Q&A of the Week

In this week’s featured Q&A — from his book “Discipline That Lasts a Lifetime” — Dr. Ray explains that it’s possible to discipline your children even if you think it’s too late.


Q: My children are ages twelve and eight. I realize now that I have not disciplined them well. When is it too late to change?

A: Are you asking about changing you or changing them? It’s not 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 move away from your home. That said, it does get harder to change all of you the longer you stay the way you are. If you intend 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 can’t pick it up and roll again. First, some kids have temperaments that make poorly raising them hard to do. They are naturally easygoing, or mature, or pleasant, or cooperative, and while weak discipline over time can make any kid tougher to raise, the easy kids are harder to make difficult and easier to make undifficult.

Second, even though reshaping a child’s character may take lots of effort, it is infinitely important to do so. So the task must always be attempted, no matter how late a parent thinks it might be. Many are the adults who have dramatically changed the course of their moral lives in the fourth, fifth, even sixth 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 that your twelve-year-old daughter is disrespectfully argumentative. (Many parents of preteens need little imagination to picture this scenario.) So you decide to levy fifteen 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 OK. The first step towards character change has begun. You must stop the bad before the good has someplace to grow.

Fourth, and related to the above, behavior changes much more quickly than attitude. Your youngster may tone down her disrespect by 80 percent the first month because she is tired of being a chore serf, but that doesn’t mean she’ll inwardly respect you any more than she did last month. Remain resolute anyway. 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 that a problem has been growing, stick with your new discipline for one month. If your twelve-year-old has been mouthy since age four, then use your chore-serf approach for at least eight months. If by then, you’ve seen little progress, reassess.

An ever-present temptation in discipline is to bounce from tactic to tactic, hoping to hit the psychological lotto, and in one brilliant stroke to reverse years of wrong way momentum. Such pinball parenting leads not only to frustration, but ultimately to the false conclusion that indeed you did wait too long and that your child is incorrigibly beyond your discipline reach.

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 all humans, learn ever so slowly to apply the lesson to life.

Order “Discipline That Lasts a Lifetime: The Best Gift You Can Give Your Kids” from our Online Bookstore to read more of Dr. Ray’s time-tested advice for disciplining children.