- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 30, 2007

I’ve said it before, but it cannot be said often enough: The discipline of a child is not accomplished by manipulating reward and punishment.

Yes, a child needs to understand that behavior results in consequences, but that understanding alone is not sufficient to grow a well-behaved, well-mannered child.

Besides, whereas proper consequences will virtually guarantee proper behavior in a dog, proper consequences do not guarantee proper behavior in a child (or human of any age, for that matter). If they did, no criminal would spend more than one, maybe two, stints in jail.

Discipline is the process by which parents transform a child into a disciple, a little person who will look up to them, follow their lead and subscribe to their values.

This is accomplished through proper leadership, not through the manipulation of consequences. The principles that define proper leadership do not change from one leadership context to another. Therefore, if one understands leadership in, say, a business environment, one understands how to lead children.

The most important of all leadership qualities is decisiveness. All effective leaders act as if they know what they are doing. They act as if they believe sincerely in the rightness of their decisions. In parenting, this translates to standing behind one’s instructions to a child, enforcing rules dispassionately and proving to a child that “no” means nothing other than “no.”

I have taken to challenging parents in my most recent audiences to assess their leadership using this simple standard. “Raise you hand,” I ask, “if your children know, without a shadow of doubt, that when you give an instruction, you are going to make sure it is carried out; that when you state a rule, you are going to enforce it; and that when you say ‘no,’ you mean nothing less than ‘no.’ ”

In a recent audience of about 200 parents, just five responded affirmatively.

I then ask, “Now raise your hand if as a child you knew, beyond a shadow of doubt, that your parents were going to enforce their instructions and rules and that when they said ‘no,’ they meant ‘no,’ period.”

In that same audience, I estimated that 150 hands were in the air. The relative proportion has been approximately the same in 50 other audiences, bigger and smaller, across the nation.

This exercise tells why today’s children come to school considerably less disciplined that children of even 20 years ago (I’ve never heard an experienced teacher testify to the contrary.) This tells why today’s parents are having so many more problems in the area of discipline than did their parents and certainly their grandparents.

It is not because they are not manipulating consequences as skillfully; rather, it is because they are not demonstrating to their children that when they speak, they mean exactly what they say.

Yesteryear’s parents were apt simply to tell their children to pick up their toys. Today’s parents are apt to ask their children if they will please pick up their toys, “OK?” When yesteryear’s parents said “no,” they proved to their children that “no” had not simply slipped accidentally out of their mouths.

Today’s parents, in the face of their children’s emotional dramatics, are likely to demonstrate to their children that sufficient displays of that nature will result in “no” changing to “Oh, all right.”

The du jour explanation for a child who will not take no for an answer, who tests every instruction and every rule with the full might of his or her free will, is that an inherited chemical imbalance causes knee-jerk resistance to authority.

Supposedly, the child has oppositional defiant disorder and/or childhood bipolar disorder. Concrete verification of this proposition is lacking, but as recent audiences of mine have demonstrated, proof abounds that many if not most of today’s parents are suffering from leadership deficiency disorder. This is the simpler explanation, and I tend to believe the simpler explanation generally is the best.

If true, this is great and wonderful news, for whereas parents cannot alter their children’s genotypes or brain chemistry, they can look up from this newspaper column and resolve to begin changing themselves into proper leaders of children who say what they mean and mean what they say.

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

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