“Before I had children, I had six theories about bringing them up; now I have six children and no theories.” - John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester
Discipline is probably the most misunderstood word in the vocabulary of both teaching and parenting. It is not a matter of control, suppression, or coercion – these are in fact the opposite of true discipline. What is it then? In the end it’s nothing more than guiding children to choose right over wrong. It may include consequences, but it should never involve cruelty or corporal punishment.
Every child needs boundaries, and has to be guided back to them again and again. This is a worthy task, and the end result will be mature, dependable adults. Over the centuries, discipline has shaped the best scientific and religious minds. Now it is our turn to guide children in the same direction.
True discipline is an act of love, not anger. It takes into consideration the inner disposition of the child. As my grandfather said, “Raising children should mean helping them to become what they already are in God’s mind.”
That was how my parents raised my sisters and me, and I thank God for the discipline that I received. It gave us a relationship of mutual love and trust that lasted, unbroken, to the end of their lives. Of course, it was grounded in plenty of old-fashioned correction, including loud fatherly reprimands if we were overheard “talking back” to our mother.
Name-calling and mockery were unacceptable in our house. Like kids anywhere, we sometimes made fun of adults whose idiosyncrasies made them stand out, like our neighbor Nicholas, who stuttered, and Gunther, an extremely tall school librarian. But even if our targets knew nothing of the ridicule that went on behind their backs, our parents failed to see any humor in it. They would not tolerate cruelty.
When disciplining a child, rushing into action often causes regret later. It’s worth taking time to consider; there is a lot at stake. Ask yourself how you can reach the child’s heart so that she can recognize her error. If you achieve this, the battle is won and the rewards are great. A forgiving hug from mom or dad, especially at times when a child knows he deserves a consequence, can totally change the landscape. As in nature when the sun breaks through the storm clouds, the knowledge that one’s failings have been forgiven is probably the most rewarding experience of childhood.
I am hesitant, in these pages, to advise readers on how to guide and discipline a child within the home; after all, each child brings a unique set of strengths and weaknesses, promises and challenges, as does every parent. But my wife and I gained several insights in the course of bringing up eight children. Like most parents, it is probably safe to say that there is plenty we would do differently if we had the chance to do it again. Sometimes we unfairly assumed bad motives; at other times we had the wool pulled over our eyes; one day we were too lenient; the next, too strict. But we did learn several basic lessons nonetheless.
Children can be amazingly strong-willed, as anyone with a two-year-old has experienced. To hold out firmly and consistently is often exasperating. It is easier to let things slide. Yet anyone who prefers comfort to the effort of demanding obedience will find that, in the long run, the problem will grow bigger and bigger.
Consider the story of a British general who walked his horse through a street corner again and again, until the stubborn mare turned the way he had taught it to. “Never give in till the battle is won,” the general said after the nineteenth time, when the animal finally turned as he wished. Frustrating as the incident must have been, the lesson it contains is a vital one.
Perseverance is one of the greatest gifts we can give our children. They’ll sense it from us as we help them learn to listen and follow directions, to keep trying when results are unsatisfactory. In this practical way we can model willpower, a survival trait in today’s world. Teens who haven’t acquired this drive are at great risk when it’s time for them to step out and try something new.
While raising our children, we also learned the value of instilling honesty from the earliest years. When a child is conscious of having done something wrong, but there are no consequences, he finds out that he can get away with it. It is terrible for a child to get that message. When they are young, the issue might seem unimportant and the misdeed small. But it can have repercussions far into the future. The old saying, “Little children, little problems; big children, big problems,” is easy enough to dismiss, yet it contains a significant truth. A six-year-old may only snitch cookies; at sixteen he may be shoplifting or misusing alcohol. And while the will of a small child may be guided with relative ease, a rebellious teenager can only be reined in with the most strenuous effort.
Despite the need for consequences, they are not sufficient in themselves. Discipline entails more than catching a child in the act and punishing him. Far more important is nurturing his will for the good, which means supporting him whenever he chooses right over wrong – or, as my mother used to put it, “winning him for the good.” Such affirmation has nothing to do with manipulation; the purpose of raising children can never be to simply make them obey. Rather, our goal should always be to help them toward the confidence that enables them to explore life and yet know their limits. That is the best preparation for adulthood.
Are you a parent? If so, how do you discipline your child? Share your thoughts on corporal punishment and the goal of discipline.
This article is excerpted from Arnold’s forthcoming book, Their Name Is Today: Reclaiming Childhood in a Hostile World