Q: When is spanking appropriate with a 3 year old?
A: When my second child (a daughter) was around 3, we began punishing her for disobedience. As with her older sister, spanking was in our discipline toolbox. However, unlike our eldest child, this daughter was made of sterner stuff—more stubborn and willful. This was the child who, when told not to do something, would march over, do the forbidden thing, then march herself down the hall to the “spanking place” to await her punishment. With such a child, spanking wasn’t going to have the desired effect of determent and conscience-building, so we quickly tossed spanking out of her consequence toolbox and inserted other, more memorable and effective punishments.
Why did I tell you that story? To illustrate why I can’t answer your question with a one-size-fits-all reply. When is spanking appropriate for a 3 year old? The answer depends on the preschooler in question.
So, if you don’t mind, I’ll answer the question I wish you had asked—what is the purpose of [insert punishment method here]? When you can answer that question, you’ll have the answer to your specific question.
The purpose of punishment is twofold: To make a child feel bad about the misbehavior (not about himself, but about what he did) and to develop a child’s internal motivation in order to stop a child from misbehaving in the future. Augustine had a great thought on this: “A conscience cannot be healed if not wounded.” In other words, as a determent for future misbehaviors and as a way to develop a child’s conscience and sense of right and wrong. For more on this, watch my video on “Consequences and Kids.”
Finally, a caution: Be careful that you don’t use spanking or other consequences to bring about an external change only in a child. Just because a child doesn’t outwardly seem to care about getting spanked or sent to her room doesn’t mean the punishment isn’t working. All too often, parents sometimes get carried away and want a child to show with her demeanor that she gets why what she did was wrong, and that doesn’t always happen immediately. Sometimes, the punishment takes a while to work on a child’s heart. Sometimes, a parent needs to figure out a different way to reach the child’s heart. That is one of the biggest dangers of spanking—if a child acts as if spanking doesn’t matter, a parent can be tempted to spank harder or longer to bring about that outward change or remorse. And that’s not healthy for the parent or the child.
On Feb. 28, Sarah will host a webinar on “The Truth About Consequences.” Sign up today!
Today, many parents have a meh relationship with consequences—they know punishments should be doled out when a child misbehaves, but they don’t like having to carry out the sentence. The trouble lies in the fact that most parents view consequences as only punitive—that is, to punish a child for doing wrong.
That way of thinking makes it hard for moms and dads to be consistent with punishments and to actually levy strong enough consequences to make a difference in their child’s behavior. What they often forget or fail to recognize is that consequences have a purpose beyond a “sentence” for wrongdoing.
Consequences have two main objectives:
To make a child feel bad about the misbehavior AND
To make a child think twice about misbehaving in the future.
Most of the time, children don’t feel bad about doing the wrong thing on their own. It’s something we must teach our children. Not to shame them, but to help them recognize that there are right things to do and there are wrong things to do. Kids who don’t learn the difference usually have a more difficult time navigating life’s rough waters.
To achieve the first objective, parents must be willing to allow their child to feel temporary (emotional mostly) pain or discomfort when correcting the misbehavior. A child who cries when caught with a hand in the cookie jar is feeling emotional pain, but mostly because he or she was caught. Levying a consequence will reinforce that wasn’t the right thing to do—and help the child remember not to reach into the cookie jar again without permission. Consequences should also deter a child from misbehavior in the future.
Sometimes, though, moms and dads don’t carry out a sentence that will impact a child’s future. In other words, we sometimes will levy minor punishments in the hopes that will curb future “crimes.” And when it doesn’t—as will happen at times—we pile on more minor consequences in the vain hope that those “slaps on the wrist” will change a child’s wrong direction.
We also misstep by telling a child exactly what will happen when he or she does something wrong, i.e., “You leave your bike out one more time, and I’m putting it away for a week.” On occasion, this will work as a determent or an incentive to correct behavior, but more often, a child simply decides he or she can “handle” the punishment, so does the crime.
What is more effective is a parent who simply does something when a child misbehaves, but the child has no idea what that will be. We follow this practice in our home, in that, we rarely tell our kids what will happen if they misbehave. What they do know is that we are very creative in our punishments, and that we “hit them where it hurts,” i.e., we tailor consequences to have the most impact on that particular child. Not a one-size-fits-all approach.
When a child doesn’t know what will happen—but does know it will be something that impacts his/her way of life negatively—the child will be more apt to think before doing the misdeed. That’s why you don’t always tell exactly what will happen, and you make sure your punishments are designed to maximize discomfort for the child. This is to help the child’s conscious to develop and to provide an external check to misbehavior.
Here’s one example from my household. When my oldest daughter, Naomi, was 10 years old, one of her daily chores was to refill the cats’ water dish before school each morning, which was in the downstairs bathroom. She started to get sloppy about it, and I would go downstairs after they were on the bus to find the water dish empty or nearly so. Nagging her didn’t help, and neither did a week of early-to-bed nights.
Then I realized she didn’t care enough to “remember” her chore—it was up to me to make her an offer she couldn’t refuse. The next day, I put up a 30 block chart on the fridge with Naomi’s name at the top. When she noticed it after school, I told her what it meant: She was to fill the cats’ water dish every day for 30 days, telling her dad or me so we could check it. If she missed a day, the 30 days started all over from day 1. Once she had gone 30 consecutive days without reminders or misses, she would get her books back.
Silence from Naomi. Then, “What do you mean I’ll get my books back?” I had noticed that she was reading in the mornings before school Now I love it that all of my kids love to read, but in Naomi’s case, it was interfering with her morning chores. So I took them away. For a month. No reading at all at home. She threw a fit (of course), but do you think she missed filling the cats’ water dish once in the next 30 days? Nope. Suddenly, her “memory” problem was fixed! Have I had to bring out the big guns like that again with her? Nope, that’s a memory that sticks! Have I had to remind her younger sister (2 years younger) to do her chores? Nope, she’s prompt because she doesn’t want something similar to happen to her.
Consequences should be memorable, cause a child discomfort, temporary (they don’t last forever in most cases), and provide a lasting lesson to deter future infractions.
Over the years, my husband and I have looked for teachable moments in parenting. Teachable moments give us an opportunity to drive home an important principle to our children. One memorable teachable moment happened while we were in the process of repairing the electrical switches in our hallway. Halfway through the repair, my husband realized he needed to run to the hardware store. Rather than putting it all back together, he kept the electric circuit turned off, but left the wires exposed.
Our girls were 4 and 6 at the time and even though the fuse was off, we didn’t want them to touch it. We stood beside the light switch, explained the risk of electric shock and told them not to touch it.
Later that day, we noticed the switch had been rotated. Calling both our children to the hallway, we pointed at the wall. “Did one of you touch the light switch?”
After an awkward silence, Autumn spoke up. “It was Breanna. I saw her touch it. I told her not to.”
I’m not sure Breanna remembered if she did or didn’t touch the switch, but she shrugged and said, “Sorry.”
After another lecture on the dangers of an exposed electric outlet, a talk on obedience and a time-out, Breanna’s punishment was served.
Hours later, we got the girls ready for bed and prayed with them.
That’s when Autumn burst into tears. “It was me! I touched the light switch—not Breanna!”
My husband and I listened while she confessed. As parents, we felt terrible. We’d punished Breanna for a crime her sister committed.
In that moment, we had a teaching opportunity.
We reminded our girls that we are all sinners, but Jesus took our punishment by dying on the cross for our sins.
We looked at Breanna. “What you did tonight was kind of like what Jesus did for us. Autumn deserved the time-out because she touched the light switch—but you paid your sister’s penalty.”
“Don’t I get punished?” Autumn asked.
“No, Autumn.” My husband shook his head. “Your sister already took the punishment. Now it’s up to you to accept the gift she gave you.”
We showed them Bible verses that explained how Christ’s death on the cross was the punishment for our sins.
Autumn hugged her sister. She apologized for lying and thanked Breanna for taking her punishment.
Breanna was happy for the hug and let the whole thing go.
Autumn asked God to forgive her for lying and disobeying.
That special teaching moment has stayed with me over the years. Not only was it a great lesson in what Christ did for us, but it was also a special moment in parenting. Parenting is an awesome opportunity to love, teach, nurture, witness and build into the life of another person. In the process, we grow in our own relationship with Christ, learn patience, humility, selflessness and more. What an honor God has given us in allowing us to raise little lives created in His image.
