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Go with 'atomic' punishments

The human desire for short-term gratification is satisfied by jet planes that travel coast-to-coast in four hours, fast-food outlets, and all manner of new and ever-faster electronic technologies. Because people are no longer accustomed to waiting patiently, they tend to become quickly frustrated when natural processes can't be circumvented and they are forced to wait for a solution to "mature." When that happens, people are inclined to begin unwittingly engaging in self-defeating behavior.

Over the past few decades, I've noticed this becoming more and more typical of today's parents concerning disciplinary solutions. In other words, when a parent's disciplinary response to a specific misbehavior doesn't result in a near-instant cure, the parent becomes frustrated and begins zigging and zagging all over the parenting playing field, trying one approach after another, accomplishing nothing.

Some of these parents eventually talk to me. They tell me they've tried "everything." That's the problem, of course. When I ask one of them to describe the history of their approach to the problem in question, it's almost inevitable that at least one of the strategies -- or some variation thereof -- probably would have borne fruit had the parents stuck to their proverbial guns.

Then there's the problem of the magnitude of the consequences that today's parents use. Most of them try to stop charging elephants with flyswatters (e.g., 4-year-old hits his mother and gets 10 minutes in time-out).

When I propose using the disciplinary equivalent of an atom bomb (e.g., said child spends a month in his room, except for absolutely necessary "paroles," with early bedtime to relieve his boredom) the common reaction is momentary speechlessness, then "Isn't that, well, rather harsh?"

Not even close. He has a nice room, doesn't he? Ultimately, it is in the best interest of a child that misbehavior be stopped as quickly as possible.

The best research consistently says that the most obedient children are also the happiest. That makes sense, especially given that in adulthood, disobedient and disgruntled go hand-in-glove.

I tell parents to think beyond punishment. Merely punishing a given misbehavior often does nothing but minimize it, therefore requiring ongoing punishment. Think instead of eliminating the misbehavior -- to use your great-grandmother's parenting vernacular, of "nipping it in the bud." The first time a given misbehavior occurs, respond with a consequence that is "atomic" -- one that sends a calm, determined message of complete intolerance. Stop fighting one small skirmish after another. Use the A-bomb right off the bat.

Then, wait. Sometimes, even A-bombs take time to work.

Several weeks ago, a parent wrote to tell me that after eight years of almost complete restriction -- almost no social life or any other privileges -- her son, now a sophomore in high school, is finally making the grades he was capable of making all along (and is a much happier camper as a result). Eight years, during which time he complained constantly to his parents that their expectations were too high and that nothing he did would ever satisfy them, all the while performing well below par in the attempt to prove his case. To their inestimable credit, they stayed the course, all the while taking lots of flak from their peers, many of whom, I'd venture, are experts at flailing away with flyswatters.

Their story simply proves that there is no such thing as McDiscipline.

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John Rosemond answers parents' questions at www.rosemond.com.

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