Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Catholic Activity: Five Principles of Discipline



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There should be rules governing your child's conduct, and penalties when the rules are broken. You will be unable to direct him properly unless he learns that undesirable conduct will cause more pain than it is worth. Here are five principles of discipline.


Five principles of discipline. No laws can be effective unless penalties are imposed when they are violated. So too with rules governing your child's conduct: You will be unable to direct him properly unless he learns that undesirable conduct will cause more pain than it is worth.

The idea of disciplining a child is viewed with disfavor by some modern experts. In their progressive view, the child should be free to express himself, and "parents who hamper this self-expression hamper the development of his personality." Enough years have passed so that we can now examine the adult products of this progressive school of discipline, and we find that the general results are not good. Children who are permitted to do as they please without a control system to govern their actions tend to become insufferably selfish, thoughtless of the rights and needs of others, and incapable of exercising the self-discipline which adults need to live harmoniously together.

Fortunately, the let-them-do-as-they-please school of child training is rapidly becoming passe. Most authorities now recognize that a child not only needs but also wants checks over his actions. Even in adolescence, the so-called "age of rebellion against parents," youngsters have affirmed many times that they prefer to be guided by rules of conduct and expect to be punished for infractions. In fact, teen-agers often complain that their parents are not sufficiently precise in announcing what will and will not be allowed.

Since children vary so greatly in temperament, along with their parents, it is probably unwise to set down hard and fast rules of discipline. However, five general principles can be adapted to fit most circumstances.

1. Keep in mind what purpose your discipline is intended to serve. You should discipline your child mainly to instill in him proper methods of behavior and to develop his ability to control himself in the future.

This principle implies that you must subjugate your own personal feelings, likes and dislikes when exercising them might not serve a useful purpose. To illustrate: A father has often slept late on Saturday mornings while his young children raced about the house making noise. Usually he merely rolled over in bed and put a pillow over his head to keep out the sounds. One morning, however, he awakened with a headache while his children pounded their drums. His first impulse was to reach out from bed and spank them. But a second thought convinced him that his children were behaving properly in the light of their past experience, since they had no way of knowing that this was different from other Saturdays. Therefore, the father spoke to them reasonably, telling them that their noise disturbed him. If, after his explanation, they had continued to pound their drums, he could legitimately punish them to stress not only the importance of obedience but also that they must sacrifice their own interests for the good of others.

The child who knows that his punishment is dictated by his parents' love for him will become a partner in the punishment — at least to some extent — because he realizes that it is for his own good. That is why wise parents sometimes permit their youngsters to choose their own punishment when they have violated rules. The youngster who recognizes the need for punishment and who willingly accepts it takes an important step toward the goal of all his training — the disciplining of himself, a process which will continue until death.

2. Let the punishment fit the crime. In applying this principle, try to put yourself in the child's place. A four-year-old girl was playing in a side yard with several boys of her age. A neighbor observed her exposing her sex organs to them and reported the fact to her mother. The mother raced to the yard, grabbed the girl by the arm, dragged her into the house and beat her with a strap, raising welts upon her back. This mother should have realized that her daughter lacked the experience to know that her action was not proper. Moreover, the punishment was entirely out of keeping with the offense. It was based on the mother's own sense of shame and not that of the child. It was an exercise of hate — not of love.

What offenses call for physical punishment? In the view of most experts, very few. However, reasonable corporal punishment, sparingly used, can be more effective than some educators like to admit. If a child's actions might cause physical harm to himself or another, his punishment should be strict enough to impress upon him the dangers of his actions. For instance, a child of two does not understand why he should not play with matches or cross the street without an adult. If he reaches for matches or steps from the sidewalk, you might spank him because this is the only way he can learn a vital lesson. The very young child measures good and bad in terms of his own pleasure and pain, and since most of his experiences are still on a physical level, physical punishment has its place. But wherever possible, love and affection should hold the foremost position. When your child resists the temptation to touch matches or cross a street unaided, use praise to assure him that he is doing the right thing. Spank him if nothing else works.

