- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 8, 2006

Last week’s column left the reader in suspense. In keeping with my contrarian nature, I said the proper discipline of a child is not accomplished by properly manipulating reward and punishment. It is not primarily a matter of applying right consequences by means of right methods.

In short, behavior modification is not the answer to behavior problems. It goes without saying that many of today’s parents believe that what works with a dog or rat also will work with a human being. This is why they are having so many more problems with discipline than did parents 50 or more years ago.

“So consequences aren’t important?” asks the skeptical reader.

Read me carefully. The discipline of a child is not primarily a matter of applying right consequences by means of right methods. But consequences are important. They are absolutely and without a doubt necessary, in fact. However, consequences do not change behavior — human behavior, that is.

If a dog does the wrong thing, the right consequence applied rightly will cause the dog to begin doing the right thing. Now, everyone reading this column should have enough experience to know that doesn’t work quite so neatly with children. If a child does the wrong thing and the adults in his or her life do the right thing and do it as consistently as sunrise, the child nevertheless may keep right on doing the wrong thing.

“But children have been known to change their behavior in right directions, John,” continues the skeptic. “What brought about the change?”

Well, you said it — those children themselves brought about the change. They chose to begin doing the right thing. You see, the only force that can change human behavior is choice, made by the human in question, child or adult. From this perspective, consequences can promote right choices, but whereas the dog and the rat respond involuntarily to consequences, humans can consciously resist the power of consequences. Anyone who has lived with a toddler — or a teenager, for that matter — has borne witness to that. The toddler yells, “You’re not the boss of me,” and the teenager yells, “I don’t care what you do to me.”

“But you said consequences are necessary, John. Necessary for what?”

Where children are concerned, consequences are information-delivery mechanisms. A consequence delivers the correct information, or not, concerning a given behavior, right or wrong. For the information to be correct, the consequence must reflect how the real world will respond to similar behavior from the child when he is an adult. One can only hope the child will use the information properly — that he or she will be persuaded to begin making or continue making right choices.

For example, a 7-year-old tells his parents, in the most belligerent tone imaginable, that he is not going to clean up his room. Later that day, he discovers he cannot go outside to play with his friends or watch his favorite program. Furthermore, his parents send him to bed one hour early. Those are good consequences because in the real world, when someone defies a legitimate authority figure — an employer, for example — things will happen that ultimately will result in a restriction of privilege.

However, no matter how many privileges his parents confiscate, the child may keep right on defying their authority. What should they do? They should hang in there. They should accept that their influence in his life is not absolute, that no matter how well they discipline, some other agent or agency may have to finish the job for them, if it ever is finished.

The bottom line: If you want easy, don’t have children. Get a dog.

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


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