Train up a child in the way he should go and even when he is old he will not depart from it.
Although my children are young, my son has really begun to test the boundaries lately. We have tried to model and redirect over and over again, but it is clear that he is aware of the fault and desires to continue. Would time-out, spanking, threatening, or yelling be the correct response? This led us to the prayerful discernment of how we would discipline our children.
The book of Proverbs is full of assurance that discipline is not only good and necessary, but also a form of love. “The Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights” (Pr 3:12).
I am not one for wasting time on trial and error when I know there is a better way. This led me to consult family friend Charles Piccirilli, who is a veteran expert in holy discipline and family counseling. His wisdom and insight have been so helpful to our family and I believe so many others can benefit as well.
Here is my Q and A with Charles Piccirilli:
Q: What is discipline and why is it necessary?
A: Discipline is discipleship and therefore it is love. “A disciple is not above his teacher, but every one when he is fully trained will be like his teacher” (Lk 6:40.) There are two forms of love through discipline; encouraging and correcting. Discipline is not punishment, which is cruelty, and therefore not love. Hitting a child out of anger is an example of this. It is not an act of love, but rather a parent who is out of control. Scripture says to “train” a child. Discipline is training and not wounding a child in any way. Punishment that lasts for hours (threatening a child with no dinner) or days/weeks/months (threatening a child’s summer vacation) without conclusion is harmful to the child. God does not deal with us in this way. When we go to confession, it is temporarily painful and then it is over. There is correction, encouragement, and ultimately mercy and forgiveness. These things are immediate.
I have a theory called “The Wet Potato Chip Theory” in which every time a child misbehaves he is given a wet potato chip. Finally, he does what the parent wants him to do and is given a crisp potato chip. However, he has gotten so used to the wet potato chips that he does not want the crisp one. In the same way, a child who is not trained well gets to a point where he desires the attention given to him through punishment. Each child is looking for love. In these situations it is not the child who is undisciplined, but rather the parent. The parent is choosing the wrong path for their child by training him to want the punishment, perhaps for the attention and consistency it brings.
A disciplined child is the fruit of a disciplined parent. You cannot have a disciplined child without a disciplined parent.
There can be no anger or bitterness or disgust when disciplining. The parent should be at perfect peace and in control. For this reason it is sometimes better to discipline a child when he is not being bad. The parent can approach a child who is doing the correct thing and embrace him, giving him positive attention for working diligently. Discipline is nothing more than training and this should not occur only when the child is being bad and the parent feels out of control.
Q: At what age is it appropriate to begin disciplining children and for what reasons?
A: The first month you have the baby you should start thinking “schedule” and what is best for the baby. As the child grows his training must grow with him. A parent would not wait to potty train a child until he is a teenager. As well, parents must help the child develop through constant modeling, encouraging, and correcting.
After the child reaches the age of one, he begins to misbehave in public because he knows that his parents act differently in social situations. It is very important to develop a consistent form of discipline that does not change from the home to the public arena.
Reasons for discipline should not be immediately viewed as the young child doing something wrong if he has not yet been properly taught what he is supposed to do. A child needs attention and the ways in which the parents provide attention is key. Positive reinforcement is necessary and parents must take notice when their children are preforming an action in a proper manner. Negative reinforcement should always be avoided.
Q: What technique works best in disciplining young children, older children and teens?
A: Discipline is not so much a technique as it is a mentality. A child should understand that he is an active member of a family, and needs to learn right and wrong. The child should not be the central focus of the family. Rather, he is able to be secure in his role as ‘child.’ The child does not take the authority in order to get what he wants, but rather understands that he is under authority and should seek to learn from his parents. Each of us needs to know that we have authority in our lives, and this authority should be clear. God is our ultimate authority and likewise the authority in the family must follow God’s plan. The family represents the Trinity, of which the Holy Spirit and Son submit to the Father. The roles in the Trinity are clear and should also be clear in the family.
Consistency is the most important factor in discipline regardless of method. I prefer the use of a “spanky” spoon in correcting children. The wooden spoon is used to tap the child on the diaper and is more for shock value than pain. The spoon is seen more than it is felt. It is important that the parent is using the spoon and not using their hand to discipline. Hands hug and embrace, and are a sign of giving love. The spoon is an inanimate object that is consistently used for discipline. It is quick and does not linger.
If a parent uses time-out, then the chair is the inanimate object and the symbol of being disciplined. A parent must use the same technique throughout childhood and the same consistent routine (place, method, form, inanimate object).
The important thing to remember with discipline of a teenager is that “no means no.” A parent cannot waver on what they expect from the teen. This takes a lot of energy and effort as the teen tries to wear down the parent. The parent has to be aware of all the tricks and allow their child an amount of trust, while at the same time remaining vigilant in order to help train the teen correctly. Prayer and experience help parents handle each individual situation. The parent is helping the teen to overcome hard obstacles. If the parent has always disciplined their child correctly, the teen years are often easy and enjoyable. The parent who has avoided discipline has much to worry about. “All of our actions mount up and they bear fruit of one kind or another.” Every action has a reaction.
