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How Experts Discipline Their Children

talking to child

Heather Weston

The expert: Katarzyna Bisaga, M.D., Ph.D., a child and adolescent psychiatrist and assistant clinical professor in Columbia University's Division of Child Psychiatry in New York City; married to Adam, a psychiatrist specializing in addiction problems; mother of three

Her professional philosophy: Discipline should be tailored to each child's personality and the specific misbehavior. "You can't have one technique for every problem that arises," she says. That said, Dr. Bisaga adds that "one very effective method I use with the families I work with, and with my own kids, is behavioral modification through positive reinforcement" -- in other words, rewards applied immediately after the desired behavior occurs.

Her own discipline dilemmas: "When my son, Marcin, was 7, we were having trouble getting him ready for school in the morning. We would say, 'Here are the clothes you have to put on. You have five minutes to get ready.' Sometimes he would just play and do his own stuff. I'd end up saying, 'I'm going to count to 10 and you need to get dressed.' We were having power struggles, and you don't want to get into a power struggle every day. It can destroy your relationship with your child," Dr. Bisaga says.

"My middle child, Emily, is different," she continues. "She's very independent. When she was 3, the discipline issues were more related to occasional tantrums." For instance, Emily would get angry and throw food on the floor or she would get too physical with her baby sister, Julia. Sometimes Emily would grab toys from Julia or push her if she was getting into her things. "When Julia arrived it was a big transition for everyone, and Emily was only 2 years old," says Dr. Bisaga. "Kids that age are pretty needy and demanding, and Emily became even more so after the baby came. The aggression became a problem when Julia started getting more mobile and interested in the toys Emily played with."

At-home solutions: Dr. Bisaga took cues from her kids. For Marcin, rather than dwelling on the negative aspects of his foot-dragging, she stressed the positives, made her expectations clear, and offered rewards for good behavior. "We wanted to remove the power struggle from the situation, and stressing positive behavior helps build self-esteem," she says. "The thinking is that once a child develops one positive behavior and gets a lot of praise, then he'll be more likely to cooperate in other situations too." At first Dr. Bisaga tried to reward Marcin with TV or computer time in the morning if he was dressed and done with breakfast quickly. "But we found that wasn't a good idea because it created another power struggle when it was time to turn the TV or computer off," she says.

A better solution was an incentive chart: "We had used a star chart when Marcin was about 2 and working on potty training. He wasn't interested in taking the time to sit down, so whenever he did I would give him a sticker. His potty training just took off from there." This time, Dr. Bisaga decided to use a point system to motivate him. "In the morning Marcin got points for getting dressed by a certain time, brushing his teeth, and eating his breakfast," she says. "When he came home from school, there were points for putting his coat and shoes away and for washing his hands. At night there were points for taking a bath and brushing his teeth." At the end of the week, the results were tallied and he earned 10 cents for every three points. Marcin would look forward to buying Yu-Gi-Oh! cards and Bionicles with his loot.

Because Emily's personality and issues -- impulsivity and aggression -- were so different from Marcin's, Dr. Bisaga needed another approach. She had to find a way to calm her daughter and help her think before reacting. What worked for Emily: time-outs. "There were specific situations in which we used the technique," Dr. Bisaga explains. "If it was a safety issue -- I told her to stop pushing the baby or not to run across the street -- and she didn't listen, she knew there would be a time-out. Or if she was getting frustrated and being aggressive, then we would give her a warning and tell her that she needed to stop what she was doing. It helped that Emily knew there was a procedure in place."

They also had to tell her what to do -- not just what not to do, says Dr. Bisaga: "You can't just say, 'I want you to behave.' That's too vague. You can say, 'I want you to take turns and share your toys with your sister until dinnertime.'" Here, too, you need to give positive reinforcement. "If you have a child with a tendency to act out, she'll never succeed if you tell her to keep her hands to herself for an hour," says Dr. Bisaga. "But you can start by giving her a reward for playing nicely for 15 minutes. Then, once she's successful, you can stretch it to 20 or 30 minutes, and so on."

Her parting advice: The key to making any discipline philosophy work, says Dr. Bisaga, is consistency. The reward system works well as long as you keep at it. And once a specific behavior is no longer a problem, you can target another, always making sure your goals are realistic and age-appropriate. A good thing about a reward chart is that it clearly states what is expected of your child. "But even simple star charts require a lot of energy, effort, and time," says Dr. Bisaga. "You need to be on top of your kids and monitor what they're doing and how they're doing it."

Bottom line: "As a parent, it pays to see the glass as half full," she says. "You should build a positive relationship with your children and underscore their good behavior. Otherwise, you let your experience of your kids be shaped by their negative actions."

Using Positive Reinforcement
Using Positive Reinforcement

The expert: Scott Brown, a founding member of The Harvard Negotiation Project in Cambridge, MA; author of How to Negotiate With Kids ... Even When You Think You Shouldn't; married to Mary, who works in medical school admissions; father of four

His professional philosophy: Brown applies the same principles of negotiation to family conflicts that he used to help mediate peace talks in South Africa and El Salvador. "My experience has taught me that people are more likely to comply with an agreement if they've participated in making that agreement," he says. "If you spend time developing a way of working through problems with your kids, future problems will be a lot easier."

His own discipline dilemma: "Nobody wanted to go to bed in my family," says Brown. "Even though they had set bedtimes, the children would often be on the computer, playing a game, or just wrestling with each other, and they wouldn't want to stop what they were doing to go to bed. Three or four times a night my wife and I would end up having to say, 'Time to go up and brush your teeth,' before they'd actually do it."

