Balancing Mercy and Punishment through Discipline

Imagine a scenario where you made a mistake. A huge mistake! Perhaps you were even caught lying about your involvement in such a horrible scenario. Scared, you await your sentencing before a judge. Before the gauntlet of your punishment falls, you begin to cry and ask for mercy. You know you made a mistake, but you'll try your hardest to never mess up again. Your heart races as you beg, "Please, please, please," to the judge. 
As an adult you can imagine the anxiety and guilt you would feel, right?
Can you also imagine the burden of guilt your kids feel when they make a mistake?

As a parent, we sometimes act as the prosecutor, judge, and jury when disciplining our children.
In order to maintain the home, we sometimes too strictly adhere to the smallest of rules in order to establish our superior authority. Obviously, as adults we are responsible for ensuring that our children grow up to be productive and responsible themselves. It is necessary for parents to establish and follow through with family rules. When I see families in counseling sessions, we frequently discuss how to structure family roles so that the parents are "in charge." But in your quest to establish a functioning home life, answer a few questions:

Are family rules based out of love?
Is it necessary for each rule to be absolute?
Are you afraid of losing your authority if you bend?

As you ponder on those questions, recognize that your goal is to raise your children to become happy, successful, and productive adults. (At least that's my goal with my children.) You want them to learn to make good choices because they want to be good people. An internal motivation to do good is healthier than a fearful motivation to avoid punishment. There is a difference between the words discipline and punishment. According to Merriam Webster, discipline is a system of rules that governs conduct, a training that corrects and molds behavior. I believe it is a positive concept that shapes the way you teach your child. Appropriately disciplining your child implies you teach them why their choice was wrong and what actions are better choices in the future. For example, 6yr old Bobby will come to understand that throwing rocks at people is a bad choice because he could hurt someone. Bobby doesn't like feeling hurt himself, so he realizes it is unkind to hurt other people. He will choose to not throw rocks at other kids in order to act kindly towards them.

Opposite of discipline is short-sighted punishment. Too much punishment can squash the light in a child. I use the phrase "short-sighted" for a reason. This should not be the only tool for modifying behavior in your parenting toolbox. A punishment seeks to discourage a child from a bad choice through suffering, pain, or loss. Children do learn to modify their behavior because of punishment, but the change will be motivated by fear or the selfish desire to keep their TV privileges, their cellphone, or their favorite toy. Short-sighted punishment is unlikely to nurture an internal motivation to do good. Yelling, screaming, threatening, and physical punishments will get their attention for a moment, but parents can teach more effectively through wise discipline. "Short-term" punishment (such as losing phone privileges) works best when parents analyze behaviors with the child.
Punishment for the sake of maintaining your authority as the parent is unhealthy.
Swift justice that ignores teaching discipline is unlikely to reach long-term family goals.

My young children (ages 2 and 3 years old) are able to understand how their actions affect others. They may not have the brain capacity to fully evaluate the long-term consequences of their actions, but they can understand simple things like, "I hit Grace, and now she's crying" or "I can share my tea set with Simon because we have fun."
When children need to be corrected, it is important for a parent to explain the necessity for discipline. For example, simply sending your kid to time-out for five minutes will not teach socially appropriator behavior. Before you send your child to time-out, explain to them why their choice was bad. Allow them to sit in time-out, and then have a follow-up discussion about what choices will be more appropriate in the future.
Teach your child; don't just punish. 

Finally, since you are the prosecutor, judge, and jury in most disciplinary situations, remember to show mercy. Just as you would hope that your boss, your spouse, or your friends would show you mercy when you make a mistake, have compassion on your children. They are still learning, they are still growing, and they want to feel peace at home too. Remember that the goal of discipline is teaching appropriate behavior, so if your child is already remorseful, then they know they made a bad choice. It is not necessary to rub their noses in past mistakes either. Mercy and forgiveness keep relationships strong. Read here for another post about forgiveness.
If your child is trying to mop up a glass of spilled milk, celebrate their internal sensor to fix mistakes. 
If you catch your child consoling a sibling whose feelings they hurt, praise them for repairing the relationship.
If your child is already crying when they show you a detention note from a teacher, reassure them of your love and discuss which behaviors will help them avoid a detention slip in the future. 

Whatever you do, do out of love.
Teach socially appropriate behavior. Correct when necessary. Encourage future-oriented choices. Have mercy.

A fantastic resource for building internal motivation
is the book Motivate your Child by Dr. Scott Turansky and Joanne Miller. Read my review here.