Start Early

By Maria Fontaine

Parenting is more than comforting children when they fall down, or making sure they get proper nutrition, and brush their teeth, and so on. Parents are responsible for their children's spiritual training as well, and the foundation stone of that training is loving and consistent discipline—and when I say "loving," I mean reasonable, even-tempered, and nonviolent. Children begin forming behavior patterns and their ideas of right and wrong very early in life, so the earlier you can start teaching them, the better.

Discipline means training your children to lead a disciplined life, and eventually to discipline themselves. If discipline is something that you only do "to" children, the end result will be that as soon as they get out from under your control, they will go wild. But if you discipline them in the sense of consistently trying to teach them to lead disciplined lives, eventually they will be able to discipline themselves.

Discipline is not only about correction or the consequences for unacceptable behavior, although those are each a very important part of it. Discipline starts with step-by-step teaching, setting clear boundaries and guidelines, setting a good example in your own behavior, and being consistent.

The loving thing to do is to teach your kids from the beginning, gently, lovingly, and consistently showing them how to make the right decisions

If you're like most parents, it was initially difficult for you to administer correction, and perhaps it still is. You love your children and don't want to see them unhappy. You wish with all your heart that there was some way around it, that they could learn the lesson some easier way, but because you do love them, you correct them because you know it's what they need and what will keep them from being hurt worse later. As the Bible says, discipline "yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it" (Hebrews 12:11).

You can't expect children to learn good behavior on their own; it's a long-term process that requires consistency, love, and fairness. It's probably the biggest challenge and the hardest job you'll ever face as a parent. It's easier in some ways to just let them run wild and entertain themselves, but in the long run you'll find that it's much more worthwhile to do the hard work that is needed to discipline your kids. In fact, you're in for a lot of heartache if you don't.

Until children learn the simple, basic lessons of obedience, respect, concern for others, self-control, and discipline, they won't mature or reach their full potential. They'll also be less happy and fulfilled in life, and they'll probably make those around them less than happy too. And if you don't give children loving, consistent discipline when they're young, then when they get older they'll be much harder to handle. You'll wind up having to really crack down on them to keep them from hurting themselves or others—and it won't be their fault. It will be your fault for not teaching them earlier, when the stakes weren't as high.

When you look at it that way, you'll see that the loving thing to do is to teach your kids from the beginning, gently, lovingly, and consistently showing them how to make the right decisions, laying the boundaries for acceptable behavior, and administering some form of consequence when they cross those boundaries.

So the first step is to believe that discipline is necessary, that your children not only need it in order to grow up to be productive and useful members of society, but also to be happy and secure in their relationship with you, their parent. Deep down inside, children know they need boundaries and want their boundaries to be defined, and they're happier and more secure when they receive consistent, loving discipline.

Once you make the commitment to be faithful in the training and discipline of your children, there's another hurdle to cross, which is consistency. There will be times when you're busy with other responsibilities, times when disciplining would be inconvenient or you will worry about what others would think, times when you don't want to "spoil the moment," and times when your children will try every trick in the book to talk you out of it. Unless you're careful, situations and your own mood or energy level will have a greater bearing than they should on how you mete out discipline; you will either ignore misbehavior because you feel that would be more expedient, or you will resort to sharp words or nagging. But inconsistent discipline, for whatever reason, is confusing and even damaging for children and will only make it harder on you and them. By disciplining consistently, you will need to discipline less, because your children will learn their lessons quicker.

If you're going to discipline your kids, you have to be involved in what they're doing. When you make the commitment to train your children to lead disciplined lives, you're also making a commitment to spend more time with them, because it does take being with them and tuning in to them. You might not enjoy the moments when you have to correct them or discipline them, and at the time it will seem like a lot more work to teach them the right way to do something rather than just letting them do what they want to do. But in the long run, you'll find that you've saved yourself a lot of work, and you'll enjoy your times with your children much more.

Consistently administering loving discipline has great rewards. In the end, not only will your children love, respect, and enjoy being with you more, but you will feel the same way about them, because you will have helped bring out the best in them.