How to effectively discipline your kids
This morning, at the swimming pool where my sons have swimming lessons, I witnessed some darned ineffective parenting. The dad's two children were messing about and being unruly, and the dad kept saying "Stop that. I said, stop that. I really mean it: stop that."
There were no consequences to the kids' actions -- so the kids kept doing their ill behavior.
And I thought: Dude! You're just training your kids to ignore you...
Thus, this blog entry.
What follows is my 2c. The following underpins what I do with my own children, and it seems to work: we occasionally get compliments on how well-behaved our kids are, and my response is usually, "Thanks. We work hard at it."
My approach is based a lot on "operant conditioning" -- if you remember that from Psych 101 (Wikipedia page?). My below approach is not a lot different from other approaches that you'll see -- except that I don't charge $$$ to attend my seminar or enroll in my program. ;)
-Parenting is basically "training" your kids, through rewards and punishments.
-Being consistent, and giving the reward or punishment right away is a lot more important than the size of the punishment.
-If you let the kids get away with stuff, then you're training them to ignore your commands and ignore your rules.
-If you interrupt their bad behaviors with small but immediate "micro-punishments", then you're training them to not misbehave.
-During "normal" life, also compliment (a reward!) for all of their tiny good behaviors.
-When they do something wrong, give them a chance to make it right.
-Parents aren't perfect -- but they are in charge!
-All creatures learn from their behaviors. They learn through trial and error. (If they didn't learn, they would starve and/or get injured.)
-If a behavior is rewarded, then that behavior will be repeated.
-"Rewards" are the gaining of good things (which includes "feeling good" or "is fun"). But "Rewards" can also include "removing bad things (e.g. "Goofing around, to be less bored").
-"Punishments" are when you give the person a bad thing (e.g. pain, anger) -- but can also be the removal of a good thing (e.g. "No t.v. for a week").
-If a behavior causes distasteful things (e.g. punishment; pain; yucky taste), then that behavior will fade out over time.
-Learning patterns of behaviors (both good and bad) is cumulative: it doesn't happen all at once.
-According to Psych research, rewards and punishments do not have to be large to change the behavior: they just have to be "large enough" -- large enough to out-balance the other half (e.g. the punishment has to be bigger than the reward; the reward is bigger than the punishment).
-But! The outcome to the behavior does have to be (1) fairly prompt or immediate, and (2) fairly consistent.
-Rewards are just as important as punishments -- and in fact work better, because a reward-based environment is happier than a punishment-based environment.
Some implications of the above are:
-You have to provide an environment for the child where the rules -- and the outcomes for following or disobeying the rules (and commands!) are clear and consistent.
-Since the size of the reward or punishment isn't the main component, you don't have to cause physical paint (e.g. spankings), yell, or use extreme punishments (e.g. "No t.v. for a month!!!"). All you need is something to "interrupt the flow" (if the kid is goofing around) or neutralize the "rewarding thing" that the kid experienced.
-(Personal insight: With my first child, I once slapped her hand when she was reaching for something she wasn't supposed to. She looked at me and said, "Daddy -- you hurt me!" And I realized that I couldn't think of any misbehavior that my children could do that deserved me to intentionally cause them pain. And that's when I decided that there was no point in spankings: there were other approaches that didn't involve hurting my kids.)
-However, the immediacy and consistency with the kids is crucial. I personally don't believe in the "three strikes" approach -- because you're training your kids to ignore what you say the first two times! (And: that they can do bad things twice -- for "free"!)
-Bad example #1: "Johnny, put the cat down. Johnny, I said to put the cat down. Johnny -- put the cat down! Okay: punishment."
-Bad example #2: Susie hits brother. "Don't hit your brother." (Pause in behavior.) Susie hits brother. "Don't hit your brother." (Pause in behavior.)
-Another problem with the "Three strikes" approach is that if the gap between misbehaviors is too long, then it's hard to tell when "Strike #1" occurred. So the kids just intermittently misbehaves (e.g. hitting her brother) -- and gets used to it!
-Because the "size" of the punishment isn't the key, you don't gain any effectiveness by yelling. So try not to. (Yeah, I sometimes do. But I try to avoid it.)
-It's good for the parent to say "please" when "asking" (telling!) the kid to do something: it models polite interaction styles; and it's the follow-through that
-As a parent, try really hard to give the kid lots of praise as well: because "doing the right thing" is so often a "non-event" that it passes unnoticed. So compliment (or thank) the kid on washing her hands before meals (without being asked), throwing his socks in the laundry basket, etc.
-And if you ask the kid to do something (e.g. feed the dog), and the answer is (legitimately) "I already did it", then that deserves a "Ah! Good job; thanks!"
My specific approach:
-I've tried a few things over the years, but it's finally ended up as:
-If it's a "permanent, obvious" rule (e.g. need to ask a parent before getting candy; no hitting), then there are no "warnings" -- because the kid already knew.
-If it was a genuine accident, then there's no "punishment" -- although if the kid was being obviously foolish or reckless, then there might be a punishment. And the kid has to "un-do" the harm (see below).
