What's Love Got to Do with It?

Whenever parents ask me about disciplining their children, I tell them that discipline has to be carried out in a loving way. Parents often protest, “No, that doesn't work,” or “What does love have to do with discipline?” My response is that for effective and lasting change to occur, our messages to our children have to be delivered in a kind and respectful manner. I also tell parents that it is not the techniques they use, but the parents themselves who make the most significant difference with their children.

When we are overly focused on technique, we do not realize the amazing impact that we as unique individuals have upon each other. Our perspectives and beliefs, our motivations, our intent, our ways of relating, our feelings, and the emotional tone of our interactions, all create a subtle yet powerful message in our communications with each other. I tell parents that for children to truly and wholeheartedly learn from our acts of discipline, the message of “I love you” has to be just as audible as the message of “I'm disciplining you.” The subtle tone of our acts of discipline has as much if not more of an impact on our children than our words or our techniques of discipline.

Here are a few things to keep in mind:

How do we feel, in the heat of the moment , as we tell our children that something they did was not OK and that we expect them to do things differently next time? Do we feel calm and grounded in the confident belief that our children have the desire, the will, and the capacity to know the difference and behave differently as needed? Or do we feel angry, fed up, exasperated and at the end of our ropes?

How do our children feel about us at moments like this? Do they look up to us and trust us? Or do they feel scared, intimidated, and overpowered by us?

How do our children feel about themselves when we discipline them? Do they feel that they have the knowledge, the capacity and the motivation to change a certain behavior and correct a certain mistake? Or do they feel ashamed of themselves? Do they feel hopeful and ready to move on or do they feel stuck in self-doubt and unsure about their next step?

How do our children feel about our relationship as we discipline them? Do they feel that we are on their side and that we have their best interest at heart? Or do they feel that we have abandoned them because of our disappointment and frustration?

As the protectors, the guides, and the caretakers of our children, we have the responsibility to help them know the difference between right and wrong. We have the responsibility to help them reflect on their actions in terms of their own good, the good of others, and the common good. We also have the responsibility to help them correct their mistakes and to guide them toward a new course of action when they have gone down the wrong path. But how do we actually carry out this responsibility? When we consider the impact of the subtle tone of our communications on our children, we are able to perform this responsibility much more effectively.

-- Dr. Haleh Stahl

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