Consistent Discipline Does Not Equal Constant Discipline

Or “If I were consistent, I’d be on him every minute.”

A mother came to my office because, like so many parents, she felt she was forever disciplining yet her son Philip was only getting worse. Mom was afraid that one day soon she would lose all control and really harm Philip in a surge of exasperation and rage. As she spoke, it was evident that her main methods of “disciplining” consisted of nagging, pleading, preaching, threatening, and generally getting upset over much of Philip’s nastiness. Mom spent most of her relationship with Philip locked in one or another of these communication modes, none of which had any impact and all of which heightened her feelings of hopelessness. Since Mom’s most urgent need was to regain some sense of control, both of herself and of Philip, she and I put together a simple system of rules and results. We chose the most persistent of Philip’s misbehaviors and attached automatic consequences to each. Likewise, we decided upon privileges Philip could earn by acting with some degree of thoughtfulness and maturity. Nothing fancy, just an elementary system to start reducing the incessant clashes between Mom and Philip. But as Mom assessed our plan, she commented in doubt, “I’m not so sure this will work. With as much as Philip acts up, I’ll be on his back constantly if I discipline him every time he misbehaves. He’ll never earn any privileges.”

This mother’s idea of discipline was a major source of her spiraling distress. She measured discipline by the quantity of arguments, yells, and warnings she aimed at Philip. In truth, this is not discipline at all. This is the illusion of discipline-an illusion that will thrust you into repeated and ugly face-offs with your youngster. (There is more about illusory discipline in Chapter 6.) Legitimate discipline―calmly placing limits on your youngster’s behavior, backed by predictable consequences-will not put you “on his back” constantly. It will have the opposite effect: it will take you off his back. You won’t be forever reminding, or cajoling, or threatening him to act with some semblance of propriety. Instead, because your youngster will know exactly what your responses will be-pro and con-to certain behaviors, you will be freed from the role of fulltime overseer and enforcer. Once you have laid down definite guidelines, you’ll actually have to discipline less.

Many parents, however, don’t take advantage of this fact. They think that setting explicit consequences for perpetual misbehaviors will drag them into a state of perpetual discipline. They figure they’d better tolerate the trouble at least part of the time, or they will spend all of the time disciplining. This error in logic is easy to fall into, especially if a youngster acts up with clockwork regularity. Suppose your six-year-old son expresses his “aggressive instincts” upon the body of his younger brother almost every time they play within sight of each other. Nothing you’ve tried thus far has prevented their playtime from ending up in a one-sided boxing match. You’ve been entertaining the idea of separating Rocky from his brother and placing him in a dining-room chair for a half hour each time he turns bully, but you’ve not yet implemented your version of a neutral corner for fear that Rocky will live the greater part of his next few years there, thus depriving him of the positive aspects of sibling interaction. Of course, up to now any positive interaction has been regularly shattered by the tormented screams of little brother. If you decide to adopt your plan, at first you will probably have to be prepared to act frequently. You see, Rocky may not take you too seriously, so he’ll be willing to go fifteen rounds on this issue. But if you’re willing to go sixteen rounds, you will watch your use of the dining room chair tapering off. Rocky’s no amateur at being a kid. He’s also no dummy. The mandatory neutral corner will help him think, before he swings, about the repercussions of bopping his brother. Contrary to what you thought would happen, Rocky is not growing old in the chair, and you are not refereeing squabbles nearly as often as you used to.

To say it again (at the risk of being on your back), it is not consistent discipline that makes for constant discipline; it is inconsistent discipline. If your kids realize they have between four and twenty chances before you act, or if they’re never quite sure how you’re going to act, they will learn to either ignore you or challenge, you. This is what leads to your feeling of being “constantly on their backs.”

You’re a Better Parent Than You Think! Pages 102-104
Copyright © 1985 by Prentice-Hall, Inc.
Fireside Edition 1992