Look for those teachable moments.
About Carol Kinsey
Carol Kinsey lives with her husband and their two daughters on a farm in rural Ohio. She and her husband have been involved in youth ministry for more than 20 years and currently serve at a small country church, which inspired her first published novel, Under the Shadow of a Steeple (2013). She has also published Witness Protection (2017), Greater Love (2015), and Until Proven Innocent (2014), and a writing curriculum, Creative Writing Through Literature, which launched in 2016. Carol has been a member of American Christian Fiction Writers since 2016. Along with her fiction, Carol is also published in several nonfiction venues. She has a passion for writing exciting, Christ-centered fiction that uplifts, encourages, and gives glory to God. For more information, visit carolkinsey.net.
Q: My very bright 10-year-old son simply refuses to obey. He is child #2 out of 4 kids. He seems to take up all of our parenting energy. He spent a lot of time in the office for the first half of grade 5, often aligns himself with the trouble makers in social situations, and doesn’t seem to care about consequences. It seems that the problems occur everywhere—within our own family, at school, at church and with grandparents. I have never been a parent who pays my children a lot of attention, but he seems to crave attention (even if it’s negative) and he definitely thinks he is a “big fish.”
We had one big incident at school last year, after which he was in his room for a month, with nothing to occupy him. His behavior improved marginally for a short time. I have told him he has this year to improve his behavior or he will not be going to junior high next year as I cannot trust him to make good decisions with the freedom he’ll have there. I fully intend to follow through. Any suggestions?
A: Ah, the child who won’t obey is a familiar figure to us all! I know how frustrating this must be for you, especially because you can see the pattern of bad behavior and the looming teen years with all the potential for disaster.
A couple of things come to mind about this situation, but before that, I should remind you that a parent does her job not because she expects the child to straighten up (although that’s her hope), but because it’s the right thing to do. Thinking that you’re going to find a silver bullet that will make your child behave is an exercise in futility, so just don’t go there. You apply pressure (consequences) to negative behavior in the hopes that the pressure will reach a child’s heart and enact change for the better. But sometimes, we apply the correct amount of pressure, and the child refuses to bend. That’s because a child is the only one who can change his behavior—you can’t. Accepting that and still continuing on with your role as one who applies pressure when necessary is what makes parenting a challenge.
Now, let’s talk about consequences. You’ve yet to give this child an offer he can’t refuse. A big incident at school and he’s only in his room for a month? You saw “marginal” improvement in his behavior after that, but nothing long term. You needed to make a big impression (a la The Godfather Principle), and instead you made a medium impression. Think about what your son loves to do.
Here’s a real-life example. A few years ago, my oldest daughter needed a wakeup call (she was around your son’s age at the time), and I had noticed how much she loved to read. So to reorient her behavior, I banned books from her life until she went 30 days in a row without doing the thing she had been doing. Was she upset? You betcha. Did she miss one of the 30 days? Nope. Have I had to do something that drastic again? No, but it’s always hanging out there as a possibility. The beauty is that she won’t know what I’ll assign as a consequence (aka pressure), but she knows she won’t like it one bit. So figure out what that number one and number two things are for your son and proceed accordingly.
Also, threatening something so far in advance as not going to junior high is worthless as motivation for his behavior improvement. He has no reference for such a thing and therefore can’t care about it! So just stop with that threat, even though you’re prepared to follow through. If it’s not something he can visualize and want, then it’s not something he’s going to care about.
Finally, it sounds like overall you’ve lost a connection with your son. If you don’t already, start taking all of the kids out one at a time on a regular basis. My husband and I take turns taking one child at a time out for breakfast. The schedule is posted on the fridge and they all enjoy spending special time with mom or dad. Also, make time each day to connect with your son. If he likes jokes, find one and tell him after school. If he enjoys throwing a football, grab it up after dinner and play catch for 10 minutes. Make sure you greet him in the morning, and when he comes home after school, not to tell him stuff to do, but to let him know you care about him—even when he doesn’t want to talk much.
Q: This year, my 14-year-old son started a new, academically-driven private high school. He became friends immediately with his peer group on the football team, and we’ve allowed him some new freedom to hang out at their homes and spend the night a couple of times. We made it clear that this is his opportunity to choose the right friends from the start, because in middle school he had some undesirable friends that we didn’t allow him to socialize with. He has always been an excellent student and athlete, but hasn’t had much of a social life outside of school since we restricted his friendships.
