To smack or not to smack … That is no longer a question, since corporal punishment, even by parents, was outlawed by the High Court in South Africa.
Most parents wish for their children to be obedient and responsible, and not get into trouble or shame the parents through rebellious behaviour. Many Christian parents regard it as their God-given responsibility to discipline their children and they tend to employ the means of discipline that they grew up with. They now feel that the law infringes on their responsibility as parents to discipline their children. I have come across many parents who feel totally disempowered now that they cannot beat their children. They do not know of any other effective way to discipline their children. Yet, when I asked these parents whether the beating improved their children’s behaviour, they usually said no.
It is time for a fresh look at what discipline is. The word discipline comes from the Latin word ‘discipulus’, which means follower or disciple. Although it may include punishment, this should form a very small part of discipline.
Sound discipline has important benefits. Children need discipline. It makes them feel secure, because they know what they may and may not do. It teaches them to behave in a socially acceptable way and earn approval, which improves their self-esteem and makes them feel accepted. Discipline helps children to develop self-discipline, self-control and independent decision making. The process of discipline should gradually give children the opportunity to take responsibility for their own choices and behaviour, and to exercise self-control.
Here are a few guidelines to exercise positive discipline:
- Be role models of good values and behaviour. Just as Jesus led the way and His disciples followed Him voluntarily, children will follow the example of their parents if there is a warm and loving bond between them.
- Have family meetings and discuss the boundaries or rules that will be upheld in your home, as well as your expectations of your children. Let them provide input with regards to the boundaries and the consequences that will follow if these boundaries are overstepped. Then, if boundaries are overstepped, you can calmly apply the consequences that were agreed upon.
- Always aim to apply positive discipline; in other words, reinforce behaviour that you want your children to repeat. You can reinforce with praise and acknowledgement in the form of a pat on the back, a star chart or occasionally an outing or an ice-cream. Try to stay away from material reinforcement, because children must not think that they are paid to behave well. Look out for opportunities to tell your children how it warms your heart when they do this or that (be specific). This teaches children what they can do to earn praise.
- Use ‘natural consequences’ to teach children to take responsibility. If they make a mess, they need to clean up. If they break something, they need to apologise and say how they can repay the damage.
- When children disobey at school or somewhere outside the home, support them but never step in to try and shield them from the consequences. They will learn valuable life lessons when they learn to face the music. I have seen many times how parents refuse to acknowledge that their children could do wrong and become involved in an argument with the school or with other parents about this. They are doing their children a grave injustice, making them think that someone will always bail them out.
- Discuss with your children the emotions that their behaviour causes in yourself and in others. They need to know that their actions affect others and that they need to take other people into consideration.
Now, what to do when punishment is indicated?
- When your children disobey, first get your own emotions under control. Never punish them to vent your anger. Stay calm under all circumstances.
- Never shout, swear or label a child, and do not withhold love or use sarcasm to punish a child. It may give you relief in the moment, but it causes tremendous damage to the child’s sense of self-worth and dignity.
- Always ask yourself what lies behind the behaviour. A child may be tired or feel neglected, scared or sick. Children seldom misbehave just for the sake of it. Dealing with the behaviour and not with the underlying cause does not really improve the situation.
- Give the child the opportunity to explain what happened before you act. Discuss why the behaviour was wrong and the damage that it did, so that children can gain insight into their wrongdoing.
- Try to apply punishment that is linked to the wrong behaviour. If children have not done homework, they cannot watch television. If they fight, they need to come in and help you with chores. When they stay out too late, they cannot go out tomorrow.
- Never punish accidents, except if the accident was the direct result of disobedience.
- The punishment needs to fit the ‘crime’ and the age of the child. Rudeness in a four-year-old should be dealt with differently than rudeness in a teenager.
- When you promise to deal out a certain punishment, you need to follow through, however hard or inconvenient it is. Your children need to know that you are serious about good behaviour, that you do not make empty threats and that you stick to your word.
- When children have been punished, do not mention the matter again. When I have paid a traffic fine, I do not need the traffic department to remind me of this.
- Never reprimand children in front of friends or relatives. Take them to a quiet room and deal with them in private. Also never repeat the incident to relatives or friends, especially not in the presence of the child. Shaming a child is painful and can cause extreme anger to build up.
- Always and under all circumstances uphold your child’s dignity and worth as a precious child of God. We as adults still make mistakes and we often need God’s forgiveness and mercy. As He always loves us unconditionally, so we should love our children unconditionally.
A few words about teenagers and discipline. Although teenagers think that they are too old for disciplining, they still need the safety of boundaries and good supervision. The application of discipline is slightly different with them.
- They should be allowed to play a bigger role in establishing rules and consequences. When there is a difference of opinion, however, the parents still need to make the final decision.
- It is better to keep the boundaries tight in the beginning. They can always be relaxed gradually as teenagers prove that they can make responsible choices. It is more difficult to tighten the reins when they have been too relaxed.
- Teenagers often make their parents feel as if they are the only children in the school who are not allowed to do this or that. They push against the boundaries and make the parents feel as if they are the strictest parents in the world. Do not fall for this trick. It is teenagers’ job to push against the boundaries, but parents’ job to uphold the boundaries.
- Talk, talk, talk with your teenagers about all issues regarding discipline, moral values and choices. Make room for differences of opinion and do not shoot down everything they suggest. Listen to their arguments and make them feel that you are on their side, not against them.
Disciplining children is an integral part of parenting. Exercising good discipline is hard work and not always convenient, but it is utterly worthwhile and rewarding.
Dr Jeanne Brown