- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 1, 2006

The question journalists most frequently ask me: “Is there one question parents ask most frequently?”

Actually, there is, but it’s not a specific question. Rather, it’s a form of question. It begins, “What should I do when my child …?” and closes with a description of a vexing behavior, as in, “What should I do when my child bites the family dog?”

The question reflects the contemporary belief that for any given problematic behavior, there is one specific response or consequence that will bring about an end to the problem. This point of view holds that discipline, the correction of misbehavior, is accomplished via the clever manipulation of reward and punishment.

Thus, today’s parents are constantly searching for “magic discipline bullets” that promise to finish off behavior problems. In answer to the demand, parenting experts have come up with magic methods such as timeout, “1-2-3 Magic,” reward charts and, my own contribution, the “three strikes, you’re out” plan.

There’s no evidence, however, that this proliferation of ingenious techniques has made for more well-behaved children. If the anecdotal record is any indication, today’s parents are dealing not only with more behavior problems, but also with more severe behavior problems than any generation of parents in history.

The problem is the point of view: the notion that discipline is a matter of the right application of consequences or even that the right application of consequences will finish off misbehavior. It’s important to note that this is a new idea, a product of the psychological parenting revolution of the 1960s, one result of which was the embracing of behavior-modification techniques. Before this, parents intuitively understood that discipline is the process by which parents turn a child into a disciple, someone who will subscribe to their values and follow their lead.

Discipline, therefore, is leadership, and the principles of effective leadership do not change from one leadership environment to another. In other words, the same principles that make for effective corporate or military leadership also make for effective parental leadership.

Good leadership is not about the proper use of various consequence-delivery systems. It consists of a positive guiding vision, decisiveness, self-confidence and a commitment to help the people one is leading bring out the very best in themselves.

Effective leaders are not defined by how well they manipulate reward and punishment. They are defined by how well they communicate. In that regard, they do not mince or waste words. Nor do they explain themselves at length. (Thus they are distinguished from politicians.)

They obtain cooperation by inspiring, not punishing or rewarding. Because their grasp of command is natural and seemingly effortless, they do not have to resort to demands to obtain either loyalty or obedience. In that last regard, it is axiomatic that when obedience is demanded rather than commanded, loyalty will not result.

The preceding paragraph explains why today’s parents are experiencing so many problems with something that is so fundamentally simple: the discipline of a child. They are on the wrong track, barking up the wrong tree. Right consequences and methods — behavior modification — will not solve their problems. Right communication will.

Yes, consequences are important — but they are not the be-all, end-all of discipline. With that in mind, my next column will answer the pertinent question: What changes wrong behavior into right behavior? The answer most definitely is not right consequences.

Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents’ questions on his Web site (www.rosemond.com).

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