Discipline Lessons That Last

Be Consistent

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."

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