By far, my biggest challenge as a parent has been trying to figure out how to discipline my kids effectively. With three kids under four years old, discipline takes a huge portion of our day! There are days – and weeks – when discipline issues take the forefront, and any of our “positive” parenting efforts seem to get lost in the mix.
While discipline is certainly not an issue specific to Christian households, it does have specific implications for a Christian family’s ability (or inability) to have the right environment for faith development.
How can you engage in faith conversations when discipline problems create a relational barrier? How can you explore ways to pray when your kids won’t behave long enough to listen? How can you study the Bible when your kids are constantly fighting?
I’m certainly still figuring out how to minimize discipline issues in my house. But, along the way, I have found a few things that have made big differences for us in this area.
Here are 5 discipline tactics that could work for you too!
1. Change your routine.
We’ve been reading through the same children’s Bible for a few months now during our nightly family time. It was becoming increasingly difficult to get Nathan (age 3) to sit still, pay attention, and participate in the reading time. Every night became more about disciplining Nathan than about worshipping God. I became more and more frustrated until one night I yelled angrily, “SIT DOWN RIGHT NOW – IT IS TIME TO WORSHIP GOD!”
Awesome, right? I realized something had to change. The next night, I brought in a CD player and played a fun song about the Fruits of the Spirit from the Little Songbirds CD. Nathan immediately engaged in shouting the lyrics, “the fruit of the spirit is NOT…BANANAS!” and, within a week of doing this, he could tell me every (real) fruit of the spirit from the rest of the song. We are now back to reading the Bible for a while, and he is behaving perfectly and attentively.
Whatever routine is leading you to constant discipline, there is almost surely another way to achieve the same results. Monotony seems to breed discipline issues. Consider ways to change your routine so your kids don’t need to misbehave simply to find something to do that “interests” them.
2. Change your location.
This one is really an addendum to number 1. A common form of monotony is being in the same location each day.
We have a playroom in our house where I try to keep the kids during most of their play time. The result is that they get tired of being there. When I try to have meaningful conversations with them or read Bible stories, they are distracted by toys and are uninterested and argumentative. This results in more time outs than meaningful moments. When I want them to pause and focus, I can move them to the living room and I capture their attention much more easily.
Changing the location for whatever you are trying to accomplish can significantly decrease discipline issues as you break the monotony.
3. Start treating different kids differently.
We’ve all heard it. Kids are different, so treat them differently. But how much do you apply it? I find it really hard. It’s much easier to have a one-size-fits-all approach to discipline. The older my kids get, however, the more I can see how that approach leads to bigger discipline issues.
Kenna is by far the most difficult of my children discipline-wise. Her feisty temperament breeds the need for discipline. I realized relatively recently that my long time approach of using time outs was never going to change her behavior; she is a person who thrives on attention, whether negative or positive.
One day, instead of a time out (where she likes to scream to get more negative attention), I took her upstairs to her room and left her there for 15 minutes. There is nothing worse for her personality type than to be by herself where she gets no attention. This turned out to be extremely effective for changing her behavior. Nathan, on the other hand, enjoys being alone, so going to his room would not be punishment at all. He continues to get time outs instead.
It’s OK to treat kids differently with respect to discipline! Consider whether your approach to discipline is actually effective with your kids’ individual personality types. You may need to make some changes like I did.
4. Work with the faith maturity your child has, rather than the maturity you wish he or she had.
Nathan likes to yell “DEAR GOD, FOOD! AMEN!” at meal time rather than say a heart-felt thanks. He lands in time out regularly for this. Kenna, on the other hand, says passionate and eloquent prayers for a 3-year-old.
For a while, I tried fighting two battles at once: forcing Nathan to say prayers nicely AND asking him to add some of the types of things Kenna included (i.e., prayers for other people, gratitude for things other than food, etc.). This actually made the problem worse because, as I later realized, one of the reasons he plays around is that he is not confident enough to say a “big” prayer like Kenna. Understanding this was a problem of insecurity, I started (temporarily) having him repeat words after me. I found he has no problem taking prayer seriously when he has my words to use; his playfulness was a defense mechanism. I no longer have a discipline issue with him in this area.
Whether you wish you could have deeper faith conversations with your kids, or you wish you could get their attention on faith for longer periods of time, or you wish they would be happier to go to church, it’s more important to simply understand where they are right now and work with them right there.
5. Predict the discipline problem, avoid the scenario, and set your kids up for success.
Kenna is a classic “strong willed child.” Nathan is a classic rambunctious 3-year-old boy. That is simply where they are. My discipline is not going to change the clay; it can only reshape it.
I used to determine how I wanted them to behave and then fought discipline battles to get them to that point. I’m working on doing a better job of understanding where they are – at the intersection of their age and personality type – to predict their behavioral failures, avoid the scenario, and set them up for success for a more peaceful home.
If Nathan is filled with energy, we know we are going to spend our worship time disciplining him to calm down. We now “predict” those nights and do some silly songs before we sit down that use his energy. I wish discipline could just force him to sit down whenever I want, but I’ve had to let go of that ideal and work with the reality of where he is.
If Kenna is having a particularly moody day, I now can predict that she will do whatever it takes to get negative attention. On those days, I plan activities that are particularly hands-on with me, as that extra positive attention deflects the potential misbehavior (usually).
I have to admit it is hard for me to write this last tip. I have always prided myself on being the strict, tough parent who will get whatever results I want out of my kids. But I have had to adjust to prioritize setting my kids up for success over setting my ideals up for success. Ultimately, less time spent disciplining leads to more time available for all the positive things you want to accomplish. This absolutely isn’t to suggest we should baby them in a way that won’t prepare them for the world, but there is a happy medium in the learning process.
How about you? What are the biggest discipline issues you face? What tips do you have for minimizing discipline problems?