Any father knows that, unfortunately, discipline is something that you have to do.  All of us have been out in public or dealt in private with others’ kids that were acting like total hellions, and it was obvious that their parents had just given up on disciplining them. Discipline shouldn’t be confused with punishment: punishment is punitive and reactionary, whereas discipline is a system by which you teach and enforce certain behavioral rules, with established consequences for violating these rules. It’s the difference between smacking your kid when they say a bad word and constructing a system by which good manners and language is encouraged (such as the “Swear Word Jar” in our household.) What do you have to do to keep discipline fair and effective?

However, many fathers find themselves unsure about the appropriate level of punishment. Go too soft on your kids, and they’ll think they can get away with anything. But, if you’re too harsh, they’ll be more focused on the injustice of your response and may miss the lesson you’re trying to teach.  So how do you find the balance?

  • Be fair but age-appropriate. You can’t apply discipline differently with your children, except when it comes to age. For example, the established penalty for lying should be the same across the board, but an older child lying about a failed test isn’t the same as a toddler lying about stealing a cookie.
  • Use an appropriate level of punishment. Grounding a kid for three weeks for being late one time is extreme. Set up a system where the penalty becomes progressively more severe, and stick to it.
  • Be creative and tailor penalties for better effect.  In my family, our kids are very different from one another, and the penalties they pay for transgressing the rules vary accordingly. For instance, my daughter is very sociable, and being grounded for her means she loses computer privileges, whereas my very active son might have his bike and neighborhood privileges revoked for a few days.
  • Talk about things. Just throwing out a punishment and not discussing why what happened was wrong isn’t conducive to improving behavior. When you have to punish your child, make sure you talk frankly about what they did, their reasons for doing it, and why it wasn’t right.
  • Don’t be a hypocrite. This has come up in our home, with the aforementioned Swear Word Jar. Since my wife and I have been known to use salty language, it became obvious recently that it was rubbing off on the kids, and saying, “Do as I say, not as I do” just wasn’t working. So, the Swear Word Jar was implemented. Anytime a bad word is used, regardless of who said it, they have to pony up some cash as a penalty. Being a hypocrite is one of the best ways to alienate your kids…and instill bad habits in them that you will have a very hard time breaking.
  • Don’t react in anger. Although sometimes it’s just impossible in practice, try to make it so that, when possible, try to enforce discipline when you have had a chance to cool your head.

If you can educate your children so that they can improve themselves and their behavior in future conflicts, then your punishment can get to the heart of the matter, rather than just treating the symptoms.