Practical Discipline

We avoid a lot of disciplinary issues by structuring our day, and our house rules, in such a way that there are built in rewards through the day for good behavior (cleanup comes before playtime). And we try not to make an issue of something unless it is important. I expect good things from my kids, and I always try to believe the best of them, while knowing full well that they WILL do things that are wrong, and I'll have to deal with it.

I have stated elsewhere that limits are important, and that children do key in on whether or not you care enough to set limits. Limits are ineffective without a consequence if the limit is overstepped, but the purpose of discipline is teaching, not just controlling.

A wise parent sets limits for logical reasons. Any behavior that will result in harm to the child, or which will harm another, or damage the property of another, is considered unacceptable behavior. Parents have differing standards on what constitutes inappropriate behavior and what does not.

In one home, feet on the couch are not allowed. In another they may be, but standing on the furniture is not. Some parents consider some behaviors to be more dangerous than others. So WHAT you consider to be unacceptable is not specifically the issue here. I'll not tell you where to draw the line. I have a guideline, which will give you a way to tell if the expectation is reasonable.

Your rules about what is acceptable should be measured up against some kind of standard. For us, it is, "Is this really important in the long term?"

I don't allow whistling in the house. It is a peculiarity that I have, that the sound is so annoying to me that it makes me irritable. I don't know why this is so, but it is. At one time, I felt like telling the kids not to was purely selfish on my part. But it isn't. For some reason, it irritates me at a deep level. Asking them to not do so, out of consideration for me, is not a negative thing. It teaches them that it is good to be considerate of the things that irritate others.

Of course there are more important things than that, I just use this as an example of a little thing that might not make sense in every home, but which is a rule in our home for individual reasons.

For things that involve personal safety, there can be no question of having to set limits ? to fail to do so is to risk your child's life or health. Things like staying in the yard to play, wearing a seatbelt or staying in a car seat, or not going outside without permission may all fall under this umbrella, depending on where you live. Playing with stove controls, climbing shelves, or other things that children have to be taught not to do also fall into this category.

When a child behaves in a way that could harm someone else, it is just as serious as personal safety issues. Unbuckling a sibling in the car, throwing something in anger or thoughtlessly, physically or emotionally abusive behaviors, etc, which pose a risk or present harm to someone else must be addressed in a way that helps the child understand that a line has been crossed that must not be crossed again.

Personal safety issues are what one parenting authority years ago labeled as ?Red Zone? behavior. At the time, they advocated that this was the only thing deserving of physical punishment such as a swat on the bottom. In many states now, to do even that would result in child abuse charges. I would not recommend spanking, in any form, as a potential solution, because nothing is worth losing your children over.

Red Zone behavior still needs an immediate reaction. Speed is critical here, the faster you react, the more likely your child is to realize that you really mean it. Removal of freedom, in one way or another, is an appropriate way to deal with this. Depending on the age of the child, you can hold onto their hand just long enough that they get the message, hold them on your lap very still, with no toys or put them in a playpen if they are young, or timeout of they are older, or some other way of appropriately depriving them of their freedom temporarily.

In the car, for a very young child who has just learned to escape their car seat or seatbelt, the best response is to very quickly pull over and buckle them back in, letting them know as you do that they did something wrong and must not do it again. You have to pull over as SOON as you see them unbuckle. And you can expect that you will get back into the car, and that they will do it again, right away. It is imperative that you pull over again and do the same thing you did before, and put them back in the seat. They will test you a few more times. Keep responding the same way, because what they want to know is whether you will allow them to do it ANY time. Your response must firmly be "NO".

For older children, we handle misbehaviors in the car by having them put their hands up in the air. It gets a little achy after a minute or two. If your hands cannot behave though, they have to be where Mom or Dad can see them until they are sure they can behave themselves again.

In the home, Red Zone behaviors might be handled with a cold shower if this is something that you feel is appropriate for the child (not for very young or teenage children). Never longer than about 15 seconds, because you do not want to seriously chill the child. Your goal is to give them an unpleasant tactile experience that lasts just long enough to feel uncomfortable, but not long enough to hurt or harm.

When you fail to teach your children to respect the property of others, you are teaching them to be inconsiderate. A loving parent teaches a child to respect how other people feel, and to not cause problems for other people by their behavior. To do less is to set your child up for social failure in the short term, and long term, to seriously impair their ability to maintain healthy relationships with others.

