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Lesson 2
The Discipline Sequence

How do you put responsive discipline into action when a child misbehaves? Let's say you have a three-year-old son whose name is Jamie. One Sunday afternoon the following incident occurs:

Jamie and Cindy (who is also three years old) are playing quietly with Jamie's stuffed animals in the living room. You in the kitchen reading the paper. Suddenly, Jamie begins to scream, Give me Teddy... give me Teddy! There is a moment of silence... then an outburst of crying by Cindy. When you arrive you see Jamie clutching his favorite teddy bear. Cindy sits nearby sobbing uncontrollably. Bright red and purple teeth marks are visible on her arm.

So what do you do?

We suggest the following four-step sequence:

1. Stop!
2. Look and Listen
3. Think
4. Act

[bullet]Step One: Stop!

You could begin by pausing for just a moment to overcome your initial impulse, possibly to rush in angrily. It might be best to respond to the problem with an open mind. If so, you have to set aside what you were doing and thinking before the incident. You will have to change gears from relaxing while reading the paper to being fully alert and ready to respond to the two children. Stop! is a brief cooling-off period and a preparation for thinking and acting.

[reflection]Cooling Off

[up][bullet]Step Two: Look and Listen

Your second task is to read the situation quickly. What really happened here? What did each of the children do? Why did Jamie bite Cindy? Has he done this before? What is going on with him? As you gather the facts you will begin to form explanations or hunches about the causes of the problem. In this situation, you might tentatively conclude that Jamie bit Cindy because she had grabbed his teddy. You know he is very possessive of his teddy bear.

You might also quickly eliminate other possibilities. You know that Jamie is not sick and that Cindy did not bite him first. As you comfort and talk with the children you could be watching for new information . You might notice, for example, that Jamie is rubbing his eyes. Jamie has missed his afternoon nap. Could that have contributed to the problem? Because he is sleepy, Jamie may be having a difficult time managing his frustration.

[reflection]Evaluating Problems

[up][bullet]Step Three: Think

Once you have made an effort to gather the facts, your next step is to evaluate the problem, set some goals and consider your alternatives.

A. Evaluating the Problem: Is there really a problem?

Is this situation a real problem or just an aggravation? Do you ignore this or do you respond? Is this a priority problem for you?

Parents can make two kinds of mistakes when considering whether there is a problem with a child's behavior. First, parents may react as though something is a problem when it is not.

A father, for example, may worry about his teenage son's moodiness and detachment. Another parent may worry that her preschooler is too shy. Should parents be alarmed about these behaviors? Only if the child is miserable. Moodiness is a problem if it becomes depression or aggression. Shyness is a problem if accompanied by painful isolation.

You avoid the something is a problem when it is not mistake by understanding what is reasonable and unreasonable for children depending their age and temperament. In this example, you might decide that biting cannot be overlooked. Violence of any kind is learned, not inborn, and a problem that has to be taken seriously.

[reflection]The Aggravation

The second type of mistake reverses the first.

Parents may react as though something is not a problem when it is.

For example, parents of an adolescent may fail to realize their daughter has been concealing a worsening drug addiction. During the day she secludes herself in her room. At night she goes out with friends and returns after her parents are asleep. Another parent overlooks his grade schooler's abusive language and violent outbursts.

If you continued to read your newspaper and ignore your son's biting, you might be making this second type of mistake.

[reflection]The Blind Spot

Parents who fail to respond to real problems may defend their complacency with such statements as, She's always been like that, or Boys will be boys, or They'll work it out on their own. You must remain alert to real problems and consider the dangers of doing nothing. During a later lesson we will take a closer look at the nature of children's misbehavior.

B. Having a Purpose: What do you want your children to learn?

To use discipline effectively, parents must have a guiding purpose--a set of long-range goals they hope to achieve with their children. For example, you might want to teach your children to respect property, be friendly toward others, have self-esteem, and be guided by a moral sense. Purpose reflects a parent's priorities and serves as a broad guide for discipline. Without purpose, discipline becomes aimless and chaotic.

[reflection]Your Purpose

Biting, for example, might be unacceptable to you. If so, you have to respond to Jamie's harmful behavior. Under these circumstances, some parents might want to help him learn:

  • to express his anger with words;
  • to seek adult help when he feels frustrated;
  • to understand the results of hurting someone;
  • to be more comfortable sharing his belongings with others.

