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The Informed Parent

Code of Discipline - part 1

by John H. Samson, M.D., F.A.A.P.
Published on Sep. 16, 2002

I find myself referring families to this past article monthly, as young parents struggle to establish a mutually agreeable code of discipline for their offspring. There is little doubt in my mind that many of our new readers will benefit from reading this article for the first time.

A young mom recently complained to me about the struggle she and her husband are having over when and for what their seven-year-old son should be punished. Sometimes they argue about it in front of the child, and usually no discipline takes place at all.

Over the past six months their son has become more unmanageable. If she tries to discipline him, he runs to dad for protection. The teacher tells them that he is not a discipline problem at school. It is quite obvious that he is disrupting their house and the relationship between husband and wife.

This is one of the most common and certainly disruptive interactions parents endure. “Divide and conquer” is the battle cry of all children. In the situation just described, the child is directly in charge. He keeps both parents off balance during confrontations, so that instead of focusing attention on his disciplinary needs, the parents are battling each other. Their son becomes a spectator rather than a participant.

His teacher’s observation is very helpful. This indicates that he is basically a law-abiding, aim-to-please citizen when confronted by effective behavior control and direction. In other words, he is not suffering from a generalized behavior disorder that manifests itself in all elements of his life. This makes prognosis better and management easier.

In some cases this type of family problem is only an expression of more deep-seated differences between a husband and wife. At times a couple finds it too hard or painful to address a basic issue disrupting their relationship. Thus, they focus on another issue or dispute to haggle about. In the process they vent their hostility without touching on the keystone issue.

It is a form of the "burnt toast syndrome". A husband feels his wife spends too much time going out with her friends or watching soap operas and, because of that, the household and their relationship suffers. Rather than telling her that, he waits until she makes a slight error (such as burning the toast or serving cold coffee) and then blows up. The argument that ensues is ridiculous because they are having a major disagreement over an insignificant occurrence that has nothing to do with the basic problem. Nothing beneficial occurs, guilt is generated and the fundamental vexation continues unaddressed.

One should be sure that in the situations described the "burnt toast syndrome" is not involved. If it is, one must address the basic problem while taking measures to correct the boy’s discipline problem. The following program has proven helpful to many of my families. More importantly, they tell me it is workable and generates meaningful communication between them where none existed before. At first glance, one may feel it is too compulsive, but if followed exactly, one will find it accomplishes the desired end. Take no shortcuts.

First, at a time when the boy is not around and the television is off, wife and husband should independently write down what behavior should lead to discipline. Don’t worry about what the discipline is going to be at this time. Just write down a list. Remember, at this point you and your husband are writing independently; no discussion, no sharing of thoughts. You must include any behavior you feel needs discipline. When you are done, put the paper away for 24 hours and then review it, making appropriate changes. It is still your list.

When your independent work is completed, write down what the discipline will be for any offense. Make the punishment universal. That is, one sentence for any offense. Remember, your son is only seven years old and his offenses will usually be of a similar magnitude, so you do not need multiple levels of discipline. As children get older, they need several degrees of disciplinary activity because their offenses will vary in severity. Be sure the punishment is reasonable, consistently enforceable and meaningful to the child.

Now that you and your husband each have your paperwork done, sit down together and compare lists. Let me caution you that dad may say, “I don’t need to make a list; you make one and it’ll be OK with me, or then we’ll look it over.” That avoidance maneuver is unacceptable and will not work. Each parent must do his or her independent work. Contrary to a popular but antiquated and ineffective belief, childhood discipline is not the province of mom. Both parents must actively participate and present a united front. Review each point; if it appears on both lists, it is LAW.

If it appears on only one paper, discussion must follow and it either is dropped or incorporated in the combined list. If it is incorporated, it can only be put there when both parents agree. Sometimes discussion of this nature takes several sessions before agreement is reached. If a stalemate occurs, take a break and think about it individually before reopening the debate.

This review must also be done when the children are gone or are in bed; in other words they should not share in your discussion. The final code of conduct must be presented as a unified effort of mom and dad.

Tell yourselves before you start that this review is not a power struggle between parents to get your list approved. It is a sharing of thoughts to develop a single easily understood code of conduct that reflects the beliefs and wishes of both parents as one. Next month: How to present the list to your child and how to use it.

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