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  Category: Articles » Home & Family » Parenting » Article

Discipline and Consistency

By Dr. Dawn-Elise Snipes

We often hear that good parenting means consistency and discipline, but rarely does anyone ever stop to explain what that means. Let's start with discipline. When we discipline our children, we are trying to get them to do something they are not doing or stop doing something they are. Discipline is not something we just do when our children misbehave. It is an ongoing activity in which we, as parents, reward positive behaviors and punish and replace negative behaviors.

The first part is easy, but often forgotten. We take for granted that our children are going to "be good." Before we can reward them, we have to define what "being good" means. Although children learn a lot of their behavior from watching us (for better or worse), it helps them tremendously if you tell them what your expectations are. If you have ever been employed, you have probably received performance objectives. This helps you understand and better tailor your behavior to achieve what your boss wants. The same holds true for children. Without guidance and structure, they will do whatever they want and have to learn what you want through trial and error.

So, the first step is to tell the children what the rules are. Be concrete. "Clean your room" means vastly different things to my 6-year old son and me. To help him do what I wanted, I took a picture of his clean room and hung it on the back of his door. We made a list of the things that I expected in a clean room (i.e. all toys off the floor and put in their appropriate place, clothes in the hamper and books neatly on the bookshelf with the spines facing out). Try not to make too many rules and keep them simple. This is for your own sanity as well as theirs. Too many rules makes it difficult for them to succeed and difficult for you to consistently discipline.

The second step is to decide the punishment. Yes, I am a believer in time out, but it has to be done correctly. My son has ADD/ADHD and is an introvert like his dad. Time out helps him calm down, but being isolated from others for a short time has virtually no effect on him. Putting children in time-out in their rooms where they have toys, books and a comfy bed is similarly ineffective. The punishment has to fit the child. Ask yourself, what toy, activity or privilege can I take away that would serve as a punishment for my child? Put the child in time-out in a place where they will not receive any attention. My parents had a chair in the hallway. Additionally, explain to them that they are losing the toy, privilege or activity for a certain amount of time, but by behaving appropriately, they can have it back after that. For example, if my son behaves inappropriately, we put him in time-out for 5 minutes, and explain to him that we are taking away his computer games for 48 hours. After that 48 hours is up, if he behaved the whole time, he can have them back. If he misbehaves while the games are in time out, an additional day gets added on to the toy's time-out for each episode of misbehavior.

In sum, be reasonable. If you take away the toy forever, the child has less motivation to behave than if he believes he will get it back through good behavior. Is this bribery, well, sort-of, but young children's moral compasses do not operate the same way. Children are usually motivated either by the desire to avoid punishment, the desire to please an authority figure or the desire to satisfy his/her own wants and needs. In this stage, children have difficulty making decisions based upon their impact on others. They are very me-oriented. Help your child talk out the implications of his/her choices and role-play or discuss alternatives. "How do you think that made Johnny feel when you took his toy?" "What could you do next time you are playing with Johnny and you and he both want to play with the same toy?" "What do you think you need to do now?"

Replacing the inappropriate behaviors is another area many parents forget. You cannot just remove a behavior and expect the child to have an appropriate alternative. Most adults cannot even do that. For example, when people try to quit smoking, they are eliminating a behavior. They smoked out of habit and to relax. Now they have to find something else to do when they are bored or stressed. Often people start frantically trying to find a new behavior which often ends up being as bad as the old behavior (eating instead of smoking for example). When you punish a behavior, make sure to discuss with the child what an acceptable alternative would be. Sometimes it helps children to role-play.

Another way to eliminate bad behavior is by rewarding good behavior. Huh??? Yep, it is true. Think about it, can you be mean and kind at the same time? Can you be lie and tell the truth at the same time? For every sin there is a corresponding virtue. If you consistently reward these behaviors, the child will be less motivated to do the wrong things. Rewards do not necessarily mean material rewards. As I said earlier, many children are motivated by approval from authority figures. Regularly give them verbal praise. If they do something especially good, make them a certificate. Make sure to share their good deeds with people they respect such as Grandma or your pastor.

Finally consistency. I was watching Dr. Phil (Yes, psychotherapists watch Dr. Phil too) once many years ago and he said "Never pick a battle you cannot win." If you make a rule, be sure it is one you can and are willing to monitor and reward or punish as appropriate. If you make empty threats, fail to punish every single instance of the behavior or give in to a lesser consequence, the child wins.

I am guilty of this too. Most of the time I am very consistent, but at bed time, they play me like a violin. My son learned early-on what buttons to push to get to stay up longer. I would tuck him in and sternly say "Don't get out of that bed unless it is an emergency or you have to potty." Well, that was his first in—or out as the case may be. Before I knew it, every night I would tuck him in and 15 minutes later he would be up going potty---even if he went right before bed. Okay, he really did go, so I let it ride. Then he figured out that he could stay up longer if he said he was hungry. I tried to tell him "no" once and he started crying "But Mommy, I don't want to be hungry…" I caved. He was 3. Then came checking the room for monsters….and so on until he had worked himself into a 2 hour routine. I noticed however, that he did not even try that when his daddy was home. It was then I realized I had been played, and lost! Tightening the reigns is much, much harder than loosening them.

The same principle is true if you give in to a tantrum. The child learns what threshold you will give in. If you tolerate something up to a point, then give in to get her to stop, you have just taught her where to start the next time. If it does not work, she will put a bit more energy into it figuring you will eventually give in. So what do you do? Well, be strong. When the energy required or the punishment is greater than the reward, the tantrum will stop. Do not start a battle of wills and refuse to see it through because that just creates a more willful child. We live about 30 miles from town. Going shopping is an ordeal. My son hates the heat. When I go by myself, if he misbehaves, we just leave and he loses a privilege when we get home. If his father is there, they go sit outside against the wall until I am finished shopping. You can imagine how miserable that is for him in July in Florida. They have only had to do that twice in 5 years. Now that he knows that we will follow through, simply the threat of it is enough to straighten up his behavior.

I have spent a lot of this article talking about punishment. I do want to reiterate that if you are clear, concrete and consistent at the outset and reward good behaviors, there will be far fewer bad behaviors. Therefore, make a list of expectations. Go over it with your child and make sure she understands what they all mean. Make a list of consequences---What will be lost and for how long. (You will probably have to tinker with this until you get the feel for exactly how to make the punishment fit the crime. ) Consistently and liberally praise and highlight good behaviors. When bad behaviors occur, correct them immediately and calmly. When the child's time-out is over, make sure to process with her what she did wrong, why it was wrong, how it impacted others and what she should do differently next time. Then let it go. Repeatedly bringing it up will just shame the child and will not improve your results.
About the Author
Dr. Dawn-Elise Snipes currently runs an online private practice
Dr-Is-In, and an online continuing education site All CEUs. She received her PhD in counseling from the University of Florida in 2003 and worked in community mental health for nearly 10 years.

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