Punishment—or Discipline


The long, cold winter in upstate New York had begun to take its toll on everyone’s nerves. We had been practically confined to the house for five months. One day, our eleven-year-old son, Taylor, decided to use the living room as a basketball court, and in the process broke every branch of our struggling Boston fern.

Faced with the dilemma, his mother could follow the natural inclination to hide the basketball for two weeks, send Taylor to his room for the evening, and broadcast our displeasure. Or she could discuss with him the consequences of disobeying a family rule and arrange for him to replace the plant. The contrast in approaches is the difference between punishment and discipline.

Punishment calls for “retributive suffering.” But discipline is “training that corrects, molds, or perfects.” Punishment is directed at the child himself. Discipline is directed more at the objectionable behavior of the child; it is something we do for our children, not to them.

All Latter-day Saint parents should share a common goal: to establish a home where harmony, respect, and love abound. But as we attempt to teach our children to “walk uprightly before the Lord” (D&C 68:28), our methods will strongly influence our children’s behavior and self-image—and these either encourage or impede the results we are seeking.

Unfortunately, there is no one correct philosophy of discipline. There are numerous variables in child rearing, such as the personality of the parent and of the child, and the parent’s own experiences as a child. However, my wife and I have found several guidelines that have proved helpful to us and our children.

Establish Family Rules

In order for any organization to run effectively, it must establish a set of bylaws. A family also needs bylaws to prescribe boundaries for behavior. If parents do not have a specific, deliberate plan for discipline, they are likely to rely simply on instinct and react emotionally to each situation.

At our weekly family council, we mutually agree upon rules which all must abide by. We also establish consequences for disobedience. In this way, everyone is aware of the rules and the consequences; there are no surprises. And the consequences are predictable and consistent.

As a family, we have come to recognize that certain behaviors are “love destroying acts” and therefore cannot be tolerated. These include such things as sassing, teasing, and name-calling. One day our youngest son, Levin, was angry at his sister for not allowing him to play with a certain toy. In frustration, he began calling her names. Although we were busy with other activities, we took the time to discuss with him his behavior. He responded favorably to this correction; he realized that we really did expect him to obey the family rules we had established. The situation became a teaching opportunity and a chance to restore harmony.

“Behold, mine house is a house of order, saith the Lord God, and not a house of confusion.” (D&C 132:8.) Order is an eternal principle—an important characteristic of the kingdom of God. We are instructed to follow the pattern and set our own houses in order. Frederick G. Williams was told: “And now a commandment I give unto you—if you will be delivered you shall set in order your own house.” (D&C 93:43.) An orderly home depends upon well-defined and well-understood rules.

One way the Lord maintains order in his kingdom is to bless those who obey certain laws. “There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated—

“And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.” (D&C 130:20, 21.) An orderly home also operates on this important principle. Family rules must be established and observed before the blessing of family harmony can be attained.

Maintain Control

True discipline is not emotionally charged. Punishment, on the other hand, is frequently accompanied by a tide of uncontrolled emotion. There is no value in screaming at a child for his misbehavior. When parents engage in a shouting match with their children, the emotional temperature in the home rises and parents become guilty of the very thing the scriptures caution against: “Fathers, provoke not your children to anger, lest they be discouraged.” (Col. 3:21.) The parent who finds himself lashing out in anger at a child’s misbehavior is seldom thinking of the child’s best interests. Punishment in such situations is frequently excessive and unfair. It is seldom constructive—and indeed is often counterproductive, since it tends to weaken love and respect.

We used to have great difficulty getting our eight-year-old son, Oliver, out of bed in the morning in time to catch his school bus. Each morning his mother would begin encouraging him in a gentle, loving voice to wake up. But each time she returned to the bedroom, her voice would get progressively louder—until she became emotionally upset. She finally realized that Oliver wasn’t paying any attention to her until her voice reached a certain pitch!

Since this situation was starting the day off wrong for both of them, we discussed the problem at a family council. We reached an agreement that would help Mother maintain self-control and encourage Oliver to become more responsible. After a few long walks to school, he soon learned the consequences of ignoring her. And she no longer found it necessary to raise her voice.

Experience has taught us that few things are more damaging to the spirit in a home than parents who are not in control of themselves. When we as parents maintain control of our emotions, we seem to command the respect and confidence of our children.

