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Child Behavior: Sometimes, knowing how to discipline takes discipline



Learn how to act, not react

In last month’s column I discussed some of the options parents have when faced with the decision of how best to discipline their children. This month I would like to explain these options more in depth as well as offer some recommendations of authors whose works, in my view, provide a comprehensive approach to child discipline – not a one-dimensional one size fits all approach that so many discipline self-help books advocate.

As a parent you have many options to choose from when your child misbehaves or is in need of some correction. These options lie along a continuum that we could call the “Parent Discipline Choice Continuum.” The options on this continuum go from ignoring the misbehavior to physically restraining your child, with numerous options in between. 

The choices on the continuum escalate the parent’s use of power or control and are predicated on your belief in your child’s ability to self correct. Always start the disciplinary process with the least amount of parental control. Why? Because the increased use of parent power increases the likelihood of conflict between you and your child. Frequently parents use more power than is necessary to deal with the problem, which increases the hostility on both sides and often makes the problem worse.

When our children misbehave, often our first instinct is to rush over, raise our voices and “do something” to stop the behavior. We may threaten or impose a punishment, almost always in a loud voice telling the child what not to do. Frequently, our own initial annoyance and subsequent actions escalate the problem further.

Discipline is not just yelling, threatening or using some form of punishment. By using just

the right amount of parent control you have the best probability of correcting the misbehavior and helping your child learn what correct behavior is.

Before reacting to misbehavior, stop momentarily and think about the goal of your intervention, keeping in mind what discipline is. Discipline is guidance; effective discipline promotes self-control, is good for both parent and child, is not intended to make the child suffer or be humiliated, and maintains a warm parent-child relationship and always attempts to teach correct behavior.

By stepping back for a second or two and thinking about the options along the continuum of choices we have, we may not use quite as potent a response. An outline of the continuum from least parent power and control to most parent power and control is as follows: Ignoring, looking, proximity control, non-directive statements or naming, questioning, directive statements and redirecting, modeling or reinforcement, and physical intervention.

  • Ignoring (not giving any attention)
  • Looking on (a look that communicates you are not pleased with what you are seeing)
  • Proximity control (stepping closer, letting your child know you are aware of what they are doing)
  • Non-directive statements or naming (for example, “I’m not pleased with …”)
  • Questioning (what the child is doing)
  • Directive statements and redirecting (verbally identifying the behavior that needs to change and, if necessary, providing a directive statement of what to do)
  • Modeling and reinforcement (providing a model of the desired behavior and praising or rewarding the child’s efforts for self-correction)
  • Physical intervention (if your child’s safety or another is in imminent danger of harm)

Using the “ignoring” approach, a parent would ignore the child’s behavior when she feels confident that the child can self-correct without any intervention. The next option up the power structure would be looking on, just stopping and looking at the child. If this isn’t effective, you may move toward the child without speaking. Sometimes proximity control – just being close to your child – works wonderfully by itself without any need for angry or threatening words.

When you discipline, choose your words carefully

When words are necessary we may begin with a non-directive statement, sometimes called labeling or naming. An example of this might be a parent saying to a child, “When you tease your baby sister, I can’t concentrate on the work I have to do.”

The use of language by a parent is extremely important. So far there have been no commands or threats for a child to challenge, no conflict that has been built, just a statement by a parent of what is going on, labeling the behavior for the child. This still shows a child that you have confidence in his ability to change without you telling him what to do.

If the child doesn’t seem to get the point, we can move to the next step which would be questioning. Using the previous example, it may go like this: “What is the rule about teasing your sister? What do you plan to do about it?” Here we have a parent still giving the child the option to correct his behavior without being directed or commanded to do so.

If the child still does not comply we might then prepare the child for what’s in store for him if he doesn’t comply with your command (directive statement). “If you don’t stop teasing your sister now you will spend the next ten minutes in time out. Stop teasing your sister.” With this statement we are showing him we still have confidence in his ability to change his behavior with the recognition that unless he does take control there will be a penalty imposed.

With behavior modification, the next step on the continuum, you reinforce desired behavior through rewards and remove privileges when undesired behavior occurs. Sticker charts, small gifts and time-out procedures are used with this approach.

At the end of the continuum of options is physical isolation or restraint. This level would be reserved for children who have lost all ability to control their behavior.

I am always asked by parents, “How do I know where to begin?” Without a specific behavior problem with which to respond, I’d like to offer a general guideline. Unless you are dealing with an imminent health or safety issue that needs to be stopped, such as a child running with a scissors (I always ran through the house, scissors in hand, until I heard my mother shriek), you can’t go wrong starting at the lowest level you think might work.

You can always escalate your power, but when you start high on the continuum you run the greatest risk of non-compliance, conflict escalation and bad feelings on everyone’s part. By always taking control you don’t allow your child’s self-control to grow.

Whenever I write about discipline as opposed to giving workshops, I always feel that I have left so much out. That’s the benefit of calling on raised hands in front of me and answering specific questions.

Discipline is an all-encompassing life-long (until they leave for college, and sometimes beyond that) endeavor for parents. As parents when we become aware of the possible options we have and when to use them it can help us act appropriately when our children misbehave, not just react.

Paul Schwartz, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology and Education at Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh. He is available for group speaking engagements. He can be reached at editor@excitingread.com.