3 Don’t and 10 Do’s of Discipline

boy with baloon2-01So, you are Parenting: you have a structure of rules, and you have your focus lasered in on good behavior so that you can reward it appropriately. (If not, check out last month’s blogs on Rules and Rewards.)

But how do you deal with bad behavior? Of all the things we do as parents, this is the easiest to screw up. If we don’t believe in what we’re doing, we snicker and laugh—not convincing. If we’re not angry, we hate doing it; if we are angry, we sometimes go too far. We have to do it, or we will end up with spoiled children who, as adults, will have difficulty maintaining solid relationships and may never manage to have meaningful lives.

The American Academy of Pediatrics holds that discipline is a teaching opportunity, not a punishment. We will try for that, but we may not convince the kids.

Ahead of time, discuss discipline with your partner and have a structure in place. I can give you some guidelines, but you have think through your rules and decide how—given space and time for quiet reflection—you would like to react to some of the more interesting and creative behavior children will throw your way. When you are tired, stressed, and angry is not the time to decide what puni..—er—“teaching opportunity”—fits the crime.

(We never actually told our son not to cover the floor with water so he could slide across it in his bare feet. And as for cutting off all of his sister’s hair … Well, he has 2 year old twins now. Karma works.)

If you have trouble with authority roles, practice on each other. No smiling. Channel Smokey the Bear: serious, concerned, and confident.

You will make mistakes. Everyone does. Forgive yourself, apologize to your children, and move on. If you need to make it up to them, make your “learning opportunity” proportionate and relative to your mistake. Ask your kids what sort of punishment you deserve. Hopefully you fit in the time-out chair.

How Not to Discipline

There are a few dangers to avoid when discussing infractions with your children. The first is that if you allow the discussion to devolve into excuses, you risk turning your children into people who take no responsibility for their actions and believe they can talk their way out of anything.

Another is that the discussion can turn into an intimidating inquisition with the big people towering over the little ones. You want to improve their behavior, not destroy their confidence.

And don’t even consider giving a warning. They knew the rule, they broke it, and they know the consequences. What would a warning teach them? That they can get away with anything once? Craziness.

How to Discipline

When dealing with tiny people, of course, simple distraction and diversion will work. Pick them up, take them away from the neat burning candle, and hand them a book.

When they get old enough to understand rules, real consequences begin. No single consequence will work all the time; consequences vary with age, the personality style of the child, and the type of infraction.

Respect your children, get down to their level, and look them in the eye. Consider their points of view, but expect them to take responsibility for their actions. Explain why they are in trouble and what the consequences will be. Then do it. No exceptions, no waffling, no compromise. If they know that discipline is enforced every single time—and no amount of begging and crying will change that fact—soon you will have less begging and crying. I promise. If you sometimes let them talk their way out of things, you will have a battle each and every time, forever.

Time-outs

For little ones, usually a time-out is best. The standard belief is that time-outs work because they allow the child time to cool off and think about what they have done. Put the offending child in a chair in a corner alone and completely ignore him or her for as many minutes as they are old. The child can quietly contemplate their misdeeds. Hmm.

I think the truth is less pleasant and much more effective. Time-outs have more in common with traditional shunning than with quiet time. That little person has done something so unacceptable that he or she does not exist in your world for those few minutes. You are taking away the one thing that matters most to them in the world: your attention.

Time-outs: not so wimpy after all.

For a time-out to work, it has to be immediate (shocked looks help, especially for biting and hitting) and absolute. It does not have to be in a particular chair or corner. It can be on the floor right where they were when they decided to have a tantrum. You can even shut the door behind you as you leave. The point is to leave them alone, with no audience, no Mom or Dad, and no one who wants to be with them. The bad behavior will gradually go away because it gains them nothing and takes away something too important to risk.

Discipline by Karma

As they grow, some of their behaviors will have natural consequences. If your two-year-old breaks her toy by throwing it against the wall, she no longer has a toy. If your teenager doesn’t do his homework, he fails. If karma takes care of the punishment for you, your only job is to let it happen. No rescues! You don’t want them living in your basement at thirty!

Logical Consequences

Some consequences are logical. Your munchkin likes to slam their door? Take the door off the hinges and lean it against the wall. They won’t be able to close it for the duration. Horrors! Similarly, if they explore the wrong sites on the computer, they lose computer privileges. Forget their bike helmet? Walk.

Be sparing when taking things away from your children as part of their “teaching opportunities.” If you do it too often and they don’t have the opportunity or ability to earn the things back, you get resentment and sullenness, not success. Never take away something they need—food comes to mind. And never threaten to take away something you know you won’t enforce. If they need the computer to do schoolwork, the punishment (yes, I said the “P” word) could be that they have to use the computer in the kitchen where they can be monitored. If they can’t miss soccer practice without hurting the team, the punishment could be not hanging out afterward with their friends.

