Proactive Discipline vs. Reactive Discipline

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Comparing and contrasting the advantages and disadvantages of reactive discipline with an emphasis on encouraging proactive discipline. By first examining the relationship of the emotional status of the child as affected by their received and perceived love, the parent can determine if the appropriate foundation exists on which to continue and expand a discipline program. This leads to a pattern and lifestyle that are built upon choices placed in the power of the child to determine their own consequences which shift the burden of impact from the parent to the child, further reducing the emotional withdrawals that take place as a result of other punishment styles of discipline of consequences. Parents can be equipped to love and discipline their children in the best manner with a firm and effective balance of relationship and discipline methods.





Proactive versus Reactive Discipline Jesse Watkins



Abstract Comparing and contrasting the advantages and disadvantages of reactive discipline with an emphasis on encouraging proactive discipline. By first examining the relationship of the emotional status of the child as affected by their received and perceived love, the parent can determine if the appropriate foundation exists on which to continue and expand a discipline program. This leads to a pattern and lifestyle that are built upon choices placed in the power of the child to determine their own consequences which shift the burden of impact from the parent to the child, further reducing the emotional withdrawals that take place as a result of other punishment styles of discipline of consequences. Parents can be equipped to love and discipline their children in the best manner with a firm and effective balance of relationship and discipline methods.



Does America, and American parents have a discipline problem? It has been often quoted that 33% of American High School Students will drop out before finishing. The answer to the discipline problem has been more theories, books, and methods of discipline. When test scores are not improved, the common answer has been more homework, more assignments, and more rigorous pedagogy. But has America been putting the cart before the horse? Is there really a discipline problem, or is there possibly a Love problem? Consider the following information from Dr. Tim Clinton, “Less than 25% of kids living with fathers experience an hour a day of one-on-one contact with their dad. Most spend less than a half-hour with their fathers” (Clinton, 2012, p. 159). Tamara Lowe presents the correlation that “Teenagers having family dinner 5 or more times a week were 42% less likely to drink alcohol, 59% less likely to smoke cigarettes, and 66% less likely to try marijuana” (Lowe, 2009, p. 197). The information that has been observed among successful youths and unsuccessful youths has as much to do with discipline routines as it does with time spent in a structured, loving family unit. To begin with, may the terms of reactive discipline and proactive discipline be established; reactive discipline are punishments that happen as a result of wrong actions. i.e. spankings, timeout, grounding, etc. Proactive discipline includes pre-emptive maintenance i.e positive reinforcement, scheduled time together, reward based chores, and other planned forms of discipline. Doctors Cloud and Townsend (2003) describe the responses of children to external situations as “reactions, not actions. That is - their behavior is determined by some external influence; not their values or thoughts. (p. 150). When the disciplinary actions of parents becomes reactive instead of proactive, they identify more with the behavior of a child rather than the Creator God who had a plan. God’s disciplinary actions began with a plan. As Sally Loyd-



Jones so accurately recounts, “Before the beginning of time God had a plan. A plan to rescue the world by sending his own Son, the Rescuer” (2007, p. 47). The most effective model of discipline (disciple creation) should reflect that of the creator and not that of the subject. Cloud and Townsend hint to this by acknowledging, “Reactive boundaries protect and separate your child from bad things... but reactive boundaries do not instill good things” (2003, p. 153). John Beckley is attributed to saying, “Most people don’t plan to fail; they simply fail to plan.” Reactive discipline is simply a result of failed planning. There is a time and place for it, but most parents result to it frequently because they have lacked a beginning discipline plan for molding their children. Many parents live their discipline lives in the area of “struggle that exists between reactivity and proactivity; between lashing out in protest or responding maturely to problems” (Cloud, 2003, p. 149). With the assistance of proactive planning, the need for reactive discipline can be greatly reduced. Before the effectives of discipline styles can be examined, the question must be asked, “What is the goal of discipline?” Ephesians 6:4 tells us, “Fathers do not exasperate your children; instead bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (NIV). However, the New Living Translation goes a bit further by saying, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger; rather bring them up with discipline and instruction that comes from the Lord” (NLT). Ephesians tells us that discipline is not something that should bring about anger in children, but something that should bring about godly qualities that the Lord desires. The conclusion that would be arrived at is that discipline is not a series of actions, but a lifestyle. Deuteronony 6:7 tells about the continuous action of discipline (disciple making): “Repeat them (God’s Commands) again and again to your children. Talk about them when you are at home, when you are on the road, when you are going to bed, and when you are getting up” (NLT). Discipline is to



