Updated on March 9, 2008
Train. Most things in life operate on an embrace reward, avoid punishment basis. That is the mechanism for training children. Children (even most people and animals) can be trained quite easily, within limits. If we want a child to have behavior A, then we need to ensure that the punishment is low and the reward is high for the child when behavior A occurs; ensure that punishment is high and reward low when it does not occur.
Children train parents. Be aware that children work hard to train us, which significantly affects how we train them. For example, they will throw fits to punish us. If a child's intended result is dangerous/bad we need to consistently reject their training which will, in turn, train them to use better techniques on us. So, if a child throws a fit, and we want the child to be well behaved (not throwing fits), then we need to ensure that they do not get what they want (a reward), but instead get punished. I believe it is not sufficient to only not reward them, but rather they need to pay additional (be punished) for causing us the discomfort of the fit. This will then motivate to behave well.
Be consistent. I am convinced that children will learn and change behavior and expectations with 3 consistent tries. But, if someone/something is de-training a child (blocking the 3 in a row), the child may never learn. Unfortunately, a parent's inconsistency very may well be the de-training mechanism.
Keep it simple. Because a child is limited, we must prioritize what should be learned. A child most likely will be able to learn 1 to 10 things easily and well, and after that it is less likely without significant work. So, any one problem can be easily dealt with, possibly at the expense of a less important issue
Herding. A mistake some parents make is trying to force a child to do something, which ends up having the opposite affect. If you want a cow to walk into a building, it is much more affective to drive the cow rather than pull. This works because the cow wants to run away from you. So, an affective way to "force" a child to do something is to allow the child to choose, and to apply uncomfortable pressure when the wrong choice is made, or as it is approached.
Everything we do has a herding and training effect. When we choose to do nothing about something, it teaches and trains our children about that.
Be fair. We need to apply fair, safe rules. As a parent, we need to be trustable and honest. It is not affective to yell at one child to stop fighting, if the other is being trained to oppress that child. One aspect of fair is that it allows the child to choose the results. Children like to choose good results, so being fair causes good behavior and contentment.
Be firm. Because of a child's insecurities and curiosity (okay, maybe even rebelliousness), a child may test boundaries. It is critical that meaningful boundaries remain solid. Otherwise, it is like a child standing on a racing motor boat, that reaches out and tries to shake the guard rail - it is extremely comforting to have the rail remain firm, and it is extremely disconcerting for it to give/move. Holding tested boundaries firm will significantly affect the child's contentment and feeling of safety.
Prepare. Children also do not know or understand much about their future, so they need to be taught. Teach them about traps (ie. vice) and investment (the law of harvest), the joys of life, the peace of forgiveness, the greatness of God, how to love, etc.
Discipline. If we are to be fair, it naturally follows that discipline will educate a child about reality. Real life has specific consequences to all actions. Often the thrust of the consequence is time delayed (like getting pregnant - it is fun today, hard next year) or payed by a third party (like playing with matches in your neighbor's shed). So, in most cases, discipline should probably be similar to the actual consequence, only immediate and payed for by the perpetrator. There are two notable exceptions.
1) If you want to teach a child how to handle a gun, you should not shoot him when he points the gun at you. In this case, the goal of the discipline is to help the child avoid the consequences of the action, nearly entirely. 2) Also, when a child chooses to repeatedly oppress others, the consequence should be severe enough to stop the behavior, soon. In this case, I believe it reasonable to provide an immediate consequence a little more severe than what was perpetrated, to help protect the other party.
A binary search technique can be used to administer discipline. This technique is especially well suited for the exceptions listed. If the consequence is not severe, start with a warning and explanation of the expected behavior, and be specific about the future consequences. Ensure that the consequences are reasonably followed, if they were stated. So, after the second offense, punish as promised, and re-warn promising twice the punishment. Continue doubling the consequence until the behavior is corrected. Spend some time considering the effectiveness of the punishment. It may be that you are doubling and quadrupling because the punishment is a poor choice, in which case, adapt by changing the consequence.
There are obviously limits to the amount of reasonable discipline that can be applied. As you approach a limit, you can try to be proportionate still, in a way similar to how it takes more and more energy to go faster as we approach the speed of light, but still it does get faster with additional energy. So, we should carefully consider shooting the big guns, because we may be left in a situation where the child is rewarded for doing worse behavior, since we have little punishment left. Also consider that a child is a child, and we should make most punishments temporary in nature, not lasting a very long time. We should not allow even horrible behavior to sink a child with one action. That is, after all, the goal of discipline - to allow the child to avoid bad consequences.
You have probably noticed that there are not a lot of people who walk around pulling triggers with guns pointed at people, and with a bullet in the chamber. There obviously exists some things that are intollerable, even if the child is born with the natural inclination. I have noticed that neither people, nor animals, run at full speed into brick walls. But, I have watched people and animals injure themselves trying to walk through glass windows. I believe the distinction between the two has everything to do with expectations. If we provide an environment where the child can reasonably expect to get through - they will likely try. But, if we make it appear absolutely impossible to get through - they will not even try. This technique can be used to solve severe problems. It also helps illuminate the problem with being inconsistent - we effectively paint a window or walk way on the brick wall - which damages our children as they try to run through.
Especially in our current society, it is popular to embrace the idea that to love a child is to always be kind to him. I believe this idea has roots in Calvanism (God is good, and good is God), humanism (what is right is what is good for us), hedonism (pleasure now is good). Since the training/herding effect (everything we do herds our children) is reality, to be kind to a child at the wrong time incorrectly trains and shapes the child in a damaging way. In a similar way, a good coach will push his players hard, in order to provide them with the opportunity to be good, winning players that progress. So if we love our children, we will invest training effort into them now.
There is a popular belief that focusing on reward, rather than punishment, will provide significantly better results. I submit to you that such a position is misinformed. Both are relative to each other, and both can be used to describe the same situation. To illustrate, children can be rewarded with $2 for being good, and a base allotment of $2. Or a child can then be punished for $2 for being bad, with a base allotment of $4. In both cases a good child gets $4 for being good, and a bad child gets $2. The difference between the two extremes is very important to a child (ie. how much more do I get by being good). But, I do not believe that most children care whether you call it punishment or reward.
Children thrive in a safe, stable, and fair environment.