Let’s talk about disciplining children. I see many parents come up short in this arena. This is the toughest part of parenting, and the stakes are very high. Learning how to discipline your child is crucial to your happiness as a parent and to your child’s own well being. Parents should think this one through, trust their instincts, know their child, and like a good baseball umpire calling balls and strikes – strive for consistency. The long-term goal is to get to a point where where you won’t need to use discipline to maintain discipline. In other words, your children will learn to police themselves.
In my experience, a well-disciplined child is a happy, confident child who knows clearly what is expected of them. These children are the ones who get the most playdates because other parents know that well-disciplined children are not only easy to have around but also can be a role model for their own children. Disciplined children tend to win the affection of beleaguered teachers at school. And, best of all, disciplined children get the most opportunities to try new things and experience the world sooner than their less-disciplined peers because their parents can rely on them not to spoil the outing. There are many elements of good discipline.
Here’s my basic rules that I believe apply to all children.
- Instill some fear. I am not saying you need to use your leather belt to raise a throbbing welt on a bare behind. Nevertheless, I believe that the most effective weapon in the disciplinarian’s arsenal is anger deployed as infrequently as possible. You want your child to fear your temper because you want them to think before they act. Yes, you want to punish past behavior but you really want to alter future behavior so that annoying mistakes are not repeated. Like the justice system itself, the best punishments fit the crime and the most serious crimes deserve the most severe punishments. In my house, for example, my children at a young age learned that punching a sibling with a closed fist in anger would earn them Daddy’s death penalty (I had to witness the punch first hand, not be told about it the alleged victim or a sibling-witness. Also, I would notify my wife of what had happened and sought her approval for what would happen next). I forced the guilty party to stand face-first in the corner with their nose touching both walls. I would scream at them from behind and sometimes pound the wall to emphasize the point. I tried to make this a terrifying experience, and it was. My daughter—who punched her older brother several times when something didn’t go her way—was able to recall at age 7 exactly how many times she was punished in this fashion when she was 3. The fact that it stuck in her head for years signaled to me that it left a deep impression. She and her brothers learned to fear this punishment, and the punching stopped.
- Gradually intensify your reaction. This one deals with offenses at the other end of the sentencing scale. For routine, everyday misdemeanors such as failing to share a toy, carelessly spilling a drink, or eating too slowly, I try to start off using a pleasant voice and give friendly reminders or helpful hints. As the offense is repeated, I would try my best to gradually ramp up the intensity of my displeasure. If the errant behavior could not be corrected by the third, fourth, or fifth time, my children would know that daddy’s anger would begin to yield some real consequences. This requires great discipline. If you fly off the handle too quickly, you will deprive your child of the opportunity to learn and adjust. As I said earlier, the goal here is to give your child the opportunity to self-correct before you work up to the harsh stuff. It is always better if you can maneuver your child into a self-correcting, otherwise you risk deploying the anger that you are trying to save for when it is really needed.
- Never bluff. Kids are very clever. Parents and children are like two basketball teams who play a seven-game series and, by the end, know each others plays inside and out. Every parent knows their children will try to test the limits. If they successfully call your bluff once or twice, then they have won a big leg up on you and are on their way to victory in the dreaded Discipline War. To avoid being outflanked by a 3-year-old, you must be willing to carry out each and every threat you issue. If you aren’t willing to do that, then you better stop making empty threats that only shred your own credibility. Once you’ve been exposed as a fraud, it is difficult to regain your standing without going through much greater misery. So never say, “If you don’t stop doing X, we are going home” unless you plan to scoop that child up and go straight home. Never say, “I am going to count to three and … ” Counting to three is useless if you get to three and nothing happens. The bluffing game doesn’t work, so don’t use it.
- Demand not an apology but an explanation. In the heat of the moment, many children—especially small children in the 3-4 year old range —receive punished but don’t always know clearly what the original infraction was. I remember punishing my daughter for punching her older brother with a closed fist (see above). But when I asked her to tell Daddy what she did wrong, she thought the whole blow-up was about “not sharing a toy” rather than the punch. In addition to signaling to you that your child understands the why they are being punished, I find that forcing a child to explain their bad behavior is humiliating and difficult, and therefore more likely to stick in their memory.
- Put their fate in their hands. This is a good way to break a stubborn child. I never used “time out” to punish my kids because I want the end of the punishment to be determined not by the clock, but by the child. For example, I often would send my children to their room and tell them they could come out whenever they wanted, but with conditions. My conditions were usually two-fold: apologize to the victim of the crime and explain to Daddy what they did wrong. Those two steps are never easy and require the child to think things through. This general approach puts the child in charge of their own fate. If they are stubborn, then such stubbornness will lengthen their own punishment–saving you from having to do it. This is another way to putting your child on the road to disciplining themselves so that you don’t have to.
- For the really serious crimes, make it memorable. One time my second son at age 5 repeatedly punched his younger cousin on the sidelines of a flag football game. I rushed him to the car and drove him home immediately. Once at home, I told him to go to his bedroom and await his punishment. I had never seen my child beat another and I wanted to invent a punishment that would not soon be forgotten. After thinking it through carefully and consulting my wife, I told him to go to the garage and get a shovel. Under a hot summer sun, I told him to start digging a hole. He could only stop for a drink of water from a pitcher I provided. If I caught him not digging, the punishment would be lengthened. I wanted the hole he dug to stand as a monument to his crime. I wanted it in a place that he would walk past everyday and remember why it was there. He dug for more than an hour without stopping. When it was done, I asked him if 90 minutes of digging was a fair punishment. He answered yes. That hole – about a foot and a half wide and a foot deep in hard dirt — remained a permanent reminder to him for two years afterward until we covered it over to make way for a vegetable garden earlier this spring. I was a little sad to see that hole go, but on the other hand, that child is no longer the type to take out his anger with violence against another. In that sense, the hole served its purpose. I’ll post a picture of the hole if I can find it in my digital archives.