This category of behaviors is different than Red Zone behaviors. It is less immediate. In fact, it is good to teach the child to consider how they might make amends if they are old enough to do so. Appropriate consequences involve loss of freedom in younger children, and apologies and restitution in older ones. An older child may still need a consequence involving loss of freedom if what they do cannot be made better by restitution, or if what they did could have resulted in worse damage than it did. We usually restrict them in some way until they have completed the process of restitution insofar as they are capable of doing.

Consequences are important in discipline. A consequence is simply a cause and effect reaction. Often, nature provides a natural consequence, or will eventually, but nature tends to be very harsh and we'd rather our kids not have to learn that way!

Any consequence we supply will be more effective if it is related to what the child did. And it has to be a consequence that the child does not like (this in no way suggests abuse).

Yelling is not a consequence. Yelling may make you feel justified, but it is not a consequence. It is just a way for you to try to impress your anger on the child, and your anger is NOT the point. If your anger is the only reason they obey, then as soon as you are out of the picture, they will have no reason to continue to obey. There have to be deeper reasons for obeying than just because it makes mom or dad mad.

The point is that they did something wrong, and you need to teach them not to do so again. In order to do that, you need to impart an understanding of why it was wrong, so they know you have a valid reason (if they are old enough to understand this), and there needs to be a consequence so they will have good reason not to do so again. Also, because in the mind of a child, if there is no consequence, it is not really important enough to bother remembering.

Sometimes when I hand out a consequence, I'll tell my child, "I am not punishing you. I am going to do this every time you do that, so that you will remember not to do it again." And it is true. A good consequence helps the child learn to be better, by providing the motivation to move learning the concept to the top of their priorities.

Now, this next concept is one of the most important discipline concepts I have ever learned. If you can grasp this, and implement it, it will truly provide you with a key that can work miracles.

The size of the consequence is not important, consistency is. Consistent small consequences are far more effective than erratic big ones.

Did you get that? See, when a child does something wrong, we want to make sure they don't do it again, so we give them a consequence. They do it again, so we think we have to give them a BIGGER consequence. Then they do it AGAIN! See where this is going? Pretty soon the only options left are abusive ones.

Also, if the size of the crime is related to the size of the punishment, and they do something so big you give them the WORST consequence you can think of, what are you going to do if they do it again? You run out of options very fast, or end up abusing a child because you think they are not getting it!

It helps if you understand that discipline involves more than just crime -> punishment. It involves teaching, training (by repetition), and reminding. Human nature plays a big role here, and if you understand what their nature will impel them to do, you'll better be able to react appropriately.

A child takes at LEAST three repetitions of any concept in order to internalize it. Some children take more. So, if you give them cause -> effect, cause -> different effect, cause ->totally different effect, then you are actually giving a less effective discipline than if you gave the SAME consequence every time. It does not matter if the consequence IS larger each time. Consistency is always more effective than inconsistency.

Sometimes, we assume that when we give a child a consequence and they do it again, that they didn't get the point, when in fact, what they are asking is, ?Will the same thing happen every time?? If you are inconsistent, then it takes them an extra repetition or two to come to the conclusion that it will ALWAYS be something they don't like. If you do the same thing every time, and you know they don't like it, then they internalize the message more quickly.

Choose the consequence carefully the first time. Make sure that it is appropriate to the misbehavior, and that it will be unpleasant to the child in question. It does not need to be painful to work. Discomfort, inconvenience, or removal of something they enjoy will be something they don't like to have happen. You just have to know what motivates the child in question so you can target it for them.

Time out can be a good consequence for some children, a terrible one for others. Removal of privileges works great for some kids, but others just never connect it up (or what you consider to be a privilege does not mean anything to them). Each kid is different, and what works for one may not work for another. Most of the things we do work for all the kids. But in some situations, we have to adapt certain types of consequences for certain kids. We have one that grounding never works for he is just as happy inside his head as he is anywhere else. We have one that if you touched her while disciplining her, it would backfire into a control battle that would last for hours. Another one will do almost anything if you just explain why in a way he can understand, but if he does not understand you'll never make progress no matter how severe the consequence.

The number one rule then, is to be consistent. Even when it appears it is not working at first. Give it 5 repetitions before you change your strategy, and then only change it if you know that child usually gets it sooner. Usually, you get a clue that it is working, either the behavior will lessen but still be there (they want to know just how far they can push you), or it will become less frequent. Often, they'll test you again a month, or even a year or two later. Some kids will do it on a regular basis. They need to know within themselves that the rules of their world are predictable, so they'll periodically give it a whirl to see if they still are as though they are asking, "Now that I'm this old are you going to let me do it?"

Stay consistent and make sure that they always know, firmly and appropriately, that the answer is no.