One of the disadvantages of this job is that I rarely have enough space in which to say all that I’d like to say. Take last week’s column in which I said, “Consequences should be employed whether they work or not.” Some elaboration is in order.
Today’s parents tend to believe in behavior modification. They believe, in other words, that any discipline problem can be solved by simply pairing the right consequence with the wrong behavior. But what works reliably on rats and dogs does not work reliably on human beings. Furthermore, discipline that relies on consequences is doomed to failure. Many parents already know this; they simply refuse to accept the evidence.
I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: The proper discipline of a child is accomplished through the presentation of a certain attitude, one that reflects an adult’s unwavering confidence in the legitimacy of his or her authority over the child. With said attitude, consequences will rarely be necessary. Without it, no consequence will work for long.
Now, not meaning to confuse, but two things are germane to this discussion: First, while consequences come with no guarantees, they are necessary to teaching children how the world works; second, consequences can be made to work, and well, in certain situations, but doing so requires violating the rules of “parenting correctness.”
Parenting Correctness Rule One: The punishment should fit the crime.
Parenting Fact: The chance that a given consequence will eliminate a misbehavior is greatly increased if it does not “fit” the crime but is to the crime as an H-bomb is to an anthill.
Actual example: On the first day of summer vacation, a rising high school junior celebrates by drinking some beers with friends. His parents calmly respond by keeping him under their thumb for the entire summer. Where they go, he goes and vice versa. When his “vacation” ends, they invite him to discover their response to a second beer party. He makes the wise choice.
In a former time, when commonsense ruled the rearing of children, that sort of approach was known as “nipping it in the bud.” Today’s parents—not all of them, but all too many—blow a lot of hot air at the bud and then wonder why it continues to grow.
Parenting Correctness Rule Two: A child should be able to predict consequences.
Parenting Fact: The strength of a consequence is enhanced if the child has no way of predicting it.
Consistency of attitude (i.e., “I will not tolerate this behavior”) and consistency of consequence are horses of two entirely different colors. When a child can predict a consequence, he can prepare himself for it and in doing so significantly reduce its impact. Be consistent, but be unpredictable and above all else, think outside the box of parenting correctness.
Lastly, understand that some kids are so determined to get their way they will cut off their noses to spite their faces—they will, in other words, continue to misbehave in the face of the most egregious consequences. That’s human beings for you.
And so, a final dictum: When a child does something wrong and his parents respond with something right and the child continues nonetheless to do the wrong thing, his parents should simply continue to do the right thing. Someday, maybe and hopefully, he will get it.