Questions and Answers About Discipline

Q: My five-year-old is developing a problem with lying, and I don't know how to handle it. What can I do to get him to tell the truth?

A: Lying is a problem every parent must deal with. All children distort the truth from time to time, and some become inveterate liars. Responding appropriately is a task that requires an understanding of child development and the characteristics of a particular individual. I'll offer some general advice that will have tobe modified to fit specific cases.

First, understand that a young child may or may not fully comprehend the difference between lies and the truth. There is a very thin line between fantasy and reality in the mind of a preschool boy or girl. So before you react in a heavy-handed manner, be sure you know what he understands and what his intent is.

For those children who are clearly lying to avoid unpleasant consequences or to gain an advantage of some sort, parents need to use that circumstance as a teachable moment. The greatest emphasis should be given to telling the truth in all situations. It is a virtue that should be taught—not just when a lie hasoccurred,but at other times as well. In your devotions with the children, read Proverbs 6:16-19 together: "There are six things the Lord hates, seven that are detestable to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are quick to rush into evil, a false witness who pours out lies and a man who stirs up dissension among brothers."

These are powerful verses around which to structure devotional periodswith children. Explain who Solomon was, why his teachings are so important to us, and how Scripture helps us. It is like a flashlight on a dark night, guiding our footsteps and keeping us on the right path. It will even protect us while we are asleep, if we will bind it on our heart forever. Memorize Proverbs 6:16-19 together so it can be referred to in other contexts. Use it as a springboard to discussions of virtues and behavior that will please God. Each verse can be applied to everyday situations so that a child can begin to feel accountable for what he does and says.

Returning to the specific issue of lying, point out to the child that in a list of seven things the Lord hates most, two of them deal with dishonesty. Telling the truth is something God cares about, and therefore it should matter to us. This will explain why you are going to insist that your son or daughter learn to tell the truth even when it hurts to do so. Your goal is to lay a foundation that will help you underscore a commitment to honesty in the future.

The next time your child tells a blatant lie, you can return to this discussion and to the Scripture on which it was based. At some point, when you feel the maturity level of the youngster makes it appropriate, you should begin to insist that the truth be told and to impose mild punishment if it isn't. Gradually, over a period of years, you should be able to teach the virtue of truthfulness to your son or daughter.

Of course, you can undermine everything you're trying to establish if you are  dishonest in front of your kids. Believe me, they will note it and behavelikewise. If Daddy can twist the truth, he'll have little authority in preventing his kids from doing the same.

Q: I like your idea of balancing love with discipline, but I'm not sure I can do it. My parents were extremely rigid with us, and I'm determined not to make that mistake with my kids. But I don't want to be a pushover, either. Can you give me some help in finding the middle ground between extremes?

A: Maybe it would clarify the overall goal of your discipline to state it in the negative. It is not to produce perfect kids. Even if you implement a flawless system of discipline at home, which no one in history has done, your children will still be children. At times they will be silly, lazy, selfish, and, yes, disrespectful. Such is the nature of the human species. We as adults have the same weaknesses. Furthermore, when it comes to kids, that's the way they are wired. Boys and girls are like clocks; you have to let them run. My point is that the purpose of parental discipline is not to produce obedient little robots who can sit with their hands folded in the parlor thinking patriotic and noble thoughts! Even if wecould pull that off, it wouldn't be wise to try.

The objective, as I see it, is to take the raw material our babies arrive with on this earth and gradually mold it, shaping them into mature, responsible, God-fearing adults. It is a twenty-year process that involves progress, setbacks, successes, and failures. When the child turns thirteen, you'll swear for a time that he's missed everything you thought you had taught—manners, kindness, grace, and style. But then maturity begins to take over, and the little green shoots from former plantings start to emerge. It is one of the richest experiences in life to watch that blossoming at the latter end of childhood.

Q: Do you think there is a relationship between permissive parenting and teen violence, especially at home?

A: Without question. Teen violence, at home and in public, has many causes, but permissive parenting is one of them. Many years ago, I came across an article on this subject and put it in my files. Though it is now old, it still answers the question you have posed. It is quoted below, in part:

Two scientists at the Institute of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at the University of Maryland Medical School have identified what they call a new syndrome of family violence: parent battering.

The term includes both physical assault and serious threats of physical harm by children and young people.

Although the scientists do not know for sure, they suspect that the syndrome is not uncommon.

It seems to occur, they find, in families of all classes in which "one or both parents have abdicated the executive position" and no one, except possibly the battering child, is in charge.

An almost universal element in the families is that they deny the seriousness of the child's aggressive behavior.

For instance, a father who was almost killed when his son pushed him downstairs insisted that the boy had no problems with his temper.

Dr. Henry T. Harbin and Dr. Dennis Madden found that one of the most remarkable features of the cases they studied was the parents' tolerant response to the attack.

In one case, a youth of eighteen stabbed his mother, missing her heart by an inch, yet she was quite willing to let her son continue living at home.

Instead of asserting parental authority in the face of threats or attack, parents frequently gave in to their children's demands.

Even if their lives were in danger, they did not always call the police, and when questioned later they often lied to protect their children—and their self-image as effective parents.

Confronting the aberrant behavior of the child implies an admission of failure, the researchers said.

Another reason for denial was "to maintain an illusion, a myth of family harmony," to avoid thinking the unthinkable that the family was disintegrating.

"For parents to admit that their offspring have actually tried to kill them arouses massive anxiety and depression," the researchers believe.

When parents were asked who they would like to be in charge of a hypothetical family, few said that mothers or fathers should make the rules and some said that everyone in the family should be equal.

If battering children who were undergoing treatment at the violence clinic wanted to stop therapy or drop out of school, parentsoften answered, "Whatever you want to do."

Dr. Harbin said that, ideally, both parents should take a firm hand, but in any case, "someone needs to be in charge."11

Q: Isn't it our goal to produce children with self-discipline and self-reliance? If so, how does your approach to external discipline imposed byparents get translated into internal control?

A: Many authorities suggest that parents take a passive approach to their children for the reason implied by your question: They want their kids to discipline themselves. But since young people lack the maturity to generate self-control, they stumble through childhood without experiencing either internal or external discipline. Thus, they enter adult life having never completed an unpleasant assignment or accepted an order they disliked or yielded to the leadership of their elders. Can we expect such a person to exercise self-discipline in young adulthood? I think not. That individual doesn't even know the meaning of the word.

My belief is that parents should introduce their children to discipline and self-control by any reasonable means available, including the use of external influences, when they are young. By being required to behave responsibly, children gain valuable experience in controlling their impulses and resources. Year by year, responsibility is gradually transferred from the shoulders of the parents directly to the children. Eventually, they will act on what they learned in their earlier years—on their own initiative.

To illustrate, children should be required to keep their room relativelyneat when they are young. Then somewhere during the midteens, their own self-discipline should take over and provide the motivation to continue the task. If it does not, the parents should close the door and let them live in a dump, ifthatis their choice.

In short, self-discipline does not come automatically to those who have never experienced it. Self-control must be learned, and it must be taught.

From The The New Strong-Willed Child By Dr. James C. Dobson.

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