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Discipline Lessons That Last

It's helpful when you're sitting down to write an article about children and discipline to have a test case at home. So I suppose I should be grateful to my 5-year-old son. Just this afternoon, in the backseat of the car, Henry grabbed his best friend's hair tightly and pulled it hard. He also sat on his big sister until she screamed, scarfed down forbidden cookies, and then denied that he had eaten them.

Did I thank him? Hardly. I ended his playdate, sent him to his room twice, and banned first the computer and then the television. None of this seemed to make much of a difference. I confess that by dinnertime, I was banging the pots and pans around and SPEAKING LIKE THIS THE ENTIRE TIME.

Like most parents, I hope that my reactions will give my son pause the next time he feels like misbehaving. Even more ambitious, I want him to cooperate for the right reasons -- because "pulling hair is wrong," rather than "I don't want to make Mommy mad again." But most of the time, it seems, the actions we take to end today's bad scene do little to move us toward the larger goal of preventing tomorrow's unpleasant episode. Instead, we find ourselves wondering, Will they ever learn?

Experts insist that they will, but there's a catch -- we have to teach them, a task that requires forethought, consistency, and a cool head. What follow are the six principles of discipline with staying power. They won't prevent the Henry in your house from having an occasional horrible day, but they will help you steer him through it with love, patience, and a lasting lesson or two.

Midbattle, I once gave Henry an ultimatum: Start using the fluoride rinse or no desserts until you comply. To which he replied, "You'll forget, and then I'll get my cupcakes!"

Drat! -- foiled again. How many times had I made such empty threats? Enough, I realized, for Henry to catch on to this major breach of discipline doctrine. "On a scale of 1 to 10 in its importance to good discipline, consistency is a 12," says Sal Severe, Ph.D., a Parents advisory-board member and author of How to Behave so Your Children Will, Too! (Viking Press, 2000).

Why Consistency Works

Inconsistency turns kids into opportunists. Because they never know what they can get away with, they try to get away with whatever they can. But when they know what you expect of them and what will happen when they fall short, "it allows them to predict the outcomes of their choices," Dr. Severe says. "It gives them a sense of control."

How To Do It

The tough-est part of consistency is steeling yourself against whatever tempts you to give in "just this once." So hammer out your most important rules and the consequences that will occur whenever they're broken. Then inform your children.

In other cases, explain your expectations as needed. If you're heading to the supermarket, tell your child that you expect her not to grab products. Warn her about the consequences.

Consistency requires follow- through, so don't voice rash threats. "We give one chance, and then we take away a privilege," says Jennifer Roberts, a stay-at-home mother of two from Cordova, Tennessee. "We don't say, 'You're not going to preschool,' because we wouldn't be able to follow through."

Name-calling and labeling ("You're so careless!") are two great discipline no-nos. These comments do very little to promote better discipline and a great deal to undermine self-esteem. Try, try, try to limit your criticism to your child's behavior.

"This doesn't mean that kids will be free from bad feelings about themselves sometimes because you've punished them," Dr. Severe says. "That's okay. Those feelings will pass." But a repeated blanket criticism, such as "Why are you always so mean to your brother?" may make the negative feelings stick.

Why Focusing on Behavior Works

It implies that you believe in your child and his capacity to do better. Eventually, it promotes good conduct. "Self-esteem comes from correct behavior," Dr. Severe says. "If I'm doing the right thing, I'm going to feel good about myself. And if I feel good about the way I did something, I'm going to want to do it again."

How To Do It

Withholding criticism is tough for many parents. So think before you speak (or shout). Your phrasing makes a big difference: Saying, "I love you, but your behavior was unacceptable" may feel forced at first but, after a while, will become second nature.

The true meaning of the word discipline is "to teach." If you discipline only through punishment, you'll miss a lot of opportunities to instruct your children. By offering a morsel of praise whenever your child picks up her toys, you remind her in a positive way how you expect her to behave.

Why Praise Works

Though at times this may be difficult to believe, children do want to be good. But they also crave attention. If they hear from you only when they're throwing Legos at the baby . . . well, you know where I'm headed.

