Discipline for Beginners

There came a time recently with my 4-year-old son when the usual time-out routine wasn’t doing the trick. After some out-of-bounds behavior, we would send him to his room for the prescribed time, and he would emerge with a somewhat heartfelt “sorry” and proceed a short time later to another offense.

He was testing boundaries and authority, and I decided a stiffer dose of discipline was needed. Even after he expressed sorrow for a serious offense, I began taking away privileges, such as watching videos or playing with his favorite Pooh Bear and Tigger figures. “One more time and there are no videos for the rest of the day and tomorrow,” I would announce.

Well, one week my son ran up a debt of four whole days without videos. Halfway through the punishment period, feeling deeply the loss of his faithful TV friends, he came to me with a long face of true penitence and asked for one day to be taken off the list.

I was struck, not just with the sincerity of his sorrow but with the nature of his request. He didn’t ask to watch a video right then – he seemed to have a sense that some degree of punishment was still just. He asked only for time to be taken from his personal “purgatory.”

Yes, I said, I’ll reduce the punishment by a day if he would be extra good the rest of the afternoon and evening.

This routine was difficult for me to maintain, given my easy-going nature and eagerness to see my son’s smile. But I took the harder road and risked seeing the tears and frustration in his face.

Wondering if my thoughts about discipline were sound, I called an expert, psychologist Dr. Ray Guarendi, who writes the “Family Matters” column for the National Catholic Register. His personal experience includes bringing up 10 children with his wife.

“You’ve tapped into a truth of modern parenting,” he said. “What has been called discipline is really a watered down version that is presented for popular consumption. Time out is not the whole story. Consistently bad behavior merits consistently strong discipline. Our children will test the limits, and we must be prepared to show them that we are serious when we say something is wrong.”

 “What we need to do as parents is take a much stronger approach to discipline,” Guarendi said.

Scott Hahn, in his book Scripture Matters (Emmaus Road, 2003), writes, “One of the marvels of God’s plan is that He has given fathers a priesthood and priests a fatherhood. Within the family, the father stands before God as a priest and mediator. Within the Church, the priest stands before his parish as a father.

“This is a powerful truth. And it is more than a metaphor. It is something profoundly sacramental, and built into the fabric of God’s plan – from the very beginning.”

Perhaps I’m on the right track, as long as I remember that he who disciplines must be open to the discipline of the Father of all. As St. Paul says, “My sons, do not disdain the discipline of the Lord, nor lose heart when he reproves you. For whom the Lord loves, he disciplines; he scourges every son he receives” (Hebrews 12:6).

These can sound like hard words in a culture that views bad behavior in secular psychological terms, and treats troublesome kids with various prescription drugs.

Yet I think many parents would be more willing to impose discipline if they were given more positive models. You may spare the rod, but keep discipline consistent and significant. Your child will be the winner in years to come.