The secret of effective child discipline (Part 1)

The first of three articles on discipline, decision-Making, and the four cardinal virtues

Do you ever feel as if there are days when you are too often taking disciplinary action with your kids? Do you ever feel as if you have morphed into The Punisher, doling out “consequences” to one child after another? Do you ever feel as if you are frequently scolding and reprimanding your children — and getting nowhere?

I’ve been there. With my younger ones sometimes I’m still there. But I have a little secret about discipline that I’d like to share:

Change must come from within

Too often, we look at discipline as behavior modification. We try to change our children’s behavior through a series of external controls: punishments and rewards. Many of us use the If-Then approach. If you don’t eat your broccoli, then you don’t get dessert. If you do the dishes, then you can play video games. Even if we don’t actually verbalize the If-Then, we tend to take an action-reaction approach to discipline. And the more consistent and firm we are with applying appropriate consequences to misdemeanours, the more effective this approach is. But only to a certain extent and only up to a certain age.

Because real change must come from within.

True discipline is not simply a matter of blackmailing and bribing or punishing and rewarding. “Discipline” comes from the Latin word “discipulus”, meaning student. By its etymology, the word discipline implies teaching our children. We want to educate and form their minds, hearts, and wills so they freely choose to behave appropriately and internalize our moral beliefs. With this in mind, we can not be satisfied with just coercing our children to obey, whether by punishment or reward, without regard to their interior disposition. The external compliance that we may exact from a toddler, preschooler, or young child becomes increasingly insufficient as a child grows older. If we do allow ourselves to be ‘satisfied’ with just external compliance, we will be very unsatisfied with what often follows in the long run: passive aggressive behavior, resentment and rebellion, and/or deceitful manipulation. No thanks.

Becoming aware of the needs of others

I’ll be the first to admit that we use punishments and rewards in our home, particularly with the younger kids. But there is a problem only or mostly using the If-Then or punishment/reward system.

The problem is that with this approach children almost always choose that which is in their best interests. If you don’t share that toy, then I’ll take it away. You are essentially telling your kids, “Here are two choices. Choose the one that will incur the least pain or the most pleasure for you.” 

If a child begrudgingly chooses to share the toy, you might say, “Good choice. You shared your toy.” But was it really a good choice? Not really.  He was probably not thinking of the joy he might be giving to his sibling. He was still choosing in his own best interest.

As children grow, we want them to mature and become aware of the needs of others. Pre-teens and teens need to know that wise choices are not based on “what is best for me.” Rather, the best decisions are based on these four criteria:

Is my decision just?

Is it responsible?

Is it prudent? (Is it the right thing to do at the right time?)

Is it charitable?

If your children are spiritually mature enough, they should also pray and consider: Is this the will of God?

Notice that these criteria require the decision-makers to be aware of the good of others. It requires them to be considerate, thoughtful, and generous. On the contrary, a disciplinary system which encourages children to think mainly of their own best interests will inflate their ego-centricity and teach them to be manipulative. Instead of developing the habit of thinking of others, children learn to find ways to beat the system or outsmart their parents in order to get what they want.

So, while the If-Then system may produce external compliance, on its own it does little to nurture any interior motivations for obeying, doing what is right, or thinking of others.

Developing the four cardinal virtues

True discipline entails helping our children develop the four cardinal virtues: justice, temperance, prudence, and fortitude. These are called the cardinal virtues because all other virtues hinge from these four. (Cardo means “hinge” in Latin.) For example, honesty and responsibility stem from justice. Chastity stems from temperance.

Compelling our children to obey using punishments and rewards is a necessary part of discipline. However, if we are diligent about working on the cardinal virtues with our children, we will need to enforce external compliance less and less frequently because we will be providing them with internal motivations for acting selflessly.

We will be helping our children mature from within.

Next: How do we do this?

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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