A lot of the communication that
takes place between a parent and child involves comments on behavior
or personality or both.
And the three basic forms that
a parent’s commentary can take focus on different aspects of
a situation with very different results:
Affirmation. Comments positively on person and behavior:
“I like who you are and I like what you’re doing.”
Discipline. Comments positively on person, negatively
on behavior: “I like you, but I don’t like what you’re doing
Shame. Comments negatively on both person and behavior:
“I don’t like you and I don’t like what you’re doing.”
Shame — you remember shame.
You probably got a lot of it when you were growing up. Parents
used to pass it around shamelessly before anyone noticed that
it erodes the parent-child relationship and chips away at a child’s
self-esteem. And that’s a real shame.
If we want our kids to develop
a positive self-concept, we could start by doing less
shaming and more affirming and constructive disciplining.
Kids who hear shaming remarks
again and again become programmed to believe that they’re worthless
and incapable. (Which, not uncoincidentally, fits the personality
profile of many career criminals and sociopaths.)
We shame our kids when we compare
them to one another, belittle them, shout them down, call them
names, hit them in anger, or neglect their needs.
These are all counterproductive
measures, producing the kind of defiance we saw in the four-year-old
who didn’t know what his mom wanted when she told him to be “good”
— and who, with a little help (or more shame), might eventually
learn to stop caring.
When we resort to shaming our
kids, we usually do it as a byproduct of our own anger, which
points up the need all parents share to constantly monitor the
way we deal with our own feelings.
Affirming our kids requires a
commitment on our part — and simple observation. Because no
matter what else they might be doing, kids do all sorts of good
and responsible things that ought to be at least acknowledged,
if not praised.
If you’re like a lot of parents,
you may be more in the habit of commenting on mistakes rather
than successes, and so need to make an effort at affirming.
That’s okay. Even though affirmation
is one of the greatest personal skills we can ever develop or
use with our kids, it doesn’t always come naturally.
But the results are worth it.
Taking the time to affirm our kids, our spouses, and others can
lead us to become more caring. The payoffs come not only in an
increased sense of self-worth in our kids, but in ourselves,
The simple truth is that when
parents stop shaming kids and start affirming them, they become
easier to live with and so do we. That’s the good news.
Here’s the bad news: It still
doesn’t magically eliminate the need to discipline them from
time to time.
And that raises yet another of
the perpetual perplexities of parenthood: How do we discipline
kids without shaming them — and confront their destructive behaviors
without putting them down?
Good question. We were just getting
“Discipline” is one
of those words that can mean different things to different people.
In this context, one meaning won’t stretch far enough to cover
all that we have to say, so we’ll give it two.
Here’s both in one sentence:
Discipline is the ability to respect and follow reasonable rules,
and the appropriate consequences that follow when we don’t.
It’s one of the trickiest areas
of all in parenting. Because the fact is that if we really want
our kids to learn responsibility, it’s necessary to call it to
their attention when they behave irresponsibly. It needs to begin
early, too. It’s ludicrous to expect responsible behavior from
an adolescent who was never disciplined as a child.
Still, when we define discipline
(self-discipline, in this case) as the ability to respect and
follow reasonable rules, we need to point out that what makes
these rules reasonable and earns them respect is that they help
to maximize the quality of life we share together. As motives
go, it’s a lot more useful than the fear of punishment, which
is usually less helpful in building character.
What works in creating a context
for constructive discipline?
Lots of things. You might start
by considering some of the following points:
Make home a great place to
be. This is the best
way to mold behavior. If home is a place where our kids like
to be, it’s easier to correct problems than if they hate being
home. We build a nurturing home environment by affirming our
kids and by sharing in meaningful activities with them.
Activities can be as simple as
family meals, prayer, or chores, or as involved as participating
in sports, choir, or community projects together.
Some surveys show that parents
spend as little as 20 minutes a day with their kids, and much
of this is spent in fussing and checking up. This isn’t enough
— there’s simply not enough involvement to compete with television
and peers for influence in their lives.
But even more important than
the amount of time we spend together is what happens during that
time. Passive activities (like watching TV together) don’t lead
to as much interpersonal involvement as playing a game or even
washing the car. Active participation helps build deeper relationships
than passive entertainment.
non-negotiable rules for your kids. As parents, we have the right to make rules that
will help us live with our kids in peace and harmony. As authorities
in our homes, we need to assert this right and insist on certain
behaviors for our kids.
We make rules to establish limits
for our kids, who need boundaries if they’re to grow. Specific
non-negotiable rules should be worked out for each home.
Examples of non-negotiable rules
- No physical violence or verbal
abuse or cursing.
- Daily bath or shower.
