Before we get to some practical points about how to discipline, let’s talk about the healthy way to understand rules when it comes to disciplining our kids.

We need to remember that discipline is not primarily about punishment or correction. We can’t fulfill our responsibilities as parents by posting a set of rules on the refrigerator and punishing our children when they break the rules. In actuality, rules and discipline are two different things.

What Are Rules For?

Rules really have nothing to do with behavior modification. Rules are for two things, which are

  1. to keep safety in, and
  2. to keep chaos (un-safety) out.

That’s it. Rules are to make the environment safe for every member of the family. Discipline, as we’re describing, is concerned with facilitating a child’s growth and development. It’s about shaping children’s characters and training them in the way they should go.

Practical Tips

Here are a few tips for building self-discipline, resiliency, balance, competence, and confidence in your children.

Maintain a Safe Environment

A safe learning environment is crucial for discipline. Above all, your child needs to know that Mom and Dad will always love and accept him no matter what. Remember, a safe home environment includes balanced elements of both nurture (love, kindness, and acceptance) and structure (rules, regulations, and consequences). So be alert to what your child needs at the moment and provide either the structure or nurture he requires.

Distinguish between Hurt and Harm

Teachers and learners need to remember that “hard is good.” The fact that something is difficult doesn’t necessarily imply that it’s bad. This applies to lessons like obedience, self-control, and good manners, as well as algebra and English grammar. Valuable training often hurts (just ask any athlete), but pain is not the enemy unless it causes permanent damage. So what’s the difference between hurt and harm?

Here’s a way of looking at the difference:

  • Hurt: It’s painful and may be unpleasant, but there’s no permanent or long-lasting damage and no negative effect.
  • Harm: It’s painful and may be unpleasant, and there is some form of permanent or long-lasting damage or negative effect.

As parents we don’t like it when our kids hurt. That’s normal. Yet children actually need some constructive pain and adversity in their lives in order to grow strong and healthy. They just need us to protect them from serious harm.

Provide Choices

Structured choice is a vital element of good child coaching. It gives your kids a voice and a certain amount of control over their lives. Both are important for the development of competence and self-confidence. When it’s 10 degrees outside, you can ask, “Do you want to wear the blue coat today or the green one?” If your child says, “I don’t need a coat!” you can respond, “That’s not one of the choices; blue or green?”

Offer a Positive Focus

Verbalize what you want your child to do, not what you don’t want him to do. If you’re constantly nagging, “Don’t hit your sister!” you’re creating a mental image of “hitting sister” and reinforcing the negative behavior. But if you get out some toys and say, “Play nicely with your sister,” you’re giving your child the positive mental image of what to do.

Try this. Whatever you do, right now as you read this, don’t think of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France. We’re going to tell you again, don’t think of the Eiffel Tower. What image do you have in your mind? The Eiffel Tower? We told you not to think of the Eiffel Tower, so stop thinking of the Eiffel Tower. If you don’t stop thinking of the Eiffel Tower, we’re going to give you a consequence!

All this time, you were told not to think of the Eiffel Tower. And every time you were told not to think of the Eiffel Tower, what mental image popped up in your mind over and over again? Most likely . . . the Eiffel Tower.

Now, try this. Think of a bison or buffalo—the big animal with an overgrown head, small horns, and a goatee. What image popped up in your mind’s eye now? Most likely one of a bison. And while you were thinking about a bison, guess what you weren’t thinking about? The Eiffel Tower.

Rather than tell your children what not to do—the Eiffel Tower— and thereby giving them a mental image of that very behavior, tell them which behavior you want them to do—the bison.

Allow for Do-overs

This is an extension of the last point. If your child fails to play nicely, tell her to try again. So what if it takes him a million times to get it right? That’s how we learn. “Do-overs” have a greater impact on the brain than negative consequences. They create synaptic connections that promote memory and reinforce positive behaviors.

Give Consequences

Consequences can be a useful accessory to do-overs, especially in cases of willful disobedience. It can be helpful to allow a child to choose a consequence for his misbehavior. For example, you might say, “Would you rather lose iPad privileges for two days or skip dessert for a week?” Kids need to understand that bad choices lead to bad consequences, even in adult life. This brings us back to the hurt versus harm idea. Consequences are meant to hurt—just not harm.


Beginning at a very early age, teach your children how to use their verbal skills. Model appropriate ways of expressing emotions. Listen to them when they talk. Zero in on the real questions they’re asking. Wherever and whenever possible, help them understand why you require a certain kind of behavior.

Offer Justice, Mercy, and Grace

Model God’s love by responding to your children’s behavior with age-appropriate measures of justice, mercy, and grace.

Justice is the response you need to give when a wrong has been committed. It’s the treatment that fits the behavior. Justice teaches children the difference between good and bad and underscores the impact of wrongful choices and actions.

For example, let’s say your son is learning to drive and shows careless tendencies from time to time. You find out from another student’s parent that your son had a minor fender bender in the school parking lot that he “forgot” to tell you about. When you confront him, he blames the parked car for the incident. This is a time for justice. Consequences should be given for the wrong action in order to encourage him to learn a lesson so his driving behaviors change for the better.

Mercy is not getting what you deserve. You can consider offering mercy to older children who already understand the difference between right and wrong and who probably won’t gain anything more from getting a consequence. Until a child is old enough to remember right from wrong, you’ll probably need to offer more justice than mercy.

Say that your son, who’s normally a very conscientious driver, has a minor fender bender in the school parking lot. He volunteers the information to you, admits it was his fault, and understands how it happened. You determine that administering a consequence, which he deserves and is willing to accept, won’t help him learn his lesson any better. This may be a time when you choose to extend mercy and not give him a consequence he deserves.

Grace is getting what you don’t deserve. You should extend grace to your children readily yet sparingly. The goal is to create a safe environment for your children without fostering a mind-set of entitlement— that attitude of having a right to privileges and special treatment.

This would be a time when you surprise your son by letting him take the family car to the upcoming ball game. He didn’t ask; he didn’t do anything to earn it either. You extended the privilege to him just because you wanted to treat him to it.