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Discipline—Part II: Five Helpful Tools
In Discipline—Part I, I suggested that a family's on-going disciplinary activities should be guided by a philosophy of discipline. The four general principles that underlie that philosophy are: (1) to discipline is to create a disciple; (2) discipline is a two-step process, with relearning as important as unlearning; (3) rarely is it quick and easy; and (4) there are significant individual differences among children in terms of what they will respond to and how readily they will respond. These principles form four cornerstones of a disciplinary structure that you will build upon throughout your child's life with you. Endorsement of this philosophy will allow you to forget about a slavish search for the appropriate disciplinary technique and instead use different approaches so long as they are compatible with your over-riding goal of helping your child be happy and successful in life.

Approaches that Can Work

1. Avoid the need for discipline by anticipating trouble. This may sound like I am begging the question, but the best discipline is often no discipline. Rather, it is an act of circumventing trouble. It is the concerned parent's best ally in helping children acquire increasingly mature behavior. It requires more careful attention to what our children are doing than we sometimes want to give. And it requires skill in what I like to call time engineering. Every child (and every adult) goes through cycles of energy and fatigue. The emotional outbursts we deplore usually occur during one of those fatigue cycles. If you pay close attention, you can usually spot the warning signs of an outburst before it occurs. And that is the time to take action, not after the screaming, the hitting, or the biting occurs. But all too often we wait for the outburst. That is rather like boarding up your store after a hurricane hits. As you spot signs of 'bad weather approaching,' let distraction be your main disciplinary tool. Stop what you are doing and hold him for a minute or two. Or read a story. Or go outside. Frequently this will remove the need for both the outburst and your having to worry about what kind of discipline to use.

You will see this skill honed to a fine edge in creative teachers. Sometimes a mother gets discouraged because her child doesn't have tantrums at school, though three a day is about normal for home. If this happens with your child, spend a day observing in your child's group. If it is a quality program, the teacher will have many skills. But high up on the list will be a finely tuned sensitivity to energy-fatigue cycles in the children and a daily program adjusted to these cycles. She avoids having to discipline by subtly directing the flow of events so that they coincide with the energy reservoirs of the children.

2. Your attention may be the most powerful reward you have at your disposal. Although he may not always show it, getting your attention is just about the most important thing in the world to a young child. So remember to bestow some of it when he is behaving just as you think he should. Don't wait until he does something wrong to give him your attention. Comment casually that you like the way he is playing with his toys, or just give him a thumbs-up sign as you walk by. (To my surprise, 3- and 4-year-old children now interpret and use this relatively new way of communicating AOK.) And don't try to hide your feelings when you are upset with your child's behavior. Your words may not communicate as much to a young child as the expression on your face. Or the way your hands feel when you touch her.

When the behavior is reprehensible enough, or a lesser offense has occurred repeatedly, separate the child from you. This is the basis for time-out. You are communicating to your child, 'When you do this, you may not stay around me (or your brother, or your friend).' And I would make that little speech as time-out began; always use words to reinforce your actions when this is feasible. And, if time-out is in the corner of a room you are in, make certain that you don't look at your child (except for quick glances to make certain he is all right).

There are many points of view as to how time-out should be handled. Some feel there should be a behavioral condition on it—'You have to stay there until you stop crying.' I favor a specified time period, as some children will cry themselves to exhaustion in the time-out area and never really stop. Make the 'sentences' short; five minutes can seem like an eternity to an upset 2-year-old.

3. Give more attention to the positive than to the negative. The technical terms for the unlearning and relearning steps of the disciplinary process are response elimination and response acquisition. Although we don't realize it, most of us give far more attention to the elimination than to the acquisition link. Put another way, we accentuate the negative and forget about the positive. But it's our attention to the behavior we want to encourage that is by far the most important part of our discipline. If things are going well and our child is playing quietly with his toys, we rarely step in and say something encouraging or, literally, offer a pat on the head. But, in order to reinforce what you want your child to continue doing, this kind of reinforcement is essential. Research has shown that young children get far more attention when they break a rule than when they are engaged in appropriate behavior. Make certain that you accentuate the positive.

4. Tangible rewards have a place. Tangible rewards are things or events that children like which may be dispensed whenever some specified type of 'good' behavior occurs. There was never a parent who didn't use tangible rewards in training children. And maybe never a parent who didn't feel just a little bit guilty about it! 'If you're a good boy, I'll take you to the park after your nap.' 'Eat your green beans and you can have some ice cream.' But we shouldn't feel guilty about using them. In the first place, they work. In the second place, they are how society runs! How many of us would work without receiving some type of tangible reward (salary)? And, finally, they work in two directions: they can be either given or taken away. Withholding a tangible reward can be a very effective type of discipline. 'If you hit your brother again, you may not watch cartoons.'

5. Talk about the situation as you deal with it. This applies to any age, even babies. Your 9-month-old may not understand all your words as you snatch her away from pulling up on the oven handle, but she will 'get the message' from the intensity of your movements and your tone of voice as you say, 'You might get burned at the stove.' And tell your toddler why he is being put in time-out. He already knows, but your words offer important additional information. And if your 4-year-old takes a crayon and smears her brother's homework, after you take whatever disciplinary action you choose, ask her why she did that. She won't give you a straight answer, but a question always forces thought. And thought, in turn, can lead to new learning.

Wholesome Alternatives

These five techniques offer positive and effective alternatives to society's most common form of discipline of young children—spanking—and the topic you don't want me to evade. I didn't think I dared end two sections of a discussion of discipline without mentioning it. Let's place it in terms of the four general principles. It certainly isn't conducive to to discipleship. Instead it says “You’re little now, but when you’re big enough you can hit.” It makes no contribution to the relearning phase of the process. Its goal is the quick and easy fix. It makes no allowance for the different levels of sensitivity possessed by different children. And it certainly isn’t a time for talk. See—I didn’t evade it. Now you know exactly what I think about spanking.

Summary, Discipline I and II

Discipline is seldom easy. The cycle of unlearning and relearning that it represents goes on throughout childhood—and beyond. Holding to a philosophy of discipline helps parents choose specific techniques appropriate for each child and each instance of misbehavior. An over-arching rule is that we never want to choose a technique that reduces our credibility as someone worthy of a disciple. A few techniques that can help are: circumvention, giving or withholding attention and praise, remembering to pay more attention to new learning than to unlearning, wise use of tangible reinforcers, and talking with our children about the behavior to be unlearned and the new skills to be acquired. Specific techniques are not equally effective with all children, and great patience in the process is required of all parents.
Dr. Bettye M. Caldwell Ph.D. Professor of Pediatrics in Child Development and Education