Power of Parenting 4: Punishment vs Discipline

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Over the past few years I’ve had the privilege to serve as mountain bike coach. It was a natural fit because my children and I have enjoyed riding since they were very young. As my son became more competitive, I’ve had parents ask me how can they get their kids to become more motivated to ride and practice. My unpopular answer is always the same; “Motivation is not your kids problem, it’s yours.”

It’s a quagmire many parents find themselves within, and it hinges on todays topic of discipline and punishment. You see, many parents are trying to instill a work ethic, or an appreciation for earning things in their kids. They also fear raising someone who is entitled, lazy or who takes everything for granted. The problem is not with these ideals, it is with the parents lack of skill (wisdom) on how to bring them about. The failure point is when the parent (who thinks they are giving tough love, or the “real world”) withdraws support in order for the child to pick it up. This mistake is confusion between discipline and punishment, and the result is a young person who begins to lose motivation, feel hopeless, and who will resent their parents for unnecessarily inflicting them. It’s a tragic loss of relationship and opportunity which comes with the best of intensions. As a coach this looks like the parent who can afford a new car, golf clubs, or who rides a nice bike, but the teen has to pay their own entrance fee, or is forever saving for a new bike. The parents are punishing them for the burdens they feel in life. Nothing is more demotivating to a child.

Parents all differ in their views on discipline and this is because most of us are either trying to duplicate or completely avoid our own childhood experience. Parents need a strategy for discipline, and this strategy needs to be appropriate and consistent for each child. There is no single approach, not even within the same household. Each child is unique and it is the job of the parent to apply a unique strategy. We will extract some wisdom from the Hebrew Proverbs today. These have been mostly misunderstood and thus adulterated in their application so it’s time to set the record straight.

“Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him.” (Proverbs 22:15)

“Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.” (Proverbs 13:24)

“…to give prudence to the simple,knowledge and discretion to the youth” (Proverbs 1:4)

Sparing the rod means we cannot see our way to discipline. Sparing the rod is to default into punishment.

  1. Discipline not punishment.

While these verses seem to be advocating for corporal punishment, they are not. The parent who strikes a child needs to do some soul searching. The “rod to the back” in scripture is for the beating of an adult fool (Proverbs 10:13,14:3,26:3), not a child. The rod to the child is more of a fence to keep them from wondering out of the safe space, like a shepherds rod. The rod is a guide, a boundary established by the wisdom of a parent so that the child can learn wisdom. When a child is punished, they learn to fear punishment, not to love wisdom and discipline.

2. Punishment is retribution, not restoration.

Parents who punish their kids can’t imagine life without it. The cycle creates an orbit of behavioral reactivity between child and parent. Instead of building a relationship of trust, love, mutual respect, and leadership in wisdom, the parent’s retributive justice establishes a dynamic of behavior modification, pretense, confusion, and ongoing resentment which eventual diminishes the relationship. After the child fledges, the relationship never really heals, but only layers a new level of pretense as adults pretend things are better than they are. Retribution is ultimately repaid upon the parent as they age by austerity and disconnection.

By contrast, discipline is always restoring love, respect, and connection by inviting both parent and child under the third authority, that of wisdom. Discipline restores each mistake, outburst, failure safely back to a loving, protective relationship and never leaves the “hidden” things untended. Discipline is never petty like punishment is. It cannot have a double standard because the parent is striving to align with wisdom too, not presupposing they already possess it. The arrogant punish, the humble discipline.

3. Discipline is nuanced, punishment is always the same.

Punishment is the unchecked heart of a parent who is triggered into lashing out. Punishment is the parent’s own pain of insecurity, inferiority, weakness, or fear which they refuse to acknowledge. As a result, these painful feelings are triggered and retaliation is set in play. Parent’s who say “No” a lot are operating from this pain body. They can’t recognize their own jealousy of the child’s freedom and joy and will subtly create subterfuge or obstacles in the name of what’s best for the child. “If I can’t be happy, why should you be happy.”

Discipline doesn’t react. Discipline is first the appraisal of all that is happening both in the child and in the parent. Wisdom allows the parent to strip away unrelated personal baggage as well as deconstruct all the events which need correction and deal with the underlying heart of the child. Behavioral change is only lasting if dealt at the heart level. Compliance is the result of punishment, correction is the result of discipline. Thus discipline can see the heart and realign it toward wisdom, where punishment sees the behavior and reacts to retaliate.

4. Confusion between discipline and punishment is not just a familial problem, it’s a societal one.

Communities that emerge from low-consciousness punishment, tend to create families and communities of low-consciousness punishment. Since they lack the wisdom and nuance of healing discipline, these communities remain incapable of effecting change for subsequent generations. As children from these communities emerge and enter to world, they import into their spheres of influence the low-consciousness, punishment, retributive justice ethos into work, community, and society. Not only are such communities stifling their own children and families, but now they are stifling their entire communities, businesses, and cities. When sociologists evaluate communities which fail to thrive, they often blame economic opportunity for these failures to launch. However, a bigger view usually reveals that the loss of economic gain is the byproduct not the antecedent to such low-conscious cultures and this can easily be traced back to how such communities are raised and how they lack wisdom.

Interestingly, this parenting failure employing punishment instead of the wisdom of discipline does not fall on racial divides. All races and ethnicities who lack this vital wisdom, suffer the most with dysfunctional relationships within families struggle the most economically. Those who possess this wisdom, will always rise beyond their surroundings.

“To know wisdom and instruction, to understand words of insight, to receive instruction in wise dealing, in righteousness, justice, and equity…” (Proverbs 1:1-3)

Sparing the rod is not failure to physically beat our kids, it’s the sparing of discipline because we only know punishment. The way in which we parent our kids really does matter. Knowing and pursuing wisdom will not only change our kids behavior, it will heal the wounds of our past, and it will open the world of healing and opportunity to everyone around us.

Parents really can change the world. Let’s start today. Let’s start right now. Whatever needs to be mended, let’s swallow our pride and mend it. Let’s do all we can to fix what is broken by turning or returning to wisdom, then perhaps our children and our world will follow.

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