Family Matters


My children are 12 and 8.I realize that I have not disciplined them well. Is it too late to start now?


Are you asking about changing them — or you? It's too late to change you on the day you leave this earth. It's pretty much too late to change them on the day they leave your house. That said, the longer you stay the way you are, the harder it does get to change. If you're going to change anybody, it's best to start right now. Time will only make change harder for everyone.

If a youngster is not maturing well, most moms and dads realize it at some point in their parenthood. And some, like you, resolve to change things. But they are nagged by the worry that they've lost too much time. They've gone in the wrong direction too long. The die is cast.

The die may have been cast. But that doesn't mean you I can't pick it up and roll again.

Even though reshaping a child's character may take lots of effort, it is infinitely important. It must always be attempted, no matter how late a parent thinks it might be. Many are the adults who have dramatically changed moral life course in the fourth, fifth, sixth and even seventh decade of life. Surely most children are more malleable than grown-ups, especially if there's a loving grown-up nearby determined to help them change.

Third, the longer a behavior has been forming roots, the longer it will most likely take to correct. For instance, imagine your 12-year-old is disrespectfully argumentative. For many parents of pre-teens, little imagination is required. You decide to levy 15 minutes of forced chore-labor for each bout of mouthiness. Within weeks, even days, you should notice much better mouth control. But that won't necessarily bring about routinely pleasant interchanges. The arguments may be replaced by surly silence. That's okay. The first step toward character change has begun. You must stop the bad so the good will have someplace to grow.

Fourth, behavior changes much more quickly than attitude. Your youngster may tone down his disrespect by 80% the first month because he is tired of being a chore serf, but that doesn't mean he'll inwardly respect you any more than he did last month. Stay resolute. Outer change will slowly lead to inner change if you persevere.

Here is a rough time line: One month of discipline per one year of misbehavior. In other words, for every year a problem has been growing, stick with your new discipline for one month. If your 12-year-old has been mouthy since age 4, then use your chore-serf approach for at least eight months. If by then you've seen little progress, reassess. An ever-present discipline temptation is to bounce from tactic to tactic, hoping to hit the psychological lotto and, in one brilliant stroke, reverse years of wrong-way momentum. Such pin-ball parenting not only leads to frustration but also to the false conclusion that indeed you did wait too long and that your child is incorrigible.

One last point. Discipline success is not measured solely by results. Discipline also involves teaching a lesson. At one level, your discipline works instantly. It tells your sons: If you do A, I do B. The lesson is immediate — but children, like adults, learn ever so slowly to apply the lesson to life.

Dr. Ray Guarendi is the father of 10, a psychologist and an author.

He can be reached at

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