Responsibility

Frequently, the punishment can be simply taking responsibility for what they have done and making it right. If they steal a candy bar, going back to the store, confessing to the clerk, and paying for the item out of their own hard-earned cash is very effective. Simply being made to apologize can be excruciating, but it is the honorable thing to do.

Psychiatric experts say you should enlist your children to help decide the consequences for their actions. This is sometimes enlightening and certainly worth listening to, but in the end, it is your decision.

The Big Picture (the 10 Do’s):

  • Never hit a child. That only teaches them that it’s ok for big people to hit little ones.
  • Take away your attention for a time out, never your love. Your love they keep, forever, no matter what they did.
  • Calm yourself first. If you act out of anger, you will regret it later, and you will need to be the one apologizing.
  • Whatever you choose to do, do it immediately.
  • The consequence should be relevant to the issue and proportionate.
  • Criticize the behavior, not the child. What they did was bad—they are not bad, and you expect better from them.
  • Don’t use guilt or shame; those tend to become internalized and suck all the joy out of life.
  • No shouting labels at your progeny; labels stick and follow them around forever. It is impossible to forget that your dad called you stupid or your mom told you that you were a bitch. Children will live up to the labels we place on them.
  • When possible, give them a way to earn back what they have lost. Rescue them joyfully from that time out, and put that toy where it can wait for them to settle down and do their homework.
  • Last, don’t make the punishment last too long. Less than a day is generally best for most infractions. Much longer can make them disconnect the punishment from the crime.

How to discipline a teenager? And what to do when discipline just doesn’t work? Come back next week, of course!

The Blogger's Pit Stop

What Reward? When? How?

child with reward, parenting
Two weeks ago I wrote 5  Truths: Why Rewards Work. I wrote about how, without rewards, kids will use rules as guidelines to get our attention.

That’s bad. We don’t want that.

Why Rewards Work outlined how rewards need to be small and given frequently for small, possible accomplishments. It discussed that rewards need to be immediate, so that the happy feeling is linked to the good behavior. It argued that they be proportionate, because we don’t want to raise greedy brats.

I may have not used those exact words…

It talked about the sorts of behavior that ought to win a reward (pretty much anything that is not bad behavior).

It stressed that rewards are given after the good behavior, not before (that would be a bribe).

But what should the rewards be?

Since the most important thing to your children is always going to be your attention (yes, even that teenager), your attention is the best reward. Watch your young artists draw pictures and listen to them tell you about their masterpiece when they are done. Wear that pasta necklace with pride. Go to soccer games and recitals. If you show up, you must care and they must be doing something of which you are proud. If you do not show up, they must matter less to you than whatever else is taking up your time.

Running a close second to attention is praise. And it’s free! Tell them what a good job they did and that you appreciate their hard work. Tell them you’re proud of them. Then add affection to that praise. Why would you tell them they’re wonderful and not give them hugs? Who could resist?

Special time with Mom or Dad is a great reward for both munchkin and parent. Parents don’t get many opportunities to spend time with just one child. For a small accomplishment, the reward can be reading a favorite book together, playing catch, or anything else they’ve been bugging you to do. A moderate reward could be building a puzzle together or time at the park or library. Something larger could be a trip to a museum or sporting event.

Bigger Kids

Since older children tend to want larger things and have a longer attention span, they can earn points toward a larger reward. Rewards can be anything you would not normally buy them: something they want but do not need. Make it something possible, and display the points prominently where they can see their progress (their attention span may not be as long as you hoped).

Problems coming up with a good reward? Ask your munchkin–they will have ideas. They want a new skateboard? You want an A in math. Figure out what that A will take, and you can give points for performance on homework, quizzes, and tests. Even if they miss the A, your kids will have learned more math than they might have otherwise.

They will also have all those points amassed toward that skateboard, and science is coming.

Food Rewards

Be wary of food rewards. A special dinner made up of their favorite foods can be lovely. Sugary treats can be the makings of disaster. Food is for nourishment, not emotional support and not for power.

Material Girls… and Boys

When using material objects as rewards, be especially careful to make the object proportionate to the accomplishment. You do not want a child who expects a toy for being good at the grocery store. Baseline good gets hugs, appreciation, time, and pride—not toys. Tantrums negate the good behavior and are never rewarded.

Rewards are absolutely essential if you want good behavior from your children. Attention, affection, and your time are more valuable as rewards than anything monetary. Rewards should be frequent, small, and in proportion to the behavior. Larger rewards for older children should be earned over time with points (note how I just changed the big reward into many small ones), which can be transferred to another goal if the first proves to be too hard.

