We want more of the Spirit in our lives. We feel motivated to follow that feeling and act on it. And if we want to have positive, Christlike influence in our children’s lives then they need to feel our love and know that we’re on their team.

So putting it all together, this verse is teaching us about correcting early on with the word of God which is sharper than a two edged sword (the plain and precious truths of the gospel), when moved upon by the Holy Ghost. This must be done with a feeling of love and with peace, which are fruits of the spirit. If it is done in frustration or anger then it is clearly not coming from the Lord and His spirit. We are then told to show forth an increase of love, which, to me, means that we have already been showing forth love but we then increase our show of love. It is imperative that our children know we are on their side, that we are not interested in fighting against them or being their enemy. If we want to be able to persuade them as verse 41 suggests, then our relationship must be one of cooperation and respect and kindness and genuine love.

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The Role Emotions Play in Behavior and Correction

Note: My brother, Josh (one of the Mormon guys at twomormonguys.com {the other is my cousin, Dallan}), helped me with this post. He and I have had many conversations on this subject, and I’m so grateful for his participation on this!

My husband and I were watching a sitcom the other day, and in this episode the female character was feeling like her husband wasn’t trying in their marriage anymore and like he was taking their relationship for granted. Instead of talking to him about it she let her feelings become bottled up inside until finally she snapped, accusing him of being lazy and not caring, and causing a big fight. It was clear to me, since I was just an observer, that she could have said something like, “Remember when you used to surprise me with flowers randomly? I loved that, and I miss it. It would really mean a lot to me if you still did things like that.” and the outcome likely would have been much different.

dissonance

 

By yelling at him, she was hoping to be heard and to set her husband straight. But when humans are attacked, our natural reaction is to either fight back (jump on the defensive), run from the fight (avoid the problem and stuff our feelings), or simply freeze and shut down. In moments like these, the reasoning part of our brain is not “on” and so the lesson we’re supposed to be learning isn’t getting through. When we’re being attacked, yelled at or criticized, our autonomic nervous system thinks we are in danger and triggers the fight or fight response. This happens automatically and completely out of our conscious control. We feel worse than we did before, and we can’t do better by feeling worse. You see, we do the things we do because of what we think and feel in that moment, particularly about ourselves. Thoughts lead to feelings, which lead to actions. When we feel better, we do better.

Think about how emotionally generous you are when you feel great! When we’re full of love and the Spirit, kindness and patience and generosity just flow from us naturally.

beauty

Children are no different. When they feel badly, they’re more likely to behave badly. And when they feel wonderful, they act wonderful. But we often hold them to a higher standard than we do ourselves in this regard. It’s easy to justify our actions when we’re frustrated or upset (maybe we don’t let the “jerk” driver over when we tries to change lanes in front of us, because he was rude first so “he deserves it.”), but we tend to expect our kids to always be on their best behavior.

We tend to think that our children have to earn our affection and attention, that they must act a certain way first in order to get the attention they so desperately need. But if they could act appropriately without our help, then they wouldn’t be crying out for our attention in undesirable ways to begin with. Children need connection with us to keep their “love tanks” full and to keep themselves regulated. They need help processing the yucky emotions that are driving the bad behavior. They’re much more likely to act the way we want them to when they feel connected to us and when they’re in a positive emotional state.

We also tend to think, “but I’m the adult and they’re the child and it’s my job to discipline and teach them a lesson when they misbehave.” And it’s true, we do have a responsibility to teach! But the thing about teaching and learning is that it can only happen when everyone is calm and in a positive emotional state. As I said before, the rational part (the learning center) of our brain shuts down when we’re in a state of fight or flight. Yelling, criticizing, belittling, shaming, spanking, isolation/withdrawal (time out), etc. all put children in a state of fight or flight and turn off their reasoning centers, making it literally impossible for them to even understand what we are saying. All of these strategies make children feel worse, and again, they can’t do better by feeling worse. They can’t reason or learn while in “fight or flight,” but nor will they even be motivated to do good when they feel shamed. All shame does is make us feel defeated and worthless and hopeless. It is essential that we improve the emotional state first before we can truly improve behavior.

