The Uncomfortable Truth About Discipline

by Mark Timm, CEO Ziglar Family

Discipline. It’s definitely one of the most often recurring topics that I’m asked about in various family coaching situations.

Here’s the uncomfortable truth: many common discipline problems with kids are really rooted in parental behavior. Problems result from parents not being consistent with rules and consequences. When we don’t consistently follow through with the discipline that we promise, we are ultimately doing a disservice to our kids.

Let’s start with pre-school kiddos. You ask, beg, plead, cajole, and sometimes resort to hollering at them to pick up their toys. In a moment of frustration, you threaten to throw away anything that’s left out on the floor overnight. Morning comes, and guess what?  The toys are still there. You start the process of picking up the toys and putting them in a garbage bag, when the tears and pleading promises begin, so you capitulate and say, “Ok, but this is your last chance.”

You’ve just taken the easy way out, and the collateral damage is that you’ve shown your child that you don’t REALLY mean business when you make rules or threaten consequences for breaking them.

Fast forward 10 years, and now you have a teenager whose bedroom floor is assumed to still exist, but is not readily visible under the mountains of laundry, papers, and –ew—empty pizza boxes and chip bags.

And you’re still just as frustrated and irritated, if not more so. But whose fault is that?

Following through with the discipline you promise is absolutely essential to creating healthy boundaries for your children. They are always going to test limits, so those limits need to be firm and fair – and consistently enforced.

At the root of the problem is that, in general, many parents are just not motivated to do the tough job of enforcing the rules and enacting the consequences. Too many of us would rather avoid the drama, the conflict, and all of the associated general messiness, just letting the misbehavior slip under the rug one more time.

As Dr. Phil would say, “How’s that working for ya?”

The reality is that we too often make up rules that we simply don’t have the time, energy, or motivation to see through. If that’s the case, it would be better to not make the rule in the first place.

Take the example above. If you really care whether or not your child keeps his toys off the floor or her bedroom picked up, then you would enforce the consequences for not doing so.

When you let the behavior slide again, and again, and again, you’re essentially making it clear that such behavior is not actually all that important to you.  The problem is that by having a rule you’re not enforcing, you’re setting yourself up for big problems when a rule that truly is important to you, like no alcohol or drugs, gets broken.

Would you respect your boss at work if he or she let all sorts of broken company policies and rules slip by unchallenged — dress code, break times, workplace language etc. — but then came unglued if you left an hour early on a Friday? Of course you wouldn’t.

So why would you expect it to be any different for your kids?

Here’s the bottom line: if a desired behavior is truly important to you, as parents, then you have to step up, be the adult, and enforce the rules and consequences, no matter how much hassle is involved.

In his book The Ultimate Guide to Raising Teens and Tweens, Douglas Haddad suggests that parents remember effective discipline occurs in three different forms:

  1. in a loving, positive, supportive way that strengthens the parent-child relationship
  2. using positive reinforcement to encourage desired behaviors; and
  3. using punishment only when necessary to decrease the frequency or eliminate undesired behaviors.

In a previous blog post I discussed the use of contracts with children to help them remain accountable for their behavior.  It’s definitely one of the best tools we’ve ever used in my family, and is still our go-to way of managing expectations.

When it’s time to use punishment for consequences, however, I agree with three different approaches that Mr. Haddad suggests:

  • Using time-out — especially effective with younger children, with a general rule of thumb being one minute per year of age. The children should be ignored while they are in a place free from any built-in rewards, such as television. When time is up, briefly explain to your child the desired and appropriate way to behave next time.
  • Taking away privileges — this will be unique for every child, depending on what he or she values most. Most tweens and teens respond to losing access to their phone, video games, computer, or television. Once they are driving, losing that privilege carries a big impact! When the privileges are returned, make sure to discuss what led to the loss of privileges in the first place and how they might make a different decision next time they are in a similar situation.
  • Grounding — this is essentially restricting your child’s activities for a certain time frame, such as visiting friends, shopping, or attending a special event. When you implement this consequence, be mindful of the duration. Don’t assign it for a week and then forget about it after a day or two. If a short grounding is all that is needed, then that’s all you should assign.

The next time your child makes the choice to behave in a way that pushes all of your buttons, take a moment. Stop and consider whether or not that behavior is worth your time and energy to correct. If it isn’t, let it go. But if it is, you’ll want to take a moment to think through your response and consider the appropriate disciplinary tactic. And then above all, see it through — not just this time, but next time, and the next, and the next…

I’d love to hear your thoughts about consistent discipline with children.  Leave a comment below to share your experience!



  1. Brittany April 22, 2017 at 4:08 pm - Reply

    I completely agree about consistency and I think it was easier for me to judge other parents before I had kids and found out how hard it was to be consistent.

