Children and Discipline – If You Love Them, You Break Them

My middle kid is kind of a bully.

This grieves me greatly.

The victims of my son’s “I take amusement in cruelty” episodes are generally his brother and sister.  They tell on him and complain, but they don’t really fight back.  I don’t condone fistfights or violence as a first or second resort, and they really are good kids, so they try keep calm.

As a (mostly) peaceful parent, an experience-er of child abuse, and a mom that would kill-or-die for her kids, I have tried EVERYTHING to make this behavior stop.  Every single thing.  ALL THE THINGS.  From talking to restricting privileges to time out to spanking to toy removal to everything you can think of, I’ve tried it.  All of it, and more than once, and for at least a month at a time.

Nothing makes a dent.

Yesterday just after I arrived to pick up my kids from school,  Kid 1 and Kid 3 told me “Today, Kid 2 punched Sister in the face, then tripped Brother on the blacktop.”  All of this happened just as they arrived, three minutes after I’d dropped them off that morning, and before they were even in the building to start their day.

I sighed.

My heart said, “uugh.”

My head said “WULFGAR WHY.  We have been over this.  Why are you hurtful?  Why are you cruel?  What is your heart compensating for?  WHAT DO YOU NEED FROM ME to stop this?  Where am I going wrong?  How can I do better?  How can I show you that kindness wins?  Please tell me.  I need help.  I CANNOT DO THIS ANYMORE, I can’t hand out a punishment that is not effective.  I can’t spank you again (I can’t can’t don’t want to CANNOT DO NOT WANT TO), please please PLEASE PLEASE FOR THE LOVE OF GOD stop being mean to people please please don’t  you see it’s KILLING ME INSIDE?!”

I looked at Kid 2 with the facial expression representative of my inner screaming monologue (“WHAT IN THE LITERAL FUCK I CANNOT EVEN”), sighed, and told him “We are going to have to deal with this.”

He said “…okay.”

What he REALLY meant was “…meh.”

He just doesn’t care.

So how do you make a kid care?


There’s a saying that “Twice the punishment is half as effective if the punishment is not right for the child.”  In other words, not only does the punishment need to fit the crime, it needs to fit the KID.

A timeout for my oldest daughter works wonders.  Three minutes alone with herself is perfect.  She calms down, she misses people, she redirects her energy and finds her center, and when she comes back to the family she’s calm, composed, and peaceful.

For the other two kids, this kind of discipline is ineffective.  Kid 3 thinks timeouts are worse than a six hour beating, and they wind him up instead of calm him down.  He needs to NOT think about it, and just be done with the mistake.  He needs to experience a swift, immediate consequence for his behavior and be done with it.

And Kid 2…. yeah.  He thinks timeout is a vacation.  Picture him lounging in a sun chair with a mirror under his chin, a half-smile on his face, and a coconutty umbrella drink by his side.

“Aaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh…. FINALLY SOME PEACE AND QUIET.”

It feels somewhat shameful for me to say that I’ve been “Mom” for Kid Number 2 for seven years now, and I still don’t really know what makes him tick.  He just doesn’t rattle.  He gets UPSET, yes, but effective discipline is not about “making the kid upset.”  Effective discipline is about making the kid think.  It’s about helping them to understand consequences, and helping them to make better choices.  Granted, negative consequences for a poor choice aren’t fun, but the upset itself is secondary (and almost irrelevant when compared) to the lesson learned.

Discipline is about redirection, not restitution.  It’s about teaching a not-yet-grown-up-but-someday-they-will-be future adult that poor choices, low integrity, lack of character, and cruelty have consequences in the real world, and that someday they will be expected to reap what they sow.  As parents we act as conduits, altering real-world, grown up consequences to fit their tiny actions, infantile discernment, developing morality, and juvenile intelligence, so that they know “poor choices result in unsavory consequences.”


…I’d even go so far as to say we criminally neglect our children when we do not teach them this lesson.

I can hear a lot of you now.  “I WILL NOT BEAT MY KIDS, I am not going to spank them, I will not be mean and cruel.”

GOOD.  Good for you.  I would not want that, nor would I suggest or support beating a child.  Nowhere in this post have I said (nor will I ever say) “to be a good parent you have to beat your kids.”  I would never.  I know what it feels like to be terrified by the sound of a snapping belt, to be beaten with the buckle, to be welted and bruised by hands fueled with alcohol and rage.  I know what that’s like, and I would never want that for any child.  Ever.

What I WILL say is that “the discipline should fit the child,” that “spanking” is not the same as “beating,” and that it SHOULD HAPPEN.  In one form or another.  To allow a child to engage in inappropriate, unacceptable behavior without redirection is negligent and irresponsible parenting, period.

How you choose to discipline is up to you, and really only has to fit three criteria:

  1. is it a benefit to the child (does it make them better, not worse),
  2. is it tolerable to the parent (since they have to be okay dishing it out), and
  3. is it effective.  (Does the child change, or show a desire to change?)

