Disciplining children can be a headache–especially when it seems like it’s not doing any good!

But disciplining children is an unavoidable aspect of parenting, even if it’s frustrating at times. So today I am excited to welcome Jim and Lynne Jackson from Connected Families back on the blog to talk about why we often find that disciplining children backfires to offer you some encouragement! They talked about how to handle sibling rivalry a few weeks back, and so many of you found that useful. So I asked if they could talk about discipline, and here they are!

I absolutely love their approach, and I know you will to:

When Discipline Doesn't Work

Do you try to instill consequences for bad behavior for your children, but you find that you’re always at loggerheads? It’s not uncommon. Many parents find that their attempts at disciplining children backfire.

In our ministry we have coached parents from all walks of life nearly every weekday for the past 25 years. Single parents. Parents by adoption. Foster parents. Blended family parents. Every issue from screen obsession, to shoe-tying, eating what’s served to addressing sex and sexuality, fighting about church to dealing with drugs and even suicide among teens, and everything in between.

Among the thousands of parents we’ve met, all say in one fashion or another,

I want what’s best for my kids. I want them to grow up ready for the world. I want to guide them well.

Yup, parents have great intentions for their kids. But somewhere between their aspirations and their call to us for help something goes haywire. Not for lack of good intentions, but for lack of understanding. And when parents begin to understand what we’re about to share here, things begin to change. Sometimes slowly, and sometimes quickly. Almost always significantly.

Haywire starts simply enough. The parent does what “works.” Maybe a method learned in a book or online. Or maybe a friend gave some advice because it “worked for my kid!”

Problem: The kids do what the parent asks, not because of any internal change, but because under the surface they fear the outcome if they don’t.

Over time as the pattern repeats, the fear turns to resentment and resentment turns to rage. Soon the momentum feels unstoppable.

If we had a nickle for every time a parent said, “I don’t know what happened all of a sudden. Everything was working fine and then it all blew up!” We wouldn’t be millionaires, but we’d be able to sponsor to few more Compassion kids!

Kids’ blow ups almost always start as a slow burn, sometimes imperceptible, especially at first. Heat builds as parents’ well-intended efforts don’t ultimately gain the desired outcome. The parents and children grow further and further apart as kids rebel from this dynamic and parents dig in to “be the parent” (or give in, in order to keep the peace).

From this pressure cooker comes the parents’ common cry: “Help!” Whether wanting kids to understand the importance of respecting others; develop a sense of responsibility; or more simply, to clean up messes, treat each other better, and do homework, these parents essentially all ask us the same question,

Why is there such a big disconnect between what I want my kids to get from me and what they seem to be getting from me?

The answer to this question is why Connected Families ministry exists. It turns out that there is a very clear reason, and we do whatever we can to help parents understand it.

We’ve learned over the years that effective parents focus less on right behavior, and more on God-honoring identity.

In a nutshell, here’s how this works: imagine your child has just left another mess on the dinner table in spite of your clear instruction to clean it up. A behavior-focused statement might be something to this effect, “You left a mess again. Why are you so messy? Now clean it up or you’ll get a consequence!” The parent will firmly follow through and either the mess will get cleaned or the consequence administered.

Sounds good right?

When parents focus on behavior they tend to evaluate effectiveness based on immediate results.

If the child complied, then the discipline “worked.” But there is always more to surface behavior than meets the eye. Behavior grows out of a belief system. So it’s helpful to ask, “What is my child believing about themselves?” when it’s time to discipline.

Under the surface of behavior-focused interactions, kids are learning far less about right from wrong than they are about what mom or dad thinks about that child. And this is REALLY important because our children look to what we think about them to help them figure out for themselves who they are. They form their identity, their beliefs about who they are around their perceptions of what we think and say.

So let’s look at this behavior-focused approach to see what kids might be learning to believe about themselves.

Consider the first phrase the child hears from the behavior-focused statement. “You left a mess again.” Implicit in this statement are subtle messages.

  • First, the word “you” suggests the problem isn’t the mess, but the child.
  • The word “again” implies this has happened before.
  • So right at the outset the identity message a child likely perceives is “I am a frequent problem.”

If this is the normal sort of approach then the child forms self-identity according to the messages.

In an identity-focused approach parents learn to take great care of their language and perceived meaning.

The statement might be addressed more like this, “I see you haven’t gotten to that mess just yet. What is your plan about that?”

  • In this approach the statement is about the mess, not about the child.
  • The question enlists the child’s problem solving ability, thus communicating the message, “You can do this, you are capable of solving this,” while keeping the child accountable for the cleaning.
  • This also communicates an important message, “You are responsible.”

Now, knowing that you, the parent reading this, are madly in love with your kids (even if there is frustration about challenging behaviors), we invite you to consider what identity messages your kids get when you discipline them? Here are the most common messages parents tell us they want their kids to believe about themselves:

  • “You’re loved no matter what!”
  • “You’re a child of God, built for God’s purposes!”
  • “You are capable!”
  • “You are blessed!”
  • “You are a miracle.”
  • “You are fearfully and wonderfully made!”

Imagine coming to every discipline situation equipped with the primary goal and skills to communicate these timeless truths.

To help you think about this more practically, find a quiet spot alone and say the things you say to your kids when you discipline them. Use the same energy and same tone of voice. How does it sound? What messages are being conveyed by your tone of voice, your words, and your body language?

Most parents trying this the first time discover that they are not sending the messages they want to send. It’s normal because it’s what we’ve learned. To send different messages try it again. Say it differently, remembering that your little ones are looking to help them figure out who they are. Try delivering the words in a way that the message your kids hear is “You’re loved no matter how you behave!”

As your kids grow in this identity they’ll want to obey you out of love, not fear (see 1 John 4:18). Your discipline will not just get them to immediately behave well, but it will help them develop an identity from which they will want to behave right because it is consistent with their identity. Our world needs more kids like this and those kids are looking to you to help them figure out who they really are!

jacksonJim & Lynne Jackson have spent the last 20 years coaching and teaching parents. 

Are you frustrated that discipline just isn’t working in your house? Do you find it hard to connect with your kids and send the RIGHT message? Right now (but only until October 11!), the Jacksons are offering a special online course on discipline that will give you techniques that touch your children’s hearts–not just their outward behaviours. What a difference this could make in so many families! Check it out here–but you only have a few more days to see it!


Tags: , ,