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The Informed Parent

Discipline: The Right Time, The Right Place

by Carolyn Warnemuende, M.S.
Published on Oct. 10, 2005

Ms. Haskins, the parent of a first grade boy, approached me recently with a common parental complaint. "Jason just doesn't listen when I talk to him about inappropriate behavior," she said. "He gazes away and is sometimes mouthy with me. Then he does the same thing again later."

Ms. Haskins was frustrated and felt incompetent. She was doing her best to effectively parent, and it wasn't working. You may have had similar feelings when your children haven't listened to your attempts at discipline. Feelings of frustration and incompetence lead to nagging, anger, or giving up. None of these strategies solve the problem.

Discipline is an art. It requires structuring the environment most conducive to acceptable behavior. It demands consistency. Discipline means following through on your word. For this to work, parents must acknowledge small steps toward the desired behavior. They must support their children without enabling or doing for them what the children are capable of doing for themselves. The art of discipline requires time and commitment.

Effective discipline is a big job for anyone. For busy parents it is huge. Each month The Informed Parent offers information to increase parents' knowledge, and presents tools to assist in effective parenting. This month we will discuss two ideas that will guide you toward feeling more empowered in your ability to effectively discipline: choose the right time and the right place.

With very young children, children who have mental or social/emotional disabilities, or children of any age who exhibit behaviors that are injurious to self or others, discipline needs to take place in the moment. With most school age children and adolescents, discipline is most effective when the right time and place is chosen.

Story 1: A Demand For Attention

Ms. Haskins and Jason attended a barbecue party. Most of the guests were adults whose children were grown. Two or three young families were present. The children played in a bedroom and the adults conversed in the kitchen and living room. Throughout the evening the children came to talk to their parents or to show off tricks to the crowd. Jason came into the room on numerous occasions. Using a loud voice he asked for attention so that he could show his tricks. The first few times were cute. Later some adults continued their conversations instead of watching. Jason became more adamant and intrusive. Ms. Haskins spoke to him asking him to return to the bedroom. He failed to comply and she gave up. Thus the behavior continued.

Adult parties can be difficult for children. Often, like in the above situation, children receive special privileges like watching movies, eating in front of the TV, and having adults come to spend time with them. When children demand added attention, parents have two options: deal with the behavior; leave the party.

There was an effective way for Ms. Haskins to handle Jason's intrusive demands for attention. Choosing the right time--after her son had performed for the group two or three times. Choosing the right place--a quiet space away from both adults and other children where they could talk. She needed to say, "I know it's fun for you to show off in front of people. We watched you several times. Now it's time for you to play in the bedroom with the other children. If you choose to continue to come out and demand attention, we will go home."

If Ms. Haskins had a history of being consistent in her discipline, the likelihood is that Jason would comply. If she had a difficult time with consistency and follow-through, Jason might test her. He might continue interrupting the adults to see if she would actually leave and take him home.

For children to trust their parents' discipline, parents must be willing to follow-through with the consequences they have put forth.

Story 2: Stealing

Kristen and her mother were shopping at the supermarket. At the checkout stand was a display of small toys filled with candy. While Ms. Faire was busy writing a check, Kristen put one of the toys in her pocket.

Later in the day Ms. Faire saw Kristen eating the candy and talking to a friend on the phone. She was fiddling with the toy. When the phone conversation ended Ms. Faire approached her daughter. "I see that you have one of the toys from the supermarket. I didn't see you pay for it. Would you please tell me about this?"

Ms. Faire followed effective parenting practices. She did not interrupt her daughter during the phone call. That would have upset Kristen and started the conversation about stealing on an angry footing. She did not raise her voice but spoke directly and firmly. The tone of voice indicated the seriousness of the matter as well as increased the possibilities of Kristen listening. She stated what she saw without asking the question, "Where did you get the candy?" This was a question that could lead to a variety of answers, none of which were the truth. "Would you please tell me about this?" instead opened the door for Kristen to tell the truth non-defensively.

Kristen told her mother that she had taken the candy. Ms. Faire expressed her disappointment that her daughter had stolen. She said that they would immediately go to the store to return the toy and uneaten candy.

The way that Ms. Faire handled the stealing took patience to wait for the right time--when her daughter was finished talking on the phone. It took place in the right place--the quietness of the bedroom and the store where the stealing occurred. Because Ms. Faire dealt with the situation effectively, her daughter could trust that her mom meant what she said.

Story 3: Missing Homework

Late one evening, Mr. Thomas received a call from his son's teacher indicating that Tony wasn't turning in his homework. She said that unless the homework began coming back, Tony was in jeopardy of receiving a failing grade for the quarter.

The call from the school upset Mr. Thomas. He knew that he had a short fuse and needed to be careful not to blow off angrily when Tony didn't behave. The next morning he addressed the missing homework with Tony, using a loud but not angry voice. "I do turn it in, Dad," said Tony. "She doesn't know what she's talking about."

Mr. Thomas angrily responded that his son was disrespectful and that he knew for a fact that the teacher wasn't wrong. Tony refused to eat breakfast, and father and son did not speak on the ride to school. The morning interaction led to a difficult day for both of them.

There was a different, more effective way for Mr. Thomas to handle the missing homework. Mornings before school are often rushed. Unless there is an emergency that needs addressing it's best to find a more appropriate time for problem solving. During breakfast Mr. Thomas could have said, "I'm concerned that you may not have been turning in your homework. I thought we could go out tonight and discuss it over dinner." He would be setting the right time--a time that did not have to be hurried, and the right place--a restaurant. While this may sound like a reward for Tony it is effective reasoning. It would be less likely that Mr. Thomas would angrily address his son in a restaurant and more likely that Tony would listen when his dad kept a quiet voice.

By setting an appointment to discuss the homework problem, Mr. Thomas could think about what he wanted to say. He could rehearse in order to hear his tone of voice. Tony could know that the missing homework issue was now out in the open. He might feel some anxiety about the upcoming conversation. He might also feel some relief that no longer was it a secret.

The art of discipline requires practice. With each stage of children's development new issues arise. Honing the skills of effective discipline and using them consistently brings positive results and keeps the parent/child relationship one of mutual respect and trust.

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