Many parents assume that “discipline” refers to ways to carry out effective punishment. However, teaching discipline really means teaching self-control. In most cases, you will find that you have 3 choices when confronted with a particular behavior in your child: you can praise the behavior, deliberately ignore it, or punish your child for it. Of course, it is not always easy to decide whether a behavior deserves to be ignored or punished, and it is not always obvious when and how to provide praise.
Many parents using behavior therapy techniques rely on the following simple rules when interacting with their children:
- If you want to see a behavior continue, praise it.
- If you do not like a behavior but it is not dangerous or intolerable, ignore it.
- If you have to stop a behavior that is dangerous or intolerable (for instance, your child hitting a sibling to hurt her, not just to get your attention), punish it.
Consider how much more powerful and, in most cases, preferable positive reinforcement and ignoring are to punishment, even though in the heat of the moment this may go against your instincts or intuition. It may help to think about how much more likely you are to work hard when your supervisor at work recognizes and praises your efforts, and how poorly motivated and resentful you may feel if she frequently criticizes you. In the same way, your child is more likely to respond positively to your actions if you react positively to her, while a negative comment or response on your part is likely to lead to more negative behavior.
Giving Clear Commands
The first step in helping your child learn to follow rules, obey your commands, and otherwise manage her own behavior is to make sure that the commands you give her are clear. Adults are often accustomed to couching their commands in a variety of “softening” or ambiguous gestures and phrases. Many of us also tend to react too strongly or impulsively to behavior we consider unacceptable.
Establish good eye contact. You must fully engage your child’s attention by making good eye contact if she is going to hear and follow what you say. At first, you may find it helpful to touch a younger child’s arm or hold her hand before addressing her.
Clearly state the command. You can make commands clear to your child by first stating what behavior therapists call a terminating command—a simple, non-emotional statement of what you want your child to do (“You need to stop pushing your brother.”). If the behavior does not stop immediately, you can then follow up with a warning that includes the exact limit and the consequences (“If you push your brother one more time, you’ll be in time-out. If you stop immediately, the two of you can go on playing.”). When stating a command, keep your tone of voice firm and neutral. Refrain from yelling, or looking or sounding angry. It is especially important to monitor your body language because these nonverbal messages are so easy for parents to overlook. State the command as an instruction, not as a question (Not, “Would you please stop teasing your brother?” or “Stop teasing him, OK?” but “You need to stop teasing your brother.”).
If you are not sure your child heard the terminating command or warning, ask her to repeat it back to you. Then pay attention to whether she carries out your instructions and respond immediately to her behavior. If she responds as you have asked, respond positively with praise, thanks, a thumbs-up, a high five, or other acknowledgment that she has done well. If her response is not exactly what you had hoped for but is in the right direction, offer her immediate praise for the part of your command that she did carry out. If your child does not start to respond according to the limits you have set (“one more time” or “within the next two minutes”) invoke the consequences that you have already set, calmly narrating what is happening as you do so (“You did not stop pushing your brother, so you’ll have the five-minute time-out that we just talked about.”) Keep in mind that because you have given a warning and a terminating command and spelled out the consequences for complying or disobeying, if she does not follow your instructions you have not “put her in” the time-out—she has “chosen” the time-out for herself as an alternative to following your command. This is a key point. If you give your child a command, she doesn’t comply, and you immediately “put her” in time-out, you have skipped the step of her choosing whether to receive the positive or negative consequence. You have lost an opportunity to teach her self-control.
If you make a point of following through on the positive or negative consequences of each command, every time, you should soon find that you will not have to repeat your instructions over and over as you probably did before. Your ultimate goal will be to give a command only once for it to be obeyed. Parents often complain, “I have to say it eight times before she does it.” Children are thinking, “The first seven times are free! Then she gets angry and I finally have to do it.” Keep in mind that if you are going to try to follow up on each command you give, you will need to consider beforehand how important the command you are about to give is. Limiting the number of commands you give will make it easier for you to follow up on each and every one, thus increasing your chances of success.