Recently, we discovered that our son was drinking at one of the new friend’s homes, and that several of these new football friends have poor reputations. I am at a loss for how to deal with this latest dilemma. I don’t want to restrict friendships forever, but clearly he is not responsible in this area. I think the drinking itself is an isolated event, but he was bragging about it to some old friends at church, and they expressed concern that this is his new normal (thinking that drinking is cool). I’m concerned that continuing with these new friendships will lead to more undesirable behavior.
A: This is the age-old question that has plagued parents: How to get kids to choose the right friends. From family to family, the definition of “right” friends changes slightly, but for the most part, most parents want their kids to have friends who are positive and adhere to the family’s values in word and deed.
But that desire often conflicts with a teen’s desire to choose his own friends, forge to his identity and live his own life. As a teen tries on different personas to see where he fits into the high school social scene, he will often make mistakes and pick the wrong crowd or the right crowd for the wrong reasons.
While your intentions were good, I think you might have jumped the gun a bit to allow him new freedom without investigating whether or not these new friends were the sort that you wanted him to hang out with. Not that I’m blaming you for his actions—I’m just pointing out that it’s our job as parents to ask questions, hard questions, and to hold off on some of the freedoms (like spending the night, for example) until you get to know the kids in question a bit more.
My answer to questionable friends is to invite them to your house. Open your doors and have the kids in your basement. Check in frequently but not obnoxiously. Have them over for dinner in small groups. Talk to them—not grilling them, but see what they’re interested in. Teenagers respond to genuine interest and concern like anyone else.
For the drinking, I’d sit your son down and have a hard talk about underage drinking. In fact, I’d be grounding him for at least a month—this is serious stuff, and while he might have made a fairly innocent mistake, his bragging shows he’s aware that it wasn’t right for him to drink alcohol. I’d also call the parents of teen whose house they drank in to say this is what your son said. Not to point fingers, but to inform them. Then your son doesn’t go over there again, period.
During your short, but hard, talk, I’d also let him know the stakes—that you’re serious about his obeying the law. He might try to brush it off (“It’s no big deal, Mom!”) but you don’t let that sway you. In fact, even if you or your husband drank as a teen, you don’t tell him that. It’s not important to the conversation.
But you also let him know that you realize mistakes can be made, and that you will pick him up anytime, anywhere with no questions asked at that time. You want him to call or text you when he needs help.
Finally, make sure you are spending time with him, one on one, to talk about what he wants to talk about. We take our kids individually out for breakfast with mom or dad on a regular basis to reconnect and give them that personal time. Do things for him that he likes, make sure he’s contributing to the family with chores, and love him as much as you can.
We all want to reach our children’s hearts–to teach them right from wrong and also to encourage them to choose the right over the wrong. But sometimes, it can be difficult to know how to touch their hearts in the midst of misbehaviors. (Please note that these are for Christian parents, as the material is based on biblical principles.)
To keep this affordable, I’m hosting this parenting seminar in my home that will help you get to the heart of the matter with your kids. My daughters (along with other teenage girls from our church as needed) will provide childcare, if needed.
Did You Say Something? Saturday, September 9, 9 a.m. to 11 a.m.
For a video answer of this question, visit https://www.facebook.com/parentcoachnova/.
Q: I’ve been using the ticket method* for my fourth grader to tackle some ongoing behavior problems. When she loses all her tickets due to the target misbehaviors, the consequence is to be in her room the rest of the day. Instead of going to her room, she instead throws a major fit and refuses to go. What is the best course of action then?
A: Sometimes, we get hung up on the letter of the law—in this case, that your child isn’t complying with the directive to go to her room. Does that mean the punishment is ineffective? No. Does it mean you should levy different consequences? No. Does it mean you should just ignore the infraction? No.
In this particular case, your child is having a temper tantrum because her behavior choices have resulted in losing her freedom. For the tantrum itself, I’d ignore it. Walk away. When the child has calmed down, reiterate that she should go to her room. Don’t threaten. Don’t plead. Just state and give her The Look (you have one, right?) and stare her down until she complies. This might take a few tantrums before the child realizes that you’re not going to back down.
