Wednesday, May 30, 2001
Five rules for control
K. MOFFATT, PH. D
It has been a long time since I wrote about discipline in this column so I suppose it is worth bringing up again.
Whenever I am addressing audiences on parenting issues, discipline is almost always brought up as a concern. There are no magic wands for controlling children, but there are a number of things that a parent can do to make obedience and good behavior more likely.
The number one rule in disciplining children is consistency. Inconsistency in discipline teaches the child that the parent doesn't really mean what he or she says. Inconsistency teaches adults the same thing.
Consider how you drive. Most people on the freeway drive faster than the speed limit. They know it is against the law and they know they could get a ticket. In fact, many of them have been cited for speeding, but the ticket doesn't significantly affect their driving behaviors because they know that sometimes they can speed and get away with it. Children will respond to parents the same way at home when discipline is inconsistent.
A second rule is to allow natural consequences to discipline for you. For example, my eight-year-old daughter may be taking a long time to finish her homework. A rule in our house is that you don't swim in the pool until homework is done. If she piddles around and doesn't finish her homework and there is no time left to swim, that is the natural consequence. I might remind her several times that she may run out of time to swim, but the choice is hers.
In this example, I didn't prevent her from swimming. She did that to herself. All behaviors have consequences - some good and some bad.
Children will learn over time to correct their own behavior when they see that their choices have led to unpleasant consequences. Natural consequences take some of the burden off of the parent for having to be the bad guy, as well.
Rule number three is to look for ways to reinforce positive behaviors. "Discipline" does not always mean "punishment." Punishing wrong behaviors is just one method to discipline.
Catching children when they are doing something right encourages them to repeat that behavior. It takes work to pay attention to a child's "good" behaviors and to reinforce them, but it is an important part of parenting. If a parent only interacts with the child when she is in trouble, the child will begin to believe that she can't do anything right.
Simple words like, "I noticed that you got ready for school right away and I didn't have to remind you. Thanks!" can have a very powerful effect on behavior.
Rule number four is that parents must work as a team. Children learn very quickly how to play parents against each other.
Parents who do not support each other end up fighting each other while the child gets what he wants. Parents must agree on their discipline practices, rules for the home, and so forth.
Disagreements over the way one parent has handled a problem with a child must be conducted in private. The child must see his parents as 100 percent unified when it comes to discipline. This is especially critical when children are teenagers.
One final rule is there are no disciplinary practices that work universally and every child is different.
Some children respond very effectively to reinforcement. They almost never need to be punished because they are very cooperative and easy going. Other children are more obstinate and difficult. Reinforcement may not work very well by itself and the parent finds herself always battling for control with a child like this. The parent then wonders what she is doing wrong - the other child was so easy! Yet this is part of human variability.
When I am working with teachers or parents trying to find a way to control a child whose behavior is out of control, it sometimes takes us two or three tries before we find what works.
Every child is different, even within the same family, so don't expect the same disciplinary practices to work the same with each child. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don't.
If a disciplinary practice is not working for a given child, find something else to use. Don't just do more of the same.
These ideas are general rules, but of course this is not all you have to know. If you are having trouble keeping your child under control, it may be necessary to seek some professional assistance. Two or three sessions with a counselor can help parents see what they are doing right and what they could do differently. Parents who are motivated to improve things at home can see dramatic changes fairly quickly.