For Dad's Eyes Only

In talking with the men who attend my parenting groups the theme of disciplining children arises again and again. Interestingly, many of the men I speak with are reluctant to discipline. I just don't get to see her very much because of my work hours, one dad explained, when I do see her, I want it to be fun. Another dad commented, I don't want to be the bad guy. I had a bad relationship with my dad, and I want my son to like me.

It's true that many fathers see less of their children than mothers do. In fact, Stephen Covey in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families, says that national statistics show that mothers spend an average of twenty minutes a day with their children, while fathers only spend an average of five minutes a day. That's not a lot of time for either parent! No wonder fathers feel uncomfortable in the role of disciplinarian!

However, discipline is not only an essential component of effective parenting, it's also a critical component of a healthy parent-child relationship. To understand this more fully, let's take a look at what discipline means. The word discipline comes from the Latin word disciplina, which means teaching or learning. A discipulus is a pupil, one who learns from a teacher. When you are a disciplinarian of your child, therefore, you are his teacher, and he is your pupil.

Among its many definitions in Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, to discipline means to instruct; to train or develop by instruction and exercise; to correct, mold or perfect the mental faculties or moral character. It's also true that one definition is punishment. Perhaps when fathers feel reluctant to discipline their children, they are thinking of this definition, which is, by the way, not among the top three definitions listed in the dictionary. I believe that discipline came to mean punishment through common usage, and that it does our children a great disservice when we think of it in that way.

Making disciples of your children through the way in which you teach them about the world is one of the loftiest goals you can seek as a father. When you abstain from this role, your children suffer and struggle unnecessarily in their growth.

So how do you discipline? There are many ways -- some are passive, some are active. Role modeling, for example, is one way to teach. Let's say that you value being informed about what's going on in the world. Assume that you also value reading as a means of learning. Therefore, when you come home from work and sit down to read the newspaper, you are role modeling these two values to your children. Showing self-discipline, you encourage them to learn about the world through reading as well. A more active way to teach these values would be to read to your children about the world, and to engage them in a non-judgmental discussion about their opinions on world events. These are two examples of disciplining children.

Another important component of disciplining your children has to do with setting boundaries for them. Boundaries teach children what is socially or morally acceptable. By setting limits with children, you teach your values to your sons and daughters, and boost their self-esteem. This type of teaching is not done through punishment, however that harsh, sometimes inconsistent demoralizing reaction that strains rather than builds relationships. Keeping teaching at its heart, setting limits involves creating guidelines for your children that will mold them into the kind of people you would like them to be when they become adults.

The first step lies in deciding what qualities or characteristics you'd like to see in your child. Responsibility? Humor? Cooperation? Kindness? Defining those characteristics is a little like creating the goals that a "lesson plan" is aimed at achieving. The next step lies in creating a "lesson plan." To teach responsibility, you must help your child understand the choices he makes. That means giving him choices and enforcing consequences when he makes choices that are not in line with the values you want to teach. To instill a sense of humor in your child, you must learn to laugh at yourself. To teach kindness, you must notice when your child is kind, and pat her on the back or give her a "thumbs up" to let her know you were watching. To teach cooperation, you must give your child chores that show he is a part of the household where everyone cooperates for the good of the whole family. If he fails to do his chores, it's an opportunity to teach him responsibility by withdrawing a privilege so he will learn from his choice.

Discipline is a golden opportunity for fathers to not only teach their children, but also to take their relationship with their children to a deeper and more satisfying level. A father who is always the "good guy" and who is nothing but "fun" will end up having a shallow, two dimensional relationship with his son or daughter. It is when we teach one another and learn from our relationships that they grow and strengthen. In setting limits for your son or daughter, this means learning to create boundaries and teach with respect. There's no question that screaming, hitting, threatening and other forms of punishment will weaken and diminish your relationship. But these are not necessary components of effective discipline. Staying logical, watching your tone of voice, and having a plan in place BEFORE things go awry are what keep the love in your teaching and are what will ultimately help you be the disciplinarian your child truly deserves.