Approaching Discipline

My husband and I have two wonderful children; our daughter is 19 months old and our son turned four last week. We are a bicultural and biracial family, which gives us a rich variety of traditions to draw from. To our surprise, one of the areas in which we have had trouble blending our backgrounds is arriving at a discipline strategy for our children. I grew up in a home that was probably too permissive, while my husband grew up in a family where both parents expected complete obedience. Because of these differences, we’ve noticed our discipline techniques have generally been ineffective, especially with our son. He responds to rewards – sometimes – but my husband doesn’t want to overuse them, and I feel like I am bribing him constantly. A number of times lately my husband has had to step in to get my son to listen; when this happens he doesn’t want anything to do with his father later on. We can see ourselves falling into similar patterns from our own upbringings and find ourselves at odds over how strict or gentle to be. Where do you draw the line?

Recently, I read a book that recommended strict boundaries and no talking during discipline in order to prevent my children from growing up to be wild beasts. At the same time, my husband read a book that cautioned against any use of reward or punishment, lest our kids fail to develop a moral sense of right and wrong. Now we are both scared to discipline. How can we avoid chaos, raise emotional and morally intact humans, and maintain a sense of self-respect in the process? Why does that feel like such a tall order?

Finding an approach to discipline that matches your sense of yourself as a parent, and is effective with your child can be a difficult endeavor for any parent; and the cultural issues connected to your questions give your parenting quandaries a unique weight.

Much parenting advice delivers the message that there is one right way to do things. This leaves little room for evolution. In truth, while there are always more and less optimal ways to approach issues with a specific child, there is room to correct your course if you feel your current approach isn’t working. In fact, the process of making adjustments and changing strategies models the flexibility and responsiveness that children need to learn. The key to doing this effectively is to decide what to change ahead of time (and tell your children what will be different) rather than switching tracks in the moment. In developing a discipline strategy, consider what you know to be effective with each of your children and work to find techniques that match your parenting goals.

What works with each child is a matter of a child’s temperament. No matter how well you employ a particular approach, if it doesn’t jive with what your child needs and can respond to, it won’t be effective. You already have some important information about what works with your children: If your son respond to rewards, we would say that not only is it fine to use them, but by doing so correctly you will model strategies for motivation that he will internalize and use to direct his own behavior. What you want to remember in using rewards with your kids are two things:

1. Only promise a reward when you are willing and you feel it’s merited, such as when kids are learning a new skill or must do something that they are particularly loathed to do. Rewards shouldn’t be for everything.

2. Whenever you offer a reward, you must understand that your child performing the behavior that gets the reward is only one option. The other is that he or she will not choose to earn the reward and you must be equally willing to respond to either outcome. If you are in a position where you need your child to opt for the reward in order to maintain order, the reward is no longer a reward; it’s a bribe. In this situation you will feel desperate and your children will sense that your authority is no longer intact. This will leave a headstrong little guy like your son anxiously caught between the desire for control and need for boundaries. Maintaining this balance often means that you have to have a consequence ready to enforce if your child doesn’t opt for the reward.

Another thing you know about your son is that he tends to need a firm invention to get his attention. Providing this by setting and enforcing predictable consequences, and by using a firm but calm voice consistently will work over time. If you calmly enforce the consequence before you get angry, you will maintain your authority and your husband won’t have to get scary.

Discussing any struggle after it’s over is equally important to having boundaries. This is the way that you will help your son to internalize the lessons behind the consequences. It will convey the message that no matter what happens, nothing is too scary to talk about, and they will let your son know that he always has your empathy, if not your indulgence.

Finally, a family culture of open dialogue will give you all the freedom to explore, predict, revamp and collaboratively adjust to the various and changing needs of each of your temperaments, comfort-zones, and points of development. Our guess is in this process, you will find enough of what you need to fill your tall order.

by Lele Diamond & Noelle Cochran

Symbio 2010