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Punishment vs. Discipline in Parenting

In class Sunday night we were covering one of the post-partum units, which touched on parenting styles. I tried a new exercise where I had the expectant parents each fill out a “Parenting Values/Actions” summary, then compare their answers to see how close they were to their partner. Of course I assured them that even though they would have answers now…they WOULD change as they actually become parents. “I was such a better parent before I had children” the saying goes. 😉 I’ll readily admit that I’m not a perfect parent, and sometimes I wonder if the reason God has blessed me with 6 children is because I haven’t quite learned enough from being a parent yet.

The survey included a question about spanking, and I very purposefully did not say more about the topic beyond “it’s a big topic to consider and discuss.” Getting into that discussion could have easily derailed the class, and led to us not covering other important things I wanted to cover in class.

As fate (God?) would have it, the very next morning a mom in my favorite on-line parenting group (Parenting as Ministry–I’ve been part of this group for over 14 years, so I consider the other women friends, even though I’ve only met one in person) posted a link to a wonderful blog post examining a Biblical perspective on spanking. I encourage all of my readers–Christian or not–to read this post.

The comments to the post contained one mom asking sincerely for help…which spurred in me a desire to reply.

I want to agree with this interpretation, I do. But I would love to hear how we as Christian parents can reconcile these concepts with the responsibility of teaching respect for authority, natural consequences, etc. Not that physically spanking a child is the only way to achieve those things, but are we to believe that any punishment is wrong? Any fear of consequence is wrong? How can I, as a Christian parent, become “the boss” in my childrens’ eyes? When they (my 2 and 3 year olds) are so bent on not listening, defiance, etc. I literally can’t speak to them during a time of conflict because they are “checked out” with anger or other reactionary behavior. What else gets their attention? I’m not trying to be contrary- I’m actually very desperate here.

My heart hurts for this mom, that she is experiencing this. I have 6 children ages 14 years down to 6 months…and I’ve really never experienced the kind of defiance she is describing in children so young.

I have to wonder if her children really are being defiant and angry, or are they determined and disappointed (anger is a secondary emotion that can rise out of disappointment–it is not the primary emotion)? I find that so often in conservative Christian settings, children’s behaviors are interpretted in the worst possible manner…which I find odd since when it comes to other relationships, these same people will encourage you to try to find the most positive interpretation of the motives behind behavior.

A determined child will repeatedly try to get to a “forbidden” object not out of defiance, but out of curiosity. So a parent needs to then decide if the child needs to learn to accept the disappointment of being told “no” (in which case the parent needs to be prepared to repeatedly and calmly enforce the “no” with the action of removing the child–keeping words to a minimum–even through screams), if the parent needs to remove the object to a place where it is no longer a temptation to the child, or if the parent is going to help the child to safely explore the object to satisfy his curiosity. Note that none of these options require punishment, but yet in all of them the parent is still the authority who is determining how to handle the situation.

An alternative to the “defiant” interpretation is also “unable” or “confused.” I heard a story of a mother who thought her 2 year old child was being defiant because he would wake in the morning with a dry diaper, so she’d set him on a potty seat where he would not pee for up to 8 HOURS at a stretch! I’d put forth the idea that this child was not being “defiant” as the mother interpretted, but was perhaps confused about what he was supposed to be doing on that potty. I’d bet that there were a few times where this little guy accidentlly sprayed his mom during diaper changes, and she reacted very negatively (as an adult I still remember one of my aunts smacking me during a diaper change because I in some way was not cooperating with her–and I supposedly was potty trained before I turned 2. Kids do learn young!). He learned from this to only pee in a diaper. Fast forward…he is no longer peeing in his sleep, mom wakes him up before he’s had a chance to pee, sets him on a potty…where he desparately holds in his pee because he has been trained to only pee in a diaper. Even a child who has peed in the potty before and been rewarded for doing it may find peeing in a potty to be scary, and will thus hold in urine. So sad…

I would encourage parents to try to step back a bit from being “the boss” and instead consider being “the leader.” A good leader makes her followers WANT to do the right thing because she has made it so attractive. Since this mom seems to be in a battle of wills right now, this might mean taking an extended break from things like keeping a perfectly clean house, potty training, enforcing dinner table manners–ANYTHING that is creating conflict and is not an issue of safety or morality. A parent in this situation may need to try to minimize the number of events they are taking their children to so that they don’t have “we have to get out of the house NOW” kind of battles. Instead the parent may need to focus time on re-building the relationship with their kids. Play with them, really enjoy them. Get them to know the parent as a happy person. Once those bonds are re-built, then the parent can slowly work on *leading* them to put on shoes and coats, *leading* them to pick up their toys…making it fun with music, silly walking, things like that.

Do I believe in using natural & logical consequences in parenting? Absolutely! If my toddler hits another child, I’m going to remove her from that play situation. If she throws food off her high chair tray, that is the end of that meal time. If my older kids don’t do their chores and it is something that really must get done before a deadline so I do it…they are going to have a replacement chore that is more onerous. If I can leave the chore for them to do, they will get it done before being allowed to eat dinner. Do I use punishments–that is, inflicting a penalty in response to an offense? Yes…but rarely, and only with older kids that repeatedly disobey. But I really haven’t found a situation yet where I felt that a child under the age of 4 needed to be “punished.” Children are learning–and so they need “discipline”–that is, TEACHING, to help them learn how to behave both before they are in a situation, and after they have behaved incorrectly in some way.

I would also encourage parents who are having such repeated battles with very young children to consider having their children evaluated for autism if the steps above do not seem to improve the situation. The autism rate is rising quickly, and children with autism often have great difficulty learning to handle the world around them–which can result in extreme anger as their frustration becomes more than they can handle. These children also do not need punishment, but rather they need even more care when teaching them about the world they are in.

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Posted in Home and Parenting and Spiritual Sunday 5 years, 12 months ago at 12:54 pm.

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