Discipline, Decision-Making, and the Four Cardinal Virtues

Do you ever feel as if there are days when your are too often taking disciplinary action with your kids? Do you ever feel as if you have morphed into The Punisher, doling out “consequences” to one child after another? Do you ever feel as if you are frequently scolding and reprimanding your children — and getting nowhere?

I’ve been there. With my younger ones sometimes I’m still there. But I have a little secret about discipline that I’d like to share:

Change must come from within.

Too often, we look at discipline as behavior modification. We try to change our children’s behavior through a series of external controls: punishments and rewards. Many of us use the If-Then approach. If you don’t eat your broccoli, then you don’t get dessert. If you do the dishes, then you can play video games. Even if we don’t actually verbalize the If-Then, we tend to take an action-reaction approach to discipline. And the more consistent and firm we are with applying appropriate consequences to misdemeanours, the more effective this approach is. But only to a certain extent and only up to a certain age.

Because real change must come from within.

True discipline is not simply a matter of blackmailing and bribing or punishing and rewarding. “Discipline” comes from the Latin word “discipulus”, meaning student. By its etymology, the word discipline implies teaching our children. We want to educate and form their minds, hearts, and wills so they freely choose to behave appropriately and internalize our moral beliefs. With this in mind, we can not be satisfied with just coercing our children to obey, whether by punishment or reward, without regard to their interior disposition. The external compliance that we may exact from a toddler, preschooler, or young child becomes increasingly insufficient as a child grows older. If we do allow ourselves to be ‘satisfied’ with just external compliance, we will be very unsatisfied with what often follows in the long run: passive aggressive behavior, resentment and rebellion, and/or deceitful manipulation. No thanks.

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I’ll be the first to admit that we use punishments and rewards in our home, particularly with the younger kids. But there is a problem only or mostly using the If-Then or punishment/reward system. The problem is that with this approach children almost always choose that which is in their best interests. If you don’t share that toy, then I’ll take it away. You are essentially telling your kids, “Here are two choices. Choose the one that will incur the least pain or the most pleasure for you.”  If a child begrudgingly chooses to share the toy, you might say, “Good choice. You shared your toy.” But was it really a good choice? Not really.  He was probably not thinking of the joy he might be giving to his sibling. He was still choosing in his own best interest.

As children grow, we want them to mature and become aware of the needs of others. Pre-teens and teens need to know that wise choices are not based on “what is best for me.” Rather, the best decisions are based on these four criteria:

  1. Is my decision just?
  2. Is it responsible?
  3. Is it prudent? (Is it the right thing to do at the right time?)
  4. Is it charitable?
  5. If your children are spiritually mature enough, they should also pray and consider: Is this the will of God?

Notice that these criteria require the decision-makers to be aware of the good of others. It requires them to be considerate, thoughtful, and generous. On the contrary, a disciplinary system which encourages children to think mainly of their own best interests will inflate their ego-centricity and teach them to be manipulative. Instead of developing the habit of thinking of others, children learn to find ways to beat the system or outsmart their parents in order to get what they want. So, while the If-Then system may produce external compliance, on its own it does little to nurture any interior motivations for obeying, doing what is right, or thinking of others.

True discipline entails helping our children develop the four cardinal virtues: justice, temperance, prudence, and fortitude. These are called the cardinal virtues because all other virtues hinge from these four. (Cardo means “hinge” in Latin.) For example, honesty and responsibility stem from justice. Chastity stems from temperance. Compelling our children to obey using punishments and rewards is a necessary part of discipline. However if we are diligent about working on the cardinal virtues with our children, we will need to enforce external compliance less and less frequently because we will be providing them with internal motivations for acting selflessly.

We will be helping our children mature from within.

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So how do we do this?

Once a child enters the age of reason (around seven years old), we need to start focusing on giving our children internal motivations for obeying and doing what is right. We do this by forming their consciences, training their wills, and turning their hearts towards God so they eventually learn to make the right choices on their own.

When our children are around the age of seven, we need to start appealing to reason. Simply saying, “Do this because I said so,” or “Do this or you will be punished,” is no longer sufficient for them. Children ought to be given the chance to understand the reasoning behind our requests/demands. Of course, there  will be many times when they do not  understand or agree with our reasoning. In such cases, we will have to settle for external compliance, making them obey even while they disagree. Moreover, explaining to our children the reasons why they need to eat vegetables or floss their teeth is important, but it should not lead to an argument or negotiations.  You state your reasons, and if they don’t agree, they have to obey anyways.

