“We’ve tried everything!” is one of the more common testimonials I hear from parents who’ve just described persistent and highly vexing discipline problems with a child or children.
Setting aside that it’s never the case that “everything” has been tried in conscientious fashion, the complaint reflects the wrong-headed notion — common to American parenting since the early 1970s — that proper/effective discipline is a matter of correctly manipulating consequences vis a’ vis some method, technique, or strategy.
I must confess to having contributed, perhaps greatly, to this mistaken idea. Early on in my now 40-plus-year career as a syndicated columnist, my editors repeatedly emphasized the need for me to tell people what to do. So that’s what I did. I was deft at coming up with creative approaches to behavior problems; furthermore, at that point in my ongoing development as a “parenting expert,” I believed that for any given problem, there was a method that would solve it.
I believed in behavior modification, in short. I believed that the proper use of positive consequences would strengthen right behavior and, likewise, the proper use of negative consequences would shut down wrong behavior. It took me a while to discover what I was not told in graduate school: no one has ever proven that behavior modification works on human beings. It works on dogs, rats, monkeys, even amoeba, but when you throw free will into the equation, behavior modification falls flat. In fact, children who are the targets of behavior modification are likely to learn to be manipulative.
Having said that, it’s important to note that consequences are necessary. Children need to learn that in the real world, right behavior is usually rewarded in some way and bad behavior is usually punished — the operative word in both cases being “usually.” But whereas consequences work reliably and predictably with, say, dogs, they do not work reliably or predictably on humans. For example, a child who is punished for a certain misbehavior may become that much more determined to get away with it. And researchers have found that a child who is rewarded for a certain something may stop doing it. Humans are paradoxical. Dogs, not so much.
The key to effective discipline is a right attitude. Without the right attitude in question, no consequence-based approach to discipline is going to work for long (any new approach, because of the novelty effect, may work for a few days or weeks). With the right attitude, just about any approach is going to work and keep on working. Furthermore, the right attitude will eventually render consequences all-but unnecessary.
The right attitude involves letting a child know that there is absolutely nothing he can do that is going to knock you, the parent, off balance; nothing he can do that will ruffle your feathers. He can disappoint you, but he cannot upset you. He has no power over your emotions.
The right attitude involves projecting complete confidence in the legitimacy of your authority concerning the child in question. You are clear on the fact that as a general is superior to a lieutenant, you are your child’s superior. Children need superior beings in their lives. They need adults who act like they know what they’re doing. That is essential to their sense of well-being.
The right attitude “says” to the child, “I really don’t care one whit whether you like me at any given moment in time. I know that I love you enough to give you my seat in the lifeboat, and that — which you can’t fathom so I’m not going to try to get you to fathom it — is what really counts.”
The right attitude is very old fashioned. But where children are concerned, there is nothing new under the sun.
Family psychologist John Rosemond: johnrosemond.com, parentguru.com.