Discipline is a complex and complicated subject. I could write a whole book about it. In fact, I’ve already started working on one. But when we talk about effective discipline and how parents can achieve the results they want when they interact with their kids, it can actually be it pretty simple. If it were a math formula, it would look like this:
WARMTH + AUTHORITY = EFFECTIVE DISCIPLINE
The research is really clear on this point. Kids who achieve the best outcomes in life – emotionally, educationally, and relationally – have parents who raise them with a high degree of warmth and nurturing, or what I like to call emotional responsiveness, as well as a high degree of authority, where clear boundaries are communicated and enforced. Their parents remain firm and consistent in their boundaries, while still interacting with them in a way that communicates love, respect, and compassion. Warmth and authority are the two sides of the effective-discipline coin.
The first side of the discipline coin: Warmth
When we nurture our children and attune to their internal world, we allow them to know and believe that they are seen, heard, loved, and approved of by their parents. Then they’ll interact with the world around them based on that belief, so that their brains are wired to expect that their needs will be met in intimate relationships. On the other hand, if a parent repeatedly shames and criticizes his or her child, then the child learns that relationships are based on power and control. He will store up all kinds of negative emotions that will be expressed either externally through bullying and aggression, or internally through depression or anxiety, but either way he’ll be forced to seek bigger and bigger ways to get his needs met. His brain won’t develop in ways that make it easy to problem-solve and reflect on his experiences; instead, he’ll most likely live his life reacting. He’ll operate from a primitive reactive brain, instead of a thoughtful proactive brain.
It’s absolutely vital that parents nurture their children and do all that they can to offer them love, compassion, and understanding by consistently meeting their needs, even when the kids are difficult and act out with “bad” behavior.
The second side of the discipline coin: Authority
It’s just as vital, though, that parents remain the authority in their relationship with their children. Kids need boundaries so they can understand the way the world works, and what’s permissible, versus what crosses a line. A clear understanding of rules and boundaries helps them achieve success in relationships and other areas of their lives. Our children need repeated experiences that allow them to develop wiring in their brain that helps them delay gratification, flexibly deal with not getting things their way, and contain urges to react aggressively toward others.. By saying “no” and drawing boundaries for our children, we’ll help them know that rules exist that offer safety and predictability in an otherwise chaotic world.
Discipline as a Two-Step Process
Emotional responsiveness plus authority. They go hand in hand, and when we discipline, we need to communicate both to our children. You can think of it as a two-step process that can happen in either order. You provide boundaries in a matter-of-fact tone: “You know the rule about wearing your helmet, and I’m sorry, but you broke that rule, so now the skateboard can’t be ridden for the rest of the week.” And, you offer empathy regarding the emotional effect of the consequences: “I know that my taking your skateboard away makes you really sad.” You can even combine the two steps with a statement like, “I’m letting you face your consequence because I love you, and it’s my job to teach you about being safe and how to be a responsible person.”
We want our kids to learn that relationships are about respect, nurturing, warmth, consideration, cooperation, and respecting other people. When we interact with them from a perspective of both warmth and authority – in other words, when we repeatedly pay attention to their internal world, while also holding to standards about their behavior – these are the lessons they’ll learn.
I’ll close by emphasizing the point that was a bit of a revelation to me when I first understood it in relation to my parenting: It really is possible to be calm and loving, and to connect with our children emotionally, while disciplining them and setting clear boundaries. I don’t always do it, and neither will you. But it’s important, and it’s healthy and helpful for everyone involved, when we combine clear and consistent consequences with loving empathy.