Auto-pilot may be a great tool when you’re flying a plane.  Just flip the switch, sit back and relax, and let the computer take you where it’s been pre-programmed to go.  Pretty great. But I’ve found that auto-pilot is not so great when I’m disciplining my children.  It can fly me straight into whatever dark and stormy cloudbank is looming, meaning my kids and I are all in for a bumpy ride.  So instead, I’m always working on DECIDING how I want to interact with my kids when I discipline them.

For example, let’s talk about consequences.  For most parents, when we need to discipline our kids, the first question we ask ourselves is, “What consequence should I give?”  That’s our auto-pilot.  But through my years of parenting, I’ve begun to significantly re-think my use of consequences.

My four-year-old, for instance, hit me the other day.  He was angry because I told him I needed to finish an email before I could play legos with him, and he came up and slapped me on the back.  (I’m always surprised that a person that small can inflict so much pain.)

My immediate, auto-pilot reaction was to want to grab him, probably harder than I needed to, and tell him through clinched teeth, “Hitting is not OK!”  Then I would, of course, give him a consequence.

But how effective would that really have been when it came to teaching my son?  And would it have addressed the issue behind his behavior?  Maybe, but maybe not.

So instead of that consequence-based approach, I’ve shifted to begin my discipline by asking three different questions:

1.     Why did my child act this way? If we look deeper at what’s going on behind misbehavior, we can often understand that our child was trying to express or attempt something that they didn’t handle appropriately.   If we understand this, we can respond more compassionately, proactively, and appropriately.

2.     What’s the lesson I want to teach in this moment? The goal of discipline isn’t to give a consequence.  The goal of discipline is actually to teach, but we forget this easily.

3.     What’s the most effective way to teach this lesson? Answering this question may allow you to be more creative and effective in teaching the lesson, instead of just doing the same thing over and over.  In fact, answering this question may reveal that your current practices aren’t actually teaching the lesson you want to teach in the best way—or, it might affirm what you’re already doing.

When I felt the small-hand-shaped imprint of pain on my back, it took me a moment to calm down and avoid simply reacting.  But when I could ask myself these three questions, I could see more clearly what was going on in my interaction with my son.

#1:  He hit me because he wanted my attention and wasn’t getting it.

#2:  The lesson I want him to learn is not that misbehavior merits a consequence, but that there are better ways of getting my attention than resorting to violence.

#3:  While giving him a time-out might teach him that lesson, I decided it would be more effective to remind him and give him the words to communicate his needs.  So first, I connected with him by pulling him to me and letting him know he had my full attention.  Then, I acknowledged his feelings and modeled communicating these feelings:  “You really want me to play, and you’re mad that I’m at the computer.  Is that right?”  Finally, once he was more calm and I had his full attention, I could get eye contact and explain that hitting is never all right, and ask him to list some alternatives he could choose the next time he wants my attention.

I’m not saying that there’s never a time to use consequences.  They can be an effective tool you want to consider when it’s time to discipline.  I’m just saying that consequences aren’t the goal of discipline.

So the next time you’re disciplining your child, do your best to avoid switching to auto-pilot, and instead, stay focused on what it is you want to teach and accomplish.  That will benefit not only your child, but the relationship you two share as well.