How to Correct Children With Care

Chris Coursey  and Marcus Warner
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The key to correcting children well is remaining relational. Remaining relational is all about mastering an important brain function we call the “Joy Switch.”[1] When this switch is on, remaining relational is easy, but when it is off it can be virtually impossible to remain relational. There are relational circuits in our brain that allow us to act like ourselves and connect relationally with others. When these circuits get too dim or turn off altogether, we don’t act like ourselves. In an instant we can go from friendly and engaging to shut down, sulking, or scary.

Have you ever been in a conversation that was going well until you got triggered? Then, all of a sudden it was like you turned into a different person. This has happened to me (Marcus) on many occasions. As a parent, I can sometimes get so focused on the problem my child has caused that my Joy Switch shuts off. When that happens, I do not attune to my child; I just want the problem to get fixed and my life to get easier. Here is a short list of what happens when the Joy Switch shuts down.

  • We lose curiosity. This usually happens because we think we have our kids all figured out. As a result, we lose our curiosity about how our child feels or what they think. We just want them to comply.
  • We lose appreciation. In the moment, while we are upset, we don’t remember what we appreciate about our child. In fact, we can begin to see our child as a problem to be managed or an enemy to be defeated.
  • We lose kindness. When the Joy Switch goes off, I don’t feel like being kind anymore. In fact, I can get mean if I am not careful.
  • We lose eye contact, unless it is to stare our kid down.

Learning to recognize when your Joy Switch is off is a crucial parenting skill. If we have lost curiosity, appreciation, kindness, and eye contact (which spells CAKE to make it easier to remember), we will not correct with care. Therefore, the first step in correcting with care is to make sure your relational circuits are on. You do this by taking a moment to recognize they are off, disconnecting briefly until you can find some curiosity, appreciation, and kindness, then making eye contact and attuning to your child.

Our goal in correcting with care is forming character, not just correcting behavior.

I (Chris) can remember walking into my child’s room and seeing that the job I had given them to do had been neglected in order to play a video game. I have handled this type of problem in two very different ways: with my Joy Switch on or with my Joy Switch off. When my Switch is off, I lead with my anger and my fixation on the problem. I let my child know how upset I am and how disappointed I am that the job has not been done. When my Switch is on, I do not lead with my upset emotions but by synchronizing with my child’s emotions. I might say something like, “I see you are enjoying your video game. That’s not what I sent you here to do, is it? Do you remember what you were supposed to do?” By reading his emotional state and leading with curiosity I kept the situation relational.

Our goal in correcting with care is forming character, not just correcting behavior. You may recall that at the infant level, toddlers can’t process a negative command. Therefore, we need to learn how to give positive instructions to our little ones. As we move into the child stage, correcting with care looks different. You can think of the process as a “correction sandwich” in which you put the problem between two slices of relational bread.[2] The goal is to keep the relationship bigger than the problem as we correct our children. First, we will introduce the model; then we will troubleshoot a few common issues that arise.

Let’s say a child is upset because he wants to play video games instead of doing chores. This is a case where we need to correct with care. Using the correction sandwich approach might look like this.

1. Relate. Relate by attuning to your child’s emotions rather than leading with your own. We might say, “I see you are upset that I told you to clean your room when you wanted to play. I know cleaning is not as fun as playing games on your tablet, but . . .” What comes after the word “but” is the second step. The first step is attuning and getting the conversation off to a relational start.

Another tool that helps keep problems relational is curiosity. Because we are often sure we have our kids figured out (which we probably do), we often skip asking them questions to draw them out and guide them. You can practice this skill by starting sentences with the words, “I’m curious . . .” or “I’m wondering . . .” So you might ask, “I’m wondering what stopped you from doing what I asked. Did you get distracted?”

2. Resolve. Identify and resolve the problem. Explain what needs correcting. If needed, we can give a few options on how to solve the problem. To go back to our conversation from the first step, it might look like this.

“I see you are upset that I told you to clean your room when you wanted to play. I know cleaning is not as fun as playing games on your tablet, but work needs to come before play. Get your job done and you can play after you finish.”

At this point most kids push back. They are going to look for a strategy to get what they want. If one works, they will return to it again and again. Here are some common pushbacks.

  • Cuteness—They may try to charm you into letting them have their way. They may bat their eyes and say, “Please!!!” as they play on your emotions and hope you give in.
  • Tantrums—This can happen on a scale that ranges from pouting to yelling and breaking things. “This isn’t fair. You let Olivia play her game. You never let me do what I want.”
  • Shame—The goal is to manipulate you by making you second-guess yourself. Sometimes we give in just to relieve the tension. “You never let me have any fun. You ruin everything! I hate you.”
  • Bargaining—“Just give me five more minutes. If you let me play now, I’ll get this done later, I promise.”
  • Arguing—If you offer a reason for why they need to obey, they will find one point in what you said and attack it. “Work doesn’t need to come before play. That’s stupid. I can get both things done before lunch.”