be a continuous process, and not simply reactions to failed behavior. “Many parents assume that discipline and punishment are synonymous, and that discipline actually means punishment” (Chapman, 2005, p. 119). Because of this mentality, the self-concept of children is defined by what corrects them instead of what instructs them. A young child is moldable, impressionable, and volatile. They are learning freedom, choice, and cause and effect. However, because of the limited structure that is often imposed on them, the only choice they have to operate in is rebellion. “Children use their freedom to disagree as a means to frustrate you” (Cloud, 2003, p. 150). When a parent tells a child to do something rather than giving the child an option or chance to experience decision making, the only freedom of choice that child has to operate in is by saying no. The common model is that a parent gives an instruction, the child exercises his or her will by saying no, and then punishment is dispensed. Has any learning or actual discipline taking place during this experience? Dr. Chapman tells of the nature of reactive discipline by saying, “Punishment is the most negative and most difficult method of discipline to control” (2005, p. 129). Punishment is viewed by the child as a negative event (learning does not occur) instead of a positive event (learning does occur). Mark Twain once said that he could go two weeks on one good compliment. By contrast, it has been estimated that it takes 9 compliments to wipe out 1 negative remark” (Weis, 1995, p. 46). If this is true of words, then it would not be a far leap to say this is true of actions. Reactive discipline forms a negative image in the mind of a child, and must be complemented with much positive and proactive discipline to be effective. Otherwise, “discipline without love is like running a machine with out oil” (Chapman, 2005, p. 120). Reactive discipline and boundaries are good and part of the overall discipline plan for healthy children. But like fertilizer in soil, there must be a 10-10-10 balance between Rules,



Relationship, and Respect. “Rules with relationship lead to respect. Rules without relationship lead to rebellion” (Clinton, 2012, p. 74). Reactive discipline focuses towards the leaf and not towards the root. “Reactive boundaries signal something that needs to be dealt with; pro-active boundaries fix something that is broken” (Cloud, 2003, p. 152). The problem is that many children interpret reactive discipline as a withdrawal of unconditional love. “Withdrawing love is usually not a motivation for people to change” (p. 58). What is found in scriptural discipline is a balance of proactive and reactive. For example, in Proverbs the writer is continually telling his son to avoid evil. For example, Proverbs 1:32-33 says, “The complacency of fools will destroy them; but whoever listens to me will dwell safely.” Again, Psalm 119:11 mandates, “I have hidden your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.” Both of these are examples of proactive measures to ensure that correct conduct is achieved. This seems to be a repetitive command through scripture, and would prove most effective to parents if followed. The Biblical model presents both methods of discipline. The Psalmist recites in chapter 23 verse 4. “Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” The staff was the gentle guide of the sheep, but the rod was the sharp instrument of defense or correction. Both are needed in balance for children. The problem is that weight too often falls toward the program rather than the person. “Other discipline programs can be useful, but they focus on rules rather than relationship. The problem with this approach is it assumes that if you change your child’s behavior through discipline, your relationship will improve” (Clinton, 2012, p. 74). In contrast, researchers have found that when parents focus on the relationship instead of rules, the behavior can change drastically. “Give a person grace (unmerited favor) plus truth (structure) and do that overtime, and you have the greatest chance of this person growing into someone of good character” (Cloud, 2003, p. 67). Punishment teaches “what I am not,” but training teaches “what