At-home solutions: Brown and his wife held a family meeting to come up with a plan everyone could agree on. The parents explained their position: They wanted the children to get enough sleep to be healthy, so bedtime during the school week was non-negotiable. But they were willing to be more flexible on the weekends.

They also asked the kids for their input: "It's taking longer for you guys to go to bed. What can we do to get you moving more quickly?" The children took this discussion seriously and came up with ideas, such as having Mom and Dad warn them earlier or spend more time reading books with them after they had finished brushing their teeth. Then they talked about which ideas would work best. They also discussed consequences if the kids began stalling again (such as going to bed 20 minutes earlier the next night if they were 20 minutes late the night before) and agreed on what seemed fair to both parties.

His parting advice: "The earliest you can expect kids to participate in a negotiation process is when they're 3," says Brown. "They have to have their own thoughts and ideas and be able to talk." But that doesn't mean you can't lay the foundation at an early age. "A younger child might 'negotiate' by crying or being demanding," says Brown. "You can sit down with your child, listen to what he's trying to say, and find a way to bridge your needs with his. Even a 2-year-old will usually calm down if he knows that you understand how he feels. For example, you might say, 'I know it's hard to stop playing with your toys. But after you get up from your nap, we can play together.'"

There are issues in any family that are non-negotiable, says Brown, and in his clan, health and safety rules are sacrosanct: "For instance, if the kids want to go out in below-zero weather with T-shirts on, that's non-negotiable. But my research has shown that the most common conflicts in families are about cleaning up and helping out with chores, eating, sibling disputes, listening to parents, arguments about buying things, and bedtime and general attitude problems." Negotiating can work for any of these things, he says: "It's a constant process because children change so quickly. What works for them one time may not be the right answer three months later." As new conflicts arise or old ones need adjusting, families should sit down together and come up with solutions. "If you take the time to do this," says Brown, "your kids will be less likely to think you're being unfair and more likely to follow the rules."

The expert: Julia C. Torquati, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Family and Consumer Science at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln; married to David, a locksmith; mother of four

Her professional philosophy: Dr. Torquati believes in letting kids learn from the consequences of their actions, as long as they're age-appropriate and fit the misbehavior. If a child's actions affect another child, you also need to help him see the emotional connection, says Dr. Torquati. ("How do you think your brother feels when you hit him or use things without asking?")

It's also important for parents to pick their battles. Dr. Torquati prefers to prevent conflict whenever possible. One way is by making sure the environment is child-friendly. For instance, it's easier to keep fragile objects out of your toddler's reach than to be constantly telling him not to touch things. She also likes giving kids a sense of control by offering choices. (Instead of telling your child she has to have her hair brushed, say, "Do you want one ponytail or two?") These strategies are great for kids 3 and under because they're still learning to control their impulses and don't have the cognitive ability to understand why something needs to be done.

Her own discipline dilemma: As the mother of four kids, ranging in age from 20 to 4, Dr. Torquati has had to deal with her share of typical discipline issues, such as kids ignoring rules because they want to look cool. In addition, "when Sonora was a toddler there was some boundary testing," says Dr. Torquati. "One time she said she didn't want to put her shoes on before preschool. Another time she threw a toy and hit her older brother Gabriel on the head."

At-home solutions: With the shoe struggle, Dr. Torquati gave her daughter two choices -- Sonora could either put her shoes on or her mother would bring her to school without them. "By the time we got there, she let me put them on and forgot she didn't want them on in the first place," says Dr. Torquati.

When Sonora hurt her brother, however, Dr. Torquati used a different tactic: "I said, 'Look, Sonora, you made Gabe sad. He's hurt. This is why we don't throw things at other people.'" Sonora obviously felt bad but didn't know what to do. So Dr. Torquati and her older daughter, Francesca, modeled the preferred behavior. They kissed Gabe and showed Sonora they felt bad he was hurt. "I asked her if she would give him a hug or a kiss too," says Dr. Torquati. "She wasn't ready to do that yet, but she hung around him with her head down. I didn't have to force her to apologize. She knew she had done something wrong."

This process works because you're conveying the consequences of your child's actions, says Dr. Torquati: "It reinforces what she did was wrong and shows her how to make it right. When you draw your child's attention to somebody else's sadness or hurt, it makes an impact. We remember things that are attached to strong emotions."

"With my older kids, I make the disciplinary action connected to the offense," says Dr. Torquati. "For example, if I see that their homework isn't getting done because they're trying to watch the end of a TV show or finish a computer game, I'll remove the show or game. And once, when my son Michael was in eighth grade, he rode his bike to school without his helmet. He was trying to impress a girl and didn't want to mess his hair. When I found out, I went to his school and brought his bicycle home. The school is four or five miles away, and he had to walk all the way home."

Her parting advice: Explaining to kids why they need to do certain things helps because it gives them the tools to regulate their behavior. "I know Sonora is learning to do this because I can hear her talking to herself," says Dr. Torquati. "She says, 'The street's dangerous; don't go into the street.' She plays in the car with her stuffed animals and tells them, 'You have to sit in the car seat.'"

It's also okay to sometimes let older kids suffer the consequences of their actions. You don't want them to be dependent on you for knowing what to do. The long-term goal is to help them think for themselves and internalize the reasons why they should behave a certain way, says Dr. Torquati. You do this by giving explanations, letting your kids know what's expected, and allowing them to learn from their mistakes.

Originally published in the August 2005 issue of Child magazine.

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