-My "go-to" punishment is to have the kid stand up, go to the nearest wall and face it, while I slowly count to twelve. (There's no magic in "twelve": it just seems like the right amount of elapsed time to "break the flow", cause an inconvenience, and remove the kid from whatever behavior was happening.)
-However, the angrier I am, the longer the number. But I try not to go beyond about a minute ("sixty") -- because then **I** get bored!
-After the "twelve-count", the kid then has to apologize (and give a hug?) to the sibling or parent that was harmed.
-"Facing a wall" works really well in public -- because there's nearly always a wall (or a pillar; or a table) to face. I suppose if you were in the middle of an open field, you could have the kid stop and put her hands over her face.
-If there was damage to property, or a loss of property (e.g. ate a sibling's candy bar; broke a lamp), then I invoke a version of "restorative justice" (Google it?). Basically, I'm trying to (1) neutralize the damage; (2) restore the social bonds; and (3) restore the self-esteem of the offender.
-For "Neutralizing the damage", I have the kid pay from her allowance, or do work around the house for pre-stated "$X/hour" to buy a replacement, hire a glass-repair person, or whatever. If the labor is something that a kid can do (e.g. paint over graffiti), then I have the kid do that as well.
-Note: When I was growing up, my parents were really good at figuring out very "fair" and "just" things for punishments.
-For "Restoring social bonds", I have the kids apologize, and hug (we're a very huggy family). Some families might want both parties to be able to share their side of the story -- but in our family everyone is so talkative (and the kids are loud!) that the whole backstory is immediately out on the table.
-For "Restoring the self-esteem", by allowing the kid to -- as well as possible -- undoing the damage that she or he causes, it teaches her/him responsibility, and gives them a self-concept of a good, responsible person that sees things through, corrects their own mistakes, and etc.
-I try to give out all sorts of positive reinforcement, all day: both "generic" ones ("I love you very much"; "You know, yer a great kid..."), as well as more behavior-specific ones ("Thanks for remembering to feed the dog, without my having to remind you. Good job."; "Hey, I noticed that you're getting your laundry into the laundry basket. Good job.")
Ownership and training:
-Another implication is that if you "clean up their messes" for them, then you're just training them to leave things around. It's easier (less work!) to just leave your jacket on the sofa, your dirty plate on the coffee table, your shoes in the hallway.
-So, if you clean up after them (either quietly -- or even complaining about it!), then it's still easier for them to leave a mess -- because someone else will clean it up.
-Whereas, if you say "Hey -- could you please put down you book and come put your jacket away?" -- the kid will say "Awww -- that's a pain..." And you'll say, deadpan: "Yes. Exactly." And hopefully -- after enough repetitions -- she'll just figure out that it's faster and easier to just hang up the jacket in the first place.
-Plus the kids learns to be responsible and self-sufficient, and to not cause problems for others.
-I'm trying to teach my kids: "Don't cause more work for others: other people have enough of their own work to do, without doing yours." And that there's no shame in asking for help -- but only if you've honestly tried to do it yourself, first.
-In other words: don't be a PITA to others; you don't want to be that person (at work; among your friends...).
An additional part of my approach:
-I don't believe in trying to pretend that "the parents are always right": because we're not. Sometime we don't have the full information -- or we're just plain wrong.
-But! The parents are (1) the ones in charge, and (2) the ones responsible.
-Note: I think the above two points are true of any leadership situation: e.g. your boss at work; the CEO.
-This means that when I tell the kids to go do something, they get one rebuttal. (e.g. "Okay! Time to put your shoes on and go to the car!" "Oh -- but Mom texted and said that we don't need to leave for another half hour." "Ah. Did not know that. (But why didn't anyone tell me before...?)"
-Another example: "Could you come and set the table, please?" "Oh -- but my YouTube video only has two minutes left -- I really want to finish it...!!!" "Okay -- but directly after that video...!"
-But they don't get to have a whole list of attempts to "argue the way out of it". They have to pick their best rebuttal. (Well, okay -- sometimes two. But not a whole list of attempts.)
-As another few parts of being imperfect: if I accidentally, un-justly punish a child -- it's less bad if the punishment was "12 seconds facing the wall" than "inflicting pain (a spanking)". And I apologize.
-Also, if I'm wrong, I apologize to the kids.
-Also, if I lose my temper, I apologize, and point out that yelling wasn't the right way to do things -- but that I'm spending my whole life trying to get better.
-I think that those things (being imperfect; admitting my mistakes; taking responsibility; making things better) are also important role-modelling. I don't want to have arrogant kids that think that they're perfect and can do no wrong, never apologize, and never admit their mistakes.
-This approach should work with special needs children, such as those with developmentally disabilities or ADHD. There's no reason why it shouldn't work: if your children know to head towards the bathroom when they have to pee, and head to the kitchen when they're hungry -- then they're capable of learning.
-But, yes -- I suspect that it would be more difficult, and take more repetitions, with someone that has learning difficulties.
-Yeah, sometimes I screw up with my parenting. I do not think that I'm sort sort of perfect parent. (e.g. we typically leave the house in the morning in a mad rush; I don't read them bedtime stories like I always thought I would; I let them spend too much time watching YouTube videos.)
-Someday I may re-visit the above, and change some of the phrasing. But for right now, I just wanted to get my thoughts out.