Whenever I ask parents what topics are of most interest to them as a parent, it’s rare that the topic of discipline doesn’t top the list, especially for parents of young children. Parents want to know what to do, how to respond, to their children’s behavior. In regards to discipline I often hear parents ask questions like “How do I make my kids obey?” and “What do I do when my kids disobey?” But these questions highlight a misunderstanding of the real meaning of discipline and its role in our parenting. Discipline, in many circles, has become synonymous with punishment or “consequences,” (which is just a softball way of saying punishment). We think that discipline is what happens after our children have displeased us, as though our response to their behavior is what affects their behavior to begin with. But real experience rarely bears this hypothesis out. When was the last time you handed out a spanking, a time out, or suspended a privilege in an effort to teach your child that their behavior was unacceptable, only to see that same behavior repeated over and over again?
We need to understand that discipline is not, in fact, what we do in response to our children’s unwanted behavior. Our response may be part of discipline, but it does not nearly encompass the whole thing. Because discipline does not happen in response to or because of; it happens before. Discipline is teaching. Discipline is influence with the understanding that influence is not the same as control.
I can’t tell you how to make your kids obey—I’m not sure I’ve met a parent yet who has mastered that skill. Thankfully I can share with you that making our kids obey is not our goal nor our responsibility. We are not here to make them obey but to teach them the value of obedience. That is discipline. We are not here to punish their rebellion but to teach them why rebellion is not the best way. That is discipline. This does not mean we never enforce obedience or impose restrictions following harmful behavior. But we need to start recognizing that real discipline focuses not on behavior but on character.
It is in this framework that we can speak to our kids about nuance and context without losing credibility. If we focus on behavior we risk legalism and harsh adherence to rules just because. But if we focus on character we can talk about the importance of rules and the reason those rules came to be. I can tell my kids until I’m blue in the face that it’s not okay to lie, and I can punish them when they do. But until I talk to my kids about the value of honesty—the power of integrity, the importance of being trustworthy, the honor it bestows on others when we are courageous enough to tell the truth—I have not fully disciplined them.
If we focus on behavior we set ourselves up to control something that ultimately is in the hands of our kids—authority over their own decisions. But if we relinquish control and focus on character, we are free to embrace the power of influence and the incredible position we have as parents to guide and inform our children as they grow. True discipline dares to accept that control was never within our grasp, but influence is a formidable tool when wielded wisely.