by UB Therapist Bob Ryan, LCPC
Parents and educators often think of wintertime as given over to academic learning, chauffeuring to and from after-school activities and, as often as not, punctuated with cases of cabin fever leading to frustrations as family members react to long months indoors together. But winter is a prime time to fine tune parenting skills and build relationships with children; a time to put an end to the culture of discipline, where the parent does all the work, for one of socially-oriented consequences and encouragement; a time to exchange the disengagement of timeouts for engagement with our children’s sense of social interest and self-worth.
As an example, the next time you witness a parent giving a child a timeout, stop and notice who the timeout is designed to benefit. Is it the child or the parent? In many instances, a timeout will be administered by a parent close to their “wits’ end” and often not in the gentlest of tones. For a child seeking attention, the timeout will be experienced as a reward for bad behavior. To the child who is seeking anything but attention timeouts can be seen as a punishment, a punishment meant to separate the child from an object, person and/or unsocial behavior, often in order to give the parent some breathing room or peace and quiet. What the timeout does not do is address the underlying mistaken goals of a child’s behavior.
Alfred Alder identified four mistaken goals of young children’s behavior which account for what we identify as “misbehavior.” These four goals are
- attention seeking,
- struggle for power,
- retaliation or revenge and
- complete discouragement.
In contrast to a timeout, having a child experience a relevant and appropriate consequence for misbehavior addresses the core mistaken goal and the child experiences more than a verbal explanation why a particular behavior is not condoned.
The reason timeouts have lost their effectiveness is the world our children are being raised in. Unlike our parents’ generation, children today live in a much more egalitarian society. They are no longer to be seen and not heard. Children nowadays feel that they are equal to those around them. This is not a bad thing in and of itself. A child can be made to feel part of an integrated family unit, each individual with his or her duties and responsibilities, each working for the good of the family. In this way the child finds his or her place and values social interaction.
Children by nature are selfish creatures, relying in the earliest months of life on their ability to demand attention. As children grow, they need to learn skills beyond selfishness in order to fulfill life’s tasks. Parents are tasked with guiding children through their development. Too often, without proper tools parents resort to discipline, which all too often sends as many negative messages as positive.
Take the example of the child who is looking for attention while on a play date at a friend’s house. The child’s parent becomes engaged in conversation with another parent and the child creates a scene each time the parent attempts to resume the conversation. The adults are interrupted repeatedly, each time with more emotional investment by the parent and, consequently, more focus on the child. Ultimately, the child is given a time out and has succeeded in gaining the parent’s complete attention and learns the valuable lesson of how to gain the upper hand. An alternative would be to offer logical consequences and a choice to the child. In this example the parent would give the child a choice, either end the attention getting behavior or the play date ends. In the latter case the parent would leave with the child, but give the child no more attention. This is accomplished in a cool and unperturbed manner without lecture or recrimination. By offing the child options, not as a threat but as an option of the child’s choosing, the parent is demonstrating respect and laying the ground work for ever increasing expectations.
In all cases, the parent should look for the underlying reason for the behavior and then structure consequences that are rational. To be successful, the parent should remain emotionally neutral when offering logical consequences, these are choices held out for the child to make for him or herself. Give the child a choice and they experience being in control and less of being controlled. If the child senses you have an emotional stake in the matter the game is up and he or she wins.
In another example at a house full of boys the roughhousing indoors was getting out of hand. The consequences were laid out, “You either treat the furniture nicely or you can go without using furniture.” Afterwards, the obvious bad choices continued to be made, however it took only one family meal to be eaten with the boys either standing or kneeing at the dinner table for much more respect being paid to the family’s property. Logical consequences and being given a choice to do without or behave in a socially-beneficial manner helps children develop skills that will serve them throughout their lives. In this way parents are the guideposts shedding light on how the world works outside of the family unit.
For teens the ground rules change. However, the idea of discipline vs consequences does not. A common disciple for misbehaving teens is grounding and grounding is just timeout for big kids. Parents need to establish a relationship of trust and respect with their teens. Laying down inflexible ground rules without explanations or without giving the teen a choice to make his or her bed and then lie in it can be a road to confrontation. Grounding is often a means of keeping the parent from worrying that bad behavior is not happening outside the house. The consequence, however, is the teen has time to sit and stew in an unproductive punishment. Better the teen should be seen in public without some privilege previously granted.
If a teen breaks curfew, maybe the car is taken away. In rural areas if the teen doesn’t respect safety with the firearms in the house, maybe the next hunting trip happens without the teen. These are choices that can be given to the teen beforehand or as a first warning. Teens react positively to respect more than almost any other style of engagement and, just like young children, they are learning their place in the world.
There is no magic confrontation-free method of parenting, but, if one comes to the table with an air of respect for the other the negotiations will be much more pleasant. After respect, the key for all age groups is consequences that the children can see are a direct result of their decisions, it is a parent’s responsibility to help them see themselves as socially responsible members of society.