Why do we discipline children? While there may be many reasons, ultimately I believe:
We discipline to teach children there are consequences to their actions.
We know instinctively that everything we do has some consequence, even at the simplest levels. If we turn on a tap over an empty glass, the consequence is the glass is filled with water. If we push a tall box, the consequence is that the box falls and possibly causes something to break. As adults we know that we are responsible for dealing with the consequences of our actions, but that’s not something children understand. As very young children we’ve done everything for them, so they see us clean up their mess at the table and put them to bed when they’re tired. They can’t take responsibility for their actions when they’re very young, but as adults they will do this almost 100% of the time. So between infancy and adulthood they need to progressively learn this.
Types of Consequences
Consequences broadly fall into two categories:
Natural consequences are things which happen as a direct result of us having done something. For example, if we’re carrying too many china cups at once we know there’s a danger they’ll fall and something will break. If we choose to do it anyway and something breaks, the consequence is the cups are broken and we have to clean up the mess and possibly replace the cups. Likewise if a sign says “Caution: Slippery Floor” and we choose to run through and fall over, the natural consequence is the pain (and embarrassment!) we feel.
Punitive consequences are when our wrong actions don’t directly lead to a consequence but a consequence is imposed as a punishment for doing the wrong thing. For example, if we break the speed limit we may not cause an accident that time but if we get caught we’ll get a fine to discourage us from doing it again. Wherever possible, punitive consequences which are closely related to the thing done wrong are most effective at highlighting the link between action and consequence and teaching right behaviour.
For many things children do, particularly as younger children, there are no natural consequences, so a lot of consequences need to be punitive. If Penny is running around on an uneven footpath and you warn her “Penny you’ll fall over if you keep doing that” and she ignores you and falls over, she’s got her punishment and you don’t need to do anything else. She disobeyed your advice, and she learnt that her bad decision led to unpleasant consequences. It would be well to verbally reinforce the link between Penny’s bad choice and the consequence, but nothing further is likely necessary. But if Penny hadn’t fallen over, we would need to apply some form of punitive consequence for her disobedience and in place of the natural consequence. It could be a smack on the legs which were running around, and there’s a time and a place for smacks for younger children, but in the real world smacks don’t come that often. It may be more appropriate to tell Penny she has to come and sit down and has lost the freedom to run about as she pleases.
So whether we give them time out or a smack or remove privileges, it’s all about trying to teach them that the punishment is a consequence of their wrong decision.
Look at your child’s behaviour and think, “What will this behaviour look like when they’re an teenager / adult?” So if you ask your child to come to the table for lunch, they ignore you and there are no consequences, chances are that, left unchecked, they’ll ignore your instructions as a teenager and others’ instructions as adults.
Proverbs 29v18 reads: “Where there is no vision, the people perish”. If you don’t know what you’re aiming for, you probably won’t get there. We are trying to teach them the lessons of life as young as possible, so as they grow up they will be able to make their own decisions which will be right and responsible. They will understand why we do the things we do and how they can make wise, balanced decisions, and they’ll understand that poor decisions lead to unpleasant consequences. They won’t learn that by mindless smacking, or by no discipline at all, or by random discipline (sometimes applying it, sometimes not). Picture what you want your child to be as an adult, and start teaching them now the behaviours to help them get there!