NUMBER 1198 • 18 JULY • reparenting with respectful discipline

     We are reminded that the term discipline comes from the core word disciple. Discipleship means following and learning from the guidance and example set by an esteemed mentor. Most adults re-enact discipline practices learned in their own family and cultural traditions. Autocratic families and cultures reserve respect for persons in power, leading to authoritarian discipline. Egalitarian families and cultures strive for mutual respect and produce democratic or authoritative discipline.

A century of child development research suggest that there have been three discipline methods in the history of parenting:

  1. Power Assertion. While authoritative adults provide guidance to youth, authoritarian adults coerce obedience. This “might makes right” approach keeps children stuck on the bottom rung of the moral development ladder.
  2. Love Deprivation. Because the most powerful need of children is for love, adults can be tempted to withhold love to control behavior. But emotionally blackmailing kids by threatening to withhold love does great damage to the trust essential for positive relationships.
  3. Respectful Reasoning. Using this method, adults help youth reflect on how their behavior affects themselves and others. By teaching respect and positive values, we enable children to move up the character development ladder to develop self-discipline.

The United States is in a gradual transition from a power oriented discipline to approaches shaped by democratic principles. A 1924 study of American parents found that obedience was the main goal in child-rearing. By 1988, independence had moved to first place. But the United States still has a strong ethos of respect for authoritarianism. Because of these values, corporal punishment of school children and boot camps for delinquents are still remnants of centuries of dominator cultures.

Unfortunately, the terms discipline and punishment are often confused in contemporary society. Physical punishment is defended by some on the basis of Bible verses like Proverbs 13:24: “Those who spare the rod hate their children” (NRSV). However, it is important to consider how the rod was viewed in the Hebrew culture of that day. It was an instrument used to guide ignorant sheep, not as a means of beating them into submission. And note how the verse concludes: “but those who love them are diligent to discipline them:” The differences between discipline and punishment are shown in the following chart:



A climate of mutual respect.

Problems are opportunities.

Preventive planning.

Natural consequences.

Reasons for standards.

Demand responsibility.

Teach caring values.

Adults as coaches.



Respect those in power.

Problems require punishment.

Reactive response.

Arbitrary consequences.

“Do it because I said so.”

Demand obedience.

Teach rule compliance.

Adults as rulers.



Larson, S. & Brendtro, L. (2000). Reclaiming our Prodigal Sons and Daughters. Bloomington: National Education Service.