Even if the child outright refuses to go physically to her room, you can still act like the child is in her room. All other activities stop for the child—no electronics, no friends, etc. So she might be on the floor of the living room, but she’s still “in his room” in all the ways that count.
Remember, what you don’t want to happen is that you get into a battle of the wills with your child—making her go to his room physically, yelling at him to comply, etc. Stay calm, stay cool—you’ve got this!
Q: For misbehavior, we’re keen on the ‘tickets’ strategy for major offenses. However my twins are under 3 (almost 31 months). Is it possible to use Tickets for children under the age of 3? I think they’re smarter than we adults think, and I believe they understand consequence, but again, not sure if tickets would work. For example, sometimes they will not do as I ask, and may flat out say ‘no’ or will do it in an exaggeratedly slow manner, all the while grinning impishly at me…like going up the step to wash their hands one inch at a time. I don’t intend to repeat myself, and a stern look from me will often do the trick. But I get stuck there sometimes. I don’t know how to win the power struggle when they’re in this toddler phase and don’t have language based memory or foresight of consequences (maybe?) at this age. Thanks for your thoughts.
A: What you’re describing—obeying one moment, asserting their independence the next—is typical toddler behavior. They will obey, but on their terms (slow walking to wash their hands or get their shoes on). That’s just part of the package that is a toddler. And as you’ve discovered, a stern look will usually get your twins moving. But not always, because, well, they are human beings, and not an animal.
So you don’t get into the power struggle with them. How? By figuring out what makes sense to be strict on and what doesn’t. Here’s an example: I had two rules when it came to getting dressed—the clothes must be clean (no digging in the dirty clothes basket!) and the child must dress himself. Other than that, I gave them a lot of leeway, and it showed with what adults would deem mismatched clothing, etc. It wasn’t a battle I wanted to fight because I had other priorities.
Think about what bothers you the most, and use that as your benchmark for strictness. If it’s matching clothes, then you can insist on that. If it’s a particular way to put away laundry, then focus on that. It’s up to you but only pick your top ones, and let the kids do the rest their own way.
Translate that into tasks that need to be done before something else can happen, such as washing hands before dinnertime. If you know your twins like to dawdle at this task, then call them to do the task extra early before it’s time to eat. That way, they can inch up the stool and you’re not waiting on them.
For tasks that need to be done quicker, set a timer. Toddlers love to race a clock, and this can help them. Turn things into a game when possible too (not a competition, with a winner/loser, but a together game).
If one child is consistently slower, see if something else is going on—Is she tired, growing, fighting a cold? Sometimes physical ailments can translate into misbehavior, and while it’s not an excuse, if a parent treats the ailment (putting the child to bed earlier, for example, to help with tiredness), then the misbehavior will likely lessen or go away.
If there’s nothing obvious (don’t spend a lot of time trying to find out—just a quick run-through in your mind about what might be going on will suffice), then you calmly step in to get the child moving when necessary.
As for your question about tickets and toddlers: The answer is that they are not ready for tickets, especially given that they are displaying age-appropriate misbehaviors that are better tackled by following some of the methods outlined in my answer. Don’t worry—you’ll have plenty of time to implement tickets into your household as your children grow up some more.
For how Tickets and other discipline methods work, visit the Discipline Methods section of this website.
Q: My 2-year-old recently transitioned from crib to bed. The freedom seems to be more than he can handle, and he has taken to destroying the bedroom he shares with his 3-year-old brother. Of course we’ve childproofed the room but there are clothes in drawers and some books on the shelf, mainly for the older brother. Typically in the mornings, I would make both boys help me pick up the mess before breakfast, but I’m now focusing on just the one boy since he is the perpetrator/instigator( I can see it on the monitor and we did not have this problem with the older one).
Since I’ve singled him out though for correction and sent the other boy down for breakfast without helping to pick up, the behavior has gotten even worse and he’s more mad. He refuses to clean up at all and the day goes downhill right from the beginning with him. He will only clean up if his brother is helping and I stay in the room with them. Left alone with instructions, he refuses. I do not show any frustration but simply let him know he made the mess and now he needs to pick it up or he will spend the day in his room except meals. He then proceeds to have fits, fiddle around in the room and look for other items to pull apart. We’ve stripped the room to bare bones but this is making things difficult. Should I be doing something else or is there a way to get some quicker action on his part?