That’s it.  SIMPLE.

For good measure, here’s a list of what discipline is NOT.

  • It does not have to be enjoyable for either the child or the parent.  It’s not supposed to be fun for the kid (hence “punishment”), and if it sucks when you’re the parent, you’re doing your job correctly.  Punishing your kid is not supposed to be fun.  It’s not supposed to be enjoyable.  AT BEST it is a detached experience.
  • It is not done in anger.  (see just above:  “detached.”)  When you discipline your kids its usually after a spout of disagreement.  That’s okay, but calm down first.  If you do it right, they know what they did, why it was bad, what is coming next, and you don’t have to be mad AT ALL.  Lay the groundwork.  Clearly explain the expectation and “if you choose this, then this will happen” consequences, then deliver the consequence with a calm mind.  If you really did do it right, by the time the discipline is handed out they aren’t surprised.  They know what is expected of them, they know they didn’t do it, and they know the consequence is coming.  No need to be upset about it.  (Disappointed, yes.  Upset, no.)
  • Discipline is not “punishment.”  We use that word, but that’s not really what it is.  Discipline is a real, proportionate, negative consequence for a poor choice.  That’s it.  It’s not “to make them pay,” it’s not “to make them suffer” (although there is a lot of character building to be done in suffering), it’s to help them make better choices and to be better people.
  • Discipline is not “getting even,” and it is not a way for you to deal with YOUR anger about their choices.  How you feel about their choices is not their business, and not their problem to deal with.  Keep your emotional response about what they did out of it.  You’re the adult, so act like it.  I cannot tell you how many times my punishments as a child were because HE was pissed.  Not because I did something wrong.  I grew up learning that no matter what I did I wasn’t good enough, and “to be happy you have to make sure he’s happy.”  Disciplining a child in anger grows a codependent adult, and being codependent SUCKS.  Stow your rage and upset before you deal with your kid.
  • Discipline is not “beating.”  (See note above about “not done in anger.”)  The difference between disciplining and beating a child (or any person, for that matter) is the heart of the one that does it.  Spanking a child can be effective and loving, if done with a loving and kind heart.  Words, although not physical in nature, can be considered a harmful beating when done with ugly, angry, hurtful intent.  It does not matter what the method; as long as the one handing out consequences is kind, loving, of sound mind, and interested in redirection (NOT restitution), there is no “beating” involved.  It is not pleasant, but it’s not a beating.  There’s a difference.

In this country of entitlement and self-righteousness, when we talk about discipline (argue, because there really isn’t much talking about such things, only defensive yelling) we get hung up on the wrong things.  We argue method.  We fight over semantics.  We tell other parents that they’re doing it wrong, or doing too much, or not doing enough.  When a child acts out we look to medication and sports and outdoor activities and video games and violence on TV and peer pressure and drugs and technology and babysitting with electronic devices, instead of looking to the source of almost every tendency a child has:

the parents.

My kids’ behavior lands on ME.  At the end of the day, what my kids choose to do are their choices, but they are a reflection of my skills as a parent.  THE ONLY THING I WILL EVER DO WORTH VALUE in this life is raise my kids to be good, kind, loving, strong, confident, self-sufficient, productive, empathetic people.  That’s it.  More than money or belongings, more than success or fame, the only things that matter are my kids and the lives they’ll live.  My life and living it entirely for myself went out the window the second that egg stuck to my insides.

And so it is with you, and so it should be for every parent that ever existed, or that ever exists again.


So yeah.  I put the kids in the car and started to drive home.  I spent the 10 minute trip in almost complete silence, thinking about Kid 2 and his tendency toward cruelty.  I thought about Kid 1 and Kid 3 and their tendency to put up with Kid 2 and his shenanigans.  I thought about all that stuff I wrote down just above, about “what’s the point of this,” and “what kind of person do I want to Grow?”

I thought about the mom I am, the one I was raised by, and the one I want to be, and I came to a conclusion.

[Brace yourself, you’re probably not going to like this.  I’m sure I’ll get hate letters.  That’s okay.]

I looked in the rear view mirror, moved it down so I could see My-Son-the-Almost-Bully’s face, and I delivered judgment.

“Wulfgar, you hit your sister in the face?”


“Wulfgar, you tripped your brother and pushed him down onto the blacktop?”


“Wulfgar, why did you do that?”

It took some waiting and some hard truth-owning on his part, but he eventually fessed up.

“Because I was joking around, and I was being a bully, and I wasn’t thinking about other people, and I was being mean.”

“Wulfgar, you are going to need to be punished.”

“Yeah, I know.”

[Here’s the part you won’t like.]

“Wulfgar, when we get home, I’m going to tie your hands behind your back, and both your brother and your sister are going to get one shot each.  They each get to swing back, for what you did to them today.”

