Better than Punishment
by Duane Boyce
You may not need to resort to punishment to change a child’s course.
“What?!!” I exclaimed in total shock. I had just gotten home from work on a Friday night and discovered that my two sons, ages fourteen and eleven at the time, had gone over to the pool hall to play pool. I was dumbfounded. My children off playing pool in some grimy den of iniquity with who knows who? I knew exactly what this pool hall must be like: kids smoking, hard rock music blaring, girls hanging on boys, boys hanging on girls, kids placing bets with other kids, dark lighting–Pleasure Island all over again, and my boys were over there turning themselves into vile, cigar-smoking donkeys. How could they want to do this?
I had two choices. I could either go get Nathan and Aaron immediately and bring them home, making absolutely clear to them along the way that their behavior was totally unacceptable and would not be tolerated. Or I could do the patient thing and wait for them to come home . . . and then make absolutely clear to them that their behavior was totally unacceptable and would not be tolerated. I was sure they wouldn’t like either decision. While I could make them obey, I knew they wouldn’t be happy. They would likely complain and argue. But, hey, what does it mean to be a parent if not that you have to put up with some adolescent complaining from time to time?
Well, I chose the second alternative and did the patient thing. This was fortunate because it gave me time to think. By the time Nathan and Aaron came home, I had discovered a new alternative altogether: I said nothing to them. Instead I asked my wife to cancel all Friday night commitments for the next month. I planned on playing pool with Nathan and Aaron.
The next Friday came. As I arrived home, I said to the boys, “How would you like to go play pool?” It was their turn to be shocked, but they took me up on the invitation and off we went to Pleasure Island. Remember how I envisioned it? Well, I was absolutely right: loud music, junior high and high school kids smoking, boys and girls hanging on each other, the lights down low. A Young Men’s activity it wasn’t. These were kids in desperate retreat from life, clinging to whatever facsimile of reality their adolescent minds could conjure up and create together. It was a sad, sad sight.
So Nathan and Aaron and I played pool. They were happy because I paid for the games and because they each beat me. (They don’t know it yet, but I let them). We had a good time, and after about an hour and a half we left. When we got home, we discovered we smelled so much of smoke that we had to hang our clothes in the garage so they could air out.
The next week we played pool again. Though we never spoke of it, we also observed the desperate loneliness of the seemingly parentless teens and pre-teens who made this one of their homes. Then we came home and hung up our clothes. Same for the next week: more pool, more loneliness, more clothes hanging. Finally, on the fourth Friday, as we pulled into the garage from our weekly outing, I said simply, “You know something, guys? I don’t think we should play pool anymore.”
You know what they said to me? “Okay, Dad.” That’s it. There were none of the hard feelings, none of the hard words, none of the arguing, none of the adolescent complaining I had prophesied and resigned myself to on that first night of shock. Just a simple “Okay, Dad.”
Two Types of Questions
I had re-learned an important lesson. I had thought on that first night that my choice was about how to correct my sons: Should I go get Nathan and Aaron and lower the boom now? Or should I wait for them to come home and then lower the boom? I might also have considered: Should I ground them? Or should I make them do extra work around the house? Or should I do both? All these questions relate to correction or discipline and essentially ask the same thing: “What should I do, now that something has gone wrong?” The lesson I re-learned is that often this is the wrong question. The more important question is, “How do I help things go right?”
Most of us know this distinction. For example, in my observation when parents are given a chance to ask questions about parenting, some of the questions sound like this:
What do we do to stop our children from fighting?
What do we do when our children don’t come home on time?
What do we do when our children fail to do their homework?
What do we do when our children don’t do their chores?
What do we do when our children resist Family Home Evening?
And some of the questions sound like this:
How do we teach our children to be responsible?
How do we help our children love each other?
How do we help our children excel in the things they do?
How do we help our children enjoy family activities?
The first set of questions boils down to one question: What do we do when things go wrong? The second set boils down to a second question: How do we help things go right? When asked which type of question is primary, most parents say it is the second. But when parents are asked which question they actually spend more time on, they almost always answer the first.