You can probably think of many other strategies kids use to get their way. If they discover that one or two of these strategies work, they will use it again and again until they become experts at the art of manipulation.

One way to avoid the whole argument process in the childhood stage is to require obedience now with the promise of an explanation later. This doesn’t work with adults, but it is effective with children. When your child asks, “Why? Why do I have to do this?” you can promise them an explanation later—after they obey. You don’t want to set a precedent of needing to win an argument before your kids will obey you. We need to learn to say things like, “You finish your chores first, and we’ll talk about it later.”

3. Restore. Restore the relationship. The “correction sandwich” process concludes by making sure the child knows their relationship with you is secure. This may not happen until after they have obeyed or have received consequences. But the idea is to make sure that you end with a sense of having a reconnected relationship. Our goal isn’t simply to get the child to obey, but to grow their maturity, which includes modeling how to deal with problems (even disobedience) relationally.

A word on consequences. We need to make sure consequences fit the action. You don’t ground a kid for a month for talking back to you. You don’t invent consequences in the heat of the moment. Instead, it is important to establish clear expectations of what the consequences will be before you start. It can also be helpful to postpone pronouncing consequences until you have time to think (and calm down). You might say, “I am going to go think about this for a minute and I’ll let you know what is going to happen when I return or when Mom gets home.”

We need to make sure consequences fit the action.

Restoring the relationship may happen at bedtime. Recently one of my (Chris’s) sons said, “I wish I had parents who would let me do whatever I want.” I was able to validate that feeling then use it as a teaching moment. I said, “It’s because we love you that we correct and guide you. If we didn’t care about you, we’d let you do whatever you wanted. We wouldn’t care. But we do care because we love you.” I (Marcus) often told my kids, “I want you to be successful in life. There are some paths that lead to success and some that don’t. The path you are on does not lead to success; therefore I need to correct you before you get going too far in the wrong direction.”

When he was in early elementary school, our (Marcus and Brenda’s) son told us he had been cheating on his math homework. To his credit, we would not have known if he had not confessed. We practiced the correction sandwich approach. Relate: We sat down with him and did our best to attune to his emotions. He felt shame and fear, so we validated those emotions. Resolve: After attuning and validating, we then attempted to resolve the problem by showing curiosity to find out what actually happened and why. We then took a break and came back with the decision that his consequence would be double the math homework for a week. Restore: We wrapped up by giving him a hug and letting him know we appreciated his honesty and loved him.

We also let him know this wouldn’t change our plans for going out to eat together as a family, and I promised not to bring this up while we were out having fun. The correction sandwich approach kept the relationship bigger than the problem. We have had to revisit this event a few times since then, not to shame him, but to see what his feelings were now that some time had gone by. Even though everything seemed fine at the time, there have been a few opportunities to strengthen our relationship by demonstrating curiosity and connection over his emotions since that event.

[1] See Chris Coursey, The Joy Switch: How Your Brain’s Secret Circuit Affects Your Relationships—and How You Can Activate It (Chicago: Northfield, 2021); see also Marcus Warner and Chris Coursey, The 4 Habits of Joy-Filled Marriages: How 15 Minutes a Day Will Help You Stay in Love (Chicago: Northfield, 2018) for more about relational brain circuits and the switch in the brain.

[2] A similar process is described as an envelope conversation in Marcus Warner and E. James Wilder, Rare Leadership: 4 Uncommon Habits for Increasing Trust, Joy, and Engagement in the People You Lead (Chicago: Northfield, 2016), 133–134. Marcus Warner and Chris Coursey, The 4 Habits of Joy-Filled Marriages: How 15 Minutes a Day Will Help You Stay in Love (Chicago: Northfield, 2019) and relational sandwiches in E. James Wilder, Edward M. Khouri, Chris. M. Coursey, Shelia D. Sutton, Joy Starts Here: The Transformation Zone (East Peoria, IL: Shepherd’s House, Inc., 2013).

For Further Reading:

The 4 Habits of Raising Joy-Filled Kids

by Marcus Warner and Chris Coursey

Is “Joy-Building” the secret to raising mature healthy kids? Joy-filled kids aren’t always happy kids, but they do know how...

book cover for The 4 Habits of Raising Joy-Filled Kids