Children ought to be allowed to grow and explore. In so doing, they will inevitably make mistakes. Learning by experience is a vital part of the growth process. Certainly parents should not expect or demand adult behavior from children. However, when well-established family rules are broken, regardless of when or where, we have learned that we must follow through if we are to maintain respect and order in our home.

Be Consistent

In order for discipline to be effective, it must be both predictable and consistent. Children need to know that Mom and Dad will do what they say they will. If discipline is a “sometimes” proposition, children soon learn that certain situations and environments provide a sanctuary for misbehavior. Church services, restaurants, or grocery stores are frequently such sanctuaries. Even home can become a sanctuary for misbehavior when guests are present. Some children find they can misbehave in these circumstances without the threat of discipline because their parents don’t wish to be embarrassed or inconvenienced. On other occasions parents may feel too tired or too busy to be bothered with enforcing family rules. When children feel their parents cannot be counted on to maintain discipline, they lose respect for parental authority. They may begin testing all the rules again to see how far they can go. And they may become insecure if they are never sure what reaction their behavior will evoke from their parents.

In my counseling experience as a military chaplain, I have seen many tragic examples of parents who are reaping the whirlwind of inconsistency. Several weeks ago one such couple sat in my office in despair. Their fourteen-year-old son had become totally unmanageable. He showed no respect for their authority. As we discussed their method of discipline, it became evident that although they had family rules, these were rarely enforced. To them it had seemed harsh to always be correcting their child’s behavior. And giving in to his demands had become so much simpler than facing the frequent confrontations. As these parents began to recognize their mistake, they became determined to correct the situation. They have since discovered, however, that discipline and respect, once lost, are not easily recovered.

Use Discipline to Teach

Discipline is not simply a means of maintaining control until children mature into responsible adults. Rather, it should be a means by which we teach and instill that responsibility.

The Prophet Joseph Smith taught the early Saints correct principles so that they might learn to govern themselves. As parents, we ought to do the same for our children. Discipline is an excellent means of teaching self-control and responsible behavior.

Certain situations do not lend themselves to very sophisticated methods of correction. When our toddler repeatedly wandered into the busy street, we obviously could not correct her by allowing her to suffer the natural consequence. Instead, we had to contrive a less threatening consequence and then help her to make the connection and understand the reasons. Generally though, it has been our experience that when discipline involves the natural result of misbehavior, it is more effective. For example, a child buys a new plant to replace the one he destroyed, and another walks to school when he doesn’t get up on time.

When our four-year-old son, Lincoln, redecorated the living room wall with a marking pen, he learned firsthand how much scrubbing is required to remove such marks. As his mother watched him spill scouring powder and water over the walls and floors, she began to question whether the lesson was worth the mess. But she recognized that although using discipline to teach is not as easy as scolding or ignoring misbehavior, it is much more effective.

Reinforce with Love

What parent can resist the sobbing embrace of a little child seeking consolation after having been disciplined? Regrettably, as a child matures, that same well-intended discipline may tend to drive a wedge between him and his parent. Being successful parents often involves very delicate maneuvering: how do we discipline without fostering resentment and hostility or causing alienation?

The answer to this difficult question is eloquently set forth in section 121 of the Doctrine and Covenants: “Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy;

“That he may know that thy faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death.” (D&C 121:43–44.)

It is clear from this scripture that a parent is not justified in flying off the handle in a burst of anger. Further, he can prevent resentment and alienation in the discipline used by reinforcing the disciplined child with an “increase of love.”

We have found that our children require some time alone to sort things out following discipline. Then we are able to approach them and talk about what occurred, why it happened, and how it can be avoided. We then reaffirm our sincere love for them and confidence in them. Ironically, we have found that many of our closest and most spiritual moments with our children have occurred at such times.

Parenting is a most challenging and rewarding responsibility—and loving correction is at the very core of that assignment. As we seek the guidance of the Holy Ghost in our sacred work as parents, we can make discipline a natural expression of that love.

[illustration] Illustrated by Mark Robison

Layne E. Flake is an LDS chaplain assigned to Misawa Air Base, Japan. Jana Squires Flake is a Primary teacher in their Misawa Serviceman’s Branch, Tokyo South Mission. They are the parents of seven children.