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Choosing Appropriate Punishments

I seem to find a parenting “teachable” moment no matter where I go lately, and while I refrain from actually telling the person how I would encourage them to respond differently in the moment, I make a mental note and come home and write about it. So, here’s my recent observation.

We were at the mall in the food court, and there were an inordinate amount of families with young children around us. My son loves to say hi to other kids, so we were specifically watching other families close by. A family came past, with two girls in elementary school. My guess is that they were eight and ten, give or take. The mom was obviously flustered, and was getting frustrated while they waited in line. I admit that I did not see anything that led up to this encounter in the food court, but I found it interesting to watch the scene.

The Dad told the younger girl to get in line and decide what she wanted to order. The girl kept asking questions unrelated to the dinner decision, and the mom became increasingly annoyed. She finally told the girl to get out of the line and go over by her, in line at a different provider. (This was a huge mistake, undermining the authority of the father, but that can be another article). The girl obeyed, and when she got over to her mom, the mom said, “You don’t get dinner. I am sick of this”. When the girl protested, the mom responded with, “Fine. If you don’t stop, you are not getting anything to eat”.

I immediately saw two significant issues with the her discipline strategy. First, she contradicted herself, because she was using a threat. It is really difficult to follow through with a threat made in frustration. It is easy to say “You are grounded for a month”, but then forget about that a few days later. If you have not planned ahead for your responses, you are at the mercy of whatever flies out of your mouth when you are annoyed. She told her daughter she wasn’t getting dinner, then agreed to let her have dinner if she behaved. Be careful of making idle statements that you do not have any intention of keeping, as it communicates you are wishy-washy and what you say cannot be trusted.

Second, you need to be aware of determining what is appropriate for the situation in the way of punishment. Age and situation should both be taken into account. A child under the age of five should never be given a full day punishment. Rather, it should be a half-day discipline, such as no TV in the morning. An entire day is an eternity to a child that small. Older kids should be given one day, up to teenage years. Likewise, a week is too abstract for children who haven’t reached abstract reasoning skill capacity, which occurs around twelve.

In this situation, taking away dinner is not appropriate. While I understand that a child going to bed without dinner probably isn’t necessarily harmful, food is not up for debate. Kids need their basic needs met, which include food, water, shelter, security and comfort. Play and exercise could arguably be thrown in, on lesser scales. These should not be at your disposal to take away from them. Likewise, weekly scheduled times, such as story time, play time with Mom or Dad, snuggle time before bed are equally important to the emotional development of kids and should not be used as persuasive punishment threats.

You can always refer back to your choice giving when faced with a situation where the child is behaving in a way that does not reflect what you expect of them. In this instance, the mom might have said, “Sally (child’s name), if you choose not to make up your mind about what you want to eat, then you choose for me to choose for you”. Or, “Sally, if you choose to continue with that behavior, you choose to leave the mall and go straight to bed”. Notice the wording, using the word “choose”. It is very clear that it is up to the child to decide how to respond. If you say, “If you don’t stop right now, you are going home to bed”, it communicates that you are in control of her behavior and that does not teach self-responsibility. For more on Choice Giving, click here.

The bottom line is that you need to go into situations armed with your responses planned. If you know that something is usually an issue (bedtime, bath time, getting ready in the morning, being out, etc.), construct your discipline plan ahead of time so that you feel confident in the choice that you give to your child. There is a world of freedom in knowing that your child chooses their consequence, rather than you having to give it.

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