To establish expectations for your children's behavior it is first
necessary to understand that you do not control your children's behavior directly. They
control their own behavior. All we can do is to enable them to use their own amazing
abilities to the maximum.
There is only one kind of Discipline
That is Self-Discipline!
In the story of the Wizard of Oz the young girl, Dorothy, goes off to see
the Wizard with the three characters: the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, and the Lion. When they
get there the Wizard does his magic and gives the Tin Man a clock to be his heart so he
can have feelings. Then he gives the Scarecrow a diploma so he can act smart. Finally, he
gives the Lion a medal so he can act courageous.
Then the four of them go off on an adventure in the land of Oz. When they come to
situations requiring feelings the Tin Man cries real tears; and when they need intelligent
solutions the Scarecrow figures out great ones; and when they need courage; the Lion has
developed a real roar!
Then they go back to see the Wizard, who is exposed as an imposter; he has no real
powers! But, when all three of the characters needed the power the Wizard had given them,
they were able to use it! Where did they get the power? They already had it!
That is a very good lesson for us, as parents, because we are very much like the
Wizard. We can not give our children any power they do not already have. All we can do is
act as a Wizard to free them to use what they already have.
What kind of a Wizard do you wish to be in your children's lives? A positive one who
challenges them to use all of their potential, or a negative one who holds your children
back and places limits on their use of their full potential?
Deciding What You Want
Once you have accepted the fact that you have no direct control over your
children's behavior and have accepted your role as a "Wizard" in your child's
life, then it is time to move on to the next step which is deciding exactly what you want
for your children. Once you have a clear idea of what it is you want, your strategy for
helping them to use their own abilities to select the desired behavior often becomes very
obvious. Let's move on to an understanding of this simple concept.
So often our model of how to work with our children's behavior is to
demand obedience. Obedience is, for a number of reasons, a very dangerous control
mechanism to use to manipulate a child's actions . First, it is unreliable because, at any
time, your child may choose to be disobedient and your efforts will fail. (And it seems
the chances of them being disobedient increase proportionately with number of people
watching, the danger of the moment, and the patience you are feeling with them at that
Second, obedience teaches children that they should listen to an
"outside voice" to make adjustments in their behavior rather than being
self-directed. (Listening to your voice only works when you are present, and as stated
earlier, when children make most of their big decisions you will not be there. Having been
taught to listen to outside voices in times of decisions, your child will listen to the
next loudest voice. Often that next loudest voice is saying, "come on, chicken, try
Finally, obedience does not teach children how to make decisions. It would
be a rare child who could actually learn to ride a bike by watching their mom and dad ride
one or listening to their parents talk about it. The same is true for making good
decisions and choices; kids must be given chances to make choices and decisions! "Put
them on the bike"
let them learn to make decisions in the same manner that you
would teach them to ride a bike. Give them some guidelines on how to make decisions and
then let them make some. If they make a mistake do just as you would with the bike,
"pick them up, dust them off, and put them back on the bike with some more guidance
on how to ride."
There are a few situations where parents should not simply let kids learn from
mistakes. If the behavior is 1. illegal, 2. immoral or 3. life threatening a parent must
act as the adult in the situation and intervene. If a child makes that type of mistake the
risk is too high and the stakes are too great, thus it may require a much more invasive
technique of intervention and protection. The best policy is to stay in the prevention
mode and help them to make good decisions before the fact, so that they don't get into
illegal, immoral or life threatening situations in the first place.
So, as parents, let's approach the job of teaching children to make good decisions from
the point of view that we are attempting to "crowd out" obedience as a method of
behavior control. By having some other much more reasonable goals for behavior control you
will teach your children to be increasingly self-directed and self-reliant, and you will
have killed two birds with one stone. Your children will have reasonable limits on their
behavior and they will be growing in their ability to make good decisions; good decisions
they will continue to make even when they are out of your presence. So let's explore some
other, very valid reasons for asking your children to make decision to limit their
behavior, other than your own request or demand for obedience:
- RESPECT FOR AUTHORITY
- "Do it because society
says so in formal ways." Start at the earliest of ages teaching your children that a
civilized world will always have rules and laws. Teach them these rules and laws are not
an annoyance; they are an aid to us all. Rules and laws protect our rights, privileges,
property, and even our lives. Explain to them the chaos that would result from a society
without stop signs, property laws, and rights to privacy, opportunity, expression, and
freedom from injury. (A note is necessary here that it is almost impossible to teach
respect for laws, and rules if your children watch you violate those same rules and laws!
