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Parents Corner

DISCIPLINE And Much Better Parenting

Bottom Line/Personal interviewed James Windell, MA, LLP, a psychotherapist in private practice specializing in family problems and a clinical psychologist with a juvenile court psychological clinic.

Disciplining children is hard for most parents. Almost all worry whether they have gone too far—or not far enough—when using punishment to correct a child's behavior.

For the past 25 years, I have been helping parents develop more effective ways to discipline their children. Here are my strategies:

  • Punish only when necessary. Any punishment loses its effectiveness with overuse. As a result, punishment works best when it is infrequent. Nonetheless, punishment for infractions must be consistent.
    For example, if a child hits a sibling, the punishment must be the same each time to uphold that law in your house.
  • Avoid harsh punishments. A harsh punishment often stops misbehavior in its tracks, but it doesn't necessarily teach the child the proper lesson. Harsh punishments cause children's behavior to worsen. Severe punishments cause hostility and resentment
    Example: A child disregards your order not to ride his/her bike outside a three-block radius of the house. It's a mistake to punish him by taking the bike away for a week. The child forgets about what he did wrong and thinks instead about how to cope with the punishment. His focus changes from "shouldn't disregard my parents' safety rules" to " hate riding that stupid bike anyway."
    Better: Take away the use of the bike for the rest of the day. The child easily associates his misbehavior with the loss of the bike and vows to do better.
  • Identify the problem and the punishment. Children need to know exactly what is expected of them.
    Example: Tell your child that all homework must be completed before he may watch TV. Be equally clear about the consequences of breaking that rule: If you watch TV before your homework is done, tomorrow you won't watch TV at all. Ask the child to repeat this back to you.
    Important: Avoid saying everything as a threat. Better: A straightforward, adult conversation.
    The child has a better chance of remembering the rule and correcting his behavior. The child can't say he didn't hear or understand you.
  • Follow through with any punishment. If you threaten to punish a child for misbehavior, you must be ready to impose that punishment.
    Example: You tell your child that he can go with you to a basketball game if he finishes all his homework. If his homework is not done, you calmly tell the child that he is unable to go.
    You can't let your child talk you out of the punishment. If you do, he learns how to avoid punishments, not how to improve his behavior.
  • Ignore some bad behavior. This surprising piece of advice works in certain situations.
    Example: A child is swearing and being reprimanded for it constantly. Since even negative attention is better than none, the child continues the behavior.
    Better: In cases like this one, where bad behavior is used simply to get your attention, you may want to make a deliberate attempt to ignore the behavior. Although it may get worse at first, the child will soon learn his annoying behavior is not getting your attention and he will drop it.
    Exception: Repetitive misbehavior may be a cry for more positive attention. In this case, parents must ask themselves, Am / too critical? and Have I balanced positive and negative attention? In addition, parents should always give positive attention to desirable behavior.
  • When correcting a child, always make eye contact. Reprimands are more effective when you are sure a child is listening. Move closer to the child, and raise your voice slightly.
    Get him to look at you before you speak.
    The expression on your face should be neutral, not smiling or bug-eyed with anger.
    Holding that eye contact for a moment after speaking is a very powerful technique.
  • Use punishments that fit the crime. For running up phone bills— take away the phone. For being disrespectful of property—have him use his allowance to pay off damages.
    Other rewards and privileges that can be removed as punishments: Staying overnight with a friend.. .attending a party.. .going to a special event.. .using the family car.. .playing video games.
  • Use a time-out when no particular punishment fits the crime. As with any punishment, reserve sending a child to his room for serious infractions so that it does not become ineffective through overuse. Timeout has a dual purpose— it is a negative consequence...and the isolation allows the child time to pull himself together.
    Rule of thumb; Have a young child sit in a chair for about one minute per year of age.
    Older children can be sent to their rooms.
  • Use rewards instead of punishments. There are times when a reward for good behavior is more effective than a punishment for bad behavior.
    Example: To help your four-year-old learn to sleep in his own bed at night, you offer a 25 cent reward to get the new behavior started. For the next few days following successful nights, you hand over a shiny new quarter. Once the child is sleeping in his own bed, phase out the payment. Discuss this with your child in advance so he knows the reward is short-lived.

DISCIPLINE: What is it?

  • Discipline starts with LISTENING: Listening will help you understand their problems
  • Discipline is RESPECTING: Respect your child for who they are now
  • Discipline is APPRECIATING: your child's daily accomplishments
  • Discipline is SETTING BOUNDARIES: children look to you for guidance
  • Discipline is PLANNING: A little forethought can make many situations easier
  • Discipline is PERMITTING: many worthwhile activities. Always provide plenty of things your child may do. Keep you child interested.
  • Discipline is BELIEVING: that your child is very special. She has abilities and special talents that can help her develop.
  • Discipline is ACCEPTING: your child lovingly. Let her know that you like her and enjoy being with her.
  • Discipline is meant to FOSTER MUTUAL RESPECT AND DIGNITY: you can always tell when it's there
JANUARY 15, 1996, Bottom Line/Personal interviewed James Windell, MA, LLP, a psychotherapist in private practice specializing in family problems and a clinical ) psychologist with a juvenile court psychological clinic in Michigan, He is author of Eight Weeks to a Well-Behaved Child (Macmillan. $11.95) and Discipline: A Sourcebook of 50 Fail Safe Techniques for Parents (Macmillan, $10).

Other useful resources

Drew Bledsoe of the New England Patriots has established the Drew Bledsoe Foundation Parenting With Dignity program. Bledsoe says of his success "my parents helped me the most to be what I am today" and his goal is to help other parents give their children the best possible start. For more information, see http://www.drewbledsoe.com/.

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Last modified: January 26, 2013