Sometimes, no matter how many times you have given your reason, a child may repeatedly ask, “but why?”  In such situations, it helps to make your child repeat your reasons. That way, both you and the child know that he/she knows your reasons.

Around the age of nine, many children begin to develop a strong sense of justice. You can observe this in the way children of this age make up  games and clubs with their own rules. You can also see it in the way children begin to complain that so-and-so is not being fair. Fairness is a big issue with children in the primary grades. Naturally, this is a time when we can begin to appeal to our children’s sense of fairness, especially when it comes to household chores and sibling quibbling. When a child sees that your request is fair and just, he is more likely to comply without dispute.

Sparky: Why do I have to sweep the floor? That’s not my job!

Mom: You are the one who spilled the rice, so it’s only fair that you sweep it up.

Of course, there will be times when a child cannot or will not see that your request is fair. You can then offer more explanations, but again, don’t open the door to debate or argument. If you see that your appeals to fairness are going nowhere, tell your child you are willing to discuss the issue after he/she has obeyed.

Sparky: Well, last time Princess spilled her food you made me sweep it up. That’s not fair!

Mom: Each child does chores according to his ability. When you were Princess’ age, Feisty swept up your messes. Besides, we don’t only take care of ourselves. We take care of each other, too.

Sparky: Feisty didn’t sweep up my messes.

Mom: Yes, he did. Now sweep the floor. Discussion closed.

Sparky: But- but-

Mom: Discussion closed. We can talk about it more after you sweep the floor. 

If you have a choleric, strong-willed child, many times his sense of justice will be outraged when his idea of fairness is pitted against yours. Many children at this age are still ego-centric and so is their sense of fairness. They can only see what is fair from their own limited perspective. When this happens, don’t lose heart. If you stand by your reasons, in time they will come to see the fairness of your decisions, assuming  you are as objectively fair as possible and show no favoritism. The point is that you are teaching your children to see beyond their own point of view and to act justly.

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When our children are around the age of eleven, we need to start helping them develop the virtue of responsibility. When doing this, appeal to your children’s sense of honor and duty, which is tied to justice. Let your children know that you need them, that the family needs them. Children need to be needed. Being needed gives them a sense of importance and confidence.

Mom: Feisty, I need you to make sure the dishwasher is cleared every morning. We’re all relying on you to do that job on time, otherwise breakfast is late and then we all start school late.

Or, Mom: Feisty, thanks so much for clearing the dishwasher this morning without being told. What a huge help! It makes such a difference when we start the day on time.

Teach your children that at this age it is not enough to obey. They need to be faithful to their duties without having to be reminded. They need to be responsible, for the sake of the family. Of course, there will be many times when you will need to back up your words with consequences or loss of privileges when your children fail to act responsibly. Again, the main point is that you are appealing to their sense of duty and responsibility first before resorting to punishments or rewards. You are giving them a chance to act on interior motivations before enforcing external compliance.

A virtue closely related to responsibility is temperance, which is acting responsibly with one’s body. The pre-teen years are important years for your child to  exercise and develop temperance because this virtue is the forerunner of holy purity and chastity. Teach your children by example and word to do or use all things in moderation. All things. Not only food, but screen time, iPhones, toys, even work. And then, make them practice this virtue.

Mom: All-Star, you’ve been on the computer long enough. You have five minutes to finish up what you’re doing and then you need a change of activity.

All-Star: Arghh! C’mon Mom! I’m in the middle of a really cool project. How about thirty more minutes?

Mom: I know what you’re doing is really neat. But you know how easy it is to get addicted to the screen. You need to use the computer in moderation. You can use it again tomorrow.

All-Star: All right. Five minutes more.

As our children approach enter their teen-age years, we need to help them develop the virtue of prudence. Prudence is not just about making safe decisions. It is the virtue that allows us to judge correctly, to know what is right and wrong in any given situation. It is also the virtue that enables us to recognize sound advice. (More on that here) As our teens seek greater autonomy and privacy, they need to know that these can only be granted to the extent that they demonstrate sound judgement. Many teens are impulsive and impatient. They want immediate gratification. More than ever, this is an important time to talk to them about the decisions they face, helping them to weigh the pros and cons. Help them realize the how their decisions will affect not only themselves but others as well.


