Effective child discipline (3): The age of responsibility

The third of three articles on discipline, decision-making, and the four cardinal virtues. Previous articles in this series: 1. The secret of effective child discipline 2. The age of reason

When our children are around the age of eleven, we need to start helping them develop the virtue of responsibility. When doing this, appeal to your children’s sense of honor and duty, which is tied to justice. Let your children know that you need them, that the family needs them. Children need to be needed. Being needed gives them a sense of importance and confidence.

Mom: Feisty, I need you to make sure the dishwasher is cleared every morning. We’re all relying on you to do that job on time, otherwise breakfast is late and then we all start school late.

Or, Mom: Feisty, thanks so much for clearing the dishwasher this morning without being told. What a huge help! It makes such a difference when we start the day on time.

Teach your children that at this age it is not enough to obey. They need to be faithful to their duties without having to be reminded. They need to be responsible, for the sake of the family. Of course, there will be many times when you will need to back up your words with consequences or loss of privileges when your children fail to act responsibly. Again, the main point is that you are appealing to their sense of duty and responsibility first before resorting to punishments or rewards. You are giving them a chance to act on interior motivations before enforcing external compliance.

Temperance: All things in moderation

A virtue closely related to responsibility is temperance, which is acting responsibly with one’s body. The pre-teen years are important years for your child to  exercise and develop temperance because this virtue is the forerunner of holy purity and chastity. Teach your children by example and word to do or use all things in moderation. All things. Not only food, but screen time, iPhones, toys, even work. And then, make them practice this virtue.

Mom: All-Star, you’ve been on the computer long enough. You have five minutes to finish up what you’re doing and then you need a change of activity.

All-Star: Arghh! C’mon Mom! I’m in the middle of a really cool project. How about thirty more minutes?

Mom: I know what you’re doing is really neat. But you know how easy it is to get addicted to the screen. You need to use the computer in moderation. You can use it again tomorrow.

All-Star: All right. Five minutes more.

Prudence: knowing how to judge correctly

As our children approach enter their teen-age years, we need to help them develop the virtue of prudence. Prudence is not just about making safe decisions. It is the virtue that allows us to judge correctly, to know what is right and wrong in any given situation. It is also the virtue that enables us to recognize sound advice. (More on that here) As our teens seek greater autonomy and privacy, they need to know that these can only be granted to the extent that they demonstrate sound judgement. Many teens are impulsive and impatient. They want immediate gratification. More than ever, this is an important time to talk to them about the decisions they face, helping them to weigh the pros and cons. Help them realize the how their decisions will affect not only themselves but others as well.

Writing it down

When we do need to punish our children, let it be in such a way that they internalize what we are trying to teach them. One of the best ways of getting your point across and assessing if a child has “learned his lesson” is to make him/her write it out. This is something I learned from Dr. Ray Guarendi, and it has often yielded interesting, even humorous results.

For example, if your elementary school age child has the habit of smacking his siblings, have him write a letter of apology every time he hits someone. In the letter, he should apologize to the offended sibling, state several reasons why he should not have done that, and ask for forgiveness. Your little smacker may need a little help. You may need to brainstorm with him. But that’s all good because its forcing him to think about, remember, and regurgitate the reasons why hitting one’s siblings is wrong. Plus there’s the possibility that having to write another such letter will make your child recoil from repeating the offense. If it doesn’t, he can always write a longer, more elaborate letter.

There’s something about writing that makes a lesson stick. Simply talking about it will probably only lead to an argument or a lecture received with plenty of eye-rolling. But when a child writes about something, he takes ownership of it. Eventually, the lesson will sink in. However, you wouldn’t want to use this approach for every misdemeanor. I’d pick one bad habit you really want to help your child overcome and use it just for that.

It’s about wanting to do what is right

It’s one thing to know what’s right but an entirely different matter to want it. That’s why educating our children’s wills is another important part of discipline. It may seem obvious, but we need to nurture in our children a desire to be good and to do the right thing, even when it’s hard or calls for self-sacrifice. That desire is so important. Wanting to be good and to do what’s right is a child’s first step away from ego-centricity and towards maturity. So nurture a desire for goodness: first by your own example, second by upholding models of saints and heroes as people to be admired and imitated.

So there you have my little (but lengthy!) secret about discipline. In a nutshell: focus on helping your children mature from within by giving them interior motivations to do what’s right. Teach them to make decisions that are just, responsible, prudent, and charitable by helping them develop the cardinal virtues. Foster in your children a strong desire to do what’s right. After all, the interior lives of our children are so much more important than their external behaviors.

Mary Cooney is a home-schooling mother of six who lives in Maryland. Her book, Evangelizing Our Children with Joy, is published by Scepter and available from Amazon as an e-book. Read about it here. The above article is adapted from one published on her blog, Mercy For Marthas.


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