C. Setting Targets: What do you want to accomplish now?

As you respond to problem behavior, devise a plan. Set specific targets you hope to achieve immediately: In our example you might want to stop the fighting, calm both children, and get your son to listen. You might also want your son to realize he has hurt his friend.

Each of your targets should be consistent with your purpose. A target like get some peace and quiet around here so I can read my paper would be contradictory to a purpose that focuses on teaching, for example.

Each of your targets should be
consistent with your purpose.

Targets should also be reasonable for the child's age and personality. Is the child old enough and temperamentally suited to do what is expected? For example, 4-year-olds have a limited understanding of time and truth. Is it fair to expect a frightened and confused child of this age to admit that he broke a lamp earlier in the day? Is the expectation reasonable? A child who is punished for wetting his bed at night will be distraught and bewildered. He has no control over his bladder while he sleeps. These unreasonable expectations gradually undermine a child's self-esteem. In a later lesson we will examine the limits or expectations we have of children.

D. Considering Alternatives: How many different ways can you respond to the problem?

As you rapidly form reasonable targets for your discipline, you could consider many alternatives, both good and bad. You could, for example, bite your son back to show him how it feels or spank him. You could make him apologize or separate him from Cindy. You could send Cindy home or take Jamie's teddy bear away as punishment. Or you could give Jamie a time out, or reason with him, or simply remind him of the rule. At this point, we are not evaluating the worth of these alternatives. We are simply trying to envision the possibilities.

Recall the toolbox metaphor we described in the overview. A parent's discipline toolbox can be divided into three sections: prevention, guidance and punishment. Some discipline tools can prevent a problem from occurring. Others can be used in the midst of a problem to guide a child's behavior. Punishment tools are used after a problem has occurred repeatedly to convey disapproval, provide restitution, and discourage the undesirable behavior. In later lessons we will consider a wide variety of discipline tools available to parents in each of these sections of their toolbox.

As these alternatives stream through your mind, you could rate each one for its potential effectiveness. Which tool, or combination of tools, will be effective at this moment? As you consider your options, use your fundamental values in your evaluation of their merits. For example, you might want to be fair and not over react to the situation. You might want to protect your sonís dignity and self-worth. You may be committed to nonviolence. So you would rule out retaliating by biting or hurting your child. Every parent has to decide on the values that are critical for evaluating the merits of their alternatives.

[up][bullet]Step Four: Act

After stopping, looking and hearing, and then thinking, you are then in a position to make a decision. Consider the following potential outcome.

Before separating the children, you show Jamie the bite mark he made on Cindy, and impress on him how much he hurt her. You emphasize in the strongest of terms, NO BITING. USE WORDS TO SAY HOW YOU FEEL.

As you separate the two children and begin talking, Jamie begins to cry softly and rub his eyes. You understand that he is sleepy, so you call Cindy's mother and ask her to take her daughter home. Jamie then runs to his room, crying even louder. You give Cindy a book to read until her mother arrives. When Cindy leaves, Jamie runs into the living room and throws himself on the floor, screaming Bad daddy! Bad daddy! You lay Jamie's blanket over him and quietly returns to the kitchen. After a few minutes, Jamie quiets down. You then pick him up in your lap and read him a picture book. After the story is through, you take your sleepy boy to bed. Within a few minutes Jamie is sound asleep.

You then return to the kitchen and take a few moments to reflect on how you responded to the problem. You are satisfied that you made the right decision. You resolve to be more careful about remembering your son's nap time. Before picking up your newspaper, you take note of a few ways you might be able to encourage Jamie to share with his friends.

Of course, you might react differently than in our example. The choice is yours.

The responsive discipline approach expects much from parents. Instead of advocating a specific, canned response to misbehavior, responsive discipline emphasizes making choices. There is no magic formula, regardless of what some experts may say, other than love, understanding, and commitment.

Responsive discipline challenges parents to think quickly under pressure, to maintain their composure in the heat of conflict, and to act decisively with purpose. With responsive discipline, the mind and heart are both engaged. This is the real challenge of being a parent.

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