Some psychologists make much of the possible harm done to a youngster by physical punishment. But the Bible's teaching that "He that spareth the rod hateth his son" (Proverbs, 13:24) indicates that physical punishment, as such, does not harm the child emotionally. When it is accompanied by indications of hatred, it is undeniably wrong. But the parent who applies the rod in a calm way and as evidence of his desire to help the youngster's development probably does not do lasting hurt. On the other hand, some of the most brutal punishments — the kind that leave wounds for years, if not for a lifetime — come from words. One little girl was never spanked by her father. But whenever she did things which he found objectionable, he shook his head and commented that she was certainly "a queer one." The girl is now a woman of fifty, and her father has been dead thirty years, but his attitude still rankles deeply. She believes that it reflected his unwillingness or inability to understand her.

It should not be necessary to punish girls physically after they reach the age of twelve. Many teachers believe, however, that teen-age boys can be held in line by — and respect — authority exercised in a physical way. Girls usually respond more readily to deprivations of privileges — being denied permission to visit friends on week ends, to attend movies or watch television.

3. Punish only once for each offense. One advantage of corporal punishment which is often overlooked is that it usually "clears the air." Once it has been applied, parents and child generally feel free to forget it and go on to other matters. When their punishment is less decisive, parents may tend to keep harping on the offense — and the child never knows when it is going to be thrown up to him again.

To apply this principle, make sure that your child thoroughly understands what his punishment will be. For instance, if you decide to deny him desserts for a week, tell him so at the outset; do not keep him wondering from day to day when the punishment will end. And do not harp on the offense after the punishment ends. Let him know that when he pays for his conduct he starts with a clean slate.

3. Be consistent. Your child deserves to know exactly what kind of conduct is tolerated, and what will be punished. Unless he knows this, he will try to find out how far he can go. If you tell him that he must be home at 8:30, he will be uneasy if he arrives at 9:00 and is not called to task for being late. Next time, he will be tempted to remain out until 9:30, and he will continue pushing the hour ahead until you step down firmly. If you berate him for arriving home at 9:00 after he returned at 10:00 the night before without comment from you, you will leave him thoroughly confused as to where the limits actually lie.

To be effective, your rules must also be fair. One child should not be punished for actions which another commits with impunity. In one family with seven children, all know that they will lose their allowances for a week if they are not at home for dinner at a designated time. One evening one youngster came home late with the excuse that the bus was delayed. His mother said that she would not punish him. The father then insisted that the boy lose his allowance, because he knew that once any excuses were accepted, the parents would be besieged with them and the entire system of fairness for all would break down. As this example indicates, parents who do not apply rules consistently actually perform a disservice to the child.

5. Investigate before you punish. In order to discipline your child properly, you must necessarily know the facts in the case. Otherwise you do not know what purpose your punishment should serve. Parents may easily misinterpret a child's action. Sometimes he does things which are wrong because no one has told him not to do them and he does not know whether they are approved or not. Be especially careful before punishing a child involved in a quarrel or fight with another. It is often difficult to find out who is at fault, since both children usually contribute to a squabble to greater or lesser extents.

4. Your Child's Moral Training

No other aspect of your child's upbringing will your example exert such a powerful force as in his moral training. For your words to your child are meaningless unless your own actions confirm them. A mother teaches her son to say morning and night prayers, but she says neither. He is only seven years old, but already he questions why prayer is necessary for him but not for adults. One need not be a prophet to realize that he will stop praying as soon as he can. A father teaches that it is wrong to use the Lord's name in vain; but whenever things go wrong around the house, he spews forth profanity. His son likewise swears at every chance he gets. A father tells his children that they must respect authority, but he belittles his own employers, criticizes elected officials of the country in the most insulting ways, and makes sneering remarks about priests and his boys' teachers. And he cannot understand why his sons get into trouble for disobeying school regulations.

If you could examine records of families from generation to generation, you would see undisputed proof of the priceless power of example. In one family, a man now eighty learned from his father's example that men went to church only for baptisms, weddings, and funerals. The man tried to teach his own son to attend Mass as required by Church law, but neglected to do so himself. His son followed his example — not his teaching — and his grandson now also does likewise. More than a hundred years ago, a merchant made a fortune by cheating townspeople who shopped at his store. His grandson is a "respectable businessman," but he too believes that chicanery is justifiable if it makes money. On the other hand, men and women who are long dead but who lived holy lives have left a heritage that lives on in the sanctity of their children's children.

Therefore, if you would help your child to achieve his true purpose — the living of his life in accordance with the will of God so that he may save his soul, and if you would see your good influence continue for untold future generations, provide an example that gives the holy guidance he needs.

Activity Source: Catholic Family Handbook, The by Rev. George A. Kelly, Random House, Inc., New York, 1959