I am.” “Children need to grow up to be defined by more than what they hate” (p. 154). Furthermore, Dr. Gary Chapman concludes with, “Reactive discipline embodies the essence of the law. An ‘eye for an eye mentality.’ Most parents who teach this philosophy don’t realize what they are doing” (2005, p. 62). Reactive discipline focuses most of the behavioral responsibility on the child; if they do good, they get good. However, proactive discipline establishes a balance in the parent-child relationship. “While an attitude to learn is the responsibility of the child, the parent must motivate the child to exhibit the right attitude, not just an attitude. The parent is the one who established and maintains a daily regimen that is age and ability appropriate” (Weis, 1995, p. 7). It is evident that parents find this daily regimen difficult. Dr. Chapman unfortunately states, “Parents often display a love that is conditional. Conditional love is based on performance” (2005, p. 17). Conditional love teaches a child that love is a reward to his actions. But unconditional love teaches that love will always be there. What Dr. Chapman has observed is that a child’s ability to experience and learn from discipline is contingent upon the status of their relationship with the parent. Children want to know that they are loved. “A child tests our love by his behavior. He is asking, ‘Do you love me?’ If we respond, ‘yes we love you,’ and fill his love tank, we take the pressure off him and make it unnecessary to continue testing our love” (Chapman, 2005, p. 123). Corrective discipline becomes recognized not as a behavioral modification but an emotional modification. “Corrective discipline causes a withdrawal from the bank account. Children interpret emotional withdrawal as abandonment” (Clinton, 2012, p. 161). In this case, discipline does not become a love language, but rather a hate language. In order for any positive discipline to occur, the child must be aware and know that they are loved by the parent. “A child’s love



tank must be filled before any effective training or discipline can take place” (p. 20). What happens with this method, is that love becomes the primary foundation of discipline. “Reactive boundaries operate under the pretense of justice and revenge. Proactive boundaries are concerned with higher motives such as responsibility, righteousness, and love for others” (Cloud, 2003, p. 159). If love is the foundation, then how can this love be communicated most effectively? One would imagine that most parents affirm their love for their children. But how come children don’t always know and experience this? “It is not sufficient to simply verbalize love as a means of communication. The reason is because children are behaviorally motivated” (Chapman, 2005, p. 25). It would stand that if the parent wants to affect the child behaviorally, then love must be behaviorally shown. One of the most effective ways of demonstrating love to the child is spelled out by Dr. Clinton, “Kids spell love T-I-M-E” (p. 160). Spending time with the child becomes the common bond on which the disciplinary relationship can be formed. But, it is not “Just about the quantity of time, but the quality of time - praying with them before bed time, and listening to their dreams the next morning” (p. 161). Quality time become the investment into the emotional “bank” that children have which must be kept full if positive discipline is to occur. In order for the child to know they are love, they must receive it in a manner that they understand. Discipline is not communicated to them as a means of love. “We must communicate love in a language that our child understands” (Chapman, 2005, p. 25). Dr. Chapman points out that there are Five love languages in children, but the other authors agree that universally all children have a love bank that will receive deposits through the investment of time. By using a love language that the child understands, “The love language helps a child “experience” the love that you have for them. And because of that experience, they can then



“know” they are loved” (p. 18). In contrast the the philosophy of Dr. Clinton, Chapman proposes that “no child can receive ‘too much’ appropriate unconditional love. True unconditional love will never spoil a child because it is impossible for parents to give too much of it’ (p. 20). Reactive discipline creates the mentality that actions merit love, but proactive discipline creates the mentality that love merits actions. Once the foundation of love is established, then the positive correlation of “structured” discipline can be pursued. Now that hopefully that love bank has been filled in the child, the reality bank can be explored. Dr. Townsend makes it aware that reactive discipline normally points to emotional consequences (guilt, shame, low self-esteem), but proactive discipline points the child toward reality consequences. “True change usually occurs when someone’s behavior causes him to encounter reality consequences” (2003, p. 58). What Townsend suggests is the implementation of a system whereby the child has control of his/her consequences instead of the parent. For example, if a child must clean his room in order to go out with his friends, but does not clean his room, he has already been made aware that the lack of his action will result in the removal of privilege. This situation has been totally controlled by him. The consequence of his actions were not reactive because they were already set in place. Secondly, this setting took the parent out of the picture because although the parent was the one who established the parameters, the parent did not have to oversee or decide what to do about the lack of action. In this process, the child learns the consequences of his own actions, and therefore actual learning and actual discipline is able to take place. When this doesn’t happen, the child is not put in the “reality” position and normally doesn’t learn anything from the scenario other than emotional grief from the parent. “We may warp a child’s development each time the parent makes a decision the child could have made for himself” (Weis, 1995, p. 8).



When consequences are established proactively, the child is made aware before hand of the consequences of his own actions. “Consequences transfer the need to be responsible from the parent to the child. Consequences make it the child’s problem” (Cloud, 2003, p. 61). When the child has consequences, then they are able to exercise their own choice and their own will. If a child is given the command, “eat your broccoli,” and if they don’t they are sent to timeout, then reactive discipline has taken place. But if the child is given the option, “if you don’t eat your broccoli, you will go to bed early,” then the child is now in charge of his or her own destiny, and is understanding the laws and values of “reaping what you sow.” Proactive discipline removes the need for reactive discipline because the child is already aware of the consequences that will occur. The goal of “reality” learning that Cloud and Townsend have aimed for become possible once the child is able to have an experiential knowledge of reality because they have exercised his or her actions and choices. In the end (or the beginning) the research has shown that it is not rules and regulations which bring about right behavior, but love. As 1 John 4:19 prompts us, “We love, because he first loved us.” The law always showed imperfection, it showed flaw, it showed lack. But the law was never incentive for love. Once Christ came, and displayed the love of God on the cross, then the incentive for love came because he first loved us. In order for a child to know they are loved, they must experience it. They must see it. As Henry Blackaby reminds us, “We come to know God as we experience Him” (2004, p. 9). And there is no discipline unless it is founded and entangled with love. Love that is shown regularly and repeatedly, and even more so unconditionally. When reactive discipline occurs, it reinforces the law mentality of “an eye for an eye.” Dr. Clinton powerfully exclaims, “If negative is dispensed (from the child) and negative returns, it instills a justice mentality. Instead, we should operate on the “Golden Rule of



Parenting” (2012, p. 63). He goes on to say that in order to get respect (behavior modification) the parent must show respect (behavior modification). Turns out there is no magical formula for raising good kids. It takes sacrifice, dedication, and hard work, because those are all the embodiment of love. There is no discipline without love. “because the LORD disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in” - Proverbs 3:12 (NIV). Love is an extension of Grace, and Grace is favor that is unmerited. Proactive discipline removes favoritism, because favoritism is a disposition based on the earned actions of the received. With reactive discipline, the child learns that they are loved (accepted) based on their actions. With proactive discipline, they are loved in spite of their actions because their consequences become their own choice. When the ball is placed in their court, it takes the heat of the parent and therefore reduces the dissension that can occur between the child because of the disciplinary action. Discipline becomes no longer about justice but about grace. And the essence of grace is love; the opposite of the Santa mentality. Santa rewards with a “gift” as a reward for their good actions. But if a gift becomes a reward for actions, then it is payment, and not a free gift. Proactive discipline reduces the amount of withdrawals from the child’s love bank because it is no longer the parent that is withdrawing due to discipline but the child. When the parent can invest in the child via a language that the child can experience and know, and secondly establish proactive guidelines and rules that form options and learning abilities for the child, then effective learning and discipline can take place in a manner that is healthy and positive. When the parent begins with a plan in mind, rather than reactionary consequence, the parent identifies with their Creator rather than with the will of the child. God is to be respected, revered, and worshipped. His method of discipline has proven to be the most



effective. For parents, children, and future disciple makers, all can learn from the the ancient wisdom that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.” (Proverbs 1:7, NIV). That knowledge of God is an experience based on the fulness of his character. If children can experience the fulness of the character of the parent, and also of God through appropriate and unconditional love, then hopefully the child can be raised up in the “training and admonition of the Lord.”


Blackaby, H. T., Blackaby, R., & King, C. V. (2004). Experiencing God: Knowing and doing the will of God. Nashville, Tenn: Broadman & Holman Publishers. Chapman, G. D., Campbell, R., & Northfield Publishing (2005). The five love languages of children. Chicago: Northfield Pub. Clinton, T. (2012). Loving Your Child Too Much: Raise Your Kids Without Overindulging, Overprotecting or Overcontrolling. Thomas Nelson Inc. Cloud, H., & Townsend, J. S. (2003). Boundaries with kids. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. Lloyd-Jones, S., & Jago (2007). The Jesus storybook Bible: Every story whispers his name. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zonderkidz.



Lowe, T. (2009). Get motivated!: Overcome any obstacle, achieve any goal, and accelerate your success with motivational DNA. New York: Doubleday Weis, N. (1995). Raising achievers: A parent's plan for motivating children to excel. Nashville, Tenn: Broadman & Holman.

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