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Seven Steps in Discipline

October 30, 2012

Discipline in seven easy steps

Well, not always easy… And hopefully only three or four steps.

Here are seven steps, or levels, of discipline. They are really a way to organize all the good techniques you have heard of, so you can see where you are and think about where you need to go.

[I am, by the way, indebted to Glenn Doman for this reflection, though I have my own thoughts and he must not be blamed for anything I have added to or subtracted from his insights.]

1.   Request

The first level of discipline, of asking our children for their cooperation, is a simple and loving appeal. We belong to a family and we have relationships that bind us together in service and need. So we can ask for help. We can say “please” and if there is no response, we can actually drop it. Not every request is a demand. It’s silly and unchristian to think that parents can never ask for stuff they are not going to enforce. So this isn’t really discipline but it’s relevant to discipline. Do you ever slip from a quiet desire – say, that one of the kids bring you the equivalent of a cup of tea – to a storm if they don’t? Do you have to? Think about it.

2.  Appeal to love

The second level is a request accompanied by an assertion of love, an outward expression of need and a gentle expression of confidence that your child cares about that need. Not a guilt-trip; just a simple reminder: this is first of all about family, not about power. You want your tea with a happy smile. Even if you need something and it’s not going to be optional, it’s still about love.


The third level offers your child an explanation for the value or importance of the service you are asking. The child has a right to grow, and it is appropriate for him to have at hand the tools for understanding what needs to be done. You have those tools; share them.

Remember: Rules without Relationships breed Rebellion. The idea that a child should be instantly obedient without any explanation is a slave-holder’s attitude. Yes, there’s a place for immediate obedience; one can’t always be explaining, but within the limits of practicality and generosity, be respectful of your child. Even Jesus says, “I do not call you servants; I call you friends because I have told you everything my father has taught me.” (John 15:15) That’s from the Son of God. It’s not a big adult secret why the garbage needs to be taken out. Maybe you can bore your child with the names of the organisms that will come to live in the house if it’s not done. Somehow, mobilize the mind.

In the end, you want your child to do good things for the reasons you do them: because they are the right things to do. Give him a chance to transition into that part of adulthood. It doesn’t happen overnight or without any preparation. Before you move into a flat demand, make sure you have done what you can to enable a mature choice.

4.  Reward and relationship

Level four is where you offer a reward, still keeping it positive, but not necessarily optional. If you are quick enough, and one gets quicker with practice, it is possible to mention a reward that is appropriate to the event. If the table is set on time and without a fuss, we can make cookies for dessert or watch a movie after dinner. If you get ready for bed promptly, we can read two chapters tonight. If you can all stop quarreling for 3 days in a row, we can go to the zoo. The reward is the enforcement: no action, no reward.

On desperate days, this is quite frankly bargaining with your child. Lots of people don’t approve, but I believe it has its place.

Anyway, there is a deeper level, where the offer of a reward is more than mercenary. At this point, you are searching for specific ways to build a positive relationship with your child. What does he really like? What does he want? Does he need a new math program? Does he need to visit his grandmother? Does he need you or Dad to work side-by side with him?

Does your daughter need to have a mother-daughter coffee once a week? What is going on?

Don’t just offer candy. That’s insulting. That’s behavior modification, and if you are trying to raise someone who would accept martyrdom, that’s not how it’s done. Oh, maybe there’s a place for candy, a small one, a momentary bargain.

But you need to address the depth of your child: This is a person. Is there a lack of relationship behind his refusal to act? Enforcement without relationship breeds rebellion.

5.  Limits and threats.

Don’t step in here unless you intend to go all the way. You have already made one implicit punishment in withholding the reward you offered. Nevertheless, demanding obedience is also a responsibility of parentage.

“You’ll want to make your bed before I count to ten,” is a possible admonition. Such counting is not about letting obedience be slow; it is about being respectful of the child’s own work that you are interrupting. If you are interrupting a fight, of course, that’s different! You might count to three, enough time to catch your breath. In any case, if you go to this level, obedience is no longer optional, and you have to follow up.

For some Moms, the biggest and most effective threat is, “I’ll tell your Dad.” In that case, you’re off the hook until he comes home, but you better tell him.

     Let me say some general things about punishments.

  • First off, the promptness and certainty of a punishment are more important than its severity. Don’t threaten what you are not going to do; and do it promptly.
  • Second: Don’t offer punishments that wound the whole family; don’t spoil dinner; don’t ruin your family time. You are trying to build a place of love, not run a prison. Love is your goal. Some people deliberately choose a punishment that will annoy everyone so much that the culprit worries about his peers and acts for that reason. Maybe it has a place, but mobilizing the mob is not a wise plan. Keep it truthful; keep it loving.
  • Third: This is about spanking. Keep in mind what you are seeking to accomplish – don’t forfeit your long-term goal for your short-term goal. The nice thing about corporal punishment, including spanking, is that it’s prompt and it’s over. The down-side is that it is getting into your child’s space, and for that reason, it may not build a positive relationship. It may, if it’s quick and done; but it may not. Pay attention. Of course, there is a further down-side if it is illegal.

More importantly, it has a very serious downside if it generates a passion within you, something that can run away with you and deepen your own desperation about household order and your disciplinary identity. Think about your early memories of punishment. Don’t engage today’s disobedience in a way that jeopardizes your long-term relationship with your child.

