Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Being Disciplined About Discipline

"Susan Comforting the Baby" by Mary Cassat

Sophia is now well into toddlerhood, that magical age of curiosity, heightened emotions, endless energy--and no rationale! For Brian and me, it marks the birth of the disciplinarians: Us. If you look at the word discipline, you'll see that it shares the root of "disciple." To discipline does not mean to punish; it means to teach. Often punishment is a tool for teaching, but it is merely a tool: never the end in and of itself. Teaching is the core of discipline, instilling lessons and shaping character the end goal. Unfortunately, my experience with teaching and training pertains only to older children, those that can be reasoned with. A couple months ago, when I started to realize that Sophia was choosing to be outright defiant, I turned to Brian in confusion, asking, "How do we teach someone who can't be reasoned with? What is she capable of understanding?"

Of course, we don't remember how our parents dealt with all our toddlerhood foibles, and since we are both only children, we never saw our parents disciplining younger siblings of this age. We remember the later years, when our parents would sit us down and speak to us about the wrong we had done and then mete out a punishment that fit the crime. That's all well and good, but it requires rational thought, something way beyond our little Sophia's capabilities at the moment. To compound things, the only advice that the "experts" of the day are offering are techniques that are, again, not likely to be of much use with a toddler. For example, a time out. You try getting a cranky 19-month-old to sit in a chair! And, I'm not about to turn her safe-haven of a crib into a punishment cage.

One of the benefits of flying blind, so to speak, is that Brian and I are not running the risk of simply doing what our parents did, whether or not it works for Sophia. We're able to try different disciplinary techniques to see what works with her, what she responds to, what seems to penetrate deeply enough that she will not commit the same offense again...at least for the rest of the day. Since disciplining is teaching, it stands to reason that, as with teaching, there is no single magical technique, method, or style that will work with each and every child. Sophia is a unique human being, our precious child; she is not a statistic or a machine. In order to discipline her--to teach her--we have to discover how she ticks.

This is one of the many fantastic blessings that comes from raising your child in the home under your own watchful eyes. You see patterns that might otherwise elude you if you were away from your child many hours a day. You learn what their triggers are, rather than simply witnessing the fallout of the trigger already having been activated. In this way, you can learn exactly what needs to be disciplined. At the core of every misbehavior is some root cause; it's not enough to weed out the misbehavior; you have to get to the root. Though Sophia is only 19 months old, I get the feeling that discovering these roots now will give me a lot of clarification for when she is older and her transgressions become more varied. I also suspect it will provide me with vital insights into how she is best taught to learn from her mistakes and missteps and to master herself; after all, the ultimate goal of parental discipline is the self-discipline of the child.

I have found techniques that seem to work with Sophia, and I employ them. I have found triggers that can set off her sensitive baby emotions, and we try to avoid those. I don't know if these techniques and triggers will be the same with other children. I'll let you know when I've had more experience. Because of this, I'm not going to share exactly what our disciplinary techniques or Sophia's triggers are. That's not the point. The point is that discipline at an early age is vital to the development of child's character...and parents' sanity!

I'm going to be honest, though, it's not always easy. Sometimes, I would much rather just not deal with discipline. If I ask Sophia to put away a toy and she disobeys me, it would be a whole lot simpler to just pick the toy up myself and toss it in the box while letting her toddle out of the room according to her whim. Especially being seven months pregnant, the last thing I want to do at the end of a long day is get down on the ground and follow through on something or correct or scold. And, of course, with these last precious months before the new baby arrives to have only Sophia all to myself, who wants to play bad cop?

