Discipline’s tools are positive and negative reinforcement. Love is the most powerful positive reinforcement. Often parents will substitute food or money for love. These may work for a time, but they are never as good as just being fun to be with. Positive reinforcements—kind words, games, etc.—should outnumber negatives at least three to one.
Before we go any further, think about your heart-to-heart connection with your children. Is it mostly based on love? Or more on fear and anger?
One morning a teenage girl walked into my treatment room asking for birth control and a drug test. I asked her if she was having sex—she answered no. Did she have a boyfriend? She answered no. By this time, tears welled up in her eyes. I asked her what was going on, and through her tears she said, "My mom doesn’t trust me.”
I sent her off to the lab for her drug test—and my next patient was her mom. As I examined the mom, she started to cry about how her daughter was leaving home to live with a stranger she had met on the Internet. It seemed obvious to me that both loved each other, yet they weren’t connecting. And without the connection, a tragedy was unfolding before my eyes.
I sat them down and had them do a fair fight together so that both could hear the love each had for one another. Toward the end of the fight I asked the daughter, “What is driving your mother?”
She replied, “Fear.”
“And what is driving you?”
I said, “You are right. Now, what is your passion, your joy?”
Her response was, “the saxophone.”
We set about uniting mother and daughter around the vision of getting out of high school and into a community college where she could join a band and pursue her passion.
By the end of the session, mother and daughter were hugging each other, crying together, and planning to check into admissions for the local community college. And the daughter was no longer leaving to live with the stranger.
Negative reinforcement varies from spanking to time out chairs to grounding. Negative reinforcement without love erodes the relationship. Love without enforcement too often slips from empowering the responsible adult to enabling the tyrant child.
Negative reinforcement is delivered based on the poor choices (bad behaviors) you are trying to extinguish. The choice (or behavior) and the consequence do not have to be logically connected, but try to make them comparable in severity. You may or may not choose to identify the consequences ahead of time. If you do decide to identify the consequences ahead of time, you may choose to negotiate them. Negotiating the consequences should come before the poor choice, not after.
Many parents resort to spanking, which has its problems. Spanking generates stress, which in girls tends to result in their feeling more upset about the loss of the relationship than what they did wrong. In boys spanking generates adrenalin, which increases focus and memory. Therefore, it is effective until the boy becomes bigger and stronger than the parent. At this point if spanking is your only tool, you will lose control.
Effective discipline can sometimes include shock value. Jan is a single mom, a homeschooler who works in sales from home, often on the phone. Her 16-year old daughter, Catie, whined and screamed to get her way, often waiting to do so until her mom was on a call. Jan normally sent Catie to her room for this. After realizing that this wasn’t working, Jan was ready for a change. I suggested that she send Catie outside and lock the door until she was off the phone and ready to deal with Catie’s issue. The next time the whining and screaming happened, Jan calmly did so. After 16 years of whining and screaming to get her way, Catie was shocked at being put out of her own home.
Her mom’s message sank in and for the first time, Catie started respecting her mom’s phone time. The effectiveness of deliberately overreacting is diminished if you use it too often, but it becomes the stuff of legends if it is occasional. Notice that it was done without anger and without threatening. Keep the emotional energy off the punishment and the focus on the behavior you want eliminated. Remember, your child, like any human, will make many mistakes on the road to wisdom and responsibility. The purpose of discipline is to get your child to recognize which behaviors are mistakes. So if you feel your discipline may be too harsh, remember: It’s not personal. It’s just reality.
On the other hand, if you realize the consequence is too severe, some parenting experts recommend, especially with young boys, that you let it stand rather than negotiate, so they develop internal standards of morals.
Read more about effective discipline
As a medical doctor, author, and homeschooler, Stephen Guffanti, M.D., offers a unique background and tremendous insight, and communicates with warmth and humor. Not only is Stephen a physician, but he’s also dyslexic and ADHD, and from this unusual perspective he brings hope and understanding to families. Born with a passion for education as well as medicine, Dr. Steve has served as the medical director of a clinic specializing in learning disorders and has studied nutrition and its effects on learning