When we do need to punish our children, let it be in such a way that they internalize what we are trying to teach them. One of the best ways of getting your point across and assessing if a child has “learned his lesson” is to make him/her write it out. This is something I learned from Dr. Ray Guarendi, and it has often yielded interesting, even humorous results. For example, if your elementary school age child has the habit of smacking his siblings, have him write a letter of apology every time he hits someone. In the letter, he should apologize to the offended sibling, state several reasons why he should not have done that, and ask for forgiveness. Your little smacker may need a little help. You may need to brainstorm with him. But that’s all good because its forcing him to think about, remember, and regurgitate the reasons why hitting one’s siblings is wrong. Plus there’s the possibility that having to write another such letter will make your child recoil from repeating the offense. If it doesn’t, he can always write a longer, more elaborate letter. There’s something about writing that makes a lesson stick. Simply talking about it will probably only lead to an argument or a lecture received with plenty of eye-rolling. But when a child writes about something, he takes ownership of it. Eventually, the lesson will sink in. However, you wouldn’t want to use this approach for every misdemeanor. I’d pick one bad habit you really want to help your child overcome and use it just for that.

It’s one thing to know what’s right but an entirely different matter to want it. That’s why educating our children’s wills is another important part of discipline. It may seem obvious, but we need to nurture in our children a desire to be good and to do the right thing, even when it’s hard or calls for self-sacrifice. That desire is so important. Wanting to be good and to do what’s right is a child’s first step away from ego-centricity and towards maturity.   So nurture a desire for goodness: first by your own example, second by upholding models of saints and heroes as people to be admired and imitated, and most importantly by inspiring a deep love for God.

Supposedly an abbess once gave St. Thomas Aquinas a large, beautiful book that was blank inside. She asked him to write instructions for her nuns on how to become a saint. St. Thomas took the book and wrote only two words: Will it. Just two words, but they speak volumes. How is it that people find the strength to do incredibly difficult things such as competing in a triathlon or climbing Mt. Everest ? Essentially, they will it. They want it so much that they do what it takes to  achieve  their goals. Sanctity is not much different. Fueled by a deep love for God, holiness is something that can be achieved as long as one wants it enough. This is especially true because our holiness is something God wants for us even more than we do, and He will always give us the graces we need.

In my last post I made reference to a talk by Fr. Harndon about Mother Teresa and Home Education. These words are worth reading again:

You must make sure that your sons and daughters know the will of God in their lives. They must know the meaning of charity and chastity, of patience and humility, of prayer and generosity. So much for the minds of your children.

In the words of Mother Teresa, you must train the wills of your children. They must be resolute, determined, stubborn in their insistence on choosing to do what God wants. What a statement! You must train your children to become “willing slaves to the will of God.”

A resolute, determined, stubborn insistence on choosing to do God’s will – this is how  your children will develop the fortitude they need (that fourth cardinal virtue) to persevere in doing God’s will. Have your children read about the lives of saints to know what that looks like.

Do you want to be a saint? How much do you want to be a saint? How much do you love Christ? These are questions worth discussing with our children. The strongest, most powerful interior motivation for doing what is right is a deep love for God and, subsequently, the tenacious commitment to doing His will. In the busyness and messiness of child rearing and homeschooling, let’s not forget that. Let’s not forget that the interior lives of our children are so much more important than their external behaviors.

Finally, (phew… I’m almost done!) if we want to help our children mature from within, we must have recourse to prayer. I’m convinced that the best parenting happens on one’s knees. We must pray for the conversion of our children’s hearts, even while they are young, innocent, and at home. We must pray that their hearts are ever turning towards Christ and that He draws them closer and closer to His heart. Pray that they grow in justice, temperance, prudence, and fortitude. Humility and charity, too! When your kids are driving your crazy, pray for them. When a child complains about a sibling, pray with him/her for the offending sibling. Do not try tackle the job of disciplining your children on your own; ask Our Lord and let Our Lord do most of the work.

So there you have my little (but lengthy!) secret about discipline. In a nutshell: focus on helping your children mature from within by giving them interior motivations to do what’s right. Teach them to make decisions that are just, responsible, prudent, and charitable by helping them develop the cardinal virtues. Foster a deep love for God so they will seek to do God’s will in all things. Above all, pray for God’s grace and wisdom for you and your children. He will surely bless your family abundantly.

3 thoughts on “Discipline, Decision-Making, and the Four Cardinal Virtues

  1. Wow! This is such a great article! Your sincerity and commitment in “disciplining” one’s children is so inspiring and encouraging. Thank you for sharing!


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