Q I think I'm pretty consistent in disciplining my son (age 8), yet he still gets into trouble for the same things over and over. Why does it seem to take so long for discipline to work?
Council Bluffs, Iowa
A Conventional child-rearing wisdom says, “Children want discipline and the security of knowing there are rules and limits.”
I agree — when they're grown up and can look back with a longer perspective: “Now I'm starting to understand why my parents did what they did.” But at the time it's happening, discipline is not something a child wants.
When was the last time your son ventured out of his room after half an hour of discipline for disrespectful talk and said, “Mom, while I was stuck in my room, watching those guys play football outside without me on the last nice day of the year, I was thinking: ‘I could have a mom like Lucky's. She gives him $25 a week. He has a nine-foot Nintendo in the bathroom and a wet bar in his closet.’ All I've got is a strict, old fashioned mom like you who won't let me get away with much — and I'm grateful.”
You'll never hear that, even though in their more rational, away-from-discipline moments, kids may acknowledge the need for discipline. Otherwise, they tend to look at the now, and see that we're doing something they totally disagree with.
As much as we grown-ups talk about owning up to our actions, we don't like being disciplined either. We, too, will do whatever we can to avoid it. Have you ever had this conversation with a state trooper?
“Ma'am, I clocked you going 71 miles.”
“Oh no, officer, I was doing at least 76. And you caught me today, but I've been speeding through here every day on my way to work for the past three years. I should owe the state back money for that.”
No, it's the nature of the being, young or old, to avoid unpleasant consequences.
To reduce your parenting frustration level, consider this: When we say that discipline is not working, maybe we mean things aren't improving fast enough. Redefine “work” to mean “teach a lesson,” and your discipline works the very first time.
Let's say you decide to fine Dawn 50 cents whenever she fails to make her bed. Most likely, she won't immediately start making her bed, but she will learn there's a cost for not making it.
Who knows, after paying you $3.50 a week for two months, she may translate her lesson into action.
We parents severely underestimate how long it can take for discipline to change behavior, especially given that none of us can be perfectly consistent, and that kids by their nature can grow up by the longest route.
In the end, the news is good: While a child takes most of childhood to learn something, an adult takes most of adulthood. It's still far easier to teach him when he's little.
Dr. Ray Guarendi is a clinical psychologist and author.
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