Be brave, and reward yourself, too, when you do well. Just keep in mind that your children are watching; model good rewards as well as good behavior. No junk food!

The Blogger's Pit Stop

5 Truths: Why Rewards Work

Parent with Child, parenting
Without rewards, rules become guidelines that tell our children how to get our attention.

We must reward our children when they are good–chiefly with our time and praise–since there is otherwise no benefit to good behavior. Rewards are far more effective at shaping good behavior than punishments will ever be, because children desire their parents’ love and attention above all.

Rewards are not bribes. Rewards are earned, like a paycheck, for desired behavior. Bribes are given beforehand, when they have not been earned.

What Earns a Reward?

As with rules, what behavior is defined as rewardable depends on the particular child’s personality, age, abilities, and the environment in which they find themselves. (Last month’s blog How to Custom Fit Rules to Your Child outlined what children are capable of at different developmental ages.) Think about the behavior you want, look for it, notice it, and reward it. You will see more of it.

Try not to expect behavior that is improbable for the age of the child. Fifteen-month-olds will not be able to control their tempers. Two-year-olds can begin learning that temper tantrums do not get them what they want. A temper tantrum in a seven-year-old is not attractive.

Consider, also, your particular child’s style and ability. Everyone is better at some things than others, and ability changes with age. Think about where they are now compared to where you want them to be and aim in that direction, taking small, attainable steps.

It is far too easy to ignore good behavior–or just not notice. Your toddler shared his toy?Definitely worth noticing. Your five year old is looking through a book? Fabulous. Teenager being civil? Yay! Good behavior is easy to miss or dismiss with the thought He should act that way all the time. But would you go to work every day if there was no paycheck at the end of the week? Would you work as well if your boss did not appreciate you? The human mind is built to respond to approval. If you want to see more of a particular behavior, reward it.

Small Goal, Small Reward

It is vital that you keep your goals small and of short duration. A trip to Disney for straight As sounds good, but can be soul killing to a child who just can’t get there.

Frequent small rewards are more effective. The child can see the end point and know that it’s possible. “If you wash the dishes, we can read that book together” is immediate and obtainable. “If you clean the whole house, I’ll give you fifty dollars” is distant and improbable, as well as overwhelming.  Divide responsibilities into many short sprints rather than an inconceivably long marathon.

Instant Gratification

Rewards should be immediate. Children have short attention spans, and if too much time passes, they won’t be able to remember what they did or why they’re being rewarded for it.

Immediate rewards create an emotional connection to the behavior that will give them a good feeling when they repeat it. Reading that book made them feel happy, so they will grab another book. They probably won’t remember the hug and smile, but the feeling will be there.

Proportion

Rewards should also be proportionate. Small people receive small rewards for small actions. Putting away their toys receives a hug and a smile, not a new toy. Finishing their homework should be rewarded by going with Dad to walk the dog, not by getting a new puppy.

Older kids, who generally want larger things,  can work toward them by getting points for small acts of fabulousness. Working toward an A in history? Homework done? Points toward that bike can be prominently displayed for each small accomplishment.

Respect your children’s intelligence: if you go overboard, they won’t believe the approval is authentic. If the reward is grandiose, they will know they did not truly earn it and may feel manipulated. They might be insulted that you thought they were so dumb. You may want to jump up and down when you find your teenager doing homework, but a nod and a “Cool, good job,” will be more accepted.

He’s Never Good!

What if you don’t ever see the behavior you’re looking for? Sometimes you can create the behavior you want, and then quickly reward it before they figure out that they didn’t mean to do it. Sneaky, but it works. You are smarter than they are—for a while, at least.
If they’ve been in a timeout, grab that instant before they scowl and say, with a relieved smile, “Good, you’re back! I missed you so much when your evil twin took over! Let’s go do something fun.” Most of the time, they will grab that preemptive reward and run with it.

We do this in the pediatric office when we torture kids. Right after a throat swab, their faces will start to crumble. In that instant, we smile and say, “Wow, you were so brave! I think you were the bravest kid all day! Would you like a sticker?” They are so proud of their bravery that they try to live up to it.

If they are exploring and about to get into something they shouldn’t, stop them before they do and tell them they are wonderful for being so curious. It is so much more fun than yelling at them for breaking that lamp! Interpretation is everything.

If your toddlers are not great at eating veggies, give them the ones they like and will eat, then tell them how great it is that they ate their veggies and that they will make them big and strong. Set up the playing field in such a way that they will succeed and you will have something to reward.

But what rewards do you give for what behavior? Check out What rewards? When? How?