This is why it is so important to keep a vision for discipline. Consistency is the key; one act of disciplining isn't going to shape Sophia's character anymore than one act of disobedience on her part is going to break it. But, a habit of disciplining on my part will instill a habit of self-discipline on hers. I must remember that her future character--which will decide her future happiness--is at stake, that is the end result of all my teaching. And, if I choose not to discipline, that is a lesson in itself, but not the right one. I must keep in mind that my vocation of motherhood has made me uniquely responsible to pass on an understanding of God to my child. Discipline is a part of that, a significant part. A lot of people get their tempers hot over the proverb, "Spare the rod and spoil the child." I'm not going to get into a debate about corporal punishment, rather, I'd like to offer a thought for this verse. What if the point were not about what you use--a rod, a hand, a stern voice, a time out--but that you do something--something that works? You see, I believe the essence of this verse is that all parents are called to discipline their children, diligently and consistently; if they fail in this calling, the child's character will be spoilt.

I'm only a young mom just testing her parenting legs, a reflection of my little girl testing her physical legs. I'm certainly no expert, but I am more of an expert on my child than Dr. Sears, Terry Brazelton, or any of the rest of them. I'm also a Christian, and I understand that my motherhood is not just a state of being, it is a lifelong vocation from God, Who is gracious enough to have equipped me with everything I need to live it out, if only I will be disciplined in doing so. So, I pass on these words of encouragement to other young mothers, along with assurance that, by virtue of granting you your children, God has given you everything you need, too, if only you will lean on Him, trust in His ways, and be disciplined in using and administering the gifts He blesses you with.


  1. Bethany,
    This is such a hard area! My education and career background is early childhood education. I have wrote many IEP's (individual education plans) for children with behavior issues. Many of these children had never been told "no" at home and felt they could and should get away with anything they wanted while at school. This would include hitting others, throwing things (the worst was chairs), running away from teachers, I could go on and on! Many times children need exactly what you said "something that works".

    As a parent I have also endured many questions with my own children. It has been so hard to have a child who at the age of three got so mad he would punch walls and doors! At one point I thought "What kind of child do I have on my hands?!".

    I've been trained extensively in Love and Logic, Conscious Discipline and numerous other discipline methods. What I have found that works for one child can completely not work for the next! It's crazy how God made us all individualized huh? One quick tip for toddlers since their in a very egocentric, me do it phase: trick them into thinking it's their idea! Give lots of choices, so during clean up time say, "Would you like to put the dolls or blocks away?" Once they made their choice help them stick to it even if they decide they no longer want that choice. Use hand over hand picking up saying "I know you now don't want to pick up your dolls but that was your choice. It can be sad sometimes when we don't want to pick up". You may experience melt downs along the way but consistency is the key after they have made the choice.

    Sorry so long! One of my old passions coming out in me!

  2. You are a very wise young mommy! You articulated this so well. I love seeing a discussion about discipline that doesn't just center on whether or not a parent should spank. You are so right when you say that what works for one child may not work for others. My husband and I always say that we would never have fully understood that if God had not given us our developmentally delayed (autsitc) son. Of course, it doesn't take a special needs child to drive that point hpme. It may just take a second child with a very different personality form the first. God just knew that we needed to learn that lesson very well, I guess! Great post!

  3. we are in the very sad predicament of dealing with a young man in our circle who has not been adequately disciplined... he has special needs and his family feels this precludes him learning simple things like self control and kindness. it is so distressing to see him flounder so terribly, to wonder and worry about what the future may hold for him... but also it has been made painfully clear to me that shirking our duty in the area of discipline not only affects the child himself and our immediate family, but all those we come in contact with...

    discipline is not fun. it is wearing and wearying, but it is needful and has its own reward♥

  4. Well written Beth. You really are a great mom.

  5. I've been thinking about this post for the last couple of days and tonight I finally sat down and wrote a post on the topic myself. :) It's only fair I would invite you over to my blog to read it, since you were the inspiration for it. Ha. Have a pleasant day/evening. :)

  6. Thank you so much for this post. It was really almost an answer to a prayer. My little boy is 15 months and I have been really having a hard time figuring out what to do about discipline. I really appreciated your insights, especially the reminder that discipline comes from the word disciple. It reminded me of how God disciplines-- always with love first and never out of anger or frustration.

    I also liked what you said about studying your child and understanding what makes them do what they do. That was really helpful. Thank you again. I've enjoyed looking over your blog, you have a beautiful spirit.


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