On Psychology

Jewish World Review June 28, 2000 / 25 Sivan, 5760

Dr. Wade Horn

Make Punishment Fit Offense, Be Consistent

By Dr. Wade F. Horn

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- Q: I am the mother of a 5-year-old daughter and a 3-year-old son. We go through cycles with our daughter that seem to be equally divided between behaving well and stubbornly contradicting everything my husband and I say to her.

When she is in contra-mode, she gets to the point where she figures she's going to get a punishment anyway, so she escalates her inappropriate behavior. Sometimes she spends so much time in timeout or loses toys or privileges for so far into the future that the punishment becomes meaningless to her.

I don't want to break her spirit, so I have on occasion wiped the slate clean and told her we're going to start from square one. Sometimes this works, and sometimes it doesn't.

My question is this: When someone suddenly applies firm and consistent discipline where in the past discipline was lax, is there typically a period of time of seemingly endless punishment while the child tests the parents' will? And is there a typical amount of time it takes for most children to capitulate to the new regime and improve their behavior?

A: When parents shift from lax to consistent discipline, typically there is a period of time during which children test their parents' willingness to stick with the new set of rules. How long this testing period lasts depends upon two factors: how inconsistent the parents were in applying discipline in the past and how consistent they are in applying discipline into the future.

Interestingly, it is easier to turn around a behavior that was never punished in the past than a behavior that was inconsistently disciplined. In cases where discipline had never been applied before, the child may have been unaware the behavior was inappropriate or may have had little motivation to behave differently. After parents explain the new rules and why the behavior is no longer acceptable, there is often a fairly quick turnaround in behavior, provided the new rules are applied consistently.

Conversely, if the behavior was treated inconsistently in the past, the child has learned that sometimes the behavior leads to a negative consequence and sometimes it does not. Under these conditions, it takes longer for the behavior to improve because the child needs time to learn that the parents are ready, willing and able to enforce the new rules consistently.

Parents implementing a new discipline regimen should be on the lookout for the "stubbornness trap." Some children react to changes in household rules by refusing to comply even in the face of sure punishment. In such a situation, parents can make two mistakes: giving up or applying additional punishments for the stubbornness.

When parents give up in reaction to a child's stubbornness, this only serves to heighten the hopes of the child that the "good old days," when the child could get away with the misbehavior, may be making a comeback. This will lengthen the time necessary to bring the inappropriate behavior under control.

Escalating the punishment in the face of stubbornness is equally ineffective. I will illustrate with a story from my childhood.

One day, one of my brothers refused our father's request for him to usher at our church. On the way home, my father asked my brother why he had refused to usher. My brother sat silently, to which my father responded by saying, "If you don't answer me, you will spend an hour raking leaves in the woods." (I grew up in a house surrounded by four acres of woods; making us "rake the woods" was one of my father's favorite punishments.) Still, my brother remain silent.

My father then said, "OK, make that two hours of raking leaves in the woods. Now, why didn't you usher?" My brother continued to look at his shoes. This only infuriated my father more. Each time my brother responded with silence, my father would add an additional hour of raking. By the time we arrived home, my brother was looking forward to spending the next 15 years raking leaves in the woods. He may be there to this day.

OK, I'm exaggerating a little (but only a little). The reason I'm relating this anecdote is to illustrate this point: When parents get into a power struggle with a stubborn child, they tend to load the child up with ever escalating punishments often far out of proportion to the original infraction. Afterward, most parents do not follow through with such enormous punishments which, once again, results in inconsistent limit setting.

So what's a parent to do? Ignore the stubbornness. Not the inappropriate behavior, but the stubbornness. For example, what my father could have done differently in reaction to my brother's silence would have been to say, "Since you have decided not to tell me why you refused to usher at church, you will be punished. Your punishment is to rake leaves in the woods for one hour this afternoon." Then he should have turned to his wife and talked about something else, ignoring any further stubbornness.

If my brother later refused to rake leaves in the woods, my father could have said something like, "You will not be allowed to watch TV until you complete your one hour of raking in the woods."

The key in turning around the situation with your daughter is to keep a cool head and apply relatively mild punishments (such as a five-minute timeout, for example) for early instances of inappropriate behavior. If she refuses to comply with the five-minute timeout, restrict her ability to engage in some other activity she enjoys (watching TV or going outside to play) until she complies with the time-out. The more consistent you are with this approach, combined with lots of positive attention for appropriate behavior, the quicker the behavior will turn around.

Of course, if that doesn't work, you can always send your daughter out to rake leaves in the woods. While she's there, have her tell my brother I said hello.

JWR contributor Dr. Wade F. Horn is President of the National Fatherhood Initiative and co-author of The Better Homes and Gardens New Father Book. Send your question about dads, children or fatherhood to him C/O JWR


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© 2000, Dr. Wade F. Horn