You can't speed and then demand that your children drive the speed limit.)
- APPROPRIATE BEHAVIOR - "Do it because society
says so, in less formal ways." You won't be fined or sent to jail for violating any
of these rules but many times they may be just as important to obey. These are rules which
may often fall under the category of manners, or social customs, but they may be the
standards by which your children's character is judged. Teach them that they can act in
any way they wish, but other people retain the right to their own response. And... most
people's responses can be predicted by these rules.
You can cut your hair in a Mohawk and die it orange if you wish but just remember that
many people will then discount you as a meaningless person. It may not be right for them
to do so, but it is very predictable. The same goes for conduct in a public place
loud and boisterous behavior in many public places will, very predictably, be viewed as
immature and will be looked down upon by many adults. Wearing a baseball cap at a funeral
will be judged by most as being an extreme sign of disrespect to the deceased. If you
insist upon wearing one to make yourself more comfortable, then it is very predictable
that you will be called a disrespectful person.
- HELP - "I can't do this without your
help!" Many times a simple request for help will work wonders as a limit upon a
child's behavior. Think about it . . . when you ask your kid for help you are sending a
couple of very important messages. First, you are saying, "You are a very capable
person. Look, I'm giving you an important task to do!" Next, you are saying,
"You are a trusted person because this job requires that I trust you." Then, you
are saying, "I need you, and my life would be extremely difficult without you and
therefore I have come to you, of all the people I know, to ask for help." Finally,
you are saying, "A family is a place where we all participate simply because we need
each other!" Don't be surprised if your child starts to turn to you in times of
stress and need soon after you have modeled that behavior for her/him.
- PEACE - "Do this simply because it will make
your life much more peaceful and pleasant." Sometimes things that may seem very basic
to us must be explained in detail for our children. For example, "Did you know that
people who smile meet more happy people? So, if you would like to spend more time around
other people who are laughing and happy then you need to smile, a lot!" Point out to
them the many instances in life where cheerful people are given preferential treatment and
make it a policy to reward cheerful behavior in the home as early as possible. Let them
experience, at the earliest age, their cheerful attitude gets much more attention and
results. Make your home a peaceful place by practicing what you preach. Model cheerful and
polite requests for compliance rather than angry demands and watch their behavior match
yours. (Children learn far more from our actions than from our words. "Do as I say
not as I do," may sound nice but it seldom works.)
- PRACTICALITY - "This job needs doing... by
you." One of the most hirable skills in the world today is the ability to see a job
that needs doing, then being able to figure out a way to do it efficiently... and then
DOING IT. Give this ability to your children by giving them jobs to do (simple at first)
and then getting out of their way and letting them do the whole job, start to finish. As
they complete the job let the satisfaction of completing it be the payoff. It will not
even be necessary for you to offer lavish praise. A simple statement from you like,
"Nicely done, you did that complete job without any help. Doesn't it feel great to do
things on your own? It buys you a big bunch of respect and it buys lots of freedom to do
things on your own because then others do not feel the need to check up on you."
- DECISION MAKING
- "You have a choice to make;
what are you going to do?" This should be started as early as possible. "Which
pair of sox do you want to wear?" Then start handing them bigger and bigger decisions
to handle, like "here's the map. Which route do you think we should we take?"
Next time ask, "Now that you have picked the road to travel what time should we
leave?" Later you can seek their advice on tough personnel issues that you bring home
from work. Then give them $50.00 and ask them to buy five days worth of groceries with it.
Follow with bigger and bigger jobs and bigger and bigger decisions that go with them.
Continually ask for their opinion about issues that surround you in life. We learn to make
decisions by making them. Like was said earlier, "put them back on the bike!"
When they make a bad decision, don't punish them. Tell them that you admire their courage
for making the decision in the first place, then ask, "What did you learn from that
decision? What are you going to do next? How do you think that will work?"
- LEARNING - "What can you learn from this? Life
is one big lesson." Learning could almost be the goal for any adjustment in a child's
behavior. When your goal is learning, the strategy often is spelled out right in front of
you. Remember, very little is ever learned when anger is involved, either on your part or
on the kid's part. Buck Minor the cowboy on our ranch used to always say "when you
teach an animal a lesson through anger and meanness, don't be surprised if the meanness
and anger are learned better than the lesson. "When learning is the goal anger should
never play a role. If either you or the child has become angry it is probably best to wait
until the anger has passed to attempt the learning.
