Discipline As Teaching

More than one parent has desired the perfect parenting manual--usually when a child is out of control or misbehaving.

Some of our greatest fears as parents surround discipline. How much is enough? How harsh is too harsh? Am I helping, or somehow making things worse?

BYU researchers suggest that being successful with our discipline means looking at discipline as teaching, and not as punishment.

“The word discipline comes from the Latin word disciplina, meaning ‘teaching, learning.’ Discipline shares a common root with the word disciple: ‘one who accepts and helps to spread the teachings of another’” (Young et al. 13). How can we create this “teaching and learning” relationship?  Richard Young, Dean of the McKay School of Education, along with other researchers, gives answers.

1. Assess Risks. Punishment often works in the short term. This may appear to be an easier alternative, but it is ultimately damaging to parenting. Sometimes instead of training our children with our punishment we are actually training ourselves . . . to use more punishment! Children who are consistently punished in negative and harsh ways will eventually isolate themselves from their families (10).

2. Recognize Yourself as a Teacher. We are always teaching our children. Three items to keep in mind are: 1) Our actions matter more than our words. 2) We must treat our children with respect. And, 3) Learning occurs best under pleasant circumstances (12).

3. Create a Safe Environment. “If the home is rich in love, praise, and support, occasional use of reasonable punishment can help parents teach and direct a child” (11). As Ezra Taft Benson said, “Praise your children more than you correct them.” This creates a climate where children are drawn to parents.

4. Teach Correct Behavior. “Children rarely learn socially appropriate behaviors by being punished for misbehavior” (12). It’s true: sitting in timeout to “think about it” might not help Claire end up with new ideas beyond door-slamming the next time she is frustrated.

5. Build Positive Relationships. The “foundation for all relationships must be time: time spent together” (12). We need to be there when our children are ready to talk, which doesn’t necessarily (or even usually) match up with when it is convenient for us to listen. We need to remain as positive as possible and listen as much as possible during the time we spend with our children.

6. Give Positive Feedback. Let your child know you recognize her efforts. Specific and sincere praise can go a long way.

A great way to teach children new behaviors is to model it. After all, we wouldn’t expect Claire to “just know” how to give a talk in Primary any more than we should expect her “just know” how to respond to receiving a birthday present.
Modeling consists of five steps (Young et al. 13-14). Click on the following items to learn more about modeling.

1. Describe The Skill

Children need to know exactly what it is you want from them. “Claire, at your party tomorrow, you’ll get a lot of gifts. I want to teach you about a good way to respond to people who give you presents.”

2. Explain Why It's Important

Talk to your child about why the skill you want to teach her matters. The new skill may help others feel better, or simply be the right thing to do. “It’s important to be kind about any gift you get, because the person giving it to you is excited.”

3. Model The Skill

Show your child how the skill looks. Often this is where it will “click” for young children. With the birthday gift receiving example you could have Claire “wrap” a favorite toy in a blanket for you (let her surprise you), and you could unwrap it and show Claire how to respond appropriately.

4. Let The Child Practice

Have the child practice the skill. “Your turn to unwrap my surprise!”  This game is a lot of fun for kids.

5. Give Feedback And Praise

Give feedback and praise. “You did it! Thanks for doing this with me, Claire. When you show appreciation like that at your party tomorrow, everyone will feel happy.” Give praise when she repeats the skill in the real situation as well.

Dr. Glen L. Latham reminds us that honey draws more flies than vinegar. “Despite this age-old truth, the tendency of parents is to use negative, coercive, or punitive means to stop or eliminate a behavior. The better way, the way that has more lasting and beneficial results, is to take advantage of the many opportunities that occur every day to attach a positive consequence to an appropriate behavior.”

As parents, we are always teaching. The more we embrace teaching as an effective means of discipline, the more positive the discipline process can be for us, and for our children.


Latham, Glen I., A Word About Consequences. USU OpenCourseWare Web site: http://ocw.usu.edu/Family_Consumer_Human_Development/oer-power-of-positive-parenting/power-of-positive-parenting/A_Word_About_Consequences.html.
Young, Richard K., Sharon Black, Michelle Marchant, Katherine J. Mitchem, and Richard P. West. “A Teaching Approach to Discipline: An Alternative to Punishment.” Marriage & Families, August (2000): 9-15.

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