As a dad still struggling with this paradox, I have realized that one essential key to effective parenting is to reverse this order in expenditure of time and energy. In spite of the situation or circumstances, I must begin focusing my energy on helping things go right rather than on handling them once they have gone wrong. This thinking has led me to use four basic questions about parenthood that are concerned with helping things go right. In my mind these questions form a pyramid which I call the Parental PyramidTM.
Am I Correcting My Children Without Teaching Them?
Many books have been written about the best way to discipline children. Some emphasize the value of applying reinforcement and appropriate punishment, others the benefits of employing natural and logical consequences. Most approaches have something to recommend them, but to me the most important fact to understand about correction is this: our effectiveness while correcting our children, whatever method we use, will always depend on the effectiveness of our prior teaching. Indeed, much of the time we spend disciplining our children and studying how to discipline them could be saved if we just spent more time teaching them. The reason is obvious: other things equal, better taught children make fewer mistakes. This is why, to pick just one example, we would be better served to spend time teaching our children how to behave in Sacrament Meeting than to spend time figuring out what to do with them when they don’t.
I’ve found, moreover, that the more effective we are at training our children to make right choices, the easier it is to correct them when they don’t. This is because the better we teach our children, the more correcting them becomes merely an extension of that teaching. The particular method of discipline we use will then matter less because: (1) we will be doing it less often, and (2) whichever method we use will feel to our children more like teaching and less like retribution. Far from seeing our children as irritations, or as disloyal and ungrateful burdens who require correction, we will begin to see them instead as children who have not yet learned. The emotional character of our correction will be loving and helpful rather than impatient and angry.
So correction depends on teaching. In my pyramid, the relationship between the two is represented this way:
What Is the Quality of My Relationship with My Children?
No matter how much time I spend teaching my children, however, they are unlikely to learn much from me if they don’t like me. On the first night of the pool episode, I eventually realized that I needed to build my relationship with Nathan and Aaron before I tried to teach them. I knew that in my current state of mind, and given my recent distance from them due to work and church obligations, they were in no condition to learn from me. What could I teach them about the wrongfulness of going to this pool hall that they wouldn’t automatically resent? I realized I needed to strengthen our bonds of affection so that I could teach them. In this case, I knew I had to play pool with them. Correction, then, would be easy. And it was. Indeed, as it turned out, my correction was not separate from my teaching. Once I had the right relationship with them, all I had to say was, “I don’t think we should play pool anymore.” That was all the teaching and all the correction that was needed.
So I’ll add the relationship between teaching and the parent/child relationship to the pyramid this way:
This tells us that the effectiveness of our correction will depend on the quality of our teaching, and the quality of our teaching will depend on the quality of our relationship.
What Is the Quality of My Relationship with My Spouse?
I have also observed that the quality of my relationship with my children is directly influenced by the quality of my relationship with their mother. Had my wife and I not been getting along when the pool playing episode took place, then my ability to recognize what I needed to do with my boys would have been severely impaired. I might have been angry at her for letting them go. I might have gotten so caught up in directing my anger at her that I never understood what the boys needed at all. Worse yet, I may have punished them to show her how wrong she was.
It is tempting to think that the one relationship can be separated from the other, but in practice this separation is nearly impossible to achieve. If parents have difficulties with each other, one way or another children will get sucked into those difficulties. Some parents may punish their children harshly, taking out on them frustrations from their marital relationship. Other parents may indulge their children, seeking to prove they are loved by somebody or at least to prove they are the children’s favorite. There are many possibilities, but somehow or other, when there is conflict, children almost always get used. This is why President Lee was able to quote approvingly the statement that “a woman happy with her husband is better for her children than a hundred books on child welfare.”1 The marital relationship is the central relationship in the family; in significant ways it colors all the others. So I add the marital relationship to the pyramid here:
How Pure is My Heart?
No matter how diligently I attend to any layer of this pyramid, I find that success escapes me unless my heart is right. I cannot merely go through the motions in trying to build a relationship with my wife and children and expect lasting results. The same is true of any efforts to teach or correct anyone. Whatever my outward show of “acceptable” parental conduct, my children can tell whether I am thinking of them in what I am doing or whether I am thinking of myself and of my own convenience or reputation. Thus, the foundational level of the Parental PyramidTM is the quality of our individual hearts and souls, for what we enjoy in our relationships depends directly on the qualities of personal goodness and discipleship to Jesus Christ that we bring to our relationships.