A little applause for doing a job well "really does motivate children to do better," says Maurice Elias, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Rutgers University, in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and coauthor of Emotionally Intelligent Parenting (Three Rivers Press, 2000). Jennifer Roberts makes sure that her 4- and 8-year-old hear about it even whenever other people catch them being good. "If someone comments that they're well-behaved, I'll say, 'Tell them,' " Roberts says. "It makes them proud, and the comment may make a bigger impression than if it came from me."

How To Do It

You don't need to gush just because your child says "please." But be specific. "Instead of saying 'Good job,' say, 'It's very helpful when you put your clothes away so neatly,' " Dr. Elias says. Your child will know what behavior you value and why.

Resist the urge to add conditional statements to your praise, he warns. A comment such as "You straightened your room beautifully; why can't you do that every night?" is a criticism loosely disguised as a compliment.

Yelling, door slamming, being snotty -- hey, kids aren't the only ones who misbehave. Few parents can boast that they never lose control in the name of discipline. And most of us feel horrible about it afterward.

Anger mismanagement can really sabotage your discipline efforts. "Kids learn to zone out when there's a lot of yelling," Dr. Elias says. Eventually, he says, they get so used to ignoring what a parent says that "when we say something positive, they don't listen either."

Why Self-Control Works

Disciplining with a cool head just feels right. And your child will translate such confidence this way: that your decisions are objective, carried out with his best interests in mind.

How To Do It

Decide how you'll defuse those mental sticks of dynamite in the future. Try counting to ten or walking away (after you've put a stop to anything dangerous). Learn what your pressure points are. Robin Ross, of Montclair, New Jersey, an attorney and mother of three, says, "I know I'm going to lose it when my kids are fresh, so I walk away until I can talk to them again."

Finally, if you fail, which is going to happen, remember that a heartfelt "I'm sorry" tells your children that you're a human who makes mistakes -- and can admit it.

Our poor children. They're growing up thinking that consequence is the synonym for punishment. It has become a euphemism for "the bad thing that's going to happen if you don't cut that out." Teach your children that a consequence is the result of any action and can be positive or negative -- a punishment or a reward. If your child picks up her toys while you get dressed, the consequence will be that you'll have time to go to both the supermarket (yuck) and the library (yeah!). If she doesn't pick up her toys, you'll have time only for the supermarket (yuck).

Why Teaching About Consequences Works

Impressing this cause-and-effect message on children throws the ball in their court: Whether your daughter gets to go to the library is up to her. "It teaches children a sense of responsibility," Dr. Elias says. " 'If you don't help out, I have more to do, and then I won't have time to do other things.'"

How To Do It

Make a habit of explaining to your child the reasons behind your requests. Offer occasional rewards for good behavior, Dr. Severe suggests. A trip to the ice-cream stand, he says, can be prefaced by saying, "You two shared so nicely today that I thought we could have a little treat."

When punishment does become necessary, connect it to the behavior that led to it. Lisa Brinkley, a Poughkeepsie, New York, mother, says, "If my 6-year-old hits somebody, his action figures are taken away. He knows that if he shows aggression, that's what's going to happen. He understands it."

At its core, your mission in correcting misbehavior is to raise good kids who grow up to be good people. Though we all agree on the basics -- honesty, respect for others, and kindness -- each family varies in its emphasis. My husband and I are nuts about safeguarding other people's feelings; Lisa Brinkley is a stickler for honesty. "What values do you want your child to learn?" Dr. Severe asks. "That's part of discipline."

Why Conveying Your Values Works

These days, kids' heads are filled with undesirable messages from the media. "Many of the messages are 'Adults are stupid'; 'It's funny to be disrespectful'; 'Why wait, buy it now,' " Dr. Elias says. "So we have to be more clear more often about the message we're sending to kids."

How To Do It

To pump up the volume on your values, cut back on the white noise -- the background nagging that seems to go on all day. "Successful parents don't dwell on the little things," Dr. Severe notes.

Align your discipline methods with your values. If you're trying to convey that family members have a responsibility to take care of each other, think twice before paying your kids to do basic chores.

In the end, our children will internalize our values, both good and bad. And that, finally, is our goal -- to move our children from discipline to self-discipline. Bad days notwithstanding, Henry at 5 is less aggressive than Henry at 3. And someday, I'm sure, he'll be able to stop himself from misbehaving. Along the way, his father and I happily accept the assignment of holding his hand -- and, occasionally, pulling it out of his best friend's hair.

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