- Specific limits on TV time and
- Brushing teeth twice daily.
- No alcohol or drug use.
- Compulsory school and church
Many parents add other rules,
and some even eliminate several of the above. Still, regardless
of which rules we insist on, we need to be as specific as possible
— to let our kids know what we expect and when — in clear and
Example? The young mother who
yelled at her son in the school board office because he wasn’t
being good might have had more success if she’d simply told him
to leave the magazines alone.
It’s important that we model
as many of these behaviors as we insist upon. But there are reasonable
exceptions, of course. Example: I don’t believe that a parent
who drinks alcohol responsibly is a hypocrite for telling his
or her kids to abstain.
As adults, there are some things
we can handle that our kids can’t, and they need to accept this
without laying a “double standard” guilt trip on us.
Establish negotiable rules. If our kids are going to learn to make
decisions and compromise, the place to start is in the home.
Who does which chores, for example, and when? Even toddlers can
begin to help with something.
Unlike non-negotiable rules,
which parents dictate, negotiable rules involve dialogue. Since
they represent agreements made between ourselves and our kids,
there’s more room for flexibility.
Often these rules change as our
kids get older and can take on newer, more challenging responsibilities.
Some parents I know list all those household chores that they’d
like their kids to take care of, then allow each one to choose
two or three.
Needless to say, they have to
follow up and negotiate those held in common and those passed
over, but their kids are even involved in this.
If the kids can’t compromise
and make agreements, mom or dad then steps in and assigns chores.
It’s important to note, too, that these parents are careful to
screen those chores from negotiation that are most likely to
cause conflict and hard feelings.
Reach agreement on rules. By “agreement,” I mean at
least a basic understanding for the reasons why a particular
If kids understand a rule and
agree that it’s fair, they’re more likely to keep it.
Go over your family rules with
your kids from time to time and review the reasons for them.
Get your kids to acknowledge their value.
consequences for breaking rules.
“Rules were made to be broken,” goes an old saying,
and they get broken at home as often as anywhere else — even
those rules that rest on strong agreement.
When this happens, kids must
pay consequences, or else they learn that your rules mean nothing.
There are three types of consequences, only two of which help
to build character. See if you can pick them out.
- Natural Consequences. Allowing events to simply run their
course. Example: getting cold on a winter day when you forgot
to wear a coat.
- Logical Consequences. Forfeiting a privilege until responsibilities
are met. Example: allowing a young person to go out only after
chores are done, and denying this privilege (not a right) until
chores are done.
- Arbitrary Consequences. Relying on inflicting pain and fear
and often unrelated to any established rule. Example: spanking
a cranky kid who doesn’t know what to do about his or her bad
As you probably already guessed,
only natural and logical consequences really teach lessons —
or, at least, positive lessons worth learning and which translate
Natural consequences are the
best teachers of discipline, and we should let our kids experience
them when to do so will not endanger their health or inconvenience
No parent wants a toddler to
learn that crossing a street alone is dangerous by allowing a
car to teach the lesson. Nor do we want our teenagers to learn
the hazards of drug use by allowing them to get strung out on
But we should let them take at
least a few of life’s lighter lumps and bruises; they’ll learn
The principle behind logical
consequences is that privileges must be earned and maintained
through responsible action. This is, after all, the way most
of the world works most of the time.
A toddler can understand that
she can’t play with a second toy until the first has been picked
up, or that she can’t come out of your home’s “whine room”
until the whining stops and she’s ready to relate without being
Similarly, teenagers can respect
the fact that they’re going to get grounded if they stay out
past curfew. If possible, try to link consequences to privileges
to maximize the lessons that kids can learn.
If you and your kids can agree
on what consequences will be experienced when rules are broken,
your kids then have a choice: Keep the rules or experience the
This way, you’re able to slip
out of the role of the “heavy,” and instead become
the person who sees to it that their choices are honored. Then
kids are less likely to blame parents for their poor choices,
and learn to become more responsible for their own behavior.
we’ve talked about thus far takes time, effort, and lots of involvement
with our kids. Still, there’s a payoff: If we’re consistent in
our affirmation and discipline, our kids won’t feel as much need
to be defiant and they’ll probably be easier to get along with.
On the other hand, if we’re not
consistent in clarifying rules or in allowing kids to experience
the consequences of their choices, they’ll almost certainly be
worse off for it and so will we.
Like trees that go unpruned,
children that grow up without consistency often grow out of control,
dissipating themselves and bearing little fruit. They need (and
actually want — whether they always consciously know
it or not) our consistency and guidance, so they can generate
a strong, stable point of reference for growth.
Consistency is one of the greatest
gifts we can give our kids, provided it doesn’t turn into rigidity.