PRIME-TIME DISCIPLINE: THE PREVENTIVE APPROACH
The goal of effective prime-time discipline is self-discipline. That’s the preventive approach. Working parents can’t oversee & police all their children’s activities. Therefore, they must teach their children how to make good decisions about their own behaviour. When children are self-controlled rather than parent-controlled, it frees time for more creative, enjoyable, & happy family interactions–more quality time together.
Children’s inappropriate behaviour ranges from childish irresponsibility (such as forgetting to feed the dog & accidentally spilling the milk) to wilful defiance of parental authority. In between these two extremes there is a wide range of “normal” misbehavior by children who persistently challenge the limitations imposed by adults.
In order to avoid unnecessary conflict, a parent must understand the difference between discipline & punishment. Punishment is a penalty imposed upon a child for a wrong-doing. Discipline, on the other hand, is a teaching process. It helps him learn lessons that will make him a better person.
Punishment is arbitrarily imposed; discipline relates directly to a child’s inappropriate behaviour. For example, Tim was late getting home from school & had not notified his mother. If she chose to punish him, she might take his bicycle away for two weeks & spank him for his irresponsibility. If, on the other hand, she chose a disciplinary action, she might not allow Tim to watch his favourite TV show that evening so that he could have the time to finish the homework & chores he’d neglected by arriving home late. She might also set up some careful limitations for future behaviour. “Unless you call home & receive permission for a variance, you must be home thirty minutes after school each day or no TV that night.” When discipline is effective it avoids needless conflict & enhances the possibilities for more quality family time.
Remember to keep the request simple. When you make a request, you must always be aware of your child’s ability to understand & remember that request.
Most parents make far too many requests of their children. “Kevin, brush your teeth & wash your face. Be sure to go to the bathroom before we leave. You forgot to clear your plate from the table. And have Kim run a comb through your hair.” My 7-year-old can’t even follow this string of requests. I know because we have tried it & it has never worked! Very few children will speak up & say, “Hold it. I can’t remember everything you’re telling me to do.” Instead, they signal us silently by failing to follow all our instructions. And we respond by accusing them of disobedience! So, when you are trying to teach your child that you are an authority, remember this little jingle:
Just ask the child one thing to do
And then make sure you follow through.
The Qualities of an Effective Disciplinarian
Being open means that parents are approachable; that they will listen. It means that they will seriously consider another person’s (even a little person’s) suggestions, criticism, needs, concerns, demands, & wishes before making a decision, rather than jealously guarding this function as their own parental right.
Let’s pretend that you think it’s very important for your child to make his bed each morning. Your child knows exactly how you feel–it is a rule that he should obey. But you are very busy during those morning hours & often forget to check his room. When you do check & find an unmade bed, you sometimes feel that it’s easier to ignore the infraction than to exert the extra effort needed to get him to make his bed before the school bus arrives. So you decide to wait until after school. Then, by the time you both get home, the bed is forgotten.
Now, you still feel very strongly about the bed, & you have communicated this to your child in no uncertain terms. Shouldn’t this be enough to get the job done? He clearly knows what he should do. Why doesn’t he do it? The reason is that this requirement has not been consistently enforced.
Children will abide by reasonable requirements & limitations, but their tendency is to do as little as possible. Even a two-year-old will try to get away with as much as he can. He’ll quickly learn that even though his parents say “no” frequently, the limits will come tumbling down if he kicks hard enough. When his persistent challenging meets with parental inconsistency, he’ll be encouraged to kick at every limit he would just as soon do without.
Balance tenderness & firmness.
A good disciplinarian constantly walks the tightrope between firmness & tenderness. Sometimes he may tip in one direction but he corrects the error with a little tip in the opposite direction. He is not afraid to be firm, but he is equally unafraid to be tender.
Inspire your child with a sense of hope; assure him of your support & your trust in his capabilities.
Between the plunking of the typewriter keys, I thought I heard a whimper. I left the study to investigate. Kari was sitting on the piano bench, her eyes brimming with tears. “What’s wrong, Kari?” I asked.
“I can’t do it. It’s too hard. I’ll never get a gold star at my next lesson,” she cried.
“Oh, I don’t know about that,” I said. “What is the first note of your piece?” Step by step I began encouraging her to pick her way through the difficult music. I sat beside her as she played it over & over again until it was mastered.