     And something specific about punishments:

There’s no fix-all punishment; children and parents are so different. I have heard about using painful pressure points, another Dobson special, legally different from spanking, but morally far more dangerous in my opinion.  This kind of hold goes very deeply into the child’s space and is likely to generate a specifically cold anger and lasting distrust that actually inhabits the muscles involved.

On the other hand, there are other things you might try.

  • Asking two quarrelsome children to sit together and memorize a poem may work wonders. A child loses a certain personal dignity when he is punished; and even before being punished; he loses dignity when he does what is wrong. Learning a poem is an accomplishment that is restorative. And learning it with someone you quarreled with means cooperating with the enemy.
  • Asking for cooperative housework such as washing a window can be restorative. One child washes each side, and they work together to find all the spots; then they make faces at each other through the glass. Good all around!
  • Exercises like jumping jacks may siphon off some of the energy that is going into disruption. This is a quick and accessible punishment.
  • Sitting in a corner may work. At least it gives you time off.
  • Using housework as a punishment is appropriate because long-drawn out discipline uses the energy you need for housework. The down side is the need for supervision, but ask yourself whether this child needs Mom-time. Maybe he really needs to wash the floor with you or set the table with you. Children will go to great lengths to get your attention; if that’s what they need, best give it. I know that this is a demanding suggestion, but nothing is as demanding as a child who is out of relationship with his parents. Talk to someone with a child in juvenile detention. Avoiding that outcome is worth a vast investment.

Anyway, Christians must take the attitude of white martyrdom: that we are willing to die for our children’s joy, – and sweetly, not with a growl.

6.  Tangible Punishment

The threats are done. If you are not already out of your easy chair and moving into your child’s space, you must do so now and must administer the punishment threatened. Somewhere between four and five, you lost the option of bailing for the evening, and letting it go. If you drop it now because it’s too much work to follow up, the clear message is that your disciplinary threats are just temper tantrums and can be appropriately ignored. If that’s what they are, you need to apologize for your tantrum and don’t do it again. If you have a serious commitment to guidance, then move.

7: Enforcement.

Force is the operative root word here. Level seven is not a place where you want to be. It’s where you enforce your request in a corporal manner, one way or another. Glen Doman was dealing with brain-damaged children, and his point to the parents was that the very demanding protocol he had worked out, without which the children would have a very limited future, depended on co-operation not being optional. Your children are not brain-damaged; do you need a wreck to learn parenting?

For example, pick up your child, wrap his arms around the book he was to put away, carry both of them to the shelf and deposit the book and then take child, kicking and screaming, over to corner to think about it while you get on with your life.

There are other ways to be corporal. Obviously for an older child it means something different because he’s bigger and his space is more his own; violation of teenage space is very risky. Safer and more useful punishments may relate to car keys, movies, friends’ visits, electronic entertainment. Washing dishes and scrubbing the floor are good unless such assignments will be the occasion of further rebellion. Maybe demand that he remain in the open spaces of the house (not his room) and read (possibly aloud) or listen to something of your choosing so that the ipod is not his refuge. Something beautiful, something educational; it does not have to be about the events at hand. You are trying to get his mind to shift gears. If he won’t read, get a book on tape.

At step seven, the real issue is: who is in charge? If your child doesn’t get this one right, then you cannot serve him. Seven is where you land if you keep pulling out on discipline because it’s too much trouble, or if you have let your child drift into a habit of opposition by demanding meaningless obedience and offering punishments that challenge his courage (oh yes!) instead of making him re-think his choices. Some personalities become very rebellious about empty obedience; step three is meant to accommodate them appropriately. Anyway, level 7 should be no more than a temporary spot. If you keep landing here, something has to change. Ask a friend to help you sort it out.

I think it worthwhile to mention that digestive and eating disorders may contribute to the kind of settled defiance that lands you and your child at #7 every day. Try probiotics! Ask yourself whether there are learning disorders that make life so frustrating that your requests are the last straw for a child who needs time to find himself again. I was always an A student, but I was very poor at sports. As I stood on the sidelines, I used to wonder how it felt to be this kind of a failure all day, instead of just 45 minutes a day. I could not imagine it.

In sum and in closing

Be attentive, clear, rational, and responsible. Know where you are with your children and have a plan. Go over these seven levels, and try to see where you are spending the most time. Work your way back towards the good spaces. The ideal is always to start on level one, but you don’t have to spend five minutes on each level. Think about what kind of rewards would be meaningful and what possible punishments would serve your actual purposes.

Always begin with being courteous to your children as you want them to be courteous to everyone in their lives. Courtesy is not weakness; it’s remembering that they are the children of a great King. (members of his court – so be courteous) Sometimes our children are bossy with each other; listen: do you hear the way you are talking to them? Are you modeling the gracious request or do you suppose that Christian parents can always demand immediate and unquestioning obedience but their children will naturally learn to make polite inquiries?

You need to enjoy your children. Someone once told me, “If you dig your kid, he’ll be okay.” I like this old-fashioned expression because it expresses how much real pleasure you are meant to take in your children.

Love is rational, but it’s not abstract. God wants you find joy in parenting; your joy is part of the revelation of his nature, which includes his joy in us. Sometimes the kids at #7 are kids that their parents don’t really dig. That’s ok. There’s often one that’s a challenge. Ask the saints to help you; ask your friends. Abide in God’s love, with this child close to your heart. Go to his bedroom door and pray for him while he is sleeping and cannot resist your prayers and love.

This has been very long.  Sorry.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Anonymous permalink
    August 4, 2016 10:05 pm


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