- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 10, 2002

The cornerstones of discipline are being laid in the Chevy Chase home of Sandy and Bill Chambers.

The boundaries are uncomplicated as they must be for two very young boys and center on the basics: safety and common courtesy.

No pushing or hitting. No standing up on the rocking chair or climbing on the coffee table. They must share toys. They must keep food on the table, not in the air or on the floor.

"I want them to express themselves because they've got to figure out the world their way," says Ms. Chambers, a stay-at-home mother to Michael, who will celebrate his third birthday next month, and Alex, 14 months. "But I want my sons to understand right from wrong and understand the rules of the house."

Child advocates and behaviorists agree that rules are the essence of discipline, but they emphasize that far too many parents refuse to set and then enforce boundaries. They say many parents fall victim to common pitfalls that hinder their roles as respectful, loving, flexible and very firm heads of the household.

"Our job is to prepare our child for a world that exists, not to have the world bend to our child," says Ray Levy, a clinical psychologist in Dallas. He is also the co-author of "Try and Make Me! Simple Strategies That Turn Off the Tantrums and Create Cooperation." "Give them limits because that is how children learn to understand the world."

Parents in search of well-behaved and well-adjusted children must understand the basics of discipline. Mr. Levy says he recognizes a number of chronic mistakes parents make.

"Many parents get stuck because they're confused by myths, such as 'I can't punish him unless I give him the consequence right next to the misbehavior,'" he says. "This is based on the premise that children have no working memory, but that's not true."

The larger myth, he says, is: "If whatever I do isn't working, I'll do more of it such as nagging your child to get ready when one time doesn't work, so I'll scream. What we miss as parents is that we have to try to do something different. If we're not seeing results, we need to change the way we're doing things."

John Rosemond, a family psychologist and director of the Center for Affirmative Parenting in Gastonia, N.C., has spent years studying children and the way parents do and should apply discipline. Mr. Rosemond says misconceptions abound.

"A lot of people misunderstand discipline," he says from his home in North Carolina. "They think it's a process by which parents control the child. I keep telling parents they can't control a child. … You can control your relationship with the child."

Mr. Rosemond, author of "New Parent Power!" says controlling this relationship is a three-part effort:

• Controlling the child's access to you (although this strategy is not applicable to babies or very young children).

• Controlling what you will and will not do or give to the child.

• Controlling the consequences of the child's behavior.

Reining them in

Parents often discuss setting limits with their children during sessions with Cheryl Wietz, a licensed clinical social worker in Falls Church who has been in practice for 19 years.

Limits will be different for different families, but they need to be thought out in advance, Ms. Wietz says.

"Some families have way too many rules, and some families have rules but they don't enforce them," she says. "For example: 'You will be respectful to people and property. I am the boss, and you need to respect my authority.' A lot of parents are afraid of authority."

Mr. Rosemond agrees: "Most parents today … feel that forcing a clear boundary is rigid, inflexible, even mean. What people don't seem to realize is that children are very, very comfortable with very clear boundaries. When they're unclear, they cause children to test constantly, which is to say they engage in annoying behavior."

One annoying behavior is the constant request which can escalate to demands in some families by children for explanations.

It's an issue about which Kensington parents Angela Mickalide and Alexander Alikhani have differing philosophies. She believes that answering the "why not?" reinforces the good behavior and contributes to the development of their children Anna, 10, and Andrew, 8. Her husband believes that a simple "no" is a sufficient response to a request denied.

"I feel that in order to be able to make good decisions, they need to be able to model my decision-making processes," says Ms. Mickalide, a director at a nonprofit organization. "I find that if I provide them a reason, they are much more likely to feel they've been respected and be more compliant. I very much believe in this. Once they understand the why, they are better able to comply with the behavior. If they can come up with a compelling argument for why [an activity or thing] should happen, I'll do it."

Mr. Alikhani's style is different on this issue, but both parents agree that his approach seems to work just as well with Anna and Andrew.

"I just say no, and they accept if from me," says Mr. Alikhani, the president of American Power Zone, a commercial power company. "If they are asking me about something important, I will explain, but that's different."

Either way, parents need to remember to keep explanations concrete, concise and commanding, Mr. Rosemond says.

"I think it's perfectly acceptable to explain, but I'm also satisfied saying, 'That's the way it is,'" he says. "Parents today think they have to explain things, and if they can't, they think it's an unreasonable request. Just because you can't explain it to a child doesn't mean it's unreasonable."

The child who protests increased household labor, for example, can be told, "'Because I have decided it's time for you to start doing that. I've decided you need more responsibility,'" Mr. Rosemond says. "Responsibility produces growth. That's ridiculous explaining that to a 10-year-old, so why waste your breath? I believe in saying, 'I'm not even going to try to explain it to you. That's just the way it is.'"