Building the Right Foundation
Notice that the bottom four levels of the pyramid are all concerned with helping things go “right.” They focus on our individual righteousness, on loving relationships, and on teaching. I believe that these are the foundations of good parenthood, in that order. They are also the foundations of effective correction when correction is required. I find that if I try to correct my children when the other elements of the pyramid are not in place, my correction is always wrong. This proves to be true no matter how sophisticated and intellectually respectable my method happens to be because correction is not an isolated dimension of parenthood. The effectiveness of what we do here depends on our effectiveness in doing everything that lies below it.
Another important discovery for me was this: The solution to a problem in one part of the pyramid generally lies below that part of the pyramid. For example, if my correction of my children isn’t working–if I’ve studiously tried many things and my children just aren’t responding–the solution is not to try still more methods of correction. The solution is to do a better job of teaching. In the absence of more effective teaching, my attempts to discipline will always be disappointing because “discipline” is not the problem; nor are the kids the problem. A lack of teaching is the problem. Similarly, if my teaching is consistently falling flat, the answer is not to teach more. That’s often the temptation, but it’s a mistake. When my teaching is failing, the solution is to build better relationships. And finally, if my relationships aren’t what they should be, what does that reveal about my own heart? What repenting and softening do I need to do? How could I be more meek and lowly in heart and more submissive to the Lord? So when we seem to locate a problem at one level of the pyramid, we should look below it for the solution.
Of course, there are occasions when there just isn’t time to implement deeper solutions to the problems that arise. What I’ve said so far helps me avoid problems–it’s a plan for prevention. But sometimes it’s too late for prevention. Sometimes correction has to be implemented immediately. A child might be in trouble with the law or be in need of an extended adolescent treatment program. This leads to another important realization: Whenever drastic correction is called for with a child, we should begin working on the three deepest levels of the pyramid immediately and simultaneously. In times of crisis the temptation is to let the corrective action use up all our energy. This is a mistake. Ultimately, the problem with a child goes deeper than discipline and so does the solution. This is the time to begin identifying, and doing, the kinds of things that matter most those at the deepest levels of the pyramid. It is the time for greater discipleship, for greater emphasis on our marriage, for any ways however small to help rebuild affection. In such extreme circumstances it may be a long time before we are in a position to teach. But that’s precisely what we need to remember: premature teaching will not be effective anyway. As we are patient, and as we do all we can where we can, we will make a deep and genuine difference in the life of even the most unhappy child. 2
The Scriptures as the Manual for Parenthood
Although the scriptures contain stories and episodes from family life (this is particularly true of the Book of Mormon), they don’t read like parenthood manuals. We look in vain for prescriptions on how to handle this problem or that in the manner of the typical childrearing books of today. In light of the importance of families, people sometimes wonder why the scriptures don’t give more of this kind of detailed advice. I believe there are a number of reasons why they don’t, but one is this: the key to good parenthood is not a list of prescriptions. The roots of effective parenthood lie deeper than anything that we do; the roots of effective parenthood lie in how we are. The fundamental issue is one of goodness–the quality of our hearts and souls. This is the foundation for everything else we want to accomplish as parents, and nothing we do can be right without it.
So it seems to me that the Lord is content to let us learn the tactical prescriptions that apply to family life from experience and from each other. He has taken it upon Himself to teach us the things of most importance–righteousness and humility and purity of heart. Those things call to us from virtually every page of scripture. From the scriptures I learn that my greatest gift to my children lies not in knowing the best way to correct them when they’ve done something wrong. My greatest gift to my children lies in my own repentance.
What other parenthood manual knows enough to tell me that?
Copyright 1999 The Arbinger Company
1. See Williams, Clyde J., ed., The Teachings of Harold B. Lee, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1996, p. 252.
2. This hierarchy of issues also applies to leadership in organizational settings. The Parental PyramidTM has its counterpart in the Leadership PyramidTM. Both were developed by The Arbinger Company, a firm specializing in helping both organizations and families achieve deep and lasting change.
2004 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.