How to Discipline Our Children with Love (Instead of Frustration)


Photo Credit: Murtada al Mousawy (Creative Commons)

This post is a Tuesday Tip.

Related Post: How to Find the Promised Land (In Less Than 40 Years)

I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be a kid.

When my kids rebel, I forget what it was like to feel completely powerless in life—to eat when others told me to eat, to sleep at the dictated time, to be forced to spend my day in this school and to complete that homework.

I forget that feeling, and instead of trying to recall it, I fume about disrespect and fret about what kind of people they will become. And I respond to their rebellion with more domination. But it never works.

And the forgetting doesn’t stop there.

We forget what it was like to have our most prized possession destroyed or lost or taken away. We forget how it felt to have everyone stare at us when the teacher singled us out. Or how strange it was for our body to be changing in all sorts of unpredictable ways. Or how chaotic it felt to have only the most meager sense of identity and then be thrown into the boiling cauldron of high school. Or how much more important friends were than family. Or how terrifying it was to finally graduate college and then wonder, “Now what?”

We forget all of it.

And if we forget, how can we ever find a place of empathy? How can we ever come to a place of understanding from which to connect and lead our children? If we don’t remember—if we don’t seek that childhood-place in our own hearts—I think we abdicate our role as family leaders.

I have a friend who says that comedians are the truth-tellers. I think Brian Regan tells us the truth about how we forget:

If we want to lead our children, we must first find the place of a child in our own hearts. But how do we do this?

  1. Ask. Instead of telling our kids what they should do and feel, we can ask. Take them out for hot chocolate and a conversation. No guidance or instruction from you. Just listen.
  2. Remember. Find a memory in your own heart. Not a memory of a similar situation, but an experience of a similar feeling. Stay there, don’t run from it. Attend to the feeling, recall the setting. The sights, sounds, smells. Journal about it. Immerse yourself in what it was like.
  3. Be parented for a week. Submit yourself to the same standards as your children. Put your spouse in charge of “parenting” you. When you snap at somebody, go to time-out for a minute. When you refuse to share your stuff, you lose it for the rest of the day. When you don’t do your chores, your wallet gets lighter (no allowance for you!).
  4. Be playful for a week. This is the fun one. Lose yourself in play. Recall what it was like to be able to lose yourself in that kind of freedom. Relax into it and enjoy it. Adopt the mind of a child.

Does this mean we just understand our children and then let them do whatever they want? Absolutely not. But it means that when we do say no or set a limit or dole out a consequence that we are doing it from a place of deepest empathy.

And isn’t that what our children need most from their parent-leaders? To know that, as children, they have limits—they aren’t completely in control of the world, they aren’t the beginning and the end of all things—but that even within those frustrating realities, they are a beloved child, cared for deeply, and understood by the people that matter most to them.

Question: How do you empathize with your children? What experiences of childhood do you try to remember in order to be an understanding leader? Share your thoughts in the comments.


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TUESDAY TIP DISCLAIMER: The Tuesday Tip is not professional advice. It should be read as you would read a “self-help” book. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor, who can become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. Counselors can be located through your insurance network or through your state psychological association website.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

7 thoughts on “How to Discipline Our Children with Love (Instead of Frustration)

  1. I have a friend (who also loves this blog) who so naturally was the kind of parent you described today. She was able to remember that child-heart of her own and was so wonderfully empathetic and compassionate with her children. I, on the other hand, due to my own woundedness, left my child-heart hidden away somewhere so it could no longer be hurt. In doing that, however, I missed parenting my children with empathy. I was not always able to “get it” about how life was treating them. I believe it is vitally important that we do our personal work BEFORE we have children. To clean out cobwebs and hiding places of the shadows we prefer not to remember from our childhoods. As adults we can now care for those child-hearts of our own—and for the other children in our lives. Thank you Dr. Kelly!

    • Deb, I wish I was more like your friend. But like you, I find it a constant struggle to remember these things. What you have written here is beautiful: we must “clean out cobwebs and hiding places of the shadows we prefer not to remember.” And sooner rather than later!

  2. This is a very thought provoking blog. I would like to make two points. The first point is that there are times when as parents we do this well. We take the time to listen and we can hear the hurt or frustration our children are feeling. Other times we are in a hurry, stressed from worked, and in turn we are short with them. It is in these times that we try to fix things instead of hear their pain. What is important is that our kids learn we as parents can make mistakes and that we value them enough to ask for forgiveness. It is important that once we have slowed down from the day that we take the time to think about our conversations with our kids and determine if we could have done a better job. If you feel like you blew it, then go to your child and sit down with them. Tell them that you thought about the earlier conversation and you are sorry you did not listen better. I think it is important to apologize for not being there for them when they needed you. You can ask them to forgive you and assure them that you do really care about the things that hurt them or make them sad. In the end asking for forgiveness for letting them down or not being as supportive a parent as they needed shows them that we are all human and we make mistakes.

    I think I am very sensitive to this because of my kids graduating this year, from college and high school. I think it is important to let your kids know it is okay to not have an answer to the, “Now what?” I think they can become so stressed because they don’t have it all figured out. As a result they are unable to enjoy the events of the last year of school. I recently told my Son that I graduated from college back in the day and I did not have a job. My daughter is unsure what she wants to major in when she goes to college next year. I tell her it is okay, that she does not know, in time she will figure it out. There are lots of kids that go to college not certain of their major. Most kids change their majors at college several times. So for me I think giving my kids a safe place to not have all the answers is important too.

    • Jennifer, this is so important and I hope everyone reads it. We aren’t perfect parents! Our empathy will stink a lot of the time, but being able to apologize and ask forgiveness sends a beautiful message to our kids: none of us our perfect, but our mistakes don’t have to define us, let us be defined by our grace toward ourselves and others. Thank you for this.

  3. “When you snap at somebody, go to time-out for a minute.”

    OK, I’m going now…. 😉

    Great reminder. I really do forget how it feels to be constantly dictated to. I have my head in my own worries so much I forget to enter into my kids’ worlds and feel with them. Fortunately they seem to love me anyway!

  4. One of the most beautiful moments of my parenting life came when I was tucking my 7 year old son into bed. As we were discussing events of the day, I asked him to explain to me what it was like to be a little boy. I explained that I had never been a little boy, I had only been a little girl. After a fleeting moment of his apparent surprise, he then proceeded to explain his world to me, from his little boy viewpoint. We went on to have many discussions based on this new understanding. I still thank God for this moment of insight!

    • Karen, this is a beautiful reminder that our children have much to teach us. If we will allow ourselves to be in the position of a student, we might learn a lot. Beautiful. Thank you.

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