kindwordslovingactions

Now, recognizing that we only act badly when we feel badly does not in any way excuse bad behavior. We are each responsible for our actions regardless of how we feel. This is why we allow all feelings but limit behavior. This is also why we use empathy and emotion coaching. Everyone is swamped by big emotions at times, so it’s crucial to learn how to shift from “fight or flight” back to a state of rest where we can reason, without repressing emotions, so that we don’t continually make bad choices in the heat of the moment that we will later regret. The more we help our children make that shift, the better able they will be to make it on their own eventually. It is only after making that shift that effective teaching, learning, and communicating can take place. Change the emotional state, change the behavior. How do we help our children change their emotional state? Find a way to touch their heart. If they are yelling, respond with a whisper (see Proverbs 15:1). Truly listen to them. Empathize. Show affection. Play with them. Do something that makes them feel connected to you and engaged with. Tell stories. Use the Word of God, or music. Invite the spirit. (See this post for effective Spirit-led discipline.)

children's hearts

 

This doesn’t mean that we are enabling bad behavior at all, or being permissive parents. We can recognize sin, and teach children to behave righteously, without doing things that make the child feel devalued, discouraged, or disabled. True discipline (which means ‘to teach’) will always involve calm and clear minds, positive emotional states, and the Spirit, who helps us to “know the truth of all things” (Moroni 10:5).

And now, as the preaching of the word had a great tendency to lead the people to do that which was just—yea, it had had more powerful effect upon the minds of the people than the sword, or anything else, which had happened unto them—therefore Alma thought it was expedient that they should try the virtue of the word of God. (Alma 31:5)

Why did the word of God have such a powerful effect on the Nephites? Because preaching the word allowed the Spirit to touch their hearts, which changed their emotional state to one of love and a desire to do the Lord’s will.

studyofgospelimprovesbehavior

I firmly believe that children naturally want to please us and do the right thing. Their hearts are pure. Mosiah 3:19 says that we must “[become] as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit…” This is children’s true nature. But because young children are immature beings and their brains aren’t fully developed, they get easily overwhelmed by big emotions, and when they feel badly they don’t always act appropriately. Not only this, but when we use control and fear to manipulate them, they then feel the need to fight for their rights and their needs to be met. When we view them as bad (or difficult or selfish or untrustworthy, etc.) we usually see a self-fulfilling prophecy. Helping them with their feelings (and their behavior), connecting with them, and making sure they feel significant and worthwhile and wanted, helps restore them to their natural state–which is a state of goodness. I feel strongly that our society’s view of children needs to change. We must believe that children have divine nature and they want to be good. Labeling them as naughty when they misbehave is not helpful. When our children behave badly, they are not bad–they are hurting. Or maybe they’re simply exploring cause and effect and testing boundaries and limits, because that’s how they learn. Either way, bad behavior does not mean they are bad. Their worth has not changed. They don’t need to redeem themselves in order to deserve our love and kindness and attention. Our Savior has already redeemed every living soul from sin. Our Savior has shown us how to hate the sin but love the sinner unconditionally.

One of my favorite stories from the New Testament is the story of the woman taken in adultery (see John 8:3-11). Jesus would have been justified by the law to have this woman stoned to death for her crime. But not only did He spare her life, He transformed the entire situation and probably left this daughter of God feeling humbled and hopeful and worthy of forgiveness. I imagine she was overcome with love and gratitude. The perfect love she must have felt from the Savior would certainly have been a much greater motivator to “go and sin no more” than was the shame and scorn of the scribes and Pharisees. The Savior surely understood the worth of each person, as well as the significance of us knowing our worth. He understood the importance of changing hearts, not just behavior.

This way of parenting (touching and guiding hearts) works beautifully, but it isn’t easy. Honestly, the hardest part about parenting this way isn’t our children’s emotions, or even their behavior–it’s taking control of our own emotions (and subsequently, our behavior). We must practice shifting our own emotional state before we will be able to help our children shift theirs. This also requires time and dedicated effort. It might be faster and easier to use fear-based tactics or to just send our kids to timeout, but if we truly want our children to learn how to control their behavior and choose to do the right thing of their own volition, it will require effort on our part to control ourselves and trust the process. And what more important work could we be doing?

