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eJOURNAL OF THE INTERNATIONAL CHILD AND YOUTH CARE NETWORK (CYC-Net) – ISSN 1605-7406

ISSUE 134 APRIL 2010 •  CONTENTS •  HOME PAGE

DISCIPLINE

More about consistency

John Stein

I keep hearing or reading about the importance of being consistent with discipline. It seems sometimes as if that’s the most important thing for adults to do with children. Tell them in advance what the consequences will be, then follow through. Don’t hit children — that teaches them to be aggressive. Instead, find something they like and take it away — a toy, an activity, time with friends. The length of time depends on the gravity of the offense. Professionals use the terms discipline and consequences interchangeably, but what they really mean is punishment. The message is repeated over and over again, to parents, educators, child care workers, and anyone else having anything to do with children.

At first glance, it seems to make perfect sense. It appeals to our nature, to our common sense. Children need discipline and consistency. And it sounds like behavioral psychology. Punishment works best when it happens every time misbehavior occurs.

Unfortunately, this simple approach does not hold up well under examination. It is decidedly unsound, both behaviorally and developmentally.

First of all, consistency with discipline is a myth. The reality is that it is impossible to be consistent with discipline. Adults can discipline children only when they are aware of misbehavior. Behaviorally, this sometimes leads to a reinforcement procedure rather than a punishment procedure. Avoiding an unpleasant consequence tends to serve as a reinforcement for behavior. Consider speeding on the highway. I love to drive fast and I know how to avoid getting caught. The threat of getting caught adds to the excitement. When I reach my goal in record time without a ticket, I feel really clever. Now consider such things as shoplifting, burglary, smoking, drinking, drugs, and sex.

Behaviorally, the last behavior to occur before a consequence is the behavior that tends to become associated with the consequence, i.e., it is the last behavior to occur that tends to be reinforced or punished. Consequently, when my vigilance falters, as it sometimes does, and I get a ticket, it’s my inattention that is punished, not my speeding. I don’t vow never to speed again, I vow to be more vigilant next time. Again, think of shoplifting, burglary, smoking, and drinking.

At least adults can be consistent with discipline for “in your face” behaviors, as when children misbehave in the classroom or confront adults. But behavioral scientists have found that punishment works best in the absence of reinforcement. More, when punishment occurs in the presence of reinforcement, rapid acquisition may occur. When children misbehave in the classroom, they often perceive (rightly or wrongly) that they are impressing their peers. Even when teachers deliver an immediate consequence, it’s too late. The behavior has already been reinforced by children’s perception of peer approval. When angry children confront adults, seeking to retaliate by provoking them in some way, they know they are going to get punished. Punishment, rather than punishing their behavior, tends to reinforce their behavior, serving as a signal, the cue, that they have been successful in achieving their goal, of getting adults in some way. As a result, they know exactly what to do the next time they want to retaliate.

Clearly, being consistent with discipline is not an effective strategy behaviorally. It seems relying too heavily on being consistent with discipline may actually result in reinforcing some of the very misbehaviors about which adults are most concerned, behaviors that have to do with children’s safety and well-being. But how about developmentally? I think it’s from a developmental standpoint that this approach causes the most harm.

When adults tell children what behavior is expected, then tell them in advance what consequences they will provide, whether rewards or punishments, it appears that adults think the children are not responsible enough to do the right thing without threats or bribes. Children tend to see themselves through the eyes of others. This approach does not enhance the development of their self-image, self-esteem, or responsibility. Moreover, when adults rely too heavily on providing consequences to promote children’s behavior, children sometimes don’t know what to do when there are no adults around to provide consequences. At such times, they are especially vulnerable to their impulses and peer pressure. (Again— shoplifting, etc.)

Punishment is not an empathetic response. The message is quite clear: “I care more about your behavior than I do about you or your feelings.” Children who are not shown empathy are unlikely to develop empathy. Such empathy as they may feel naturally tends to be suppressed. Empathy is necessary for feelings of remorse and guilt. Moreover, punishment tends to relieve guilt when children do feel it. In fact, I have seen children plead for punishment at times when they were feeling especially guilty over some irreparable harm caused by their behavior, as when they injure someone or destroy something irreplaceable, seeking to relieve their guilt and bring closure.

As a response lacking in empathy (no matter how much adults might claim that this is going to hurt me more than it does you), punishment serves to undermine the relationships between children and authority figures, sometimes leading to conflict and hostility. From my experience as a police officer, this is a fairly normal reaction. Even the most law-abiding, law-and-order citizens who express the highest regard for police officers frequently have an entirely different perspective when they are on the receiving end of a parking or traffic ticket. Authority figures who have a poor relationship with children are not in a very good position to influence their development or their behavior.

