When Discipline Goes Bad

by Heligirl on April 19, 2010

in Parenting Articles

Another installment in my Positive Discipline articles.

I took the kids to Lincoln Park today. As we sat down on the rocky beach in the balmy 70 degrees and watch the birds, ferries and helicopters (that’s what was out there), I began to overhear this mom trying to discipline her child. I think the boy was about 6 or 7.

“Do not take your shoes off. There are sharp things and you could get cut.”

Boy kicks off shoes.

“I told you you couldn’t wear those shoes if you keep taking them off. Put them on now.” (me – “huh?!?”)

Boy ignores her and sits down in the gravel (we don’t have soft sand on Seattle beaches).

“Look at your pants. They used to be black, now they’re gray. You’ve gotten yourself all dirty.”

“Put your shoes on. If you can’t keep them on, we’re going home.”

And on and on. Sweetness looked over at the mom, then looked back at me. There are times I wish she could tell me what she was thinking. I sure hope it was along the lines of, “wow, I’m glad you don’t talk to me like that.”

As I watched Sweetness tossing small rocks at a piece of driftwood next to her to hear the funky hollow thunk sound and Mr. Man play with sticks in wide-eyed amazement, I started to think of all I’d learned about positive discipline and what this mom could do differently. It’s not that I think I’m the end-all, be-all of child discipline. It’s just that it’s much easier to Monday morning quarterback.

First off, it became rather clear that she had been talking to her son like this for years. He was stonewalling her, totally ignoring everything she said and doing whatever he pleased. Clearly she liked to guilt trip and make empty threats, and he knew she never followed through.

In just the 15 minutes that family was near us, I heard her threaten to take away the shoes, go home, and not bring him back at least three times each. She also criticized how he was doing things – getting dirty for example. I finally turned to look at her. She was on the rocky, dirty beach in brand new white sneakers, designer jeans and a fancy jacket, carrying a designer handbag and wearing designer sunglasses. Not your typical beach gear in Seattle in April. Maybe for Malibu where you were about being seen, but certainly not here. But the boy was a boy, for the love of all that is holy. He’s going to get dirty. And he didn’t look like his clothes were made for church. They were black cargo pants.

They eventually wondered off and I passed them on our way out. They boy was on the swing, his shoes on the ground at his feet as he smiled defiantly at his mom.

Doing it right
So what was she doing wrong? First, she was talking in negatives. As I discussed in my last article, you have to keep phrases positive – “we keep our shoes on at the beach” rather than “don’t take your shoes off.” Years of talking to children like this empowers them. They’re not always hearing what they can’t do. They’re getting a choice about what they can do.

But even more importantly, she was making empty threats. In high school we all had to take a home and family life class and I remember during the childcare section the teacher telling us, “If you tell the child he’d better go to bed or you’ll kill him, you’d better kill him if he doesn’t because he won’t listen to you again otherwise.” She was being sarcastic (I hope), and we all laughed. Yet, as you can see, her technique clearly worked. I remember.

Jane Nelson in her Positive Discipline books reiterates regularly that you must decide what you’re going to do, and do it. If you say the consequence of taking your shoes off is going home, you have to be ready to pack up the child and go home. Don’t ever threaten. Just lay out the rules then follow them.

If I were a coach and stepped in right there, who knows what kind of response I’d have gotten from the child. He has years of conditioning and parents who are switching gears to positive discipline need to give it time. But it will start working once you stand by your new kind but firm approach.

So this is what I’d have suggested. First off, I’d have talked to the mom about when children misbehave, they’ve become disconnected. He needs your attention now in a positive way. He’s only getting it when he misbehaves at the moment.

Let’s say the child was “Johnny.” Remember, he’s 6 or 7 so I can try a little reason with him (where doing so with Sweetness would be like talking to the wind).

“Johnny, our shoes stay on at the beach. I understand you want to take them off and run around, but it’s not safe. There are broken pieces of glass you might not see and you could cut yourself bad.” In fairness, the mom did say he could get cut, then went on about having to go to the hospital and have stitches. This came off as another threat rather than valuable info. I’d have stopped at “˜cut yourself bad.’

I’d then focus on Johnny, “let’s look under the rocks for crab,” “how far out can you throw the rock?,” etc., things that put attention on him. This mom was just talking to another mom, then on her cell.

If Johnny looked at me like I was high and took the shoes off anyway, I’d calmly reiterate, “The rules are we have to keep our shoes on at the beach. The same goes for me. If you can’t follow the rule, then we have to leave the beach.” I want to be at the beach, so I’m not going to threaten to go home. That’s why I’d have tried to distract him and give him attention. That might be all he needed, then there would be no reason to have to leave. If he took his shoes off again, I’d take him to the grassy area on the other side of the path, then reiterate the rule. If he suddenly started following directions, perhaps we’d try the beach again, but I’d have to be prepared to leave immediately if he took them off.

If little Johnny took the shoes off again on the grass, then I’d pack everything up and go. It’s very important to not pour on the guilt on the way to the car. Remain calm. I get through the ensuing crying by naming the feelings: “I know you wanted to play on the beach and you’re disappointed we have to go home. I love you and I want you to be safe. Being safe here means keeping your shoes on. Maybe we can try to come back tomorrow/another day/etc.” End of discussion. Silence is powerful.

Granted, this is no fun for you and takes a lot more work, but in the end, the child is learning that you mean business, there are rules and they must be followed (valuable life skill), and safety is important.

Remember, one of the guidelines of positive discipline is always finding the opportunity to teach something. Here little Johnny is learning about beach safety (as well as following the rules).


Kris April 20, 2010 at 12:42 pm

Excellent advice, I really align with you on how I (want) to discipline my now 7 month old. Thanks for the tips. One thing I keep in mind is something my dog trainer told me for our special needs dog. No – kids and dogs ARE NOT THE SAME – but there are some similarities. The advice was “set yourself up for success”.

Therefore, we put our dog in successful situations and expect the best we can from her in those situations. We know her limitations (much like you should know your 6 year old’s). It really works. In this case, before you go to the beach – discuss the rules ahead of time – dress appropriately – maybe even have a bribe ready for an outing well spent (you get to pick what we have for dinner or what-not). And if those are not met and you threaten to leave..then you must LEAVE.

Heligirl April 20, 2010 at 3:41 pm

Kris, absolutely!! Excellent points and yes siree, setting the kids up for success is a very big part of this. What a great idea for another post. Thanks so much for sharing your insight!!

Carol Ann July 12, 2010 at 7:39 am

Guilty. The empty threats….I rarely do that, but the Hubs does it a lot. I love the line that the teacher used. I try really hard not to make a consequence that I can’t follow through on. I’ve heard the Hubs say “C if you keep coloring on the table then you can’t go to the birthday party this afternoon.” Well, we know we are going to the birthday party regardless, so now it’s a gamble hoping she obeys and if she doesn’t then it’s an empty threat.

This will be a discussion in our household tonight!
Carol Ann recently posted: I did it

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