OH MY GOODNESS, the back seat of the car exploded.  Norah cried.  “I DON’T WANT TO DO THAT!!”  Mace yelled.  “MOOOOMMMY, THAT’S NOT FAIR!!”  Wulfgar wailed.  “NOOOOOOOOOOOO! I DON’T WANT THAT!!”

I almost folded in my resolve, but gathered myself back together and skimmed again through the thought process (the one just above).

Yep, I was set.  This was going to happen.

“Yes, Wulf, we’re going to do it.  I’m sorry that it’s happening, but it’s good.  You don’t get to bully people without a consequence, and it’s not fair for them to not stand up for themselves.  You need to be punished, and this is how we’re going to do it.”

The rest of the car ride home was angry and sad.  No one was happy.  BUT YOU GUYS I HAD A PLAN.

When I got home, I got the kids out of the car.  Right there in the driveway I turned Wulf around to face his brother and sister.  He cried.  They cried.  I held his hands behind his back, stood behind him, and looked at the other two.

“Norah and Mace, look at me.”  When I had their attention, I continued.  “Your brother does not really understand what it means to be considerate to others.  He doesn’t know what it means to be loving and kind, and he’s earned a punishment.  He doesn’t know how to NOT take shots at people, and he’s turning into a bully.

“I want you guys to take a second and look at him.”  (He was crying hard now, but quietly.  He was listening.)  “You each have a justifiable, reasonable right to punch him in the guts if you wanted.  He hurt you.  He hit you.  He tripped you.  I want you to look at him, think about what he did to you, and show him what we do to people who don’t know love.”

Norah, my wonderful girl, walked up to her brother, put her hand on his face, swept his tears off of one cheek, HUGGED HIM, and said “I love you.”

Mace, my awesome boy, walked up to his brother, made a fist, grinned, pushed his fist against his brother’s chin with an “atta boy,” hugged him, and said “I forgive you.”

You guys, I broke.

Even more importantly, WULFGAR BROKE.

After it was all over and they went about their evening routine, I called Wulf into the kitchen to talk to me.  I asked him, “HEY.  Next time you think you want to do something mean to someone, what are you going to think about?”

He paused.  I think he may have thought it was a trick, but he did eventually speak up.  A light lit up his face, and he smiled.

“Ummmm… I think I’ll remember they were nice to me, even though I was mean.  I think I’ll choose to be nicer next time.”

Sweet Lord in Heaven, I THINK WE MADE CONTACT.


One time I posted a picture on Facebook.  It looked like this.


Although I can see how the picture would stimulate an “OMG” response, the caption was clear.  My kids were fighting and arguing for FOUR HOURS WITHOUT STOPPING, they had each been sent to their own corners, then put in time out, then assigned chores, and nothing helped.  Nothing stopped the arguing.

Finally, I tied their hands together, dumped out the Legos, and said “You two need to build a house.  You have one hour until snack time.  GO.”

OH THE BLOWBACK.  I was instantly hated by hundreds of people.  I lost 150 Facebook followers.  I was accused of child abuse, psychological damage, slavery, causing the Holocaust (not kidding, i’m being serious), and was threatened with a visit from Social Services and “I am going to report you to the authorities.”

What the people who freaked out don’t understand (and even some of the ones that didn’t), is that I am not a child abuser, I am a creative parent.  I know what’s at risk.  I know the lesson I want to teach.  I know the culture I strive to cultivate in my home, I know each of my kids as well as I know myself, and I know what I need to do in order to get through to them.

They needed to work together.  They needed to communicate.  They needed to try and have fun, and this consequence accomplished all three of those things at once.

It is not my job to make sure anyone likes or agrees with what I’m doing.  It’s my job to Grow my kids.

It’s not my job to choose socially acceptable methods.  It’s my job to Grow my kids.

It is not my job to follow the rules set by generations before me.  It’s my job to Grow my kids.

It’s not my job to make sure my kids like me, the consequences of their actions, or the way I run our house.  IT’S MY JOB TO GROW MY KIDS.


To all of you parents out there that feel like you’re doing everything wrong, to those parents that think *I* am doing everything wrong, I would ask  you this question:  “Wrong according to who?”  I am okay with my choices.  My kids are okay with my choices, our home, and our family.  Who else do we need to impress?

The next time you have trouble with your kid, stop.  THINK.  Remove your own emotion from the equation.  Remove your own expectations.  Channel peace and understanding, open your mind, and ask questions.  Seek to understand.  Work through it.  Talk.

Then, at the end of it all, if there is a consequence to be dished out, BE CREATIVE.  Take away a curling iron.  Choose their clothes for a week.  Remove the privilege of choice.  Work on a reward system.  Pay them for help.  Say thank you.  Write them notes.  Use positive energy to counteract negative.

Hugs to you, Moms and Dads.  Your jobs are hard.

Just. Keep. Going.

It’s the best thing we’ll ever have done, and the only thing that matters.


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