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The Informed Parent

Who’s in Charge Here?

by John H. Samson, M.D., F.A.A.P.
Published on Mar. 31, 2007

"Don't touch the T.V. tuner," moans Dad.
"Oh, don't be so picky, Joe," chides Mom.
"I don't want him to mess with it!"
"It doesn't matter. He can't hurt it."
"You're too easy on him. You never discipline."
"Yes, I do! You're just not around to notice it."
"I have to make a living. I can't be around all the time."
"I work too. Maybe not full time, but you don't have to stay at the office so late every day!"
"Oh, forget it!" Joe storms out of the room.

This exchange occurs while Joe Jr. is disassembling the tuner and leaving the pieces behind, moving on to his next challenge.

Effective parenting? Hardly. Instead of expending energy on child guidance, Mom and Dad are antagonizing each other. Little Joe proceeds, uncontrolled through his early life. If things don't change he is on a collision course with his first teacher.

We have all been around parents who never seem to agree on a consistent code of conduct. One day the T.V. screen is smeared with dirty little hand prints--and that's OK. Two days later the same activity leads to a flurry of screaming and spanking parental intervention. How confusing is that to the child? It is OK to put hand prints on the screen on Monday, but don't do it on Wednesday.

Equally mind boggling to the child is the parent who repeatedly bellows out the same command, only to conclude, "What can I do? He does it anyway. I give up!" The little offspring is allowed to continue the very action he was told must be stopped ten times.

The hallmark of effective parenting is a consistent and unified approach by both parents. The child must see the mother and father as a single unit of guidance and discipline. If not, the toddler or adolescent will use one against the other to get his way. DIVIDE AND CONQUER is the battle cry of children at any age.

Parents must not express the problems in their own "husband- wife" relationship as a "child-parent" conflict. Deal with each in their own sphere. 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. Unfortunately, the area of parenting becomes the inappropriate target of the dispute. If it is, you must address your basic marital disagreements separate from child discipline issues.

The following approach to a unified and consistent discipline program has proven helpful to many families in my practice. More importantly, they tell me it is workable and generates meaningful communication between them where none existed before.

At first glance, you may feel it is too compulsive, but if you follow it exactly, you will find it accomplishes the desired end. Take no shortcuts.

First, at a time when your child is not around and the television is off, you and your 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 list sharing yet.

You must include any behavior you feel needs discipline. When you're done, put the list away for 24 hours and then review it, making appropriate changes. At this point it is still your list.

When you feel your list is complete, write down what the discipline will be for any offense. Make the punishment universal. That is, one "sentence" for any offense. Remember, when talking about a preschooler the offenses will usually be of a similar magnitude, so you don't 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 make his or her own list. 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 list, discussion must follow and it either is dropped or incorporated in the combined list. If it is incorporated on the final list, it can only be put there when both parents agree it belongs there. Sometimes a 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 child is gone or has been put to bed; in other words, he 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 list 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.

Now you and your spouse have decided on a final list and a mutually agreeable form of discipline. If the child is old enough, both of you should sit down with your offspring. Carefully review the list and what will happen if he chooses to break the rules. Listen to him, let him express his thoughts and keep an open mind. You may find some of his ideas are valid and the list should be altered. Do not make a decision then. Tell him the two of you will discuss it and will let him know your decision. Hold your discussion with your spouse without your child present, and respond to him within hours, not days. Once again, both of you sit down with him and give him your answer. At this point it is non-negotiable. If your child is too young to benefit from such a meeting the advantages from your unified program will still be present. The child will become aware of your rules by consistent enforcement, rather than proclamation.

Even though your particular child cannot read, it is a good idea to post the list in a prominent place, such as the kitchen, so that it is available to the whole family as a reminder. There rules are not chiseled in stone. As times change and children get older, the list must be updated. Remove outdated rules and add new ones. Each time, follow the same approach. It is important to delete the outdated rules, so that the list doesn't become too long and crowded with unnecessary regulations. An overly long list presents a confusing and depressing concept to your child.

You will find the number of items on your code of conduct fewer than you had imagined it would be. There are really not that many things your child can do or not do that warrant discipline. Also, you need not be overly specific. For example, "not doing your chores" suffices for "not making your bed," "not picking up the toys in your room," "not emptying the trash" and "not putting your clothes in the hamper." If you wish to specifically list the chores, do that on a list posted in another area, such as the bedroom.

Now both parents must commit themselves to consistent enforcement. Mom can't enforce it 100 percent of the time and Dad 50 percent because the same old problem will resurface. "United we stand, divided we fall" must be the motto of parents.

You will notice I did not advise what should go on the list or what constitutes your discipline. I do not know your family situation or lifestyle. Your expectations of your child may be considerably different from mine.

The code of conduct must be family specific. If you are not sure of the appropriateness of your desires, consult your pediatrician for general guidance, not specific rules.

Let your child know that if he chooses to break the rules, he has chosen to receive the punishment. His decision is not only that he does not wish to do his chores but that he wants the disciplinary consequence. This system does not preclude a reward for extra good conduct or achievements.

If you have more than one child and even if the age range is broad, the code of conduct concept can still apply. Some will apply to one age group, others to another. It is not advisable to have two or three lists, or one for each child. This leads to comparing who has the greatest number of rules and sibling rivalry is fanned. Most of the time the rules are not age-specific. Those that are should be on the same "family list" and their application will be obvious.

In summary:

  • Avoid crises as much as possible by having a code of conduct that clearly expresses the boundaries within which your child must live.
  • The code must reflect your individual family's needs.
  • Mom and Dad must present a united front.
  • The code must be visible.
  • The regulations must be consistently enforced.
  • The child must realize that when he breaks a rule, he is choosing the discipline.

The order and calmness this system will bring to a family will in fact allow you to spend more time with your offspring in rewarding, positive and fun pursuits rather than in frustrating and guilt-provoking sporadic punishment.

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