Discipline is an essential part of childrearing. The word “discipline” is related to the word “disciple” – student. A parent is a teacher and a child is a student – one who needs to learn. A parent must teach a child how to function appropriately, how to behave in socially acceptable ways, which values to adopt and hold by and so much more. For instance, it is up to parents to teach a child to value honesty and to refrain from taking things that don’t belong to him (i.e. not to steal!). Parents have many tools available to them for teaching including explaining, illustrating, modelling, demonstrating, reinforcing, praising, encouraging, rewarding and – disciplining.
Discipline – guidance that involves the use of negative consequences – is not the first teaching tool that a parent should employ. It is, in fact, the last one. A parent can begin guidance by teaching, explaining, encouraging, modelling and reinforcing the desired behavior. For instance, a parent can tell a child that sleep is important for mood, energy and optimum functioning and that bedtime is 9 p.m. When the child is ready for bed at 9, the parent can use praise (“I see you’re ready right on time – good for you!”). If the child’s cooperation is a new accomplishment, the parent can even use acknowledgment, praise or reward to further reinforce the behavior (“Since you’re ready for bed so promptly, I’m putting an extra treat in your lunch tomorrow.”). As long as the child is cooperative, these pleasant interventions may be all that is necessary to successfully teach the child to go to bed.
But what happens if the child does NOT cooperate with bedtime? The parent can’t use praise because there is no appropriate behavior to praise – the child is busy running the other way. Telling the child that it is bedtime or that sleep is important for his well-being is having no effect whatsoever on the youngster – he’s not interested. The parent needs another tool. This is where discipline comes in.
How to Discipline Using Negative Consequences
Discipline is a teaching tool. It has nothing to do with punishment (“I’ll show you a thing or two!”). It has nothing to do with anger. In fact, if a parent is angry, he or she should not discipline a child. Rather, the parent must wait until all anger has dissipated. In addition, since discipline is meant to teach, the child him or herself, must be calm enough to learn. Therefore the parent should wait until the child is calm, before engaging in discipline. A “teaching moment” is one in which BOTH the parent and child are calm. Don’t worry about the time lag between the child’s offence and the teaching moment – children will remember the incident you are talking about as long as it has occurred within the past hour or two (and often even if it occurred within the past week or two – depending on what it was!).
Discipline requires thought and planning. A detailed strategy for effective discipline is found in Sarah Chana Radcliffe’s book Raise Your Kids without Raising Your Voice. As is explained there, the parent must consider what negative consequence will motivate the child to cooperate in the future. The consequence must be irritating enough that the child will want to avoid it next time. It should not be so aversive that the child will hate the parent or seek revenge. It should not be so mild that the child doesn’t care enough to change his behavior.
Parents must warn the child that if the behavior is not corrected, a specific, named negative consequence will occur. “From now on, when you aren’t in bed by 9 p.m., you will lose computer time the next day.” If the child likes his computer time, this mildly annoying deterrent will help him decide to cooperate with the 9 p.m. bedtime.
When parents take the time to learn effective discipline (like the 2X-Rule as discussed in Raise Your Kids without Raising Your Voice), they can safely guide their child. Effective discipline replaces the harshness of anger, the cruelty of abuse or other damaging interventions that parents engage in when they feel helpless. Parental helplessness is very dangerous for the child; the powerful parent can really cause harm. However, empowered with respectful but firm, boundary-setting tools, parents can guide without hurting their child. Discipline is a gift for both parent and child.