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By: Dr. Gregory Popcak

father son discipline

Elizabeth called me at the seeking counsel. A homeschooling mother of five, she was having trouble keeping her children on task no matter what the task was. “I can’t get them to listen to me.     I’m embarrassed to say it, but when I ask them to do anything, especially their schoolwork, I have to put up with all kinds of back talking. When I correct them, we get into arguments. I’ve tried everything, even spanking, and nothing works. I really want to keep schooling them at home, and my husband is very supportive, but I’m getting to the point where they’re driving me crazy and I’m starting to think very seriously about sending them to school.”  Even if you have great resources, a supportive spouse, and a vital spirituality, the one thing that could still threaten your homeschooling success is the lack of a consistent and effective program of discipline.  While I go into great detail on how to set up an effective discipline system in my book, Parenting with Grace, I would like to review some of the basics here in the hopes of sparing you some of Erica’s angst.

1. Identify and Review the Rules Regularly.

One of the biggest reasons for noncompliance is that children are not clear on  what the rules are.  Even if you have told them again and again, perhaps you need to do it in a more concise and consistent manner.  Too often, we parents use a shot gun approach to rules, spouting dozens of them at once without taking the time to explain or teach what we want our children to do. “Stop picking on your sister!” “Put that down!” “How many times have I told you…!”  When we find ourselves engaging in this kind of repetitious yelling, chances are we need to reexamine our approach. Identify the biggest behavior problems you are currently facing, limit yourself to two or three problems– you don’t want to overwhelm yourself or your children.  Next, identify what the appropriate alternative to that problem behavior is and the consequence for not exhibiting that alternative. For example; if your children are arguing over toys, the alternative behavior would be “sharing” or “taking turns.” Write this in the form of a rule and post it on your refrigerator. “We will take turns and share.” Across from this, write the logical consequence for not following this rule. “If you do not take turns, you will lose your turn or lose the toy.”  Now, instead of yelling the next time the children are arguing over the toy (or whatever else the behavior is), simply say, “What is the rule?” or, if you have written and posted the rule, simply say, “Please go look at the rules.”  If they cannot work it out for themselves, go to number two below.

2. Let the consequence do the talking.

Resist the urge to argue with your children. Once you have clearly identified the  rules and consequences, and have reminded your child of the rule and consequence once when the need arises, do not yell, do not argue, do not pass “Go”, do not collect $200. Move directly to consequence.  If the rule is “share or lose the toy,” and your children are being less than generous with each other, then remind your squabbling children of the rule once. If they continue to argue, take the toy. Make no speech. Do not announce what you are going to do. Do not threaten. Quietly and calmly, walk in and take the toy.  Period.  Perhaps they can earn the toy back if they can play cooperatively for the next half hour. Or, perhaps they will lose the toy for the day. Your choice. But whatever you do, let the consequence do the talking for you.  Another example. If your child is not allowed to go to karate until his room is clean, then remind him once. If he simply grunts at you, let it go. He has been told. Later, when he shows up in his ghi telling you that it is time to go, ask him if his room is done. If not, then tell him that, unfortunately, you cannot take him until the room is clean. If he starts to argue, simply look at your watch and smile, “Tick, tock, tick, tock.” Chances are he will roll his eyes and stomp off to clean his room, after which, no matter how late it is, you will take him to his lesson (part of the consequence is the humiliation of arriving at class late for having made an irresponsible choice).  Notice, at no time in either of these examples did the parent argue with the child, try to convince the child to see the wisdom of his or her intervention, or encourage the child’s protestations. The rule was explained before the problem situation, a reminder was given in the situation, and then when the problem continued, the consequence did the talking for the parent; quietly and gently, but firmly.

3. Use Logical Consequences.

On the other hand, if you are going to let your consequences do the talking, you better make sure that your consequences are talking sense.  The word consequence means “in order” but many of the consequences parents devise for their children are completely inconsequential (out of order). For example; taking a child’s bicycle away for refusing to do his schoolwork makes no sense (it’s “inconsequential”), because losing the bicycle does nothing to motivate good study habits. On the other hand, telling a child that he must complete X amount of school work before he does anything else (including play, or eat lunch) and then sticking to it, does make sense because the child knows that if he ever expects to get up from that table and do anything else, he better focus.  A logical consequence is not merely a punishment. A logical consequence encourages or enforces the positive behavior you are trying to instill.  If a child speaks disrespectfully, the logical consequence is to insist that the child repeat what he said until he says it in a way that meets with your approval. This consequence encourages respect as opposed to merely punishing the disrespect. If a child isn’t paying attention and makes a mess or breaks a toy, the logical consequence is to clean up the mess, and perhaps pay for the damage in money or work. This consequence encourages responsibility as opposed to merely punishing irresponsibility. These consequences encourage do not merely punish the bad behavior, they encourage the more desirable alternative.

4. Use Time-Outs, but Don’t use Time-Outs as Punishments.

Time outs are effective ways to correct misbehavior, but they should not be used  to address every misbehavior, nor should they be used as a punishment. Time-outs themselves do not correct problems, they are simply a tool to help the child gain control of herself so that she can respond better when the parent does teach her what to do next time. Here is a step-by-step format for using the time-out effectively.

  • If the child is emotionally out of control or defiant and will not be redirected by a gentle reminder, then the child goes to time out: One minute per year of age.
  • The time-out does not officially start until the child stops arguing and is quiet. In other words, an eight year old child may take five minutes to calm down once he gets to time out, but only then does he begin to serve his eight minutes.
  • Time out should not be in the child’s room or other place of entertainment. A stairwell, or child-safe bathroom is best.
  • Once the time is up, the child may come out if he is able to a) explain what he did wrong. b) apologize. c) give some sense of what he needs to do differently the next time, OR, at least respond positively to your suggestions. If the child is unable or unwilling to do these three things, back to time out. One minute per year of age.
  • Once the child has regained his composure and expressed a willingness to change (see previous bullet point) The time out has been effectively completed. However, if the offense is serious enough, you may exercise the option of giving the child additional consequences that will allow them to clean up the literal or figurative mess they made. Don’t overdo it though. The virtue of justice requires that the offender be expected to do just enough to correct the immediate wrong. No more, no less. This will help your child see that you are firm, but fair.

Discipline is an essential part of a successful homeschool and home for that. Hopefully, these few  tips will help yours run more smoothly and productively. For more parenting and effective disciplinary tips, be sure to check  out  Parenting with Grace: Catholic Parent’s Guide to Raising (Almost) Perfect Kids.