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Friday, February 5, 2016

The Messages Behind Discipline


With every correction, I am giving my child a message about who he is.

Because children see themselves through the eyes of their parents, because what they see reflected in our eyes shapes who they become, because the truths they hold about themselves start as the truths we hold about them, there is perhaps no greater work than minding how we view our children and what messages we give them about who they are and what they’re worth.

The messages they get from us, particularly during correction, during the times we are not happy with their behavior or choices, influence their identities.

I was recently offered a course to review which has sharpened my awareness to this fact. Module 1 of the course invites parents to think of the messages we send during discipline, and as I’ve been working through this myself, I realized that this is something worth sharing. Most times, our intentions as parents are very good.


We want our children to make good choices. We want them to be responsible, considerate, kind, thoughtful, diligent, and so on. In an effort to instill such qualities in them, we correct them when they go off course, as we should.

Yet, the way in which parents choose to correct often sends a message which is the opposite of what we are going for.

In an effort to get a child to be responsible, we send the clear message of “you are irresponsible.” To make a child be more kind, we give the message “you are not kind.” Then, we stand in awe as they continue to exhibit irresponsible and unkind behavior, not understanding that we planted the very seeds we didn’t want to see spring up.

Let’s say 9-year-old James knows that he is supposed to sweep the patio before he can ride his bike. His father, Ben, comes outside to find the patio filthy and James biking. He motions to James to come over, and tells him, “Why didn’t you sweep the patio like you were told? I’m tired of having to tell you to do something several times before it gets done. You never take responsibility.”

What Ben wants is to teach James responsibility. The message James gets is “you are irresponsible.” Clearly, the intent doesn’t match the message. To more effectively instill these values, our messages need to be consistent with our intent, and this all starts within our own minds.

If we view our children as selfish, aggressive, irresponsible, lazy, etc., we will often speak forth the negative thoughts we allow to swirl. As always, change begins within. As I’ve been going through the Connected Families Spring Course, I’ve been taking notes of some of the negative thoughts I’ve allowed to fester in my mind. Thoughts which have made their way out of my mouth at times. “You never shut the door behind you!” “Why can’t you ever sit still for 5 minutes?”

What’s the message behind these words? Do they build a positive identity or negative? “Please shut the door.” “Please try to sit still.” These are requests without the baggage, yet how easy it was to spew the negative message with my requests!

How could Ben have handled the situation with his son in a way that gave a positive message to James, or at least didn’t give a negative message?

“I asked you to sweep this off before you got on your bike. I’d like you do that now please.” He hands him the broom. “Thank you for doing that. I like seeing you be so responsible.”

Here are a few more examples:

Negative message: Don’t hurt your brother like that! That was naughty of you.

Positive message: Uh-oh, you lost your temper and hit your brother. I know you didn’t mean to hurt him. Come sit with me and I’ll help you get control.

Negative message: You need to stop crying and toughen up. It’s not a big deal. There are worse things in life!

Positive message: I can see you’re upset. How can I help?

Negative message: Whine, whine, whine. That’s all I ever hear from you! One more time, and you’ve lost television for the rest of the day!

Positive message: You’re a big girl now with a big girl voice. Let me hear your big girl voice so I can understand you better.

Negative message: Why can’t you be more like your sister? She works hard and passed all her classes.

Positive message: It looks like you’ve been struggling in this class. What can we do to help you succeed?

A subtle shift in our words makes a large impact on how our children view themselves. Don’t be fooled into thinking harsh words somehow motivate children to do better. Gracious words that encourage and build up, even during – especially during – times of correction will have a far more positive impact on who our children grow to be.

*This article was originally published at Creative Child Magazine


Rebecca Eanes, is the founder of positive-parents.org and creator of Positive Parenting: Toddlers and Beyond. She is the author of 3 books. Her newest book, Positive Parenting: An Essential Guide, will be released on June 7, 2016 and is available for pre-order now. The Newbie's Guide to Positive Parenting and a co-authored book, Positive Parenting in Action: The How-To Guide to Putting Positive Parenting Principles in Action in Early Childhood are both best-sellers in their categories on Amazon. She is the grateful mother to 2 boys. 


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