Children need consistency in many aspects of their lives, but discipline may be one of the most important. Children are growing and learning how to become responsible adults (however that is defined by their family and community). This level of learning entails searching for boundaries via experimentation and copying what is modeled.
When a child is consistently met with the same consequence for the same behavior, it is easier for them to make decisions about what they will and will not do.
For example, if Kyo’s parents give her one of her favorite types of cookie for every ‘A’ grade that she brings home on a report card, Kyo will most likely choose to continue to work hard to get A grades so that she can keep getting her cookies.
If her parents are consistent, she learns to trust that they will do what they say they will. Not only with her grades, but when it comes to dating, driving, drug use, and other issues that she may face growing up. She learns that her parents are trustworthy, honest people who uphold their commitments and stick to their word.
As an added bonus, they role model these characteristics for her, so that she will likely grow up to be someone who is honest and has a lot of integrity as well.
On the other end of the spectrum we have Sana. Her parents gave her a dollar per A grade the first time she came home with a report card. The next round of grades included A’s as well, but Sana’s parents didn’t even seem to notice. They gave her an absent-minded “That’s nice,” while they were watching television.
On another round of grades, there was no focus at all on the A’s she had made, but lots of emphasis on the B grades. She was criticized for not being a better student.
Sana may be discouraged from doing well in school because she is not consistently rewarded for what she achieves. Sometimes she’s even reprimanded for her hard work. Sana’s grades may begin to slip because she doesn’t see the point in working so hard when she doesn’t know that any good will come of it. The consequences she receives in relation to her grades are too unstable. Sometimes there is a consequence, sometimes there isn’t. Sometimes the consequence is positive and sometimes it’s negative.
To add insult to injury, Sana is absorbing the idea that it’s fine to do what you want when you want, regardless of what people expect from you. She may believe it’s fine to do things that may disappoint others as long as it’s convenient for her. She may also learn that no one in life is to be trusted and she may develop problems in relationships ranging from her own parents, to dating partners, to bosses, to her own children.
Being Consistent in Discipline
Whatever the consequence for a particular behavior is going to be, following these three guidelines can make it more effective for you and your child.
1. Communicate Prior to the Behavior Occurring
As much as possible, have a conversation with your child about what you expect from them before any mistakes or poor behavior takes place (i.e., before they get their license, before they go to their first sleepover, before you go into the grocery store together, etc.). For instance, as a child begins school, you may want to discuss the following:
- What happens if you get bad behavior reports from their teachers
- What happens when you don’t get any bad behavior reports from their teachers for a week, month, semester, or year (there could be different consequences for each term such as eating out for a week’s worth of good behavior or going on a road trip for a year’s worth of good behavior)
- What happens if they fight while they’re at school
- What happens if they go a whole week without missing any homework assignments
Positive consequences could be things like money, trips, visits to amusement parks, sleepovers, new pets, new clothes, or new toys. Negative consequences could be taking away any of the positive consequences, being given extra chores, or having extra long time-out sessions.
2. Follow Through Consistently
This is the crux of effective discipline. When your child behaves or misbehaves, whatever consequence you said you would enforce should be implemented as soon as possible after the behavior has taken place. Kyo shouldn’t have to wait 2 weeks to get her cookie, nor should a child wait days for their negative consequence to be enforced.
The sooner after the behavior the consequence comes, the easier it is for children to tie their behavior to the consequence. This helps emphasize their role in their life experiences.
3. Adapt Consequences as Children Age
A cookie might not be all that exciting at 17 for Kyo like it was when she was 4 years old. Make sure that consequences grow along with your child so that they always hold significance for them and continue to help guide their behavior and decision making.
For instance, things like driving and cell phone use may not be a factor in the life of a 5-year-old, but they certainly hold some weight with teenagers.
You have everything you need to raise a strong, healthy child. Whenever you find yourself wondering why your child doesn’t listen to you, doesn’t seem to trust you with information about their lives, or seems to cause trouble wherever they go, you might want to consider increasing the reliability of your discipline.
Some parents threaten to give a negative consequence and never do it. This leads children to believe that consequences are like playing roulette. They get the impression that there will be many times when they will do something inappropriate and nothing will happen to them. This makes them more likely to misbehave because they think there’s a high probability that they’ll get away with it.
When a child is confident that a negative consequence comes along with a negative behavior, they can think beyond the impulse to run inside the house or take something that doesn’t belong to them because they will better understand that there is more to their lives than this particular instance. And when they get caught and suffer the consequence they’ve brought upon themselves, they can start to reframe their idea of what their impulsive behavior is worth to them.