Mr. Levy supports what could be termed the "less is more" notion, as well.

"Explain it once," he says. "That's it. If they [do it or ask it] again, you don't need another explanation. They didn't get early Alzheimer's. Parents hope that more language will result in the child having an epiphany."

For the child who still doesn't give up, Mr. Levy suggests calling into play what he calls "the brain-dead phrases": "If the child keeps asking 'Why?' just answer, 'Because those are the rules.'" Then switch over to generic replies such as "I'm sorry you feel that way" or "Good try," he says.

A little respect

Disrespect is a force with which to be reckoned in nearly every house containing children, whether it's the waggling tongue of a 3-year-old or a nearly unprintable utterance from a teen-ager.

Ms. Wietz favors using what she terms "low-intensity" kinds of strategies to deal with disrespectful behavior.

For a younger child, a parent who has just been sassed can say, "'You need to go to your room, but I hope you come out soon because we like you in our family and our family is not complete until you're here. You need some time to think it over please do that quickly so you can come back out and be a part of our family.' Use timeout here as a period of reflection, not as a punishment," she says.

An "unpredictable but still consistent" approach works well, Mr. Rosemond says.

"There are times when I'll look at the child and go, 'Oh, that's interesting. … I'm extremely disappointed that you've lived in this house for 12 years and don't know how to speak to me.' Other times I will say, 'You know, it's a shame that you're going to have to go to bed at 7 o'clock tonight.'"

Mr. Rosemond continues, "I may or may not respond in a punitive fashion. I think children need to learn that we are consistent but not predictable. Too many parents confuse the two."

Mr. Levy sums his reaction to a disrespectful child: "Say, 'Sweetheart, talk that way all you want in your room, then come out when you can talk nice like I am.'"

Rewards and incentives

Harried parents looking to find a more painless way to compliance whether it's persuading a 4-year-old to leave the playground or getting a 14-year-old to clean her room often choose rewards or incentives to achieve their goals.

Ms. Wietz says she is an absolute nonbeliever in using rewards or incentives.

"They do not work for most things," she says.

Yes, rewards are great, says Mr. Levy, "if you don't mind bribing your child and they expect life to do it. I'm not into star charts. They create more problems in the long run. Don't use them for getting your child to do what he's expected to do. Don't give rewards on an 'if/then' basis. That's where you get that entitlement from children."

Mr. Levy says he does believe in rewards when they are unexpected a child has been especially good in school, for example, and the parent surprises her with the doll she has been eyeing. In addition, he says, incentives can be OK when paired with developmentally time-sensitive behaviors such as toilet training or sleeping in one's own bed all night.

To the extent that children must accept that they must be restricted, they have the opportunity to obtain freedom by cooperating with the restriction, Mr. Rosemond says.

"Tell a 13-year-old to be in by 9 o'clock. He cooperates, so you bump it to 9:30. Cooperation equals freedom," he says.

However, Mr. Rosemond says he does not advocate promising regular rewards and incentives.

"What that leads to is more expectations," he says. "Do children outgrow the attitude that if they do the right thing, they'll get something? I'm not sure."

Children should learn that they should do the right thing because it's the right thing to do, Mr. Rosemond says, "not because of some goody that awaits you. Not in a promised sense.

"If a child does something really well, I may surprise him with something: 'You did really well in school this semester, so I got you two concert tickets to see 'Boys in the Street' or whatever they're called but the child was not doing well that semester to get it. It was just something that happened."

Breaking free of traps

Each of these child specialists is able to pull out several important clues that they believe will assist parents pondering the puzzle of discipline.

Regarding mothers, Mr. Rosemond says, "This is the first generation of American women to believe they can talk their children into behaving properly. Today's women feel they don't have permission to say to their child: 'I don't have time for you now.' They won't limit what they do for their child. I keep telling women, 'Children don't know when they need help they know when they want it.'"

In addition, he says, "The whole psychology schtick emphasizes sensitivity to a child's feelings. Women feel this is a requirement that they continually interpret their child's behavior through their feeling state. This paralyzes the female parent's ability to discipline authoritatively."

Ms. Wietz says a universal problem centers on the lack of a coherent view of parenting.

Parents' main questions are whether their children are happy and whether they have high self-esteem, she says.

"That's off-track," Ms. Wietz says. "Self-esteem is not the way to go. … We need to focus on the family and where the child fits in. A proactive family would think about the family environment they're trying to create, and then they will try to get the child functioning in the environment."

For Mr. Levy, the relationship comes first.

"That's the main tool in discipline," he says. "Especially when they're an adolescent. You have to build the foundation in childhood. Focus on that. Get them talking to you hugging, kissing, sharing because in adolescence, they will refrain from doing things because they don't want to hurt you. It won't be because they are afraid of losing the keys to the car."


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