Positive vs. negative discipline

Submitted by mfitch on February 13, 2009 - 05:57. ::

Discipline that focuses primarily on punishment as a way to get a teen to behave properly is what's often called "negative discipline." A negative disciplinarian threatens, frightens, snarls, growls, bristles, and becomes just plain nasty in order to persuade young people to behave. Even if this kind of external pressure gets immediate results, when the pressure lets up, so does the person's response. Negative discipline usually backfires.
Negative discipline can destroy a young person's sense of being loved and wanted. It can leave him feeling insecure and worthless. Negative discipline implies getting even, retaliation, vengeance, and exacting a penalty. Of course, all these dangers are increased whenever negative discipline is cruel, unreasonably severe, or prolonged.
Guilt is another common motivator in negative discipline. But using guilt to get your teen to do something is destructive. Guilt is a tremendously difficult feeling to carry around inside. And even if your teen does change her behavior because she feels guilty, she will resent it; that resentment, coupled with feelings of guilt, can produce intense feelings of anger.
Negative discipline can help control some behavior by establishing an avoidance response. But negative discipline alone never teaches young people to be responsible, motivated, and cooperative. Any improved behavior due to negative discipline simply means the young person has realized that, in this situation, the cost of negative discipline outweighs the benefits of misbehaving. The young person may change the way she behaves, but not change the way she wants to behave.
I've heard that you can train fleas. Apparently, if you throw some fleas in a jar and put the lid back on, for a few minutes you will hear a popping noise. The fleas will jump from the bottom to the top, and their little bodies will crash against the lid for a few minutes. Eventually, they will get wise and won't jump as high--they'll jump to a height just beneath the lid. (After a while, even a flea realizes hitting its head on the lid isn't much fun). After a few hours of this, you can unscrew the lid, and the fleas won't jump out. They have the ability to jump higher than the top of the jar. But something tells them if they jump too high there will be pain. In the same way, negative discipline may make a teenager behave the way you want him or her to just to avoid pain. But inside, nothing has changed.
The problem with negative discipline is that it's effective only as long as the threat hangs over an individual's head. Negative discipline does not teach the long-term benefits of changing behavior. When the threat of negative discipline has been removed, people are likely to resume their inappropriate behavior again. Consider how people tend to drive when they know a police officer is sitting beside the freeway with a radar gun. As long as that police car is visible, most people will carefully stay within the speed limit. But some of those same people are willing to drive at unsafe speeds if the police aren't visible and they think they can get away with it. Negative discipline procedures make the parent a police officer.
Negative discipline may curb some unacceptable behavior. But negative discipline in itself does not teach or motivate a young person toward more desirable behavior. It tells a young person what not to do--it doesn't tell him what to do. Consider our prison system. If punishment were effective in teaching people better behavior, then nearly anyone released from prison after several years of incarceration would go straight from then on. But a recent study showed that more than two-thirds of released prisoners were arrested again within three years. Of course, there are all kinds of reasons why someone who has been imprisoned is more likely to end up there again. But that doesn't change the basic fact that imprisonment merely keeps a person off the street for a period of time; it does very little to encourage rehabilitation or true changes in thinking and behavior.
On the other hand, positive discipline involves a combination of encouragement, consistency, fairness, and high expectations to train young people. A positive disciplinarian uses words, deeds, or circumstances to develop maturity in the young person--which is the ultimate goal. (See Colossians 1:28.) Your task is to prepare, disciple, and train your teen to serve God with their lives, to bring them to maturity, wholeness, and completeness in Christ. Through positive discipline, we develop mature young people who know them, accept themselves, and control themselves.
Positive discipline is more an attitude and atmosphere than an action. It is a tool, not a weapon. It is an expression of love, not anger. Discipline in the true biblical sense is positive and encouraging--in fact, it's even proof of love.
Les Christie has spent more than forty years in youth ministry, including more than twenty years in the same church. An energetic speaker, Les also chairs the youth ministry department at William Jessup University. He's the author of more than a dozen books and lives in California with his wife, Gretchen, where he no longer has to discipline his two grown sons, Brent and David.
Learn more about and purchase the book "When Church Kids Go Bad" here: