How to take privileges away without becoming a monster


I recently provided some practical discipline tips for parents and I encouraged parents not to take privileges away in a punitive fashion. In another article, the 5 punishment languages, I went as far as saying that if you take things away from kids who have the love language of gifts, you will crush their spirit and teach them a false relationship between behaviour and possessions.

All of that could easily lead you to believe that we never take privileges away from our children and that I don’t condone it under any circumstance, but that’s not true. Like most parents, access to certain privileges is an important tool in our parental discipline toolbox. Like almost everything else in the subject of parenting, what matters most is being intentional rather than reactive.

One of the definitions of mature adulthood is the ability to delay gratification, and one of our key jobs as parents is leading our children toward emotional and psychological maturity. To that end, it is often useful to control access to things our kids love or want in order to teach them the basics of delayed gratification and rewards for doing hard work. By intentionally using things the kids want to craft a mentality of ownership and responsibility, you can help your children develop resilience and self-regulation. This is very different from simply taking things away when our kids make us angry.

Here’s a scenario:

Your kids are fighting over the TV or Xbox. You’ve had enough and you go to the TV room, unplug it from the wall and shout, “That’s it! No screen time for a week!” Your kids yell and scream, and you stomp off. Everyone’s frustrated but at least you’re back in charge, baby!

Here’s an alternative:

Your kids are fighting over the TV or Xbox. You take a deep breath and remind yourself that you are playing the long game. You go to the TV room and let them know that if they cannot play together peacefully, you will turn it off. You tell them they have 5 minutes to sort out their argument and you remind them that in 25 minutes the day’s TV time will be over in any case. And then you leave it at that, regardless of whether the fighting stops or not. During dinner that night, you bring up the subject of them not getting along during screen time and you help each of your children unpack what it is that is getting under their skin.

Maybe your eldest child is subtly manipulating their siblings in order to get their own way; your younger children know they’re being cheated but can’t figure what to do about it. Help your eldest see that this behaviour is selfish and unloving. Help your other children understand what they are feeling is called anger and it comes in response to their rights being violated. Let them know that anger is OK and that they can learn to control it, listen to it and not hurt people when they feel it.

Maybe one of your children is playing the peacemaker and feels overlooked and like they never get their way. Appreciate them and help them understand the beauty of peacemaking and how necessary it is in the world, and also that it’s OK to assert themselves and speak up in a kind yet firm way. You demonstrate how to do that by having this very conversation.

You also suggest to your children that they do play a lot of video games and it does appear to be causing a lot of strife in their relationships. You kindly remind them that it is a special privilege to have sufficient wealth to own an Xbox and sufficient spare time to spent on it each day. You ask them what actions they could do to help develop a greater appreciation for these things and for one another. In that discussion, you suggest a break from video games for a week, or similar. If you don’t see a change in their behaviour over the next week, then bring this point up again and insist they a break from this privilege.

The very first time we had this discussion there was mutiny at the suggestion of no video games. We were firm though and we insisted that they would be surprised by what they learned if they had to come up with other things to do. We weren’t being vindictive or reactive, we knew what was best for them and we wanted them to discover it too. Naturally they ended up discovering all kinds of board games and Lego they had forgotten about and eventually they created all kinds of new games and activities in *mostly* peaceful harmony. Though the house was a mess…

Six months later, after they had returned to their video gaming ways and were sliding back towards chaos, we had a similar conversation and we reminded them of how good a time they had last time we took a screen break. We suggested another break and they actually agreed to it peaceably. We were as surprised as you are. But if we are genuinely helping our children to grow in maturity, love and care for themselves and one another, then we should expect that their hearts will become more discerning of their own selfishness as time goes on. We shouldn’t be surprised if we’re putting in the hard work. We should expect intentional loving discipline to be effective.

The filter I encourage people to use is this: “Does God do it this way with us?” Don’t answer the question out of your own reactivity, but take the time to evaluate how the God of gracious love has treated you throughout your life and then work to treat your children with the same selfless love. How exactly you implement this in your own family needs to be guided by the Holy Spirit. My point was to demonstrate the difference between taking a privilege away reactively and using privileges intentionally as part of your wider discipline strategy to help your little people become big people on the inside.

Grace and peace to you. You can do this!

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