Q. My 6-year-old son is a bright and friendly kindergartner. Each day a color-coded chart is sent home about his behavior. This year, he’s gone through several spells during which he will have a “bad color” for several days in a row. Each time this occurs we punish him by not allowing him to play soccer, sending him to bed early, confining him to his room for the evening, or taking away TV, but none of this is having any long-term effect. The misbehavior – talking out of turn and not keeping his hands to himself – will happen for a few days, then stop for a week or two, then start happening again, and so on. Your advice?
A. Today’s parents have a “magical” belief in consequences. They believe that behavior modification – the manipulation of reward and punishment to “shape” behavior – used properly, will cure any behavior problem.
When a behavior modification-based approach doesn’t work, the conclusion is either (a) it wasn’t used properly or (b) the child in question has a disorder that renders him immune to “normal discipline.”
First, consequences do not work reliably with human beings. Another way of saying this is that behavior modification-based discipline sometimes has no lasting effect – as you’ve discovered – and can even backfire. Punishing a child for a certain misbehavior can make the child that much more determined to get his way, for example.
When you use a proper consequence for a certain behavior problem and the behavior does not improve, the thing to do is stay the course. Continue using the proper consequence. Unfortunately, at that point, most parents begin an increasingly frustrated search for a consequence that will solve the problem. In so doing, they run the risk of beginning to zig-zag all over the disciplinary playing field.
Most adults, if they look back on their childhoods, will realize that they developed misbehaviors that no consequence on God’s green earth would have stopped them from doing. We all develop misbehaviors during childhood that we carry into our adult lives. Our parents’ best efforts to help us solve these problems failed. We had to come to grips with them as adults. We had to take full responsibility for them and purge them from our lives.
The second thing I need to tell you is that talking impulsively and not keeping one’s hands to oneself is a symptom of “boy.” When all is said and done, and despite the fact that they are inappropriate to a classroom setting, they are not serious problems. He is not doing anything malicious or pre-sociopathic.
Unfortunately, schools have lost tolerance for “boy.” They hold boys to a female standard of behavior, which is one reason why many more boys than girls are diagnosed with the disorders referred to above.
So, you’re doing fine. Just stay the course. Keep in mind that your job is not to correct all of his problems before he becomes an adult. You can’t, and the attempt to do so will drive you nuts. Look around you. There are lots of moms who are driving themselves nuts trying to raise perfect kids. Right? Right. Don’t go there.
Family psychologist John Rosemond answers questions at parentguru.com.