Family Matters

I've tried just about everything to change my strong-willed child's problem behaviors. How about some ideas for finding discipline that works?

It all depends on what you mean by “works.” Almost all discipline works — and immediately — in that it teaches a lesson. It says to Sherlock: “If you do A, I'll do B.” Elementary.

This is not, however, how most people define “discipline that works.” What they mean is a technique or strategy that changes Watson's behavior for the better — and fast. Though this is a desirable goal, in reality it often leads to undesirable results. It can cause pinball parenting: bouncing from idea to idea in search of that one that will instantly cure madden-ingly repetitive misconduct.

“I've tried everything; nothing works. I've talked until I'm hoarse, taken away his favorite toy until the year 2057, used 17 different sticker systems, nine reward charts, promised him an all-expenses-paid trip to Disney World, threatened grounding with backup banishment to Siberia. Finally I got totally frustrated. I sent him to run an errand to the neighbor's and moved while he was gone.”

As parents lament to me all they've tried, in their minds fruitlessly, I find they tried plenty that would have worked, given time. They mistakenly assumed that, if they didn't see results in short order, they must have been on the wrong track. Not necessarily so. The discipline was working, just not as quickly as they had hoped or expected.

Okay, but don't different kids respond differently to different techniques? Sure. Maybe Macy would do absolutely anything to avoid losing her favorite sweatshirt for a week, while Levi doesn't know the difference between a sweatshirt and sweat socks. On the other hand, the thought of writing a 200-word essay on his misconduct makes Levi sweat bullets. Certainly some discipline “works” more or less quickly for some kids than others — but almost all discipline needs more time to change a child's behavior than grown-ups would like. Such is the nature of discipline and kids.

So am I trying to weasel out of giving you an answer to your question? Well, whatever works. Actually, there are a few general principles to keep in mind in searching for discipline that works.

First, keep it simple. Repetition is what makes discipline work. And it's hard to persevere with complicated consequences. Pick stuff you can use for most trouble — standing in the corner, extra chores, writing essays or sentences, room time, remodeling the attic (just kidding). Then be ready to “repeat as necessary.”

Second, be patient. God gives us a lifetime to work on our behavior. We can give the kids a few years to work on theirs. Discipline is a process, not a fix.

Third, hold the course. Almost any thoughtful consequence will work — that is, change the behavior — given enough parental perseverance. I know, you want to retire in 31 years. But believe it or not, time is your ally. Good, steady discipline does teach good behavior — even while your child is still a child.

Dr. Ray Guarendi is the father of 10, a psychologist and author. He can be reached at DrRay.com.