- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 11, 2006

In the late 1960s, the newly emerging parenting experts told parents that high self-esteem would lead to better grades and better behavior and prevent drug and alcohol use.

Unfortunately, it hasn’t turned out that way. Research has failed to establish a reliable connection between “feeling good about oneself” and high achievement or good behavior. In fact, it strongly suggests that high self-esteem may dispose certain people — children included — to anti-social or self-destructive behavior.

As it turns out, “high self-esteem is good” is not the only example of a child-rearing myth propagated by parenting pundits.

Myth: Parents should be consistent in how they discipline their children, lest their children become “confused.”

Fact: Parents need to be consistent in why they discipline but not in how they discipline. More important than the method is the message, and the same disciplinary message can be sent in numerous ways.

Let’s say a 9-year-old has a full-blown public outburst because his parents refuse to buy him a toy he sees in a store. His parents could take him home and confine him to his room for the rest of the day. The next time a public tantrum occurs, it would be perfectly OK for them to make him cancel a weekend sleepover at a friend’s house.

The point is that every time this child throws a public tantrum, he needs to pay a price. The nature of the price, however, can vary from situation to situation. That policy does not confuse consistency with predictability.

Myth: Parents need to discipline immediately after the occurrence of misbehavior or the child may not be able later to connect the misbehavior and the consequence.

Fact: This certainly is true regarding toddlers, but once a child develops long-term memory — usually around age 3 — consequences for misbehavior can be delayed accordingly. The fact is, it’s often impossible to come up with a suitable consequence at the moment misbehavior occurs. Not a problem.

An older 3-year-old still can connect the consequence with the misbehavior if the consequence is delayed as much as a day. By age 5, a child easily can relate to a delay of upward of a week. As for a teenager, well, the sky’s the limit.

Let’s say Bonzo, age 17 going on 2, comes home obviously inebriated one January night. Let me assure you, he definitely will be able to make the connection between that not-so-little indiscretion and not going to the beach with his friends over spring break, even if his parents do not so inform him for weeks.

Myth: Most misbehavior simply should be ignored, as giving it attention of any kind is likely to perpetuate it.

Fact: Again, this is true of toddlers. After all, it’s not reasonable to expect a 2-year-old to know that public tantrums are a social faux pas. So, when a tantrum occurs, you take said toddler to a relatively private place and ignore his screams until they go away. On the other hand, a 3-year-old who throws a tantrum in a store needs to be taken home without that toy he was looking forward to owning.

In most cases, a child who misbehaves needs to be punished. Not always, mind you, because in some cases, especially if the misbehavior in question is not recurrent, just a stern look, accompanied perhaps by a few equally stern words, will do the trick.

However, for misbehavior that occurs frequently or that is outrageous, punishment is the order of the day. In either situation, the child needs to get the message that the wrongdoing will not, under any circumstances, be tolerated.

What’s the best way to punish? Take away a valuable freedom or privilege. In that regard, something as simple as sending a child to his or her room for an hour, or even the rest of the day, generally is very effective.

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

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