I sat down to write this blog post when I heard a familiar screaming from my boys’ room, “Ahhh, Why would you do that?!?” I knew that we would again have an opportunity to use punishment, discipline, or both.
Punishment and Discipline are not synonymous. While punishment can go hand-in-hand with discipline, they have different definitions and serve different purposes.
Punishment is a consequence that is introduced in order to reduce unwanted behaviors.
Discipline is a process of teaching and building character for a desired outcome. If we want to get all science-y, discipline is about building neural pathways that become the building blocks for making wise choices.
Here is the story:
My youngest son got on my oldest son’s top bunk. The youngest picked up the book that the oldest was reading. My older son asked him not to mess with it, but the youngest threw the book anyway. As you can imagine, my older son felt disrespected and angry.
Discipline: We called our oldest son (age 11) out of the room and asked him what was going on. We acknowledged that he sounded angry and validated this feeling. He quickly calmed down and acknowledged that he should not have lost his temper with his little brother. We reminded our oldest that he is not responsible for the choices of the youngest, but he is responsible for his own reactions. We discussed strategies that he can try next time. Trust me, there will be a next time. In this case, there was no need to take a punitive approach. On his own, he apologized to his little brother for losing his temper.
Punishment followed by discipline: With my younger son (age 5), we have been working on helping him to identify his actions. When my wife asked him if he threw the book, my youngest became vindictive and started screaming at her. He was immediately sent to time out. We have already set a precedent for how mean and disrespectful behavior results in an immediate time-out. This was the punishment piece. It was not physically painful, but it did disrupt what he wanted to do, and because he was disobedient while sitting in time-out, the time-out was extended. This has been a vitally important part of the training for my strong-willed son.
The follow up discussion:
Me: Son, do you know why you had to go to time-out?
Me: Okay, you had to go to time-out for two reasons, and you had to stay there longer because you broke the time-out rules. How are we supposed to sit in time-out?
Son: I am supposed to be quiet and not talk.
Me: That’s right! Is that how it went?
Son: Not in the beginning.
Me: That’s true. Do you see why you had to stay in time out a little longer?
Son: Yes, but why was I in time-out?
Me: Your brother asked you to leave his book alone and you decided to throw it, right?
Me: What kind of behavior was this?
Son: Mean behavior and I guess his book could have torn. Then that would have been destructive behavior too. I think I need to apologize to my brother.
Me: I agree. I am so glad that you are able to recognize that was mean behavior. Also, when mom tried to ask you about it, you chose to scream at her. What kind of behavior was that?
Son: It was mean and disrespectful. I need to apologize to mommy too.
As a new parent, I would have used spanking in this situation. However, I have learned that spanking my youngest son leads to increased escalation, anger, and fear. The time-out approach tends to work a lot better for him. Consistency in our approach eventually leads to easier parenting.
Just a few words of encouragement to parents: Raising kids is a lot of work. It can truly be exhausting and maddening. But, man, it can be rewarding. Not all situations require punishment, but if it is needed, please consider a few things.
- Where is my heart attitude? Are you punishing out of frustration, embarrassment, or desperation? If so, I encourage you to check your own attitude before delivering the punishment. When we are upset, it is easy to go overboard.
- Am I punishing because my child needs a break from what is going on to reset? If so, please consider a calm, but firm approach. Jarring punishment like harsh yelling or physical aggression puts kids in fight or flight brain that takes time to recover from before teaching can happen. The parent/child relationship is more likely to be compromised.
- Have we addressed this before or is this new behavior? Sometimes we think that cause and affect should be obvious to our children. This is not necessarily true. Lack of understanding requires education, not punishment.
- Are there other factors at play? Is your child tired, hungry, or otherwise stressed? Are your expectations age/developmentally appropriate? These things do not need to become an excuse for undesirable behavior. However, recognizing these gives parents the opportunity to have a little more empathy in how misbehavior is handled.
Parenting is a lot of work and we all need support from time to time. Refuge Counseling of Arkansas is here for you. We have therapists specialized in family relationships, as well as child and adolescent issues. Contact us to set up a free 15 minute consult today.
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