Simple Strategies for Effective Discipline

Who runs your home? Is it you or your child? Use these simple strategies from Dr. Kevin Leman to help you parent your child to be more respectful and well behaved. 

Seven-year-old Meadow sits at the table and can’t find anything to say about the food, except, “That stuffing looks yucky. I don’t want those green beans either. They’re gross.” If Meadow’s parents are like most, they might say, “Eat it. It’s good for you. You’ll grow to be big and strong.” They might even elaborate on the people in Bangladesh who would love to have that food.

Meadow’s reaction? A downward spiral of whining and fussing that will continue the battle from now until the next meal.

Meadow’s issue isn’t wholly about eating — it’s about respect. Why do so many children act disrespectfully? Why are so many parents threatening and cajoling and never getting the desired results?

Over the years, I have learned that kids act this way because they’ve gotten away with it in the past.

It all comes down to who is really in charge of your family. Is it you or your child? Today’s parents often don’t act like parents. They are so concerned about being their child’s friend, about making sure their child is happy and successful, that they fail in their most important role: to be a parent. They snowplow their child’s road in life, clearing the path so the child never has to be uncomfortable or go out of her way. Mom and Dad have become mere servants rather than parents who have the child’s long-term best interest in mind.

As a result, today’s kids are growing more powerful. They’re all about “me, me, me” and “gimme.” They are held accountable less and have fewer responsibilities in the family. To them, family isn’t about what you can give; it’s about what you can get. They rarely consider others before themselves because they’ve never been taught to think that way.

Every child has a predictable strategy. He plays a daily trial-and-error game that’s designed to get the best of you. He wins when he gets you to do anything he wants. That means if he tries something, and it works, he’ll try it again. But he’ll ramp up his efforts a little. Instead of simply crying when he doesn’t get his treat, he’ll add a little kicking, too. If slamming the door causes you to go trotting after your teenage daughter to hand over the car keys like she wanted, she’ll be more dramatic the next time she wants them. Children are masters at manipulation.

If you want your child to have a respectful attitude, as well as behavior you can write Grandma about, follow these three simple strategies for success.

Let reality be the teacher. 

“Reality discipline” is a term I coined in 1984. Basically it means to let nature take its course. And when nature doesn’t take care of the problem, you help nature along. Don’t rescue your kids from the consequences of failed responsibility.

If your son is supposed to do a project for chemistry and doesn’t complete it, don’t stay up until midnight doing it yourself. In fact, don’t do anything about it at all. Just wait for reality to hit when he stands in front of his stern chemistry teacher, who tells your son in no uncertain terms what he thinks of incomplete projects.

If your little girl goes into her older sister’s room and gets into her makeup, don’t intervene and help her clean it up before her sister gets home. Unless she thinks to clean it up herself, don’t bother. Just wait to see what her older sister is going to say, and let the two of them work it out.

Parents have a tendency to rub their child’s nose in what he does wrong. In most cases, letting reality be the teacher is enough discipline in itself.

Likewise, fight the urge to be a bone digger — digging up the situation long after it’s over and hitting your child over the head with the “bone.” Just remember, you’ve done wrong things and have been forgiven. How would you feel if someone kept reminding you of your failures?

So what about little Meadow’s bad attitude at the table? Her parents can apply “reality discipline” in a couple of ways:

  • Excuse the child from the dinner table. Tell her to come back when she has written down 10 specific things she’s thankful for.
  • Send the child to her room for half an hour. When she comes back to the table, most of the food will be consumed and dinner will be almost over, but she can still join the meal in progress.

Bottom line: You can’t make a child eat. All you can do is set up circumstances that encourage your child to eat without complaint.

Learn to respond rather than react. 

Parents are good at shooting themselves in the foot. Often, we react instead of respond. Our emotions get the better of us, and we speak or act without thinking first.

What’s the difference between responding and reacting? If the doctor says, “You responded to your medication,” that’s good. If the doctor says, “You reacted to your medication,” that’s bad.

While you’re driving, your little girl says out of the blue, “Mommy, I want a pony.”

“What?” you say. “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. There’s no way we could get a pony. We live in a two-bedroom apartment in Baltimore. And we’re barely making ends meet. There’s no way we could afford a pony. Are you out of your mind?”

That’s reacting. Answering without thinking in the situation.

This is responding: “Oh, a pony.” (Pause, to show you’re dreaming and thinking about it, too.) “Can you imagine having your own pony? Getting up in the morning, saddling him and riding him to school as the other kids walk to school? At lunchtime, all the kids would go to the cafeteria, but you’d go outside and check on your horse first. …”

Sure, you live in a two-bedroom apartment in Baltimore. But why shoot your child’s dream out of the water? Your child will eventually realize that a pony wouldn’t fit in your home.

B doesn’t happen until A is completed. 

You never have to change this strategy. It works every time with every age. If you’ve asked your child to do something, and it’s not done, you don’t go on to the next event — no matter what the event is.

Let’s say you’ve asked your 8-year-old son to mow the lawn, and it’s clearly not mowed. Two hours later your son wants to go to the pet store to get the fish you promised him. If your son is 16, he’d probably want to head to his buddy’s. But no matter what the activity is, simply say, “We’re not going.” Then turn your back and walk away.

If your child follows you, don’t announce your strategy. It works better if the child has to figure out the situation for himself and asks you for an explanation. It comes down to this: Seeing the changes you want implemented is more about you than it is about your child.

Here’s a caveat: When you start applying these techniques, attitudes and behaviors may get worse for a time. Don’t panic; it means you’re on the right track.

The most important thing is that you use consistent action. You don’t embarrass the child on purpose; you correct the behavior. You keep the tennis ball of responsibility in his court, not yours. There is no harassing, no threatening, no warning. There are no put-downs, because if you have the right to put him down, then turnabout is fair play. No one wins in such a situation. Your relationship breaks down. But as you work together on attitude, behavior and character, you can build a relationship that’s mutually satisfying.

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