Parenting Matters: You, Your Children, and Discipline

Whether it’s about bedtime or other behavior expectations, set clear expectations—and your kids will follow. (JODIE GRIGGS/GETTY IMAGES)
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By Parnell Donahue

So many parents fret about how to discipline their kids; fearing anything they do will morph their fragile angels into raving teen maniacs. Our goal today is to help parents strike a happy chord that leads to sane parents and kids of character.

So, if you have children, are expecting children, or even thinking about having children, stop and ask yourself and your spouse, “What is discipline? What does it mean to you, to me, to us?”

A leader’s followers are disciples, a word we rarely use today, but one I think best defines that discipline actually means: “to follow.” Using this definition it is obvious that the best and perhaps the only way that we can discipline others is to be the persons we want them to become.

Of course we can’t overlook the need for correction or what approach may work best to “correct, mold, or perfect the mental faculties or moral character,” as defined in Webster’s dictionary. The bottom line is: Be the person you want your child to become.

To that end, I offer some ideas on discipline:

1. Make Sure You, Your Spouse, and Your Children Know What ‘No’ Means

Some years ago, our neighbor’s house was for sale; I was in my garden when a couple came to see the house. The agent and a young couple went inside while Grandma and the couple’s 4-year-old son choose to stay outside. He told Grandma in a loud and angry voice that he wanted to jump on the backyard trampoline.

She said “no” but to no end, as he made a beeline for the trampoline. She followed, telling him “no,” and pleaded with him, “Please don’t jump on the trampoline!” For the next 10 to 15 minutes, he jumped to his heart’s content while Grandma begged him to come down, with threats of counting to three, then to 10. Over and over again she counted. But the jumping continued until Mother came out of the house upset with Grandma for letting her fragile little boy “endanger himself” on the trampoline. Poor Grandma was helpless to explain except to tell Mother that she couldn’t do anything to stop him.

As Matthew tells us, let your yes mean yes and your no mean no.

What should Grandma do in this case? Get down on his level, look him straight in his eyes and say softly but firmly, “No, You may not go on that trampoline. Let’s take a little walk around and see what the neighborhood is like.”

Then she needs to take his hand and direct their walk. Grandma should have told the parents before they went into the house that she was going to take Junior for the walk, and then followed through with her promise.

2. Don’t Ask. Tell

One evening we were visiting some friends who had preschool and elementary school kids. Without warning at 7:45 p.m., the lights in the family room dimmed. The kids said goodnight to their parents and to us, and went upstairs to bed. Dad explained they had conditioned the kids to go to bed when the family room lights dimmed. How cool is that!
Not all of us can program the family room lights to dim, but why are parents surprised when they ask their child, “Do you want to go to bed?” and the kid says “no”?

Why not set a timer for 10 minutes before bedtime and say, “When the buzzer rings it will be time to put the toys away and get ready for bed.” And when it rings, say, “Time to get ready for bed, let’s go!”

In short, make sure you and the kids know what you expect them to do. They’ll follow.

3. Teach Your Kids How to Argue Like Socrates

When you have a disagreement with one of your children, hear them out. Ask them questions; find out why they disagree. When they are finished telling you why you are wrong and they are right, ask them to listen as you listened to them. Then give them a short explanation of your points. Let them have a short rebuttal, and then declare who wins. If they do, tell them so and offer an apology.

If you win, tell them: “That’s how it is! End of the discussion.” Then explain the consequences, if any. And quietly walk away. They should have already been taught that if they continue to argue as you walk away, you will prescribe the punishment previously agreed upon for violating the rules of argument.

4. Sometime You Must Act First and Talk Later

Several years ago, I took a quick trip to Kroger’s for a bottle of milk. As I approached the milk case, I saw a toddler running back and forth in the egg cooler on top of the eggs. You read that right, running on the eggs while a young woman helplessly stood by.

“Don’t you want to come out of there?” she asked calmly. “Mommy needs you to come out!” “Please, Honey, please!” She begged. “Mommy needs you to come!”

My jaw crashed to the floor. “Your son is breaking the eggs!”

“I can’t make him come off,” she whimpered.

“Let me help you!” I said, as I lifted him up and gently handed him to his mother.

I hope she and the toddler had a short talk about breaking the eggs!

Why is it so hard to place limits on our kids?

Do we want well-behaved kids or delinquents; do we choose chaos or covenant? God made a covenant with Moses, should we do any less? The rules we teach our children prior to them breaking them are our covenant with our kids.

Enjoy the children in your life, and may God continue to bless you and your family!

Dr. Parnell Donahue is a pediatrician, military veteran, author of four books and the blog, and host of WBOU’s “Parenting Matters” show. He and his wife Mary, have four adult children; all hold Ph.D.s, two also are MDs. Contact him at

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