A: It’s amazing how different our kids are, isn’t it? Where one is more laid back, another is a spitfire. Where one stays in bed, the other one is a human tornado.
A couple of things to keep in mind with your particular situation. First, a toddler doesn’t have the long-term memory to put two and two together—in this case, that he wrecked his room, therefore he must pick up and stay in his room until it’s done. When you expect a child to do more than a child is capable, that’s when you build frustration—in the child and parent. Of course he doesn’t want to clean up by himself! He hasn’t connected the dots that it’s his mess.
Second, don’t expect quick action from a toddler. They are by their very nature dawdlers. They are learning so much in a short time frame, and everything fascinates and distracts them. This is the beauty and annoyance of twos!
But don’t despair! There is hope to turn things around. You don’t mention when he does this destruction—in the evening going to bed or in the morning when he wakes up. See if you can pinpoint the timing, then you can make your plan. If in the evening, you are likely able to hear him do this (or station yourself outside his door to listen). When you hear drawers opening, you come into the room and stop him in his tracks. Have him immediately pick up the items by the light of the hallway (with you alongside him) and pop him back in bed with minimal talking. If it’s in the morning, gauge when he usually wakes up, wake up a bit earlier, and repeat the halt him in his tracks/pick up routine.
Anytime he needs to pick up, do it alongside him, directing him gently. “You pick up the toy trucks, while I get the trains” type thing. Have him focus on one part of the job, not the entire thing. Clothes all over the floor can be overwhelming for any child, so picking out the shirts, then moving to socks, etc., will help teach him how to manage a larger task and help keep him on task.
Also make sure you have lots of positive touch points throughout the day with him, little interactions that give him your full attention and love. Keeping that close connection will make the discipline times go more smoothly and will help you have a better attitude toward him as well.
Q: My 9-year-old son is getting in trouble at school for playing games. He has also started missing assignments. He went to his room at 4 p.m. last Friday and Saturday evening for the remainder of the day. On Sunday, he had to sit in our formal living room for two hours to think about his choices. He has had no electronics of any kind, and still went back to school and played the games again. What more punishment will work?
A: You’ve fallen into the trap most parents stumble into at one point or another: looking for the magic bullet consequence to get a kid to change his behavior. But the fact of the matter is, there is no one perfect punishment that will make your son stop playing games at school when he’s supposed to be doing something else.
That’s because he doesn’t care about stopping that behavior.
Let me put it this way: Until Son cares about not playing games at school, he’s not going to change his behavior.
But that doesn’t mean you stop trying to influence him to change his ways with consequences. Parents should continue to do the right thing even when a child does the wrong thing. This is one of the hardest lessons for moms and dads to learn, because we want to fix the problem immediately. We want Junior to straighten up and fly right. And most of the time, children whose parents are consistent in applying punishments (but inconsistent with what those punishments are) will behave themselves. Not always, not all the time, but most of the time.
Now, back to your son and his game playing at school. You don’t mention what the response of his teacher has been to his playing games, and you don’t mention what kind of games he’s able to play during class without the teacher noticing (which I assume is happening). Without some of these facts, I’m not sure how helpful I can be in addressing this problem.
So here’s a starting point. Use something like the report card method. Each day, your son has to bring home a piece of paper with either a Yes or No written and signed by his primary teacher. A Yes means he can go about his day normally. A No means he’s on lock down—restricted to his room without any of his toys, games, music, etc., and to bed very early (like 6 p.m.).
To get a Yes, he has to complete and turn in all assignments due that day or given in class to do, and to stay on task (no game playing, etc.). If he misses just one assignment or fails to stay on task, he gets a No for the day. He automatically gets a No if he fails to bring home the paper for any reason.
Each day starts new, with no carryovers from the previous day. Furthermore, you are only to ask about the report—not if he has homework, was on task, etc.
Plus, you support whatever the teacher or school wants to do in terms of punishment for his playing games in class. It’s essential to know that you are not going to bail him out for his own mistakes.
This might take a while to resolve itself, but consistence on your part without drama or overreaching to “make him care,” should get through to Son and provide enough of an impetus to change his game-playing ways.