    That said, I also think reasonable, age appropriate expectations is good. Children need us to model behavior and help them learn how to do household tasks. I see a lot of parents get mad at a two year old who doesn’t listen to them as they bark commands across the room. But if the task is broken down in steps: can you help Mommy by putting your shoes in the closet when you get home?” They often complete those tasks willingly and more regularly. If you tell a young child to go clean his room he will definitely get distracted playing and making a bigger mess. So, if we want to enforce rules we also have to give our kids tools to correctly do them. I remember my parents punishing us if our rooms weren’t clean but I was never given tools to learn how to organize, declutter when needed, etc. As an adult I want to empower my children with the tools they need to accomplish household tasks that are required of them.

    • Jen April 23, 2017 at 7:35 am - Reply

      I think that’s great advice, Brittany! Thanks for sharing it!

  2. Nequila Sales April 22, 2017 at 9:17 pm - Reply

    Yes I am that parent that doesn’t follow through with discipline and punishment and I definitely see the result of it. But when you are tired from working and ministry duties its hard to stick too and enforce discipline. It shouldnt be an excuse of course but sometimes im like im too tired physically and mentally to deal with it!

    • Carla April 24, 2017 at 5:28 pm - Reply

      I totally understand and feel the same! Parenting is the hardest job I’ve ever taken on!

  3. Susan April 22, 2017 at 9:42 pm - Reply

    Excellent! My number one issue…consistency. Thanks for addressing it.

  4. Andrea April 22, 2017 at 9:57 pm - Reply

    I think it is also important to add that parents-couples need to parent TOGETHER. No good guy, bad guy routine. Don’t undermine each other. Discuss different parenting choices in private with each other.

    • Jen April 23, 2017 at 7:32 am - Reply

      Good point, Andrea! I think that’s important even for parents who are no longer together, to work together to find compromise and then stand together on consistent discipline.

  5. Diane April 23, 2017 at 12:44 am - Reply

    Consistency create motivayed respectful and wise adults. It is the toughest job, but best if started when a child starts learing right from wrong. Following through really makes a child feel safe and in control in the future.

  6. Samuel Oballa April 23, 2017 at 1:13 am - Reply

    My two sons, Nick 9 and William 8. As parents we have very limited time for our children, may be three months in a year and the rest of the time they’re in boarding school.
    To my observations towards there displine, the school is doing a good job I must say because they’re teaching us new things in a certain way.
    So basically the school is doing it all for us and we’re learning from them so many things which brings our utility bills down. Thanks

  7. D April 23, 2017 at 1:51 am - Reply

    I had been very consistent w my 3 girls when they were younger…and then they became teenagers and it has become a very difficult challenge…mainly a fear of pushing them away, rebelling, and losing the already difficult relationship (with one of them). She has always been very obedient and responsible until high school.

    • Jen April 23, 2017 at 7:30 am - Reply

      Hi there, in my experience there is not a simple answer with teenagers, and definitely no simple “fixes.” It may be that a family counselor would help.

  8. Traci Strange April 23, 2017 at 9:26 am - Reply

    Yes! The hard part for me is knowing when a consequence isn’t working, maybe causing more trouble than it’s worth, and clearly changing the consequences with my son. Changing the discipline to something managable, hopefully avoiding tantrums, and then keeping up on it is work! I recently added extra chores for discipline and it seems to be doing just that! Thank you for the reminder to remain consistent.

  9. Becky Smith April 23, 2017 at 9:36 am - Reply

    I agree that discipline is the toughest issue facing parents. I was not disciplined consistently as a child and I remember my mom frequently being angry at my sister and I. As she and I got into our teen years we cared more about what our friends thought than our parents and my parents were really hurt by this. So I decided to do things differently with my two sons. I decided to make the sacrifice and home school them, which greatly strengthened our family bond. Then we came up with a list of family rules which applied to all members of the family -even mom and dad! One rule was “no whining or complaining” when things don’t go your way. These rules (25 in all) forced my husband and I to be the good examples we needed to be! These rules carried consequences which were specified so there was no doubt about what would happen if they were broken. I can truly say that we were able to take our sons to many public functions during their toddler and preschool years and know that they would not embarrass us. Fast forwarding to the present, I’m happy to report that our college age sons value our advice and have not chosen to depart from our family values in regard to moral choices.

    • Elle April 24, 2017 at 3:24 pm - Reply

      This is an excellent approach, Becky! Happy for God’s grace toward your family. Sometimes, though, parents can do everything to create a solid, healthy environment for their children and come up with creative ways to implement it all, but still, have their children reject and/or turn away from it. I cannot imagine the sorrow and guilt it causes parents or how they must replay in their minds how they might have done things differently and received a different result. We absolutely have the God-given responsibility to nurture and guide our children according to God’s principles and standards. We absolutely have the God-given responsibility to discipline our children according to God’s principles and standards. Sadly, we are not promised “glowing” results if we follow through on those responsibilities. I only say this as a gentle reminder to those of us who have been graciously blessed, beyond measure, with children who have grown up into adulthood (with little to no major disciplining issues along the way), and who are now married and raising God-fearing families of their own that, though we committed to following God’s leading in raising and disciplining our children, ultimately God’s grace and the choice made by each child, to accept His will for their lives, have so much more to do with the “success” of disciplining and parenting. I think this is a great article and there are a lot of excellent points and ideas in the comments section, too. I just want to encourage others to maintain a humble attitude, as well as, to pray for and encourage those who haven’t experienced the same “results”. Only God knows our hearts and He has a perfect plan for each one of us. Becky, just to be clear, I think how you and your husband approached the area of acceptable behavior for the family is awesome and I truly am happy that you have a close and trusting relationship with your boys. 🙂 We have the same blessing with our four adult children, and their spouses, and are trusting God in our relationship with our 14-year-old “tag-along”, fifth child! 🙂 We must be vigilant… always. I am sure I am not the first parent to realize that adulthood and marriage present their own set of challenges and so we need to stay the course and press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward calling of God in Christ Jesus! 🙂

