Direction and Discipline

It happened. You clearly told them not to put ketchup in the potted plants; you explained it will not make them turn red, or grow tomatoes; you made them recite the new house rule back to you every morning for a month: ‘I will not water the plants with ketchup’; but now it has happened for the eleventeenth time this week. So what should you do?

Reciting the house rules might sound like a confirmation they remember and understand them. It isn’t though. Depending on your child’s age, that recitation could have the exact same meaning as the list of ingredients on the side of the bottle. 1For clarity ketchup is tomatoes, vinegar, sugar and spices in some proportion, and it is not likely to hurt your plants

If you said it’s time for discipline, you’d be right. However let’s take a closer look at what discipline really is, because discipline does not automatically mean punishment. Behavioral training comes in two flavors of two types (so that’s four possibilities). The flavors are Positive (meaning to add a stimulus), and Negative (meaning to remove a stimulus). No matter what kind or kinds of discipline you choose, one thing always remains:

You must consistently identify the target behavior

That consistency is not related to the four types of modification below

Consistency is the key, but without consistently identifying the behaviors you want to see in your children, then you will never be able to consistently provide the correct discipline. The consistent application of discipline has to be consistent from your child’s point of view. So what kind of diciplines are there?

The first type is Reinforcement. Reinforcement, when done correctly and consistently, will result in a specific behavior happening more frequently in the future. The other type is Punishment. Punishment is when a consequence follows a behavior in order to decrease the frequency of that behavior in the future. 2

Positive Reinforcement
For each ‘A’ on a report card (behavior), Johnny gets $5 (reinforcing stimulus)

Johnny gets the cash as a reward for the behavior. This is the very simple do-something-good-get-a-treat method of training.

Negative Reinforcement
When Jenny eats 2 bites of broccoli (behavior), she can get up from the dinner table (removing averse stimulus)

Jenny doesn’t want to be at the table, so allowing her to get up after eating reinforces the behavior of eating your vegetables.

Positive Punishment
Timmy touches the hot stovetop (behavior) and feels pain (averse stimulus)

Getting burned by the stove will prevent Timmy from touching it in the future (and also viscerally understand why you keep telling him not to touch the stove).

Negative Punishment
Tammy fights with her sibling (behavior), and her favorite toy is taken away (reinforcing stimulus removed)

The favorite toy reinforces Tammy’s good behavior, so removing it as a consequence of bad behavior is negative punishment

These are all specific strategies that work as training methods, or disciplinary methonds. A mix of them are often used by parents, and they all have their place in successfully training a child. However, Experts agree that positive reinforcement has the best long-term outcomes3 because reinforced good behaviors are more likely to displace bad behaviors. Eliminating bad behaviors simply leaves a psychological void that can be filled with either a new good behavior or another bad one.

Simply put, punishing bad behaviors does nothing to reinforce good behaviors. However, reinforcing good behaviors does not automatically reduce bad behaviors either. Punishment also is not always successful at eliminating the target behavior 4 Now the point should become clear:

Balance, as life, is needed in discpline

This next point is where the dads can step up to the plate and surpass simply being a father. A dad teaches his children what to do instead of teaching them what not to do. Listen closely:

Reinforcement is a far greater challenge than punishment

If a child is constantly told “don’t do this”, “don’t do that” they will easily become confused and what you actually want from them. Some children will start to have self-esteem issues. Vulnerable children can even start to develop depression-like symptoms. All because they do not think that they can please you.

From the child’s perspective they can’t do anything right and are always being a bad kid. If that is all they hear from you, then to be blunt it is your fault. When a child feels they can no longer please you then they will no longer try to. As Fathers and perhaps males in general it is very easy to identify behaviors that you want to reduce. Fighting with siblings; Bad manners; Disrespectful attitudes; etc. To be a Dad is to break that cycle.

Dads don’t confuse their children. Children look to us for leadership, for guidance, for validation, and most importantly for love. It is true that the punishment side of that foursquare above can create changes in behavior, but too much of it causes resentment. Praise in an incorrect context can do the same. To take dadhood to the next level you have to learn some about how the mind works when it comes to reinforcement. 5

It is now time for some analysis and reflection. Bad behaviors like disobedience and defiance are often just the symptoms of a completely different problem. As the Dad it is up to you to find out, but remember this discipline is first and foremost a process of training. It is how we teach our children to act in the ways we want them to act.

Consider that last sentence for another moment, let’s simplify it.

Discipline is teaching

If you agree that we want to teach our children to become responsible people with the values that we cherish, then is it really enough to only tell them all the ways the have failed to live up to that? Is it even fair to them? Especially when considering young children. They may not even comprehend the values you are trying to instill in them.

It is better for them to know the things they are doing right first, it will make learning the things they have done wrong easier to comprehend. If you think something needs to be corrected, first ask yourself how long ago was it when you acknowledged something they did good. This takes a completely different kind of effort on your part if you truly want to become a Dad. Finding ketchup in the ficus is hard to miss, but it’s easy to miss it when they do good things. This requires something of you.

Pay attention to your children, they need you

For example: The child/children have been playing with their toys and then playtime is over and it is cleanup time. When you go check on them to start the next activity, maybe it’s bathtime, you see there are is a doll and some Lego still on the floor not put away. Here is when your dadhood is tested.

The father’s way

Ignore all the toys that are out of sight. Point out the toys you can see on the floor. Tell them how upset you are they couldn’t clean everything up. Demand they get the everything picked up. Then suspiciously double-check the room and take away dessert.

The Dad’s way

Recognize that there are three tubs of toys successfully put away. Praise them for doing a good job living up to your (age-appropriate) expectations. Then model good behavior by picking up the last of it and saying, “oops, let me help you get those last two toys.”

Before they can live up to your expectations, they have to know what they are. They also have to be reachable expectations. As hard as it may seem, a middle school child is not an adult even though they may be as tall as you. They cannot live up to the standards an adult is held to. Their standards must be age appropriate.

Teach your children. Praise them for success. Do not just punish them for failure. Finally, praise them more than you punish them.

Because any man can be a father, but it takes someone special to be a dad.

Cover photo by Kelli McClintock on Unsplash

Author: Phillip

Phillip is a dad of three boys married to a beautiful dedicated woman. An aspiring artist and science fiction author. He has been an IT professional for the past 15 years. He is currently working on a full-length sci-fi novel, but he also makes small drawings/watercolors for his school-age son's lunchbox and occasionally pretends to be a comedian. He also still struggles with putting two spaces at the end of sentences.