Reward Them, and Teach Responsibility
April 1974

“Reward Them, and Teach Responsibility,” Ensign, Apr. 1974, 45

Disciplining Children: Some Points of View

Reward Them, and Teach Responsibility

I think there are two main principles involved in effective discipline. The first is one where parents take a positive approach to discipline—looking for things children do right instead of punishing them for their shortcomings. The other principle operates on the idea that families can train their children to be responsible.

Let me give an example of the first principle. It’s related to the “tired father syndrome.” Dad comes home from work, and what he really wants to do is kick off his shoes and read the sports page. But when he does that, the children inevitably end up fighting under his feet, and he spends 15 or 20 minutes acting as a judge and jury.

In effect, he spends 15 minutes with his children because of what they did wrong. I suggest that the family would be way ahead if Dad came home and spent 15 or 20 minutes noticing what his children were doing that was good, and then getting involved with them in their activities. Then he could say, “Okay, Dad would like the next 15 minutes for himself. You children find something to do while I read the sports page.”

He would spend the same amount of time, there would be positive feelings in his family, and the children would get attention for being good instead of for misbehaving—a much more positive situation.

Training children to be responsible is a process that can be approached in many ways. One is to teach the children that when they speak, parents listen and the children’s comments are then acted upon if appropriate. We frequently have a family council meeting, in addition to family home evening, that deals with certain problems and ways to solve them. The voting is democratic; our votes don’t carry any more weight than those of the children, and we abide by the results, whether it’s the way we like it or not. Let me give an example.

While I was doing graduate work, I was staying up late studying many nights, and I used to sleep until just before my wife left to teach school in the mornings. Then I’d get up and supervise the last half hour of getting the children ready for school. My son Stanley was about 11, and in family council meeting he said, “Things haven’t been going very well around here in our family lately, and the reason is that we don’t all get up and have breakfast together.”

The comment was obviously directed toward me, so I explained my point of view and he explained his. The vote was three to one that we have breakfast together, so I went along with the majority. And he was right. Things did start off better in the mornings.

Another way to teach responsibility is to be sure each person is responsible for the consequences of his own decisions. Stanley had chosen to do his piano practicing before breakfast and before going to school. When Stanley dallied at his practicing, he had to go to school late. He had a choice of being late for school or not, but he didn’t have the choice of whether he would go to school or not.

Even if a group decision on the items that the family is permitted to vote on turns out to be wrong, I think the most helpful thing is to let it stand. For instance, if the family has a choice between the circus and a movie and decides on the circus, then it doesn’t spend more money to go to the movie, too. If the decision turns out to be a bad one, it stands until the next family council meeting so that all can learn from the experience that bad rules can be changed by due process.

It’s important in teaching children to be responsible to introduce them early to decision-making. Even when our children were little, we’d give them a choice between two breakfast cereals, two treats on an outing, or many other situations demanding a single choice. Stanley and Marcia use the same techniques quite naturally on Christine, our three-year-old. They’ll ask her, “Do you want to go to bed right side up or upside down?” But they don’t ask her if she wants to go to bed. Then, once the child has decided, it is important to respect his decision.

It’s also important to teach by example. If both the husband and the wife are looking for the positive in their children, they can help each other find it. For instance, my 15-year-old daughter Marcia is quiet and doesn’t express herself very often. So lately my wife and I have really tried to stop and pay attention when she does say something. My wife is especially sensitive to her and that helps me. Now Marcia shares her feelings more easily and gives her opinions more frequently.

My wife and I disagree sometimes on what kind of discipline our children need. That’s to be expected, since we’re two individuals. We have a sort of rule that if I am disciplining the children, she supports me whether she approves or not and we talk it over later. I do the same for her, of course.

We have tried to avoid using physical punishment, even when the children were little. We seldom need to now; we set up limits, enforce them, and try to reward positive behavior. We have occasionally spanked because we’ve lost our tempers and felt frustrated, but that usually doesn’t prevent the problem from happening again. When I teach parent education classes, I often say, “Parents should probably spank when it will make them feel better, but they shouldn’t fool themselves into thinking they’ve taught the child anything about handling the situation the next time it comes up.”

If parents really care about their children, the things they do naturally are probably helpful. I believe, too, that a course on parenthood would be very helpful to both men and women at the high school level. Remember that raising children is the job of the whole family, not just the wife.

I think such a course in secondary school is necessary because, as a rule, our society is punitive. All of us have informally been taught how to look for mistakes and how to punish, but most of us have very little training in how to look for what people are doing right and how to reward good behavior. Yet it’s not difficult to learn. I hear my children giving each other choices, and giving us choices and rewarding our choices. They’ll ask, “Would you like to help me with this now, or would you like to do it after supper?” It makes it possible for them to meet adults on a very mature basis.

One of the main mistakes parents make is to accidentally teach misbehavior. For example, when children fight they usually do it because they get some kind of payoff. It’s sometimes rewarding to make the other child cry or run away. If you push him off the rocking horse, you’ve then got the rocking horse. Or, especially for smaller children, they get Mom and Dad involved and get the reward of having their attention. If that’s why your children are fighting, stop reinforcing them. Either ignore them, go into another room, or send them to another room. Let children learn to settle their own differences.

We had an interesting experience at the university nursery school. All of the teachers inconspicuously withdrew one morning and went in the observation room when two of the four-year-old boys started fighting over a truck. Finally, one of the boys looked around and exclaimed, “Hey, no teachers.” He dropped the truck and wandered off. Fighting is often for the attention of adults.

When our children fought, we always sent both of them out of the room, but into another room together, so they could keep on fighting if they wanted to. They hardly ever did. It’s when the children are playing well together that parents should notice them. Parents should attempt to “catch them being good.”

  • Dr. Mead is an associate professor of child development and family relationships at Brigham Young University. He teaches Sunday School, serves as a committee member in the Aaronic Priesthood MIA and as a home teacher in the Edgemont Fifth Ward, Provo Utah Edgemont Stake.