"Here is how the world works, and it will help you greatly if you understand
this." Often, taking the time to teach is the longest and most difficult way to
change your child's behavior, but it winds up being the best way because it results in
lasting behavior change. While driving in the car it is quicker and easier to simply
separate fighting or quarreling children than it is to teach them negotiating and
compromising skills. However, in the long run, separating them really winds up teaching
the exact opposite behavior from what seems to be the logical goal.
Separating them teaches them that when people disagree, the desired response is to
separate. (No wonder we have such high divorce rates!) With learning as the goal, it would
be much more logical to approach two fighting kids by teaching them some effective ways to
deal with quarrels and disagreements that will serve them for a lifetime. It takes
planning, thought, time, patience, and lots of care to teach negotiating skills and to
teach the skills of compromise.
If you, as the parent, choose to make learning your goal, it may take longer to bring
about the desired behavior change at age four. However, when you do take the time at age
four to teach some skills, then at age fifteen you no longer have to deal with fighting
because at that point what you taught at age four will still be working
child learned it!
Remember, at this point, that you can never assume that a child has learned anything until
they use it in the appropriate context to bring about positive change for themselves.
Also, it is true that "saying something" rarely defines teaching. So often we
hear parents say, "I told him. I don't know what's wrong, but he's not doing
it!" Telling does not constitute teaching. If teaching is the goal then a change in
behavior must be the measure of the success of your method. You may never assume that you
have taught a concept until the child's behavior changes.
If you use one strategy to teach some concept or action and the child does not change,
keep the anger out and remember three key words: THAT DIDN'T WORK! Then, try again with
another repetition or a completely new method; but don't give up. You may not succeed on
the first few tries but one thing is guaranteed... if you stop trying to teach you will
fail. Too many parents are willing to say, "I have tried everything," after a
few failures instead of simply saying, "Oops, I just found another way to teach this
that didn't work, so I had better look around for another way!"
Once you have used these other goals as the reasons to ask your children to make
decisions to limit or change their behavior, it is seldom necessary to ask for obedience.
Then when you do ask for obedience it can be saved for those few times when obedience is
necessary like when the kid is running for the street and a truck is coming. Obedience is
necessary when you cry, "STOP!" at a time like this.
One more thought about obedience before we end our discussion. Obedience is much easier
to ask for if it is mutual. It will be much easier to get obedience at those critical
times if your children can ask for your obedience upon occasion and get it.
Assignment Sheet Lessons 3 & 4
- Identify another behavior in each of your children that you would like to have them
exhibit. This, again, may be something that the child already does and you wish to replace
it with a new and more productive behavior, or it might just be something that you would
like to see your child adopt. Describe the desired behavior in detail here. (If you are
attempting to eliminate a particular behavior describe it in detail also.)
- Now, go to your notebook handout for
Lessons 3 & 4 and look at the list of possible
reasons to ask your children to behave in the manner that you wish. Now ask yourself a few
of the following questions: What do I want my kids to do? What is my goal in asking them
for this particular behavior. Do I want respect for authority? Do I want my children to
learn to make decisions? Do I want my kids to have more peace in their life? Do I want
them to select a more appropriate behavior? Or do I simply need their help? Write down a
detailed description of your goal in asking for this adjustment of behavior.
- Now comes the time for you, as the parent, to do some very careful thinking. Now you
must devise a strategy for accomplishing your goal that you selected in #2. Your strategy
may require that you use three of the Five Rules that you were working with in our last
session (Lesson 2), or your strategy may require that you use only one of those rules. Maybe
you need to dream up a completely new strategy.
- Keep a daily record of your actions, your childs actions, and any observations
that you have as you go through this process for a week. Remember to record both positive
and negative actions, reactions and observations.
- Come to the next class prepared to discuss what took place in your family over the week.
In this space make notes of comments that you would like to make comment about at the next
Please keep in mind that the purpose of these exercises is to maximize
the number of positive and productive ideas that are stored in your mind and the minds of
your children. In order to do this you must actually try to structure effective thoughts
in your own head as you plan strategies. Then you must observe the resulting behavior in
your children. Remember that unless your child chooses to tell you what ideas are in their
head, the only way you have of knowing what ideas are stored in their head is by observing
their behavior; so pay close attention.
A big part of this process involves not only creating positive change
but also observing strategies that did not work and then devising new and better ones that
will work. So, as you go through this process do not be the least bit hesitant to list
things that didnt work! Sometimes our best teacher is a mistake. The only time a
mistake is counted as a failure is if you let it be the last time you try.
Also, when you try something that doesnt work remember the
important phrase: "keep the anger out!" Anger rarely results in productive
thought processes and effective action.
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