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August 30, 2014
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Discipline That Works

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Most of us get it: as parents our job is to help shape our children into decent human beings. Why then do we get so frustrated in trying to do our job? Maybe because we just don’t see the results despite our efforts: “Stop hitting your brother!” “Didn’t I ask you to take the trash out?” “I told you not to bathe Scooter in the toilet!” It seems to never end!

We know that there should be a consequence for giving the cat a “bath” in the toilet. But what works? If I say it loud enough? Follow it with a spank? Send her to her room? Ground her? Give away the cat? (It’s easy to get a little crazy when we are really angry.)

Dr. Robert Brooks, psychologist on the faculty at Harvard Medical school and author of numerous books on parenting, reminds parents that the ultimate goal in disciplining children is to raise kids who are SELF-disciplined. Yes, we want Jake to stop badgering his brother in the moment, but we also want him to gain the problem-solving skills necessary to deal with his boredom and excess energy in the future.

“I really feel strongly that parents should try to avoid spanking, especially as a regularly used technique,” Brooks said.

“The word discipline is derived from the word disciple and is best understood as a teaching process,” Brooks said. “To recognized it as a form of education, children should not associate it with intimidation, humiliation or embarrassment. Ironically, when parents resort to screaming or hitting, they are actually displaying the very behaviors they wish to stop in their children, serving instead as models of poor self-discipline. We need to learn how to discipline children so that they become responsible and resilient, rather than angry and resentful.”

What Doesn’t Work

Though Brooks understands that even good parents may occasionally spank, he is not a fan.

“I really feel strongly that parents should try to avoid spanking, especially as a regularly used technique,” Brooks said. “Research shows that at best it is not very effective, and at worst can cause harm.”

Yelling rated no better with Brooks: “I worked with one child who said, ‘My parents don’t spank me with their hand, they spank me with their words.’ Yelling at a child can actually negatively affect the development of a child’s brain.”

What Does Work

1. Prevention: “Thinking of ways you can prevent certain behaviors from arising takes time up front, but requires less time in the long run,” Brooks said. “I worked with a child whose parents brought him in because they were having a terrible time putting him to bed. The parents saw it as oppositional and had resorted to spanking. In working with the kid I found that he was having terrible nightmares. I asked him if there was anything that could help. He said, ‘A nightlight and a picture of my parents. That way if I wake up scared, I could look at them and feel safe.’”

Brooks encourages parents to ask themselves three questions: What’s going on? What is the child’s temperament? What changes are recent in the child’s life?

Is your child hungry, hot or sleep-deprived? Has he just started a new school and is feeling insecure? Does she need more attention because of a new baby in the house? How much better to meet those needs than to simply fall back on swatting or scolding. 

2. Consequences: Children should understand what is expected from them, and the consequences if they don’t comply. Brooks recommends removing privileges as a consequence. For instance, if a child has a problem with talking back, a parent might say, “It will be your choice. If you continue to talk that way you will lose the privilege of watching T.V. today.” It is important to help children realize they have a choice, so they can begin taking responsibility for their behavior.

“As much as possible, consequences should be within your control and commensurate with what the child has done,” Brooks added.

3. Empathy: “Empathy involves seeing the world through our children’s eyes and asking such questions as, ‘How can I speak with my children so that they will be most responsive to hearing what I have to say?’ The more empathic parents are, the better able they are to teach their children right from wrong,” Brooks said.

4. Build on strengths: “Rather than always trying to ‘fix’ our children, we should search for ways to build on their strengths,” Brooks said.

For instance, if a parent notices that her child loves animals she might say, “I like how curious you are about nature. Why don’t we visit the zoo and see how many animals are carnivores and how many are herbivores.”

5. Spend one-on-one time with children: “Even at a young age, spend special time with each child,” Brooks advised. “And call it your ‘special time.’ You might say something like, ‘When I read to you in the evening it is our special time. Even if the phone rings, I won’t answer it because it is my  special time with you.’ When kids feel they have parental attention they are less likely to act up.”

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