  10. Tim April 23, 2017 at 10:39 am - Reply

    I don’t know if it’s a sign of the times or not, but I think there is a role at certain ages for a swat or two on the butt and that is not mentioned here. There are things my daughter does that are little infractions, medium and huge infractions. Lying or direct defying disobedience she knows will land her a couple swats on the hiney. But I find that if I follow it with love and talking to her afterwards to explain and talk over the situation AND not remaining mad (as if the spanking was needed, took care of the issue and sent the message and now we’re done), and moving on immediately, she is loving back. It seems we are scared to use a couple swats when indicated nowawdays and I would agree that this is a ‘skill’ that if you mess it up, you can really mess it up. It takes having had it done to you in the correct way—not for everything, not when tired, not excessively, for only prediscussed ‘ infractions’ and lovingly. I would also guess that the kids temperment is key. My daughter is a very gentle, sweet child. I have no boys or ‘ strong-willed kids’ .

  11. Dana Labreck April 23, 2017 at 10:40 am - Reply

    My place as parent and being a father and (husband for 21+ years) and with my two daughters, started at a very young age of 19 and then 22 and I tried to be a good provider from what I understood and learned up to then and along the way. We believed in God and stumbled with many issues since Jesus was always trying to get our attention in many ways. My oldest daughter was always the challenge and the youngest was as meek as a lamb. I loved them both and love them even more now and as mature women and mothers of my four granddaughters and my blessings from above. Praise Jesus. When God is not first place, life is always a struggle and even when grace and mercy are provided to show his true compassion, letting pride take control will divide a family and though I miss being married and as a provider, my eyes are seeking his face of truth and my heart yearns for his love to fill my being with overwhelming abundance and will spread beyond imagination and encourage with inspiration to follow his path of life for anyone.

  12. Barry Davis April 23, 2017 at 10:58 am - Reply

    Great article about child discipline,
    Our family Found that both parents need to be clear and consistent with each other about who checks and administered discipline, 2 people or 2 types confuses children or helps them sift the best option! My wife always put that leadership chain of command on to me even if I made a mistake.
    Disobedience and Consequences were sometimes painful for children and more so for parents. I used acting and dramatics when my children were pre schoolers, I used a very large wooden spoon, sound and sight was more effective than anything else, after 8 years old everything became easier and smoother. Now they are teens and we are old fuzzy duddies and get on really well talking through issues! They are very adult teens and I put much of it down to not having had live TV. We made our own cultural family opinions and didn’t have them imposed Into our home! I hope they treat me the same when they are caring for me.
    My own parents made a very big impact on me from a very young age in my desire for Ketchup on my food, my father would say that it may not be good for your mother to hear that her cooking is not tasty enough and needs ketchup, my mother would say does my food taste good enough? There’s no need for ketchup! To this day I don’t use type of dressings or salsa on my food, t has saved me 1000s of $… My parents couldn’t afford extras!

  13. Aubrey April 24, 2017 at 9:21 am - Reply

    Consistent and appropriate key words. Another helpful hint is to discipline at your parents home when visiting so as to avoid unnecessary conflict with in-laws.

  14. Beth Reeve April 24, 2017 at 2:02 pm - Reply

    Hi, I completely agree with you. Time and time again my kids challenged me and my husband. Pitting one against the other. It is hard to say no and mean it because there is always a big struggle. As you said, they soon learn that we have no control.

  15. Charles April 25, 2017 at 5:07 pm - Reply

    I rarely comment but this time I have to do it. I am the father of two great teens, a boy and a girl. I have raised them by explaining what rules are for and what the word “respect” means. I have never grounded or punished my kids. They are smart, responsible. They know that they are allowed to do anything they want because I have taught them to accept responsibility for what they are doing. They don’t drink alcohol when all children their age do, they don’t smoke cigarettes or other products when many of their friends do, they work hard. I never control their homework nor what they are doing. They are free, and they know I respect them. If the floor in their room is not tidy I tell them “this is your room, do what you want” and then I add “be warned though that i don’t want any of YOUR dust in MY bedroom, so make sure this won’t happens otherwise I will be VERY unhappy”; Trust me they get the message. I don’t like this article because honestly it feels self-righteous and I don’t think loving your children means that you have to create healthy boundaries with punishment. That’s just me of course, but as a divorced father I can say that everybody envies me and tell me “you are so lucky to have such wonderful kids”. Well it’s not that I am lucky, it is that I have raised my kids with love and respect for their individuality.

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