The Ten Worst Discipline Mistakes

By Tamara Eberlein

1. Praising too much or too little

“You put your dirty clothes in the hamper! Wow! You’re the best!” To bolster self-esteem, parents sometimes turn kids into praise junkies. “A praise-dependent child doesn’t pursue goals for her own satisfaction,” explains psychotherapist James Windell. She may expect lavish thanks for routine chores or be unable to finish a task without more approval.

Over criticizing can also be harmful. “If you only point out how kidsfall short, failure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,” says Windell. Compliments should outweigh corrections by about three to one. If your ratio is far higher, your praise may be insincere or exaggerated; if lower, you may be too critical.

Give praise a reality check. Often, a simple thank-you will do. And consider the child’s age. A six-year-old learning to wash windows should be commended despite some smudges; not so for a sloppy ten-year-old who knows he’s capable of better.

2. Treating kids like little adults

Your two grade-school sons snatch Terminator 2 from the video-store shelf. “Too violent,” you object.

“All the kids have seen it,” they argue. “We vote for this. Two against one.”

Kids lack your judgment and experience. “The more democratic you are in the early years, the more demanding and spoiled kids become,” yarns Dr. Barton D. Schmitt, professor of pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

Don’t feel the need to talk through every rule. Toddlers respect actions better than words, and “because I said so” is explanation enough. As kids get older and begin to question rules, it’s okay to reason with them and ask for input. But make it clear you have the final say.

Let a child wield some influence by offering choices where appropriate-whether to brush his teeth before or after putting on his pajamas, for example. But don’t phrase commands as questions. Asking “Shall we go to the doctor now!” invites arguments by implying that a child has a say.

3. Losing your temper

The older kids are fighting, the youngest is whining, and suddenly you
are screaming louder than anybody. Your children are momentarily cowed,
but you’ve lost control.

Take a break. “Go into the bathroom, ask your spouse to take charge, or have a friend come over,” suggests Charles Schaefer, professor of psychology at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, N.J. Once you’re calm, stoop down, look into your child’s eyes, and speak sternly (you can’t set limits in a chatty tone). Save shouts for emergencies, such as warning a toddler away from a hot stove.

You can often head off angry outbursts. If kids get cranky in the late afternoon, plan ahead with quiet activities and healthful snacks.

4. Staying consistent at all costs

Your seven-year-old has grown immune to the effects of standing in a corner, but you don’t dare switch strategies since experts say, be consistent.

Consistency should not be confused with rigidity. “What works well at one stage may fail in the future,” notes Windell. Vary your discipline techniques, advises Ron Taffel, director of Families and Couples Treatment at the Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy in New York City. Ones to try:

* Giving a timeout. Calm a disruptive child by sending him to a designated chair or room. Let time outs correspond to the child’s age- two minutes for a two-year-old, four at age four.

* Revoking privileges. Depending on the child’s age and personality, limit access to the TV, telephone or your services as chauffeur.

* Ignoring annoying behavior. Whining, sulking or quarreling may ease if it fails to get your attention.

Be willing to experiment with limits, but make ground rules clear. What an 11-year old wears to school may be negotiable; cutting class is not. When kids know some rules are flexible, they cooperate more about those that are not.

And don’t neglect to admit mistakes. “Saying you’re sorry doesn’t signal inconsistency; it signals mutual respect,” says Schaefer. “It teacheskids to apologize when they’re wrong, instead of digging in their heels.”

5. Treating children the same

You wouldn’t tell a toddler that he’s grounded or give a 13-year-old timeout. Kids’ personalities should also color your discipline decisions. “There’s no one ideal technique,” says child psychiatrist Stanley Turecki, director of the Difficult Child Center in New York City. What works for your even-tempered son might only inflame your hot-tempered daughter.

Customize instructions to your child. If your dreamy daughter gets distracted when tidying up, be specific: “Books on the shelf, clothes in the closet.”

Toddlers need rules that set safety limits and curb aggression. For preschoolers, add rules about respect for property and kindness to others. Ask, “How would you feel if someone messed up your paint set! That’s how your sister felt when you smeared her makeup kit.” Children of school age respond to appeals to their sense of fairness.

6. Avoiding punishment

If a child doesn’t see the consequences of his misbehavior, he’s less likely to learn his lesson. “There’s nothing wrong with punishment, provided you are fair and humane,” says Windell.

Set penalties related to the infraction. If your daughter misses the bus and must be driven to school, have her compensate for your lost time by doing extra chores that night.

Let the punishment match the crime. If your son misses his Friday curfew, asking him stay in to fold laundry Saturday evening is fair; saying, “No friends over for six weeks” is not. Though spanking may halt misbehavior temporarily, over the long run physical punishment will backfire. A kid who’s smacked doesn’t learn self-control; he learns fear and that it’s okay for a bigger person to hit a smaller one.

7. Playing therapist

Your little girl is kicking her brother’s toys across the floor and screaming that she hates him. Don’t sweetly inquire, “Honey, what’s wrong! Tell me what you’re feeling- This kind of “over psychologizing” is usually not helpful. Notes Dr. Schmitt, “Parents don’t want to ruin their limited quality time by nagging, so they let kids get away with murder. Even during special outings, rules against pulling hair, breaking toys and throwing food must remain in effect.”

Children listen when parents are decisive. “Halt unacceptable behavior before exploring the reasons,” Windell says. “If your kindergartner is hitting you, grab his wrist and say, ‘You can’t hit Mom. Stop right now.” Then ask, “Why are you upset?'”

8. Misusing rewards

“Stop pouring bath water on the floor, and I’ll let you have ice cream after dinner,” you promise your misbehaving child. Problem is, when you’re not doling out the goodies, kids have no reason to behave. “A reward used to stop misbehavior is a bribe,” Windell says. “It implies that the rule itself has no intrinsic value.”

Use rewards only to reinforce behavior after the fact. Offer that ice cream not as a bribe but as a gesture of appreciation when you find the children straightening up the playroom together.

Also help your child identify the internal reward: a feeling of satisfaction. Say, “You worked hard cleaning your room, and you must have felt proud showing it to your friend.”

9. Disagreeing in the open

When parents debate family rules within earshot of kids, the kids get confused and insecure. “Children learn to play one parent off the other,” cautions Schaefer.

Be united when it comes to discipline. Settle disagreements in private, and make sure both of you are in agreement on general guidelines for homework, chores and bedtime, plus prohibitions against hitting, stealing and lying. Compromise on issues about which your partner feels strongly. Or give each parent authority in different realms-for example, Dad handles chores; Mom enforces bedtime. Avoid making one parent responsible for all discipline; this encourages kids to push limits when that parent is absent.

10. Assuming the worst

Your sixth-grader complains that classmate punched him. Don’t reply, You must have done something to make him mad.”

“If you automatically assume your child is at fault,” says Windell, “you send a message that he is intrinsically bad.”

Instead, focus on the action, not the person. Avoid the words always (“You always leave your junk round”) and never (“You never obey me”). Instead, phrase corrections in specific terms, such as, “You forgot to hang up your coat.” Let her know you believe she can meet your expectations, even if she didn’t this time.

If your child is having problems, first listen to his point of view. “Your support will help him calm down and view the situation rationally,” says Dr. Turecki. When children know you’re on their side, they’ll feel – and behave-better.

(The above information was published by THE DIGEST, 1993)

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