Love vs. Fear

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the choices I make. I’ve heard it said that every choice we make either comes from a place of love or from a place of fear. I believe this is true. In any given moment, what we choose to think, say, or do is either driven by love (or some other “fruit” of the Spirit), or it is driven by fear (or another of Satan’s tools). We know that faith and fear can not exist in the same mind at the same time. And we know that “perfect love casteth out fear” (1 John 4:18). We also know that “God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7). Feeling fear (or any other “negative” emotion) is not bad, and it does not in any way make us bad. But clearly, the choices we make out of fear are not inspired by the Lord, and thus, will not bless our lives.

What do I mean by “choices we make out of fear?”

Fight or Flight

For one, any time we act while we’re angry, or overcome by “fight or flight” hormones, that choice or action is driven by fear. You might think, “I’m not afraid, I’m angry!” But anger is a masking emotion that covers up more vulnerable emotions, like fear.

An example of this might be when my child is acting up and is not listening to me when I tell her to stop. My mind jumps to conclusions and I get triggered by some ridiculous (and not totally conscious) thought, like “oh no, I’m a horrible mother because I can’t make my child do what I want!” That lack of control causes a fear response. I shift into fight or flight. My brain tells my body that there is an emergency and I must act immediately (fight or flee). If I act in the moment, I might do something like yell at my child or physically handle her roughly, which I will regret afterward. But if I can access my rational brain I will realize that there really isn’t an emergency, and then I can slow down, re-frame my thoughts (e.g. remind myself that we can’t solve anything until everyone is calm, that she can’t do better by feeling worse, and that the answer always starts with connection), and make a choice out of love instead – such as getting down on my child’s level, making eye contact, connecting physically with a gentle hand on her arm, and calmly making my request (or setting my limit) again. I think we all know which choice is more loving and Christlike. But how do we shift out of fight or flight in moments like this?

Try taking a few deep breaths. Close your eyes. Count to ten. Tell yourself “It’s not an emergency,” or “I have all the time in the world.” Turn or walk away if necessary. These are the things that work the most effectively for me. There are a myriad of ways to calm oneself, so find what works best for you and practice it. I have even put up sticky notes around my house to help remind me in the moment.

One important note: I have found that it’s so, so much easier to calm down if I choose to calm myself right away – before I get too upset. If I choose to act on my anger, even a little bit, it is 10 X harder to then choose to calm down. Acting on our anger, or even talking about how angry we are, makes us more angry. We are then more likely to feel justified in our angry actions (until later when we’re calm and the guilt comes crashing down on us). Opening the door to our anger even slightly can sabotage our ability to make a choice out of love. So instead, notice the anger and breathe through it. Use your calming strategies. And then choose love.

Is this easy? Nope! Will we sometimes still act on our anger (or fear), even if we practice this a lot? Of course. Because we’re human. But the more often we can calm ourselves instead of acting on our anger, the more our brains will create and reinforce new neural pathways that will help us to calm ourselves more easily in the future. (We can actually create a calmer brain!) And when we do mess up, all is not lost. In any given moment, we can choose love – even if we failed to do so in the previous moment. Additionally, messing up gives us the opportunity to model for our children how to repair relationships. We can apologize for our behavior (which does not excuse our children’s behavior, but rather, models how to take responsibility for our actions). We can try a do-over. And we can move forward.

“What if…”

I have noticed that I am also more prone to make fear-based choices when I start asking, “What if…?” rather than trusting God and the natural processes of things (I’m referring to the type of “what if…” questions that cause us to doubt). This way of thinking can lead us to ignore our God-given instincts and intuition and to make decisions that are based on the wisdom of men. For example, “What if all the experts are right and my baby never learns to sleep on her own? I’d better leave her to cry it out. She might not learn any other way.” (see this post for my experience with sleep training.) Instead, we can trust that God created us with instincts that drive us to respond to and comfort crying babies, and even to hold, rock, and nurse them to sleep. If we trust that this is His design (a design that has worked beautifully for thousands of years throughout the history of the world, I might add) then we don’t need to worry about creating “bad habits.” We can trust that He created each one of His children to learn and develop at just the right pace for each of them, and that even the babies who are not forced to do things before they’re ready all eventually learn to do those things on their own. Along with being developmentally ready, their trust, security, and attachment to the adults in their lives is what enables their independence. We can trust the process.