An undisciplined child brings sorrow to his mother” (Pr 29:15).
Q: Can you describe the method of the “spanky spoon” that you have used and recommended step by step, explaining why it is effective?
A: Create an event of the discipline. A child must honor his mother and father because it is right. A parent must be faithful to God in disciplining their children. It is important to remember this and remain peaceful and calm.
- Firmly tell the child “no.”
- If the child does the behavior again, get down on the child’s level. Show him the spoon, and again tell him “no.”
- If the child engages in the behavior a third time, bring the child to the same location each time (corner or specific room.)
- Say to the child “what you did was wrong and now you have to get a spanking.” Tap them with the spoon. Ask the child “are you sorry for what you did?” (Repentance is an important piece.) Praise them for saying that they are sorry. You may have to wait them out on this one – they must stay in the designated area and the parent continues to return and ask the child if he is sorry. (The parent can add a short prayer to God, saying sorry on the child’s behalf. This shows that the parent recognizes God as his authority.) Say to the child “Daddy/Mommy loves you and is proud of you, now go play.”
- The parent must do the same routine each time.
*Many disagree with the spoon because it can get out of control. It is important that the parent uses a method that makes it clear that the parent’s “no means no.” This protects the child from danger when they run into traffic or reach to touch the hot stove. A child must recognize the parent’s “no.” A parent says “no” to a child because of love for him and to protect him for being hurt. The father must be like God the Father, who is his model.
Q: I recently asked a Montessori Directress what she thought about corporal punishment of children. She recounted a poll of students that had been taken in order to determine what discipline methods were working best at home. To their amazement, all of the children who reported being spanked as a punishment were the best behaved. Are you surprised by this?
A: No, not at all. These children recognize the authority of their parents and in turn the authority of others such as their teachers. The better disciplined the parents are, the better disciplined the children.
Q: How important is prayer when disciplining?
A: Prayer shows the child that the parent is under the authority of God and is acting as an authority to the child in this same discipleship. This is done through love.
On one occasion I was helping a mother and her teenage son who had discipline issues. He was on the right track and began working to save up money. I talked to him on the phone to check in on him and asked him how much money he had in his wallet. He responded $80. I then asked his mother to pick up on the other line and to check his wallet to verify. She reported that he had $2 in his wallet. When asked what happened to the money the teen explained that he had spent it on various things. I hung up the phone and prayed about how to handle this unique situation. It then became very clear to me what had happened with the money. I called the mother back and asked her if her son played video games. She responded that he did and had many of them. I told her to go to his room and check the disks in the video game cases. She was shocked to find pornography in the video game cases. The teen had an 18 year old friend who bought the porn for him and as a pay off, the teen was splitting it with him. My ability to arrive at this in prayer and be one step ahead of the teen was a witness to him.
Q: What are the biggest mistakes that parents make when disciplining children?
A: A great fault in discipline is assuming that a child automatically knows how to behave properly, although he has not been correctly taught or trained. For instance, saying to a child that the child “should just know” something that they were supposed to do or not do. A new puppy does not know that he cannot wet the floor, but can be trained not to do so by bringing the puppy to the wet spot and saying “no”. Then bringing the puppy to a spot that is acceptable to wet and encouraging him. This must be a consistent process. Assuming the puppy “knows better” and therefore hitting and locking him in the basement is cruel.
A parent reacting out of a fit of anger or allowing emotions to dictate discipline is not love. People without vision perish. A parent must love and honor God in order to teach their children to love and honor God.
Q: Are there lasting harmful effects to discipline such as corporal punishment, yelling, threatening, or time-out?
A: Every parent goes through the fear and anxiety that they are harming their child or doing something wrong, This is natural and is the attack on the parents.
Yelling and threatening a child teaches the child that this is the way to get what you want. The parent is yelling and threatening the child to get what the parent wants (quiet, certain behavior.) For instance a mother who wants to continue a phone conversation or watch a television show may repeatedly yell at her children to stop their behavior in order to continue what she is doing. A parent who disciplines in this way is teaching a child to be selfish.
A parent must learn how to also ask forgiveness of the child when the parent models or disciplines incorrectly (not disciplining) because the child is watching the parent for their example at all times. Training is a program.
Q: How does a child eventually learn to master the virtue of self-discipline?
A: Self- discipline is recognizing authority. A person under authority knows that an action has a reaction and a consequence. A person who goes against the Lord knows that the Lord must keep His promise to discipline. When one is raised under consistent authority he prefers the positive reaction of pleasing rather than harming.
Ultimately a properly disciplined person knows that all is being done to please God. When this is communicated properly through discipline, the child knows that discipline is a proper act of love and is eventually (and along the way) thankful for the training.