Disciplining children

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Thomas Kulanjiyil, PsyD, PhD, is a founding member of PARIVAR International. He currently serves on the faculty of College of DuPage. He is co-editor of the book, “Caring for the South Asians-Counseling South Asians in the West.” Dr. Kulanjiyil can be reached at tk@parivarinterntional.org. For any personal or family issues contact Parivar Family Helpline:(877)-743-5711.

By Thomas Kulanjiyil
Recently, one Florida mother forced her 15-year-old son to stand in a street corner with a poster board, having written on it, “GPA 1.22….honk if I need education.” According to a statement issued by the mother this action was prompted by her son’s failure to take his studies seriously, in spite of her admonitions. How would you react to this mother’s action? What impact did the action have on the young man? Did it help to motivate him to do better in his academic performance? Was this form of discipline appropriate to his age? Our responses would be quite polarizing, depending on how each of us views the role and methods of discipline.

Discipline is a very important part of parenting, and its goal is to assist children in their cognitive, emotional, moral, spiritual, and social development. Lack of discipline and inconsistency in discipline are serious slip in parenting. Power assertion, demands, withdrawal of love, ignoring and isolation, emotional humiliation and shaming, threats, and use of physical force do not achieve the positive effects of discipline.

Discipline must be appropriate to the age and temperament of the child. What is appropriate for a six-year old may not be appropriate for a 15-year-old. What works with an “easy child” will not work with a “strong-willed-child.” Disciplinary method taken for a particular problem may not fit for another problem.

A disciplinary technique that is suitable for children in the early childhood is behavioral reinforcement. Reinforcement is of two kinds. Positive reinforcement happens when a behavior is followed by a situation that increases the likelihood of that behavior occurring in the future. Rewarding a child for improving the academic performance in a semester exam, or giving a monitory allowance for completing chores at home are tangible ways of positively reinforcing a desired behavior. Desired behaviors are reinforced through intangible ways too, such as praise, hug, and extra attention. Negative reinforcement occurs when a behavior is followed by the termination of an unpleasant situation, increasing the possibility of that behavior in similar situations. For instance, taking away of the privilege to watch TV for a day or two might increase the likelihood of the child complete school homework in a timely manner.

A technique appropriate for children in middle childhood and adolescence is inductive technique. Inductive technique employs reason and logic in discipline. It encourages children to think through their actions and their consequences. For instance, ask  the child, “How would you    feel if you are being hit by someone?” The child may respond, “It will make me feel bad.” Reason with the child how his friend, Jack, would feel if he is hit. The child may reason:  “Hitting Jack hurts him and makes him feel bad.” This process of reasoning helps children employ their moral reasoning to choose healthy and appropriate behaviors.

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