When adults punish angry children for their misbehavior, children sometimes associate the punishment with their anger or rage, believing it is wrong for them to become angry. They work very hard at suppressing their anger and some become very good at this. Surprised when their anger overwhelms them, they then feel they deserve to be punished for feeling angry. Other times, as when children are serving long restrictions (“the length of time depends on the gravity of the offense”), it’s obvious to them that adults feel they deserve to be punished. Children sometimes believe that people who deserve to be punished are bad. When they feel they deserve to be punished and conclude that they are indeed bad people, it is much more difficult for them to behave well, while misbehavior is less likely to feel out of place. Meanwhile, it is difficult for adults to provide reinforcements for appropriate behavior while children are serving their restrictions.

So if punishment is not a sound behavioral approach and leads to developmental problems, what are adults to do?

The consistency with discipline approach is based on the view of children as selfish, self-centered, impulsive creatures who will only behave when adults provide consistent external controls. I prefer a different view of children. I believe that they are social beings seeking their place in their social world. I believe that children will almost always do the right thing when:

  1. They know what is expected.

  2. They understand why it is important.

  3. They have the ability to do it, and

  4. They have the opportunity to do it without too many obstacles.

I prefer to see adults in the role of teachers, teaching children what is expected, helping them to develop an understanding and appreciation of why it is important, helping them develop the necessary skills, and then insuring that they have ample opportunity to practice. I believe that this approach is both behaviorally and developmentally sound.

First, behavioral scientists have demonstrated that the best way to change behavior is to teach a competing behavior, one that makes a targeted misbehavior impossible. For example, one cannot sit and walk around the room at the same time. My kindergarten teacher knew this. She taught us to sit. She never tried to stop us from running around the room; rather, she had ways of getting us to take our seats. You cannot steal and respect other people’s property at the same time. Teach children to respect property. (Hint: You cannot teach children to respect property by taking away their favorite toy.) Children cannot have temper tantrums with screaming and yelling and hitting and kicking and biting and smashing things when they are telling someone calmly why they are angry. (Hint: Children cannot talk calmly about their anger unless they have the opportunity, which means there has to be someone to listen calmly while they do so. Angry adults are too big an obstacle for them to overcome.)

Teaching children about the natural consequences of their behavior is a behaviorally sound approach. Children rarely get away with anything. Even when there are no adults around to deliver consequences in the form of punishments, or even rewards, there are always consequences for their behavior. Teaching them about those consequences, helping them develop their understanding and appreciation of how their behavior affects their well-being and their relationships with others, both peers and adults, puts them in touch with consequences that occur even when there are not adults to provide other consequences. Teaching them about feelings and values helps them to understand and navigate their social world. Experience is the best teacher because natural consequences make the best punishments. And reinforcements. Provided that children perceive them and understand them. They depend directly on children’s behavior. Discipline, on the other hand, depends directly on adults. And feelings and values determine what consequences affect behavior and how.

I prefer it when adults don’t tell children in advance what consequences they will impose. I much prefer it when adults communicate their expectation that children will behave for other reasons. So do children.

When consequences are necessary, I much prefer the approach that most adults use with very young children. First, adults do not let small children have things or do things they are not yet responsible enough to handle. They do not let small children near the street without holding their hands. They keep knives and chemicals and medicines and fragile valuables out of their reach. When such things are within the reach of small children, adults provide close supervision. Should a small child somehow manage to get hold of something dangerous in spite of such precautions, adults simply take it away. Second, as children get older, adults begin to teach them to take responsibility for cleaning up after themselves, for putting things away, for dressing their own wounds, for repairing the harm that resulted from their behavior.

This same approach works equally well with older children, even teenagers. When children are not responsible enough to handle something, taking that thing away for a time while they develop their responsibility is a logical consequence. Taking away things they do handle responsibly is punishment. For example, when teenagers have difficulty with coming home on Friday nights, keeping them home on Friday nights for a week or two prevents the misbehavior and gives them both the chance and the motivation to develop their responsibility. They don’t need to be punished by taking away their TV or music or telephone time with their friends. They don’t need to be grounded on Saturday afternoon when getting home on time from the basketball court or soccer field or movies is not a problem. When they are late for supper, causing mom to have to work late in the kitchen cleaning up dinner, having them take responsibility for cleaning up dinner so mom can get out of the kitchen at her usual time (or a bit early), allows them to take responsibility for repairing at least some of the problems their lateness causes for the family, repairing the harm as it were.

Such approaches are not designed to punish children by making them suffer, although some, even considerable, suffering may be involved. (No one wants to clean up a kitchen to my wife’s satisfaction — she’s much too fussy). Rather, they are designed to prevent misbehavior while children develop responsibility, or to teach responsibility by having children repair the harm their misbehavior has caused. Because children see the fairness, such approaches are much less damaging to relationships.

The Myth: Children need consistent discipline. Discipline is good for children. We cannot expect children to behave well unless adults are consistent with discipline.

The Reality. Discipline means punishment. Children do not need consistent punishment. Punishment is not good for children. Moreover, it’s not possible to provide punishment consistently. Rather, children need consistent expectations, expectations that they will do the right thing for the right reasons. Such expectations are good for children. And it is possible to be consistent with expectations.

Be consistent with expectations, not discipline.