That night Kari hugged & kissed me with extra feeling & bounced off to her bed joyfully. The next day the joy of encouragement buoyed her again when her teacher rewarded her with a gold star.
Encouragement. What a tranquilizer! What a stimulant! What an antidepressant! What a tonic for whatever ails a child! I don’t think there is ever a time when encouragement & hope are inappropriate. A disobedient child is often a discouraged child. He reasons, “When I don’t feel good about myself & nothing I do seems to work out, it really doesn’t matter how I act. Why even try to be good?” Discouragement can lead to despair, moodiness, even apathy. All these emotions severely restrict a child’s ability to cope & to make wise decisions.
Don’t risk discouragement; give your child an injection of “hypodermic affection” every three hours, or as often as needed. This quick injection of love can be a hug, a wink, a smile, or a playful nibble on a baby’s tummy. These little attentions can give a child a new outlook on life.
Common Mistakes of Parents
The following list of common parental mistakes offers some guidelines to help you err less frequently.
- Living too close to the problem to view it objectively. One day a frustrated mother lamented to her child’s teacher, “I have no idea what I am going to do with my boy. I can’t cope with his behavior. He is constantly on my nerves & in my hair & under foot. He is always doing things that annoy me.”
“Well,” replied the teacher, “have you ever thought of getting him a bicycle?”
“A bicycle!” the parent exclaimed. “Now, how is that going to change his behaviour?”
“Well, it may not change his behaviour,” replied the teacher, “but it would spread it over a wider area.”
Sometimes problems are magnified because we view them at such close range. Gain a new perspective by stepping away from the situation occasionally. Learn to view your child from the perspective of others. Remember, a child’s behaviour is not nearly so irritating if it is spread over a wider area & viewed from a healthy perspective!
- Being too restrictive or too permissive. Parents who feel insecure about their children’s behaviour tend to restrict that behaviour to such an extent that the child has little room to think creatively & misbehave. When a child’s behaviour is severely restricted, he cannot learn to make decisions & experience the consequences of those decisions. Overly restricted children are followers; they are overly compliant, shy, & hesitant to reach out to others. These children can surprise parents by suddenly going to the opposite extreme during the teenage years & rebelling against parental values & standards.
The opposite extreme, being too permissive, is equally detrimental to a child’s development. If you allow your child to do whatever he pleases, you are heading for conflict throughout the child-rearing years. Overpermissiveness may seem like a good way to avoid conflict, but without parental guidance, children tend to pack together & run wild until their aggressive, noncompliant behaviour gets them into trouble.
- Expecting misbehavior. When asked the question, “How is your child’s behaviour?” one father quipped, “I don’t know. He has never behaved!” Children tend to fulfil the expectations of others. If you expect them to be bad, they will usually reward you with this very behaviour. In fact, they may even outdo your expectations. On the other hand, if they know that you trust them to make good decisions (unless they are rebelling against you in some way), they will usually do everything in their power to fulfil those expectations.
- Being too busy to discipline. The first time a child misbehaves, he must be corrected & taught a more acceptable mode of behavior. If he does it again, he must be corrected again. Surprisingly, however, parents are often too busy to follow through on their instructions to a child. Your arms may be elbow deep in the dishwater; you may be talking on the phone to a business associate; you may be entertaining the boss & his wife. Too often, parents allow the dishes, a caller, or a guest to absorb their full attention, so they ignore misbehavior & neglect to discipline. Disciplining a child after the company has departed is not as effective as immediate disciplinary action. Imagine the impact on your child if you excuse yourself from your company for a few minutes to talk privately with your child about the inappropriateness of his behaviour. Your child will never forget that Mom and Dad will leave whatever they are doing in order to teach their children appropriate behaviour, even though they may be very busy at that time.
- Not trusting the child’s capability for self-discipline. If you have established a good rapport with your child during the early years, & have taught him that you are a wise decision-maker, then you can trust him to make more & more of his own decisions as he grows older & more independent.
Individuals who know they are trusted are able to exert a great deal of self-control & willpower. In college, I had a dormitory dean who trusted each one of her girls implicitly. Even though I had many opportunities to break dormitory rules, or sneak in late, I never did because I did not want to lose that trust.