Side note: some might argue that their decision to sleep train was not made out of fear at all, but rather it was a logical, thought-out decision they made to achieve a desired result – an easier baby who sleeps through the night independently, and better-rested parents. That might sound pretty nice, but it goes against nature and God’s design (and in my experience, when I work with nature instead of fighting against it, things work better). Babies were meant to be near their mothers, even during sleep, as is so clearly evident by the physiological phenomena that occur when babies are in close contact with their mothers (synchronized sleep patterns, regulated breathing, body temperature, heart rate, etc.) (Source), as well as what occurs when they are separated (elevated stress hormones, weakened immune system, sleep disturbances, etc.) (Source). Additionally, it might surprise you to learn that moms who breastfeed and co-sleep get more sleep and report feeling better rested than moms who breastfeed but don’t co-sleep or moms who bottle feed (Source). This has definitely been true for me. Co-sleeping may not be the right answer for all families, but it is a huge blessing for many families – even many families who didn’t think it would work for them. If you’re worried about safety, check this out. And for those who need a third option (other than cry-it-out or co-sleeping) there are more gradual and gentle ways to encourage independent sleep in older babies and young children (also see here).

Now back to doubt and fear. On the other end of the spectrum, asking “What if…?”can also lead to anxiety that we might damage our children if we are less than perfect. “What if I am permanently damaging my children because I can’t seem to stop yelling at them?” “What if my child is struggling with _____ because of a choice I made?” “What if I fail to teach my children all of the most important things?” None of us want to screw up our kids! But fear doesn’t help. It is not productive. It won’t serve to make us or our lives or our children better. Faith, trust, hope, love – these divine attributes do help. Because of the atonement no one is ever damaged beyond repair. The Lord loves us unconditionally, and He trusts us enough to raise His children, even though we are not perfect. We must focus on the good that we do, for “[we] are doing better than [we] think [we] are” (Jeffery R. Holland). When thoughts of doubt creep in, we always have the opportunity to re-frame our thoughts, to re-write our story, to forgive ourselves and others, and to move forward in faith and love – love for ourselves as well as others. Which brings me to:

Self-Destructive Thoughts

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Self-destructive thoughts certainly don’t come from a place of love, but rather from fear. Brigham Young said, “If you have a bad thought about yourself, tell it to go to hell, because that is exactly where it came from.”

Self-destructive thoughts are never helpful or productive, because we can’t do better by feeling worse. We need encouragement from ourselves, not criticism.

We must choose love, not only for others, but for ourselves. We must take compassionate care of ourselves before we will be able to take compassionate care of our children and others.

Using Either Fear or Love to Influence Others

In addition to us being influenced by either fear or love, we use either fear or love to influence our children. After all, unless we are able to physically move them and force them to do what we want for the rest of their lives, influence is all we really have. (And even if we are able to force their actions, we will never have control over their thoughts, beliefs, or feelings – we only have influence.) As hard as this might sometimes be for us to accept, this is how it was meant to be. This is the way we chose for it to be when we chose to follow our Savior in the pre-existence.

D&C 121:41-42 says, “No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile—”

It is popular to use fear (yelling, threats, withdrawal, manipulation, punishment, control, etc.) in parenting to coerce children into obedience, but it seems that the Lord would have us influence them a different way. Punishment, by definition, is not gentle or kind. We might think, “well I’m punishing my child because I love him.” But it is not enough just to love our children – they must feel our love in order for it to really be effective. When we use punishment, our love is lost on our children. But when we set limits with empathy (acknowledge their feelings and perspective), our children feel that we understand them and are in their corner – even if they’re not happy about the limits we set.

One of my favorite quotes is by Gordon Neufeld. He says, “You cannot parent a child whose heart you do not have.” Our connection with our children (or their attachment to us) is absolutely vital in teaching and guiding them. So how do we win our children’s hearts?

That’s a topic for another day. In the meantime, try this experiment: every time you make a choice, ask yourself if it was love or fear that drove you. Then look at the fruits of that choice. And whenever possible, choose love.

Why I Don’t Make My Children Suffer For Their Misbehavior (Repentance-Based Discipline)

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(D&C 19:16, 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)

Sacrifice

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?
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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 to make 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