Note: This post is part of a series I’m writing on Child Discipline.
I began this series by establishing three conditions that a successful disciplinary philosophy must meet: Minimizing punishment, maximizing cooperativeness, and producing progressively more good behavior and less misbehavior. From these principles, I reasoned that there must be a fourth principle, that well-behaved kids are those who behave well voluntarily. A robust philosophy of child discipline, then is one that satisfies all four conditions.
Next, I discussed the nature of household rules. First of all, these rules should be rational, and following the rules should produce clear benefits for everyone. Second, everyone – parents and children alike – must follow the same set of rules, and the children must have just as much right to hold parents to the rules and parents have to hold children to the rules. Third, everyone within the household must entrust each other with their own moral agency; that is, we lay out the rules, ask them to be followed, and then allow each other the free will to take our own actions.
Finally, I established that actions have consequences, and that it is important to help children understand that when they take actions in a moral context, the consequences that then ensue are directly tied to the child’s actions.
Now that I’ve laid out the basic set of conditions necessary to establish before effective discipline can even occur, I can finally get to the actual process of discipline.
Part Seven – Enforcing A Rule
If we’ve done our parental work right, then “discipline” really amounts to reminding the child of what the rules are, why we follow them, what the child did to violate the rules, why it was a violation of the rules, and how to make amends now that the rules have been broken. Depending on how old your child is, this shouldn’t take much longer than five or ten minutes. If it takes much longer than that, you child may not fully understand the situation, and you may need to give up on the disciplinary action in favor of helping the child understand the rules first.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Let’s suppose your child is misbehaving about something simple, but realistic: playing with scissors. I’d start by establishing what the rule is, and why: “Don’t play with those scissors, Tommy. You might cut yourself.”
If this is enough to end the situation, so be it. Problem solved. If not, proceed to the next iteration of seriousness: “You’re not to play with scissors. We don’t use scissors as a toy. They’re a tool. Please put them back in the drawer.” Notice that this second step does more than one thing. First, it reiterates the rule. Second, it establishes some sense of universality of the rule, i.e. that nobody plays with scissors, and that there exist a set of conditions in which Tommy might be allowed to have the scissors. (That, as opposed to the mere threat of having the scissors taken away “forever.”) Finally, it gives the child some agency to participate in the proper use of scissors, by putting them in the drawer. I like adding an additional sense of responsibility because sometimes just participating in the proper use of scissors is enough to satisfy the child’s desire to have the scissors. It also, of course, establishes that you trust Tommy to comply with his moral responsibilities.
If this is enough to end the situation, so be it. Problem solved. If not, we iterate again, perhaps for the final time. “If you don’t put the scissors away, I’ll have to take them away from you instead.” Notice that this is not an imposing threat. I’m not threatening to spank or punish the child, I’m not suggesting that this one act of disobedience will ruin his life, I’m simply stating the consequences of Tommy’s actions. Then I let him make the choice. Sometimes the child will make the right choice, and the matter ends there. If not, we move to the next stage of discipline.
If the child continues to disobey, then it is imperative that we enforce the rules and the consequences as we have outlined them. The child cannot be allowed to continue to play with the scissors (or whatever else they might be doing), otherwise the child will not understand that his actions have consequences. It’s easy to see how important this is when it comes to playing with scissors. But if Tommy were doing something less harmful, like making a very loud and annoying noise while other people are talking ,for example, it’s equally important to enforce the rules and consequences. Once you’ve established the boundary of the rules, do not let the child go undisciplined for crossing the boundary.
Suppose you take the scissors away. One of two things might happen next. On the one hand, the child might become agitated and find some new rule to break, in a display of being mad. (He might throw the scissors across the room, or make a mess somewhere, or some other thing he knows not to do.) If this happens, you might choose to start the whole process over again. (Use your judgment here.) But you might instead choose to move to the next disciplinary phase.
The second thing that might happen is that the child may begin to scream and cry as soon as you take the scissors away, throwing a tantrum and acting very upset. Clearly at this point we must move on to the next phase, which I will discuss next.