The question parents most frequently ask begins “What should I do when my child…?” and closes with a description of a vexing behavior, as in, “What should I do when my child bites the family dog?”
That particular choice of words reflects the contemporary belief that for any given misbehavior, there is one specific method or consequence that will bring it to an end. This point of view holds that discipline is accomplished via the clever manipulation of reward and punishment. In answer to the demand, parenting experts have come up with time-out, “1-2-3 Magic,” reward charts, and other variations on the reward-punishment theme.
There’s no evidence, however, that this proliferation of ingenious techniques has made for more well-behaved children. If the anecdotal record is any indication, today’s parents are dealing with not only more behavior problems, but also with more severe behavior problems than any generation of parents in history.
The problem is the point of view: the notion that discipline is a matter of the right application of consequences. It’s important to note that this is a new idea, a product of the psychological parenting revolution of the 1960s, one result of which was the embrace of behavior modification theory. Prior to this, parents intuitively understood that discipline is the process by which parents turn a child into someone who will subscribe to their values and follow their lead.
The traditional view emphasized leadership, and the principles of effective leadership do not change from one context to another. In other words, the same principles that make for effective corporate or military leadership also make for effective parent leadership.
Good leadership consists of a positive guiding vision, decisiveness, self-confidence, and a commitment to help the people one is leading bring out the very best in themselves. Effective leaders are not defined by how well they manipulate reward and punishment but by how well they communicate. In that regard, they do not mince or waste words. Nor do they explain themselves at length (thus they are distinguished from politicians). They obtain cooperation by inspiring, not punishing or rewarding. Because their grasp of command is natural, seemingly effortless, they do not have to resort to demanding. In that last regard, it is axiomatic that when obedience is demanded rather than commanded, loyalty will not result.
The preceding paragraph explains why today’s parents are experiencing so many problems with something that is so fundamentally simple: the discipline of a child. They are on the wrong track, barking up the wrong tree. Right consequences and methods—behavior modification—are helpful, even necessary, at times, but right consequences alone will not solve their problems. Right communication will.
Copyright 2023, John K. Rosemond
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