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There are 3 distinct aspects to effective discipline. If any of these components is either missing or done poorly, your discipline efforts will be largely ineffective.

Part 1: Incentive/Motivation/Punishment

The goal of step 1 could be best described as arousal: You want a child aroused to the point where they care and have reason an d incentive to alter their behavior. You want them to feel uncomfortable with negative behavior and more comfortable with positive behavior.

Most parent sun creatively interpret this step to imply punishment. But punishment needn’t be an aspect of discipline. In many cases it is unnecessary or even counterproductive, and there are many other ways to meet the goal of arousal without resorting to punishment.

For example, in many cases children will feel adequate concern on their own without any need for coercion from others. If your child accidentally spills her juice on the floor, then looks at you and bursts into tears, she’s already adequately aroused. Piling on punishment will do little more than pour salt in the wound, and in fact, it’s likely to be counter productive. You’re not providing any more incentive to do better at this point; her obvious despair is a sign that she already has adequate motivation to engage in proper behavior.

Or let’s say a child gets angry and hits her friend, who responds by screaming her displeasure and saying she doesn’t want to play anymore. Many parents might feel a need to punish the girl who hit, but the natural consequences that arose form her action (the other child’s displeasure and rejection) are likely just as arousing as any punishment would be.

Arousal and/or incentive can also be attained by . . .

  • Reacting to a child’s behavior in a memorable (though calm) fashion
  • Evoking negative emotions like sadness, regret, or guilt (There is a big distinction between guilt, a sometimes useful emotion, and shame, an always harmful emotion)
  • A disapproving look from a parent
  • Temporarily withdrawing love or affection
  • Praising children for positive behavior
  • Providing moderate incentives or rewards to encourage them to do better
  • And so on.

Step 1 is the least important aspect of discipline. Yet it’s also the component adults tend to focus on the most. This is why many adults seem to encounter so many problems when disciplining their children.

Part 2: Instruction

Arousal without learning is simply a waste of energy, and penalties given without instruction are merely punitive. Such a pattern serves little purpose but to upset and intimidate, and it certainly doesn’t teach. Yet if you take a moment to reflect, I’m sure you’ll find that you, like most parents, can recall an awful lot of cases where punishment was given with little to no instruction, dialogue, or guidance.

In fact, guidance is virtually non-existent in much of the discipline adults dole out. A teacher might take a child’s hand and lead him to time out. The only instruction might be to say, “You sit here until you behave.” (A child learns nothing useful from this.) Or a parent may send a child to their room after an infraction to “think about what you’ve done.” (Again the child receives no instruction.) Time-outs and reflection are perfectly fine, but if they’re not accompanied by something that promotes learning, the child comes away from the experience no wiser than when they went into it. It’s therefore little wonder that many parents find themselves having to discipline kids for the same things over and over again.

Instruction can occur in several ways:

  • Talking to a child and explaining what they did wrong (and why it’s wrong)
  • Helping them empathize with another person
  • Demonstrating proper/improper behavior
  • Giving a child ideas about how they can better handle things the next time
  • Helping a child to understand their own impulses or reasons for behaving a certain way
  • Talking over what occurred
  • Etc.

Part 3: Reparation

In our mind this is the most important aspect of discipline (slightly ahead of instruction), yet it’s also the one most routinely overlooked by adults. Reparation gives children a positive way to move forward while teaching them responsibility and concern for others.

If you’re not giving children a way to atone for their mistakes – if they don’t feel like they can wipe the slate clean and start over – then you’re trapping them in their misbehavior. Bad feelings accumulate and they start to feel defective, as though they can’t ever do right by you. This is a dangerous message that paves the way to more bad behavior. After all, if you’re doomed to condemnation because of past failures without any way to forget and move on, why even bother trying? Feeling this way also triggers a whole host of unhealthy defense mechanisms.

Reparation is also the most important social message. After all, what is it we want our children to learn? Do we want them to learn guilt? To become ashamed of themselves? To become masters in the art of pain and punishment? To find fault in others and focus on everyone’s shortcomings? Or do we want them to learn to do right by others and at tone for their mistakes? To be tolerant, understanding, and forgiving? Reparation IS the goal of discipline.

The goal of reparation is to find non-punitive ways in which children can make things right again:

  • Providing ways for them to clean up the messes that they make (both literally and figuratively)
  • Fostering the reparation of relationships
  • Allowing the child opportunity to “work off” a punishment through good behavior
  • Outlining a way for them to regain your trust
  • Encouraging them to think about ways to “make it up” to others
  • Giving children the opportunity for a do-over
  • And so on.

Using these steps in discipline
Part 1 and part 2 don’t necessarily go in this particular order, but all discipline should strive to include these 3 components. If it doesn’t, then you’ll merely be running around in circles expending an awful lot of energy without moving children in the direction you want them to change.

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