Once upon a time that some of the living remember, disciplining a child was regarded as a relatively simple, straightforward matter that merited neither mental nor emotional strain.
In those days, parents understood that for the most part, disciplining a child was accomplished simply by meaning what one said and saying exactly what one meant. If, for example, a parent told a child he could not have a candy bar, it was necessary for the parent to stick to his or her guns and demonstrate to the child that no amount of persuasion or distress would obtain the candy bar.
Furthermore, most folks understood, and intuitively so, that the need to deliver consequences — i.e., to punish — could be minimized (which would be desirable to both parent and child) if a parent acted like a competent leader, spoke like a competent leader and followed through like a competent leader. In other words, discipline was (and still is) fundamentally a matter of leadership, not punishment.
Those understandings cracked in the face of an onslaught of psychological propaganda to the effect that disciplining a child was no different from training a rat — that the same “behavioral” principles that apply to teaching a rat to run a maze also govern teaching a child the do’s and don’ts of any task or proper behavior.
To train the rat to run a maze, one manipulates reward and punishment for behavior modification; therefore, or so it is thought, to train a child, one must manipulate reward and punishment.
Of course, this is absurd. Animal nature and human nature are not similar in the least. Consider: If a rat reaches a point in a maze where if it goes to the right it will be rewarded with a morsel of cheese and if it goes to the left it will receive a slight electric shock, the rat will go to the left just two or three times before it will never, ever go to the left again.
However, given a choice between “going to the right” and being rewarded or “going to the left” and being punished, a human may well go to the left over and over and over again just to prove that no one has authority over him, rules do not apply to him, and he is immune to discipline. As the toddler so eloquently puts it, “You’re not the boss of me.” Or as the teen puts it, “I don’t care what you do to me.”
A man spends 10 years in jail for robbing a convenience store at gunpoint. He is released, and four months later, he is back in jail for robbing a convenience store at gunpoint. This is not because “the system failed him,” or some such blather, but because he is a toddler at heart.
He’s no different from the toddler who keeps on pulling the dog’s ears even though his mother puts him in his crib for 10 minutes following every pull. Does he like being confined to his crib? No, not any more than the criminal likes being in jail. In both cases, the narcissistic need to prove that the rules don’t apply, that the only authority in the child’s/criminal’s life is the child/criminal cancels the effect of the punishment.
Will more punishment prevail? Will solitary confinement or a longer prison sentence persuade the criminal? Will upping the ante of his punishment persuade the toddler? The answer, in both cases, is maybe and maybe not. One needs to understand that of all species, only humans are prone to habitually self-destructive behavior.
Because today’s parents do not understand that reward does not necessarily strengthen human behavior and punishment does not necessarily weaken it, the discipline of children, once a relatively simple, straightforward matter, has become ubiquitously frustrating and stressful. The solution to this general agony is the simple, old-fashioned understanding that discipline is a matter of how well one communicates, not how well one manipulates consequences.
Missing from the reward/punishment equation is recognition that humans possess free will while rats and dogs and monkeys do not, and for that very reason, the attempt to discipline children with behavior modification is making monkeys of many American parents and teachers.
Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents’ questions on his Web site (www.rosemond.com).